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Lebanon's archaeological sites a pillager's paradise

For three decades looters have been digging for treasure in Lebanon

Published on 24 March 2010

Author(s): AFP/Rana Moussaoui

Type:  News

In the eastern town of Baalbeck, home to some of the world’s most beautiful Roman temples, scavengers have made careers of unearthing ancient treasure for sale to the highest bidder.

For three decades Abu Nayef has been digging for treasure from Lebanon’s rich archaeological past, but instead of museums his finds end up in the hands of unscrupulous traders around the globe. In the eastern town of Baalbeck, home to some of the world’s most beautiful Roman temples, scavengers like Abu Nayef have made careers of unearthing ancient treasure for sale to the highest bidder. "I know that these are historical artifacts, but much of the time I don’t know their exact value," Abu Nayef admitted to AFP in his garden in Baalbeck. "Sometimes we even move from one piece of land to another through tunnels, if we think we can find new vestiges," he added. But Abu Nayef, who requested his real name be concealed, says he does not believe he is doing anything wrong. "I have a wife and six children to support, and I do so through this business," he explained.

He is not alone in an underground profession where centuries-old gold coins and sarcophagi containing rings, earrings, bracelets, and clay lamps can be prize finds. The artifacts often wind up in the homes and gardens of Lebanese politicians and citizens and even in private collections on other continents. In February, police confiscated a child’s sarcophagus dating back to the Roman empire from the Baalbeck home of a Muslim sheikh who was trying to lure in the highest bid. "Lebanon has a wealth of antiquities, but we have lost so many of them and we will continue to lose even more because of theft and lack of professional excavations," a history and archaeology professor based in Lebanon told AFP, requesting anonymity for fear of a backlash from authorities.

Looting archaeological sites was rampant during the country’s devastating 1975-1990 civil war, which gave free rein to smugglers looking for statues, jars and mosaics from Lebanon’s Phoenician, Roman, Crusader and Byzantine past. "Lebanon is still a popular ’transit country’ for such smuggling," said Rana Andari, who manages the archaeological collection at the culture ministry’s Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA). "Police bust at least 20 attempted smugglings inside Lebanon annually, and that’s not counting what goes on at the airport and border crossings," she told AFP. But preserving the historical heritage is far from a national priority in Lebanon. "The problem is that whoever is caught gets away with a small fine," Andari added. "Lebanon’s laws are lax compared to countries like Jordan or Egypt," which recently toughened their punishment for antiquities trafficking with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
A dearth of government funding and an ineffective legal system has meant that the historical past of a country is being pillaged, neglected or destroyed.

Authentic historical sites rich with relics that date back thousands of years often go completely neglected. Weeds overrun the shrine of Eshmoun, the Phoenician god of healing, in southern Lebanon. In 1981, 600 sculptures were stolen from the shrine, 50 of which are still circulating in the global market. The most famous of Lebanon’s few museums, the National Museum in Beirut, showcases about 2,000 archaeological relics. But hundreds of thousands of other pieces are gathering dust in storage because the museum does not have the funds or personnel to put them on display. The DGA can afford only 15 archaeologists, three of whom work for the museums.

In Beirut, booming investments and construction are fueling a new, modern capital that is burying or destroying an even richer past. "With the new wave of construction that has hit Beirut, we can soon kiss excavations goodbye," the archaeology professor said. But all that is faded is not worth gold. In the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre in southern Lebanon traders immerse new clay jars in seawater for two weeks, then pass off the faded handiwork as antiques.

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