PhoeniciaOrg Logo

Encyclopaedia Phoeniciana
World's largest Phoenician resources & studies -- 2,000 printed pages
Translate or Go to Desktop Version


Phoenicia's Treasures Plundered

Phoenicia's Treasures Plundered:
A festering wound on Phoenician Heritage and Archaeology

A Phoenician statue for my coffee-table (The Economist)

Too many archaeological sites in downtown Beirut to excavate all of them (The Daily Star) presented by kind courtesy of Mr. Gebran Abboud

The biggest supermarket in Lebanon, a journalist investigates the plundering of Lebanon's heritage (The Independent) presented by kind courtesy of Mr. Gebran Abboud

Port project angers Lebanese archeologists (Reuter)

A Phoenician statue for my coffee-table
The Economist, April 3, 1999

DIG a hole in the ground almost anywhere in Arabia, it is said, and oil will gush out. Dig a hole in practically any Lebanese hillside, and a wealth of archaeological artifacts will tumble forth. A few of these discoveries end up on display in museums, many more in the salons of Lebanese grandees. Look around and you may see a coffee-table resting on a Greek capital, a tiny Roman mosaic sprucing up the foyer, a spread of Phoenician statuettes and Byzantine coins strewn along the bookshelves or a discreet Crusader cannon in the courtyard.

Lebanon, a country carpeted in historical bric-a-brac, is still recovering from its 1975-91 civil war. Its budget is hobbled by huge deficits. Archaeological preservation has not been a priority-until now. Since mid-March, in a series of surprise raids, the police have seized over 5,000 artifacts from private homes and shops. In theory, when someone unearths anything over 300 years old, he is supposed to contact the Directorate-General of Antiquities, which has three months to examine the object or site before deciding whether to commandeer it. In practice, the rules are flouted.

During the civil war, many ruins and museums were looted. A director of the National Museum preserved his biggest and most precious pieces from theft or damage by encasing them in concrete, but other objects were treated less lovingly. The police recently discovered, for instance, that every single movable item had been stolen from the old Ottoman citadel at Sidon. Even now, builders regularly pilfer, discard or pour cement over ancient remains to avoid the delays and hassle of the historical commissars.

Until recently, the antiquities officials were themselves part of the problem: indeed, the police raids arose from an investigation into their department. A former director-general has been hauled in for questioning. But even honest employees, with a budget of just $5m, cannot keep track of the millions of artifacts in the country.

The law, making it hard to buy or sell historical treasures, encourages the black market. Many people caught with unregistered antiquities claim they bought them in good faith or inherited them innocently.

Some accuse the government of currying public favour with the spectacular raids. They point out that those dealers who have already smuggled their wares abroad will not be affected. Moreover, the police do not seem to have gone after any senior politicians. Few Lebanese imagine that more than a fraction of the country's crooked deals have been exposed, or ever will be.

Too many archaeological sites in downtown Beirut to excavate all of them
by Reem Haddad
Daily Star staff

Dr Hareth Boustany sat back in his chair at Solidere and released a sigh. The head of the archaeological department of the company entrusted with the reconstruction of downtown Beirut is weary of accusations that he's destroying the city's heritage. "I had been waiting for years for the chance to explore downtown," he said. "I was initially the one who lobbied hard to get the go-ahead for archaeological excavations. So it especially pains me when allegations of purposeful destruction are made against me."

To archaeologists and historians, excavations provide a rare opportunity to study and document the history of the city. But to Solidere, reconstructing the city centre is the main priority.

So far, 124 sites have been excavated, covering 140,000 metres2 and making the city centre the biggest excavation site in the world. Solidere has paid out more than $7m.

Solidere also found itself battling against developers and contractors who charge exorbitant prices for every delay, as well as the archaeologists who entered into a vicious tug-of-war with the real estate company. With the city centre waiting to be rebuilt, Solidere had no choice but to set deadlines for excavations. "We were rushed, and it's normal because any urban project is, by definition, a rushed project," said American University of Beirut archaeologist Dr Leila Badr.

But serious allegations against the company include the willful destruction of archaeological discoveries in an effort to speed up reconstruction. "Solidere," said historian Dr Albert Naccache, "has knowingly destroyed Lebanese heritage."

Naccache has been calling for a full investigation into Solidere's handling of archaeological excavations since the early 1990s when he began writing in local and international newspapers of the "massacre of heritage".

"The centre of Beirut is not a desert," he said. "You have to take into consideration what's there. And what was there was unique in the world. It was the largest Phoenician site to be opened to archaeologists in the past few decades. It's one huge site, not several small ones as Solidere claims, so wherever you dig, you'll find treasures."

Many uncovered sites have disappeared, a fact which Solidere does not deny. When Lebanese University archaeologist Dr Naji Karam showed up at his site in Saifi on February 24, 1995, an ancient wall he had discovered the day before was gone? despite having agreed with the site engineer to stop all bulldozing. "I never even had a chance to study it," he said.

The uncovering of a Phoenician-Persian city in the souks by Lebanese University archaeologist Dr Hussein Sayegh led UNESCO's secretary-general Frederico Mayor, then visiting Lebanon, to declare it worth preserving. According to archaeologists at the site, Nasser Chamaa, the chairman of Solidere, promised that the site would be preserved. But no sooner did Mayor leave, than a large part of the Phoenician city was bulldozed. "They gave infrastructure as an excuse," said Sayegh.

And the complaints go on.

In December, 1994, 40 metres of the Beirut city wall dating back to 3000 B.C. were bulldozed, as were 60 metres of a Phoenician wall, and a section of a Hellenistic wall.

In December 1995, sewage pipes were passed through a Phoenician mound, going through the Phoenician wall and destroying many artifacts.

A few months later, the corner of Bourj al-Kashaf was broken off southeast of Martyrs square. In August, three sewage pipes at Murr tower exploded through the burial ground from the Roman and Byzantine era.

To build George Haddad bridge, a part of a Bronze wall was destroyed. Among other treasures bulldozed was a 50-metre, fully preserved mosaic on Weygand Street and a Roman bath between Allenby Street and Martyrs' Square. According to Catherine Auber, a member of the Institut Français d'Archeologie du Proche Orient, who was leading two excavation sites at Martyrs' Square, "Solidere couldn't care less."

"We would be working and they would come and do something they never told us about, like make trenches and send in their machines," she said. On one occasion, former UNESCO archaeologist Ibrahim Kowatli blocked the bulldozers with his car. Kowatli was brought in from France as a UNESCO consultant but when he arrived on the site he found that bulldozers had destroyed it. "You take down a wall maybe," he said. "But a whole site?"

By law, the directorate- general of antiquities (DGA) is supposed to oversee every step of the excavations and decide on their fate. But according to Kowatli, the ministerial department had little power. "At each find the DGA was supposed to have been informed. But most sites have been dug up without their control. It was obvious the directorate-general was pressured to look the other way."

The DGA was having its own troubles. With their office at the museum destroyed during the war, the department was and is suffering from a severe lack of funds and personnel. It suddenly found itself having to oversee the world's largest excavation site. "We did our best with what we had," said the sites' coordinator, Renata Ortali-Tarazi, an archaeologist who has spent endless hours at the sites. While the DGA is present at decision-making meetings, its power to enforce any agreements appears to be non-existent.

In October 1994, parliament, the DGA and UNESCO agreed to construct the new parliament office building incorporating in its underground floor the ancient Roman wall "Banco di Roma" arches discovered at the site. The wall and other ruins found at Nijmeh Square were the southern part of the heart of the Roman city, called "the forum".

According to the agreement, the whole area, including the Banco di Roma arches and Nijmeh Square would be preserved. But last December, and without the knowledge or approval of the DGA (who reportedly insisted on the preservation plan), Nijmeh Square was filled in and the Roman ruins were buried. They were replaced by a clock tower and a flower bed. Tarazi said: "We were just as surprised that this happened. We were at parliament a week before presenting to them these plans."

Since DGA approval seems to have little weight, archaeologists want to know just who is making the decisions as to which sites are worthy of being preserved and which are not. "The future of the city and whether to preserve it or not shouldn't be the sole responsibility of one archaeologist, especially one who is employed directly by Solidere," according to AUB's Leila Badr. "They don't tell us anything. I don't even know what's happening to the ancient tel. And why should the majority of our scientific heritage go to a foreigner to excavate and publish?"

This "foreigner" is Dutch-born Dr Hans Curvers. Employed by Solidere, Curvers has the heavy responsibility of following the bulldozers around and "rescuing" artifacts. When ruins are discovered, he calls a halt to the operations and decides whether a full excavation is necessary. With every discovery, Curvers sends a detailed report to the DGA. Through a two-way radio, he is in constant contact with the head of Solidere's archaeological department, Hareth Boustany.

Hearing about the list of bulldozed sites, Boustany was visibly upset. "I won't deny that mistakes have occurred, as, for example, when bulldozers ran into a Roman wall or a mosaic," he said. "But these are not intentional. In an area of 1.1m square metres such mistakes are bound to happen." Boustany stressed that all decisions were taken in co-ordination with the DGA. "If what these archaeologists are saying is true," he added, "they wouldn't be giving lectures and publishing scientific articles about their discoveries."

Curvers, for his part, readily admitted that some sites were entirely bulldozed. "Some ruins have gone into the Normandy dump and the DGA knows it. They were not thought of as representative enough to be preserved," he said. "If the period was represented better somewhere else, we let it go." Where sewage pipes or other infrastructure has to be installed, Curvers studies the area and asks the contractor if the construction can be adjusted. "But if it's not possible, I have to take a decision and build the sewage through it," he explained.

Both Boustany and Curvers insisted that nothing was removed without first being documented. "We record them and put them on a map for the future," explained Boustany. "For example, we found a wall from Roman times and we were forced to remove it to put in a sewage pipe but the wall continues left and right under the construction." Other sites, said Boustany, were filled in, allowing for construction to go on.

Some archaeologists have to work under a strict time limit but in sites where no infrastructure is planned, time is not an issue. Dr Muntaha Saghiyeh's site between two Catholic churches had already been designated as a park on the original master plan for downtown Beirut. She feels Solidere acted correctly. "Whenever there was a problem, Solidere listened and we discussed it," she said.

AUB archaeologist Helga Seedan agreed. "Under the circumstances of war, Solidere did its best," she said. "Not everything is interesting or understandable. They have preserved good examples of various periods." Seedan is currently coordinating with Solidere on the rehabilitation of the archaeological ruins to be preserved. "It's a good plan," she said. "People can go about and look at the sites and everything will be explained." But for the rest of the archaeologists, the future is uncertain. "They are going to do some flashy things, I can assure you," said Badr. "There will be lights everywhere. It will be beautiful. Fantastic. They will make you forget that a lot has gone forever."

The Biggest Supermarket in Lebanon
A Journalist Investigates the Plundering of Lebanon's Heritage
Robert Fisk*
The Independent

After 15 years of war, Lebanon has fallen victim to the greatest pillage of Graeco-Roman, Iron and Bronze Age treasures in the Middle East since European explorers sacked the area more than a century ago. Priceless statues, Byzantine mosaics, Roman glass and Phoenician gold are being illegally exported to London, Paris, New York and Bonn by Lebanese dealers and international middlemen while some of the most important archaeological sites in what was ancient Phoenicia have been destroyed by treasure-hunters.

Only now, with the prospect of peace at hand, have the Lebanese authorities started to take stock of the extent of the looting of their country's heritage during the years of anarchy in which thousands of tons of artefacts have been secretly shipped out of the country by militiamen and unscrupulous dealers. The scale of theft is staggering. For example, it has been revealed that several rooms full of excavated material from the Lebanese Department of Antiquities were stolen by Christian militiamen from a store-house at Byblos several years ago and shipped to European art dealers. Only last year, two of the "Babies of Eshmoun" statues - among the most valuable treasures of the Sidon excavations of the 1960s, which were among the Byblos thefts - were discovered on public sale in Zurich.

The AUB Museum was robbed in 1991. Thieves took a 23 cm Roman head from Palmyra, two Egyptian figurines, a Roman limestone statue, five sculptures, a funerary slab and 41 cylinder seals. It was the second theft in 18 months, yet the university has fared better than the National Museum. Roman period and Iron Age Phoenician cemeteries east of Tyre are being dug up by amateur treasure-hunters, their contents of gold jewellery and pottery sold to Lebanese dealers and then shipped out of the country via Cyprus to Europe and America. The results of the diggers' work at Tyre looks like a series of massive bomb-craters gouged into the earth.

Dealers - and Lebanese officials who are powerless to stop the illicit trade in antiquities - acknowledge that marble and lead sarcophagi have been smuggled in their entirety out of Lebanon by the ship-load from illegal ports to Cyprus, usually with the connivance of Lebanese militias. In their desire to find gold among the bones of the dead, thieves in Tyre destroyed a complete Phoenician sarcophagus by setting off dynamite charges. Others have been broken open with electric drills. One of Lebanon's most important archaeological sites at Kamid el-Loz, in the Biqa' valley - probably the Kumidi of antiquity - has been destroyed by tomb-robbers who have used bulldozers and mechanical shovels to search the Bronze Age remains for gold. When I visited the site, all that remained were piles of rubble and earth and pieces of broken pottery shovelled on to a local rubbish dump.

Yet the international art market is doing little to save Lebanon's heritage. The Independent has learned, for example, that 11 tons of artefacts of Greek, Roman and Byzantine date from Lebanon - including mosaic floors, glass, gold and sculpted stones from a Byzantine church - arrived at Ipswich in February 1991. The vessel's papers showed that the treasures had left Beirut via Cyprus in two shipments in late December of 1990 and early January 1991. Each of the original shipments bore the name of an east Beirut dealer who, according to the Lebanese Department of Antiquities, had no right to export the artefacts. But the police in Britain, after asking about the taxation which might be due on the goods, allowed them to continue to a British dealer. Several Beirut authorities blame what they say is Britain's repeated refusal to ratify the International Council of Museums' UNESCO Convention of 1970 - which is intended to prevent the illegal export of artefacts - for the continuing flow of Lebanese antiques to London.

A National Pastime

Tomb-robbers and dealers in Lebanon tell of archaeological plunder on an unprecedented scale. In Tyre, for example, Lebanese involved in the antiques trade spoke of the discovery of "20,000" Phoenician terra cotta figurines unearthed from graves at Bourj al- Shemali, east of the city, almost all of which have been secretly exported to America and Japan. The quantity exported was so large that each figurine sold for little more than $60 on the international art market.

A dealer near Baalbek told me of the unearthing of the "goddess of water", a Graeco- Roman bronze statue of a woman lying on a bed and holding a cup in her hand, 50 cm high. "It was magnificent; in perfect condition. It had been found in a temple. I was offered it for $100,000 (£60,000) but I couldn't afford it. Later, they smuggled it out of Lebanon and I was told it sold for half a million dollars in Germany." Lebanese Antiquities Department officials later confirmed they had heard of the discovery and sale. "It's very simple." Hussein said with the air of a man who was explaining the obvious to a fool. "You go to where the Roman tombs are. You take a big iron rod with a sharp end. You feel for the rock slabs under the earth which cover the entrances to the tombs. When you feel the edge of the rock, you work your way around it with the iron rod, and then you will come to a 'cut' in the stone. That's how the Romans made their graves. They didn't want us to find them. You put the spike into the cut and lever it up."

Hussein is in his early twenties with sharp bright eyes and rough hands. Behind him, the Mediterranean shimmered in the midday sun. In front of us, the Roman period cemetery above Bourj el-Shemali baked in the heat, a field of destruction, the tombs torn open leaving holes as big as bomb craters in the brambles and red earth. Hussein has been working the tombs and the buried Phoenician settlements east of Tyre and in the Biqa' for eight years, ever since he saw his school friends unearthing pottery and Roman jewellery. At Bourj el- Shemali, you can see the obsessive ant-like nature of the grave-diggers' work. They have cracked open the tombs systematically, shovelling out the earth and rocks, gouging their way into side tunnels and then hastily filling in the graves with pieces of hewn rock. It can be a deadly business. A year ago, a family called the Talebs decided to excavate an ancient well not far from Bourj el-Shemali in a Roman settlement which local people call Naba'a. First one of the Taleb brothers and then another climbed deep into the well where they complained of feeling dizzy. Two other brothers and two cousins jumped into the well to rescue them and were immediately overcome by carbon-dioxide poisoning. They all died.

Hussein says he has earned only $61,000 in his eight years as a digger, employed by illegal antiques dealers, landowners in the Biqa' valley and even smallholders who want him to search the foundations of their property for Roman treasure. He knows he receives little of the ultimate profits - dealers believe the diggers probably receive 10 per cent of the worth of their finds - and that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of diggers like him. "When I started at school, I wasn't interested in the history of this place," he says. "It meant only money to me. After about two years, I started to like the things I found. But I couldn't keep them because I needed the money... I had to buy clothes, to live." "Once I found a woman's skirt made of gold leaf. Among some bones, I found a gold ring with an emerald set in it. You could see the head of a Roman emperor in the emerald. It was one of the best finds I had. I sold it for $4,800 (£3,000) but afterwards I learnt it was worth much more. I was told it went to New York where it was sold for more than $20,000 (L12,300)."

Hussein's employers are equally business-like about their role in the looting of their country's history. "People here are poor," Abu Abdullah said. "Why shouldn't they have food? These things should stay in Lebanon, sure, but we've been at war and people are in need. Besides, they find things in such quantities that Lebanon can't use them all. They found 20,000 Phoenician terra cotta figurines in the graves near Tyre. Most went abroad for sale. Why not? What is the Lebanese government going to do with 20,000 Phoenician figurines?... People get cheated, of course. They are given $1,000 for something that may be worth $100,000."

"The diggers have to work very hard," Abu Abdullah said. "You don't know what's in the tomb when you break into it. But they find secret places... where they come across the belongings of a dead person. Some of the things are very beautiful. We came across Roman glass tear bottles - did you know the Romans used to collect their own tears? These bottles were very small, to be held below the eyes. They had four tiny handles with naked women on them." Like most Lebanese, he has little access to information about the national heritage. But many of the diggers and dealers are trying to construct a mental picture of the past, based on legends and scraps of hearsay. In fact, bottles like these held fragrant oils.

The looted material from Tyre goes to Japan, Britain, and the United States, using a series of international "contacts" in Tokyo and Britain but a single dealer in America for sales to New York. "We almost always use Cyprus," a dealer said. "We send almost everything by sea. You can't take a marble tomb through Beirut airport. Once the stuff reaches Cyprus, the Lebanese government can't touch it." Yet with the Lebanese army deployed in Tyre for the first time in 16 years, both diggers and dealers are wondering if the Lebanese government might at last attempt to crush their smuggling racket. Already, grave-robbers are smashing their way into Phoenician sarcophagi with iron rods or blowing them apart with dynamite in their haste to find antiquities before the Lebanese authorities are alerted.

Mahmoud is a dealer of antiquities from the Biqa'. He fears the Lebanese government may be watching his activities but cannot resist continuing a profitable trade with German collectors. "The Germans are rich people, businessmen, they know the value of things," he says. "In Europe, they understand our history. They know all about the Phoenician people who lived here... The Phoenicians were very intelligent. They created the alphabet which we use today. They created business throughout the Middle East - without telephones or fax machines."

So how do the grave-robbers feel about disturbing their dead ancestors? Mahmoud says that the contents of the tombs are more important to him than the bones of those who lie there. Hussein, who is trying to purchase a French porcelain digging machine - he complains that bulldozers crack the tomb lids and break the glass and jewellery inside - is equally complacent: "The bones I find belong to people who lived maybe 4,000 years ago, while I know I may find something that will make me money. In eight years, I've seen no ghosts in the tombs. Inside it is very dark but when I find bones I think, 'Yes, these are the people who helped to start civilisation and now their bones are in Hussein's hands'."

The Destruction of Kamid el-Loz

You can see the ancient tell of Kamid el-Loz from the Lebanese army checkpoint on the Rachaya road. It rises in a steep, almost eerie way above the humid plain of the Biqa' valley, a man-made hill going back to the Bronze Age, a dark shadow against the miles of fertility that stretch towards Mount Lebanon. Any archaeologist will tell you that it is one of the most important sites in Lebanon. Or rather it was. For only when you turn right off the dusty village road do you realise that the entire hillside with its repository of ancient civilisation - the fruits of 19 years' work by German archaeologists - has been destroyed. The earth is still there, but it has been cut away with bulldozers and earth-diggers, the surviving low walls of its 3,500-year-old houses ground to pieces by treasure-hunters. Chunks of pottery have been thrown into a huge rubbish tip at one end of the tell, as if hurled away in frustration by the diggers - because the antiquities they were looking for were indeed largely elusive. The treasure which Kamid el-Loz represented was historical rather than material.

None of this was evident to the robbers. Nor to the two modern-day armies which briefly fought for Kamid el-Loz in 1982. When the Syrians eventually halted the Israeli army, the Israelis held Kamid el-Loz and the Syrians the neighbouring hilltop of Sultan Yacoub. Their front lines - great earth embankments running across the floor of the valley - and their tank revetments are now overgrown with weeds and bushes, an unscheduled addition to the earthworks of antiquity. Archaeologists in Beirut believe the Israelis stole several artefacts they found on the tell, but say that the site was largely unharmed. The wholesale destruction came later. Historians still argue whether Kamid el-Loz is the ancient settlement of Kumidi, mentioned in clay tablets written at the time of the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III (see Hachmann 1991: 89-94). It is certain that humans lived here, in a town, as long ago as the third millennium B.C. and that the settlement lay at a crossroads on the ancient highways linking Egypt, Syria and Persia. This was why, between 1963 and 1981, German archaeologists spent 19 years here, finding few 'treasures' - the ivory figurine of a lyre player, a bronze sickle sword, gold necklaces and pots - but discovering the unique evidence of one of the oldest settlements in this part of the Middle East (1991).

Dr Gunther Krause, director of the Kultur und Stadthistorisches Museum at Duisburg University, took part in the excavations and continued to visit until just before the Israeli invasion. He has been back since and was appalled by what he discovered. "The tell is finished," he said. "The people there have destroyed their own heritage. Everything has gone, the walls, the stone tombs, the ancient roadways. They have bulldozed until they have got down to virgin soil. It's not only at Kamid - it's everywhere in the Biqa'. Bulldozers and dynamite and metal detectors have been used on all the major heights in the valley, even around Baalbek which was always protected before now. They were quite successful in finding metal coins but they destroyed almost all the Persian and Byzantine sites."

According to Dr Krause, looters have made off with bronze figurines from a temple, sacrificial daggers, seals, cuneiform tablets and highly decorated pottery, all of it now in the hands of the international art market. "Kamid el-Loz was a Chalcolithic and Bronze Age tell," he says. "There had been some looting already, but after the Israelis left, in 1985, up to 50 people came and 'worked' the tell. In one area, there were late Bronze Age temples, one on top of another down to the Middle Bronze Age. They cut through every one and they no longer exist." Dr. Krause is not exaggerating. A visitor who did not know the history of the hill would assume that much of it was a building site, piled with fresh earth and rocks. For the diggers are still at work, organised - according to villagers - by five families in Kamid el-Loz who sell the artefacts from their homes. A new mosque is being erected on one side of the hill, destroying and covering part of the site although many of the local villagers did try - so Dr Krause remembers - to preserve the tell. "They twice refused to employ a guard who was sent down from Baalbek because they knew he was one of the robbers. The village mukhtar told him to go away, and, during some of the early excavations, the local people were not treated well by the Germans. They were badly paid and not even told why the tell was important. When it rained, they were told to go home and were not paid. You have to treat your workmen correctly. I recall one of them saying to me: 'We won't get anything if we don't take things'. That is when it started."

Dr Krause's record of the tell's looting is a sombre one. From the early days of the civil war in 1975, local people stole some antiquities. In 1978, during the excavation of the treasures in the palace, a thief made off with a 17-piece gold necklace which, however, was soon retrieved (see Hachmann et al. 1983 and 1991; Weinzierl & Schier in 1983: 63-65). As the war continued after 1985, so did the pillaging. Roman, Byzantine and Hellenistic rock tombs around Kamid el-Loz were all plundered. A heavily - decorated cross from an early Byzantine church disappeared into the Beirut antiquities market - "the biggest supermarket in Lebanon", according to Dr Krause - while jewellery and pottery were taken from tombs.

By all accounts - and it is the extent of research that provided the village with its greatest treasure - the ancient people of Kamid el-Loz were a gentle community who over centuries created plantations out of the hostile swamp land of the lower Biqa' valley. When their offspring died young, they buried them beneath their houses so that their dead children remained in their homes, close to their parents. German archaeologists discovered the bones of a little girl, her gold jewellery still with her. The Bronze Age inhabitants made delicate pendants of pressed gold and ivory figures of animals and people (Hachmann et al. 1983 and 1991). "When the war came to modern Lebanon, a lot of people's lives were no longer worth anything," Dr Krause says. "The past was even less important to them."

The Art Mafia

Around Lebanon's historic cities - especially in Tyre - unplanned building has destroyed the glory of ancient ruins. Triumphal archways and colonnaded streets are dwarfed by cheaply-constructed apartment blocks and garages.

Experts also blame the publicity afforded the 'Sevso treasure' for the obsessive plundering. This multimillion dollar hoard of Roman period silver plate of alleged Lebanese provenance made headlines in 1990 when it turned up in New York. The court case which followed had not been settled by mid-1992 (Seeden 1991). Helga Seeden, Professor of Archaeology at the American University of Beirut, believes, like most of her colleagues, that the Sevso silver hoard did not originate in Lebanon, but was sold on the international market with illegally obtained Lebanese export papers. The 'Sevso treasure' story gave people the idea that they could become millionnaires by digging up the land. It was a contagion. Bulldozers are at work all over the Biqa' ploughing through tells in the hope of finding treasures. They are destroying the archaeology of this land. It is another national tragedy.

To understand the plight of Lebanon's heritage, you should visit Beirut's National Museum. Bullet-scarred Roman pillars and pulverised sarcophagi litter the ground. The heads of 2,000-year-old stone lions peer mournfully out among the bullet holes. To find Dr Camille Asmar and his staff, you must walk behind the museum, through a metal door and into an ill-lit corridor. In 1991 they worked only on Wednesday mornings; the Lebanese government can afford only five hours' work each week. Indeed, the annual budget for Beirut's Department of Antiquities - the money to buy antiquities, guard Lebanon's treasures at Baalbek, Tyre, Byblos and elsewhere, and pay the staff of the museum - comes to less than £7,000 a year. While over the past 16 years, shiploads of antiquities have been taken out of Lebanon. Nor has the trade ended with the apparent arrival of peace. As late as 1991, suspicious Lebanese troops in Tyre followed a container lorry all the way to the port of Jounié and then demanded to see the contents. Inside the container they found three sarcophagi, one in lead, another made of Greek marble, all exquisitely cut and newly dug from Roman period cemeteries in southern Lebanon. The driver was imprisoned yet the dealer has not been found.

There is now a formidable international mafia engaged in the pillage of Lebanon's treasures. "There are diggers everywhere," one dealer told me. "They are boys who will break into ancient cemeteries for a few dollars. They are poor and they need the money. They come to us with what they find. We know who wants these things abroad. A dealer will go to Switzerland, for example, and meet people there, usually from Britain, Germany, Switzerland, France, or America. These are educated people, buying for collectors."

Dealers say they often export small artefacts - Roman glass or gold jewellery - through Beirut airport, sending them as checked baggage which is not subject to the same scrutiny as hand-baggage. Anything larger goes by ship. Up to 20 small trading vessels have been used to take antiquities by night from Lebanese ports to Cyprus whence they are sent on to Europe and America. Beirut has also become a dealer's centre for antiques from other Middle East countries. But Lebanon has suffered most.

Ancient Phoenicia was influenced, invaded or occupied by the Pharaohs of Egypt, by the Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, the forces of Islam and the Crusaders. Remnants of all their civilisations lie beneath the soil of Lebanon - an irresistible prey for the international 'art mafia'. How can the power of this mafia' be broken? Professor Seeden has few illusions. "The illicit trade in antiquities is in many ways similar to drug trafficking," she says.- "The majority of clandestine diggers of antiquities - like cocaine planters - earn little and would easily shift to regular jobs with an income, if these were available. The big money is made by the dealers, particularly those with international connections".

Only by teaching the Lebanese to understand the importance of their history can the trade in antiquities be stemmed. Several Lebanese antiquities officials take a more pragmatic view. "The only way to prevent this illegal export is for the Lebanese Department of Antiquities itself to become the sole dealer in Lebanon," one of them said. "The government in Beirut wants to treat the Lebanese dealers as crooks. Legally, that's what they are. But we have to be practical. We are not allowed to buy these things from dealers but if we don't, they will sell them outside the country."

* Correspondent of The Independent (London), living in Beirut since 1978. The above reports first appeared in The Independent between July 30 and August 2, 1991. They were adapted for Berytus. The photographs are reproduced by courtesy of Robert Fisk and The Independent.


  1. HACHMANN, R. 1991. Kamid el-Loz 1963-1981. Berytus 37, 1989.- 1983. Frühe Phöniker im Libanon. Mainz: Philip von Zabern.
  2. MIRON, A. 1990. Kamid el-Loz 10. Das Schatzhaus im Palastbereich. Die Funde. SBZA 46.
  3. WEINZIERL, P. & Schier, W. 1983. Eine Sternstunde der Archäologie. In Hachmann 1983. Frühe Phöniker im Libanon (Zabern): 59-65.
  4. SEEDEN, H. (in press). Archaeology and the public in Lebanon: developments since 1986. Second World Archaeological Congress, Venezuela 1990, publication on Education and Archaeology.

From: The Digital Documentation Center at AUB in collaboration with Al Mashriq of Høgskolen i Østfold, Norway.

Port project angers Lebanese archeologists
Tue, 27 Feb 1996, Reuter / Zeina Soufan

ENFE, Lebanon (Reuter) - Archeologists are up in arms over a construction project they say threatens a unique site in Lebanon dating back thousands of years to Phoenician times.

They say a modern fishing port being built at Enfe, 43 miles north of Beirut, is endangering the remains of a Crusader castle, a Phoenician defensive moat and Roman wine and olive oil vats that stand on a finger of land jutting into the Mediterranean.

The project involves building a dock next to the site and a concrete bank along the opposite shore.

"A concrete bank facing an historic citadel? It's awful! Can you imagine concrete under the columns of the temple of Jupiter in Baalbek?'' said archeologist Ibrahim Quoatly, UNESCO delegate at Lebanon's Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA). "Enfe is a unique natural archeological hill on which civilizations follow in succession. We have Phoenician, Roman and Crusader remains in the same area,'' Quoatly said.

A 1977 presidential decree classified Enfe as a site of archeological value, making the formal approval of the DGA necessary before any alteration of the site is permitted.

Construction of the port began in September 1995 after the transportation ministry awarded a Lebanese company a $220,000 contract, Director-General of the Ministry of Transportation Imad Nawwam said.

On Sept. 28, the DGA made an official request to the chief prosecutor of north Lebanon for "the immediate freeze of work at Enfe'' but it was never answered.

"Instead, a gentlemen's agreement was struck between the minister of transportation and the minister of culture that works shall not endanger the archeological remains,'' a DGA official said.

But archeologists say the site has already been defaced and its natural beauty distorted.

"It's a fait accompli. We are trying to minimize the damage now,'' the DGA official said.

Enfe has four ancient churches, including the Chapel of Sayidet el Rih -- Our Lady of the Wind -- which has fragments of Byzantine murals.

The church was built by the Lords of Nephin (Enfe) when it was a fief of the Crusader County of Tripoli in the 12th century.

The town apparently served thousands of years earlier as a Phoenician port, as evidenced by a number of Phoenician slipways still remaining.

A few yards from the shore, Roman vats for olive oil and wine production are carved in the rock, linked by underground channels.

A 325-foot long moat separates the peninsula and the remains of the 800-years-old, three-story castle from the shore and the present-day village of Enfe.

Memoirs of 12th century travelers recorded that the castle had 11 towers. Today, only one tower can be identified. Some 20 construction trucks thunder through the moat about 100 times a day beside the castle walls to dump loads of rock into the sea to build the quay.

Quoatly said vibrations from the trucks could affect some large rocks beside the moat believed to have been part of a Roman castle or watchtower.

On Feb. 7, the Lebanese government approved the establishment of an industrial zone in the village of Enfe which stands hundreds of yards from the site.

"This is a positive step which will keep all factories away from the archeological site. Now we know for sure we won't end up with a canned seafood factory next to the fishing port on the site,'' the DGA official said.

© Copyright Reuters Limited1996

Reproduced on this Web site by permission from Reuters (or Reuters) dated June 14, 1999.

Phoenician Encyclopedia -- Phoenicia, A Bequest Unearthed (Desktop Version)

© Copyright, All rights reserved by holders of original referenced materials and compiler on all pages linked to this site of: © Phoenician Canaanite Encyclopedia -- © Phoenician Encyclopedia -- © Punic Encyclopedia -- © Canaanite Encyclopedia -- © Encyclopedia Phoeniciana, Encyclopedia Punica, Encyclopedia Canaanitica.  

The material in this website was researched, compiled, & designed by Salim George Khalaf as owner, author & editor.
Declared and implied copyright laws must be observed at all time for all text or graphics in compliance with international and domestic legislation.

Contact: Salim George Khalaf, Byzantine Phoenician Descendent
Salim is from Shalim, Phoenician god of dusk, whose place was Urushalim/Jerusalem
"A Bequest Unearthed, Phoenicia" — Encyclopedia Phoeniciana

Trade Mark
This site has been online for more than 21 years.
We have more than 420,000 words.
The equivalent of this website is about 2,000 printed pages.

DATE (Christian and Phoenician): ,
year 4758 after the foundation of Tyre