Archaeology in Times of Crisis: Exploring Lebanon’s Ancient Past amid Modern Challenges

“The temples are for everyone, but [they’re] in our blood and soul. We love [the temple complex], but we’re not encouraged to enter it or be a part of it”. These emotive words uttered by Mazen Mazloum, a local from Baalbek, poignantly describe the existing disconnect between archaeological sites and citizens in Lebanon.

Approaches towards heritage are largely influenced by circumstance. In this case, the touristic promotion of Baalbek was accomplished at the expense of nurturing local connections with the ancient past. In many others, a mix of local, regional, and foreign factors affects the extent of local engagement in this sector.

The roots of this fluctuating local involvement with heritage can be traced to the beginnings of archaeological pursuits in the region, namely during the late Ottoman period. The 19th century saw significant archaeological activity by foreigners and colonial powers eager to expand their museum collections with new material from the Near East. Ancient relics were collected through armies, spies, diplomats, and designated explorers who conducted “digs” to unearth archaeological material. Little local interest in the distant past was present at the time, which in certain instances led to the participation of locals in the illegal trafficking of antiquities. As a result, prized archaeological artefacts from Lebanon are today found in private collections and museums in different parts of the world, including the United States, Europe, and Turkey.

Leading up to and following Lebanon’s independence in 1943, attitudes towards local heritage began to shift with a growing interest in using the past to construct and sustain a new national identity. In this period, policies were adopted by the government to safeguard local heritage and to stop the looting and illicit trade of antiquities.

Salvaging Beirut’s Past

Another significant turning point occurred in the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), with the reconstruction of the capital’s central district. Local authorities were already aware of the extant archaeology beneath modern Beirut; any project to redevelop the city centre would be sure to expose the layers of accumulated history. Through a tripartite agreement between the Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA), the Lebanese Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), and UNESCO, plans were put in place for large-scale rescue excavations to precede the reconstruction operations in the area.

Map of Lebanese coast and an aerial photographs of Beirut in which a part of the city's northern coast is marked in yellow.
Highlighted in yellow is Beirut’s central district, where the rescue excavations took place in the aftermath of the civil war and ahead of the reconstruction of the city.


Archaeological works in downtown Beirut were officially launched in September 1993. But since the scale of excavations far exceeded the human capacity of local teams, an international call for assistance was made in March of 1994. Foreign institutions and archaeological missions soon arrived in Beirut in order to support their local counterparts in this ambitious endeavour. Salvage excavations continued until December 1998, and a total of 300 sites were excavated: 210 located in the downtown area alone and the rest along its periphery.

The excavation of Beirut was a challenging feat riddled with disputes and missed opportunities. To this day, the central district project raises heated debates on the fate of the city’s archaeological heritage and on what should have been done to better preserve it against the rush to rebuild a city fated to be stripped of its layered history. In a post-war situation, an under-staffed and under-resourced national antiquities department was juggling the rehabilitation of its institution, the restoration of the National Museum, and the excavations of Beirut. The DGA was both inexperienced in urban archaeology and stretched too thin to exercise adequate control over decisions being made.

On the other hand, UNESCO – the international entity supporting, advising, and guiding the DGA –failed to establish consensus on the excavation methods to be adopted, which led to a lack of regulation of the work undertaken by the different teams. Further exacerbating these issues was that the entire project was funded by the private sector, which left the DGA, a state institution, further marginalized and with diminished authority over the process as a whole.

Despite these shortcomings by local and international actors, the excavation of downtown Beirut produced invaluable archaeological assemblages and data that are still being studied. As importantly, the experience of post-war archaeology was a steppingstone towards creating national archaeology teams and building local capacities.

After a period of reduced activity, archaeological work in Beirut resumed once more in 2005 with the development of its eastern district. Building on the experience of the 90s and through revived visions for local archaeology, the first Lebanese urban archaeology teams were created that would carry out work under the administrative and scientific direction of the DGA. Between 2005 and 2019, around 70 new sites were excavated in Beirut. The methods of excavation and strategies of reintegrating ancient features implemented by the teams were, in 2016, officially adopted through governmental decrees as a benchmark for local archaeological work that is on par with internationally recognized standards.

Excavations have now diminished once more due to the ongoing economic crisis. Since 2019, the majority of local archaeologists have struggled to secure work in the domain, make ends meet due to the depreciation of the Lebanese currency, carry out ongoing and new studies, and publish their research.

View of a ruin.
Exploring Anjar’s Umayyad site (Photo: Vana Kalenderian).

Meaningful Work, Little Visibility

Most foreign scholars are unfamiliar and unaware of the work that has been carried out by local archaeologists over the past two decades. Findings from all local excavations and research are per DGA policy, first published (in Arabic, French, or English) in the national archaeology periodical BAAL (Bulletin d’Archéologie et d’Architecture Libanaise), which is not widely circulated overseas. While essential for the local communication of research, this requirement delays its broader dissemination. In the current crisis, the local process itself is delayed as well. Similarly, much information is contained within grey literature, i.e., internal reports communicated with the DGA. This perceived “research silence” only promotes the assumption abroad that little has been done locally.

Additionally, structural obstacles for the movement of local scholars – including visa requirements, the financial burden of international travel, conference fees, among other deterrents – make it hard for them to participate in international archaeological discourse. Access to this latter is further made difficult by journal and research network subscription fees, which independent scholars simply cannot afford.

For this reason, foreign scholars should be further encouraged, if not urged, to share their research within the region they study and make an intentional effort to collaborate with local peers. This bilateral cooperation stands to benefit both parties. It advances research on the area, promotes the continued development of the discipline locally, provides access to new information for international scholars, and, most importantly, ensures that local actors are not side-lined in the study of their own heritage.

Building Connections as a FIME Resident Scholar

I was fortunate to join FIME as a resident scholar for the autumn 2021 term. Despite mainly working from home due to COVID distancing and the economic and fuel crisis in Lebanon, regular zoom meetings and occasional in-person gatherings enabled engaging conversations and fostered collegiality with colleagues from different academic and research backgrounds, both from Lebanon and Finland.

Part of my residency involved organizing an academic activity, and I opted for a conference that would bring together local and international scholars working on the history and archaeology of the Middle East. Together with the team at FIME, we aimed to hold the meeting in person rather than online and finally did so in August 2022.

To promote connections between Finnish and Lebanese archaeologists, we organized the conference, titled “The Changing and Enduring Face of the Ancient Near East: The Impact of Migration and Imperialism through the Ages” (CEANE), in collaboration with the University of Helsinki’s Center of Excellence in Ancient Near Eastern Empires (ANEE). The event focused on shared themes of research that both Lebanese scholars and ANEE are currently pursuing, which explore how the region changed or stayed the same across antiquity under the rule of various political entities and with the movement of different peoples.

View of an archaeological site and a large monolith of several meters in hight.
Descending the Baalbek quarry towards the megaliths. Pictured is the second largest megalith, known locally as the “Stone of the Pregnant Woman” (Photo: Vera Jegorenkov/FIME).
A view of an archaeological site with visitors in the foreground, ruins of a building in the background.
Exploring the Roman temple complex, with the surviving columns of the largest temple in the Empire – the temple of Jupiter – in the background (Photo: Vera Jegorenkov/FIME).

CEANE: FIME’s Firs Public Event in Post-COVID Beirut

Ten Lebanese and international speakers shared their research at the CEANE conference, which included archaeological case studies and experiences within community archaeology.

Case studies ranged from the pre-classical period to the Roman era. The pre-classical research focused on combining ancient textual sources with archaeological findings. Research on Bronze Age and Iron Age Lebanon highlighted how advantageous geographies and political circumstances motivated the expansionist strategies of ancient kingdoms and empires along the renowned Phoenician coast and the more obscure Lebanese hinterland, where excavations have exposed evidence of significant occupation.

Roman imperialism was then explored through the examination of unfinished monumental constructions from across the country, and the analysis of burials and human remains from Roman Beirut. Results from both studies revealed the adoption of imperial trends, as well as the maintenance of local customs. Both works highlighted the complex interplay between local and “Roman” culture in the context of imperial annexation and increased human mobility.

Researchers from ANEE discussed their methodological and theoretical approaches to understanding the ancient Jordanian landscape and its rural societies. In collaboration with scholars at Yarmouk University, the area of Tell Ya’moun is currently being investigated through the use of GIS and aerial and satellite imagery, rendering the surveying process much more efficient and widespread.

The final session focused on archaeology and modern communities in Jordan and Lebanon. The discussion centred on contemporary perceptions of the ancient past and the role that archaeologists and excavation projects play in bridging connections between citizens and ancient sites and artefacts.

Due to the complex social fabric of the Middle East and the contentious nature of its recent history, selective histories have been adopted either as national narratives (as the case with the Bedouin heritage in Jordan), or as communal narratives (as the case in Lebanon where members of its 18 religious denominations have forged sub-identities connected with specific historical periods and cultures). This is where modern communal archaeology steps in: first, to confront people with their shared and, at times, difficult and rejected pasts. Second, to enable them to physically engage with and process their history through the preserved archaeology. And third, to empower them to assume ownership of the ancient past as part of their heritage rather than viewing it solely as a means to attract tourism and generate revenue.

Dim lecture room with a speaker in the front.
Speaker, Dr. Luigi Turri, discussing one of several case studies presented during the conference (Photo: MardPhotography).

Tangible Heritage: Recent History and the Ancient Past

In this line of thought, we organized several excursions to engage the participants with local heritage in a more direct and hands-on manner.

Our venue, Haigazian University, offered insight into lesser-known aspects of modern Lebanese and regional history. The Mugar building where we were based, consisted of a heritage building with links to the two leading architect-engineers and urban planners of Beirut during the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Manouk Avedissian (more commonly known as Bechara Effendi Al-Muhandis) and his son-in-law Youssef Aftimus. A tour of the commemorative monuments on campus provided a history of the Armenian Genocide and the Armenian presence in Lebanon, as well as the University’s – and later national – Rocket Society that successfully developed rockets capable of breaching the frontier of space in the 1960s.

Visits to the American University of Beirut’s Archaeological Museum and the National Museum of Beirut showcased the rich archaeological heritage resulting from decades of excavations in the country. The exhibitions at both museums inspired conversations on the challenges of protecting and preserving ancient relics in times of crisis, such as during the Lebanese Civil War, in the aftermath of the 2020 Beirut Port Explosion, and the current economic crisis. They also prompted discussions on narratives of national identity implicitly communicated through museum displays.

The final day consisted of an excursion to the Bekaa valley. Our group first visited Baalbek, where the world’s two largest man-made stone blocks or megaliths are located, in addition to the famous Roman temple complex which  never ceases to impress. Then, following a traditional Lebanese lunch, our next stop was Anjar’s rare Umayyad site dating to the 8th century AD. This site was largely reconstructed following its excavation, offering a chance to walk its ancient alleyways and observe vestiges that incorporated elements of both classical and Islamic architecture and urban planning. Finally, the day ended with a tour of the oldest and largest winery in Lebanon – Château Ksara – and of course, with a much-anticipated wine tasting session!

A group of approximately 30 people standing in front of old building.
Participants touring the grounds of Haigazian University. Pictured is a replica of one of the “Cedar” rockets made and launched by the Lebanese Rocket Society. In the background is the Mugar heritage building of the University (Photo: MardPhotography).

International Collaboration: A Delicate Balance

As one of the first public events in archaeology following the series of ongoing crises in Lebanon, the CEANE conference was well-received by all who attended and participated. The local audience included university professors, students, heritage workers, and school educators, who play an essential role in safeguarding local archaeology and maintaining the heritage sector. We were also delighted to welcome foreign scholars from different countries and proud of the new networks that were created between researchers from the Middle East and Europe.

It is through encounters such as these that the role of research institutes is highlighted. Foreign institutes can play a pivotal role in serving as a node of connection between their home countries and the regions in which they are based. They provide an avenue to establish new, long-standing relationships that facilitate sharing knowledge and advancing common research goals.

However, by the same consideration with which we approach the building of links between citizens and their past, we must be mindful of how international collaborations are implemented. The early interest in the archaeology of the Middle East was fraught with colonial attitudes. In western thinking, the “neglected” ruins they initially encountered in the region indicated that locals did not appreciate this heritage and that, consequently, they had the right to take charge of the situation both through the appropriation of archaeological material and in claiming knowledge of these sites in the face of “unenlightened” locals.

One must acknowledge that, indeed, interest in archaeology has for the most part been restricted to a small social circle in Lebanon rather than the wider citizenry. However, it is important to remember that local attitudes are largely affected by economic, political, and security situations. For most of its post-independence history, Lebanon has experienced more turmoil and unrest than periods of stability and peace. Under such circumstances, securing one’s basic needs – both through government efforts and on an individual level – always trumps investment and interest in the ancient past.

Moving Local Archaeology Forward

This lack of resources and stability marginalized archaeologists during and in the aftermath of the civil war. It also weakened the sector’s central authority. The economic crisis in Lebanon will take years to remedy, and we have already undergone a repeat of our previous experience where state-related archaeological projects and personnel (DGA, Lebanese University, and associate scholars) are once more the ones bearing the brunt of regressing local conditions. And while archaeology departments within private universities (the American University of Beirut and the University of Balamand) find themselves in a slightly better situation, they too have been negatively impacted by the country-wide crisis.

It is important to raise awareness of the current situation among overseas institutions and international granting bodies interested in the history and archaeology of the region. At this point in time, Lebanese archaeology requires ample support. Still, any collaboration should be well-intended, sensitive to local circumstances, and mindful of the colonial history of archaeology in the region.

Furthermore, archaeology is not limited to the structures and the material artefacts we see on display, but also comprises the story behind those objects. As important as it is to conserve archaeological sites and antiquities within museums, it is just as crucial to sustain local research and primarily that undertaken by local scholars. For to echo Mazen Mazloum’s words: the archaeology of Lebanon is for everyone, but at the end of the day, it is the heritage of the Lebanese. As such, local scholars must always remain at the helm of preserving, protecting, and making sense of it.

FIME’s approach, both with the introduction of fellowship programs for local researchers, as well as with its preparedness to organize outreach events that facilitate international networking within Lebanon, sets the necessary and constructive groundwork for the support of research by local scholars and the establishment of long-term connections with global peers that promotes genuine collaboration towards the achievement of mutual goals and interests.

I will always cherish my time at FIME. I am grateful for the long-term professional and personal connections I have had the opportunity to make, and I look forward to the continued furthering of Lebanese-Finnish research relations and outreach programs through the Institute.


Presentations from the CEANE conference can be viewed on FIME’s Youtube channel.



Jidejian, N., 1997. Beirut through the Ages. Beirut: Librairie Orientale.

Kassir, S. 2011. Beirut. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Perring, D. 2009. “Archaeology and the Post-war Reconstruction of Beirut”. Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites, 11(3-4): 296-314.

Seif, A. 2009. “Conceiving the Past: Fluctuations in a Multi-value System”. Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites, 11(3-4): 282-295.

Seif, A. 2015. “Illicit Traffic in Cultural Property in Lebanon: A Diachronic Study”, in Countering Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods: The Global Challenge of Protecting the World’s Heritage. Paris: The International Council of Museums.

Seif, A., Beaino, F. & H. Choueri. 2019. “Beyrouth: vingt ans d’archéologie urbaine”. Dossiers d’Archéologie, Mars-Avril 392: 20–23.


Featured image: Vera Jegorenkov/FIME

Vana Kalenderian, 2 joulukuuta 2022

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