In the 11th century before Christ, the ancient Egyptian traveler Wenamon describes standing in the office of the prince of Byblos, the waves of the Mediterranean Sea crashing outside the window behind him, as though they were “hitting the back” of the prince’s head.
Wenamon had been sent by Egypt’s King Ramses XI on a mission to retrieve cedar wood to repair a sacred vessel. The negotiations were tense, and the Egyptian envoy was eventually forced to send home for more money to buy the wood. The Pharaohs had long relied on Lebanon’s then-plentiful forests for the building of their temples, furniture and ships. According to his account, Wenamon surveyed the logs of timber piled up on the Byblos shore ready for export, with 20 ships moored in the harbor.
Now, over 3,000 years later, contemporary Lebanese archaeologists have made new discoveries revealing the location of where exactly that harbor may be buried and the pivotal role of Byblos, one of the world’s oldest cities, in the ancient maritime supply chain.
The research is being spearheaded by Martine Francis-Allouche, a marine archaeologist at College de France, who has undertaken a series of geophysical tests at Byblos over the last five years. Francis-Allouche’s findings challenge the long-held assumption that the current port of Byblos, established in the medieval era but now lined with fishing boats, restaurants and tourist shops, was also home to the Phoenician-era port. Francis-Allouche builds on the surveys of the late British archaeologist Honor Frost, who ruled out the medieval port and surrounding coastal areas as the location for the Phoenician harbor after conducting sounding cores along the shores of Byblos in 2000.
But following renewed geophysical testing, Francis-Allouche now believes the harbor may in fact be buried further inland, just south of the Byblos ruins, where excavations have revealed the presence of Phoenician ship anchors and an ancient shoreline 100 meters above the current beachfront. Francis-Allouche is keen to resume her excavations on the site in the hope of finding artifacts and structures belonging to the once-bustling Phoenician port and its prominent timber trade, indicated by wall inscriptions found in Egyptian temples.
But there is just one catch. The land where Francis-Allouche wants to continue digging is prime beachfront real estate. A luxury resort and spa project is already under construction there.
Dubbed “Diplomatic Club,” the $12-million project is right next to the Byblos UNESCO World Heritage site and is on land owned by the Armenian church, which is renting the property out to the lead developer, a former Lebanese minister. The church inherited the property from a former orphanage on the site known as Bird’s Nest, which cared for thousands of Armenian children rescued from genocide in Turkey. The proposed resort, which is to feature an array of private shorefront cabanas and pools, caused an uproar last year when activists leaked its plans to turn the Ottoman-era orphanage building, which housed the oldest Armenian church in Byblos, into a restaurant or spa. More controversially, the developer had begun preparations to exhume the bodies buried in a small cemetery near the church belonging to the genocide survivors who helped build the orphanage. After going viral on social media, the story reached the Armenian press in the United States, and shortly afterwards, the Armenian high priest Catholicos Aram I of the Holy See of Cilicia put the project on hold.
Yet there was little talk of the rampant resort development along the Byblos shores earlier this month at a Lebanese American University conference, “Byblos: History, Culture and Modernity,” where Francis-Allouche presented her findings. Speakers from across the Mediterranean talked about protecting historical districts and encouraging community involvement in their towns and cities. But when it came to modern Byblos, where a Lebanese American University campus is located, the Lebanese academics spoke strictly of archaeology and antiquity. The only mention of the current city came from Byblos mayor Ziad Hawat, who gave a keynote speech opening the event, praising the city council’s preservation of its ancient past and vision for a “green” future, including promises to build a new museum, solar energy and public transportation. “Byblos doesn’t just belong to the people of Byblos, it belongs to the entire universe,” Hawat said, adding: “Byblos is a model for other Lebanese cities.”
Indeed like much of Lebanon’s coast, the city’s shores are teeming with elite private resorts, many of them constructed without permits and blocking public access. A 2012 survey by the ministry of public works and transport found over 1,000 violations along the country’s 220-kilometer coastline, or an average of five violating establishments per kilometer, many of them owned by politicians. But Hawat, who himself is developing a controversial 25,000-square-meter mall in the hills above the old city, did not stay for questions from the panelists or the handful of students that attended. (He thanked the university profusely, calling it “a partner” in all municipal activities and its dedication to the community.)
When asked if the university was involved in local governance around coastal development and legal violations, the university’s dean of architecture and design, Elie Haddad, said this work would be better suited to an investigative journalist. One professor chimed in, adding: “The role of the university is not to follow up on what the municipality is doing.” Yet in Beirut, a number of professors have been intimately involved in the campaigns to stop unregulated coastal developments by providing activists with legal or cadastral research and strategies for alternative planning. Several professors, architects and urbanists ran in the capital’s recent municipal elections on a platform of reclaiming the city, its green spaces and nearly completely privatized coastline, from well-connected developers.
However, real estate and archeological preservation need not always be at odds, Francis-Allouche explained when answering a question about the impact of the “Diplomatic Club.” She said the ruins could be integrated into the resort, noting that the developer had agreed to allow the excavation works to continue. “Everything can go together, hand in hand,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Diplomatic Club said the developer was also keen on continuing the excavation and would make any ruins found on site accessible to the public. “Of course it won’t be closed to the public, it will be open to all the Lebanese people,” the source said on the condition of anonymity. “If something is found, we won’t move it or destroy it, it will be kept on site. It’s important for us to show how we can mix modernity with antiquity.” But the spokesperson said it was too early to say how exactly the public would access the ruins within the exclusive resort and whether or not there would be a public garden or viewing area. The source added that unlike other resorts, the beach would not be fenced in for clients only and would remain open to the general public.
But other real-estate projects have turned out differently. Several sites of ruins along the Lebanese coast and cities have been cleared for private development. A 2014 Al Jazeera documentary on the topic covered one resort in south Lebanon where modern pool buildings were physically attached with concrete to ancient ruins. Francis-Allouche herself has lost a battle to preserve what she believes was an ancient Phoenician dry dock at a Beirut excavation, which was destroyed without warning two years ago following a decision by the then culture minister to build a luxury apartment tower.
With the unregulated real-estate boom in Lebanon, local archaeologists are hamstrung by budget constraints and property laws. Those laws say archaeological excavations should be funded by developers when discovered on their property. Theoretically, the developer can only proceed with construction once excavations have been completed and the approval has been given by the ministry of culture’s Directorate of Antiquities. Yet the negotiations between the ministry and powerful developers over what ruins should stay, what can be destroyed and how much time researchers will have to do their work are not made public. In the rare case that the state decides to halt a developer’s project, this also likely means the investor can stop funding the dig.
The Diplomatic Club spokesperson vows that the project will be different than other developers who “don’t even declare ruins and sometimes destroy them by night.” The man behind the project, Jean-Louis Qordahi, a former telecommunications minister as well as a former Byblos mayor, has already spent $200,000 “from his own pocket” on the archaeological excavation, the spokesperson said. And because of the proximity to the Byblos site, UNESCO will also have a say in granting the resort approval, which is still pending, the spokesperson added.
As for the Armenian graves, the plan to exhume them is still going forward. The source said the remains will be moved to a mass memorial site as part of a new Armenian genocide museum further inland. But activists vow to continue their battle to preserve the graves of those who survived the atrocities and the church they built, as one of the first major settlements of the community in Lebanon. They say the site should be fully open to the public as one of the few remaining undeveloped plots on the coastline.
Over 3,000 years since Wenamon’s account was written, some researchers now believe the story may be partly fictional, although its detailed descriptions appear to match recorded events. Whether or not his difficult journey and arduous negotiations with the prince were accurate, the shores of Byblos today remain just as fraught as its ancient, unyielding sea.