BERYTUS - ARCHAEOLOGICAL STUDIES
From BERYTUS Vol. XXXIX, 1991


THE BIGGEST SUPERMARKET IN
LEBANON

A JOURNALIST INVESTIGATES THE PLUNDERING OF LEBANON'S HERITAGE

ROBERT FISK*



Fig. 1: BEIRUT 1991, the National Museum devastated by fifteen years of bullets and shells.

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.

Fig. 2: Broken Roman sarcophagus outside the wrecked Museum.

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 (figs. 1-4).

Figs. 3 & 4: Two more damaged sarcophagi outside the Museum. building.

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 rubbbish 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 sclupted 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

Fig. 5: TYRE 199 1, unplanned modern building has destroyed much of the beauty of ancient Tyre, dwarfing Roman columns.

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 terracotta 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.

Fig. 6: Grass has encroached on mosaics in the ancient city.

"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 schoolfriends 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."

Fig. 7: Like a bomb-site; a Lebanese looks over the remnants of an ancient site east of Tyre, looted and destroyed by today's grave diggers.

"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 terracotta 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."

Fig. 8: A fragment of a column capital lies discarded under the stairwell of a Tyre apartment block.

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

Fig. 9: Kamid el-Loz 1991, local Lebanese have used bulldozers to plough through this ancient Bronze Age town in Lebanon's Biqa' to took for hidden treasure, destroying one of the country's most important archaeological sites.

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 (figs. 9-11). 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. Archae ologists 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.

Fig. 10: Mechanical drills have been used to bore into Bronze Age graves and settlement remains at Kamid el-Loz.

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."

Fig. 11: Today rubbish litters the edge of the destroyed Tell Kamid el-Loz, with its 20 year history of scientific excavation (see Berytus 37, 1989).

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 swampland 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.

Perhaps the only prominent Lebanese committed to preserve, and provide public access to, the country's past was Walid Jounblat, the head of the Druze community. During the years of war he created a museum of fine Roman and Byzantine mosaics and an archaeological exhibit in the palace of Beit ed-Din. Thousands of Lebanese from all over the country have since visited the palace and its exhibitions. He also started a collection of Roman artefacts for a second museum at Baalbek. "What is going on is a disgrace," Mr Jounblat said. "Yes, I try to preserve what is left of our history. The Lebanese must learn from their history."

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 Jouniť 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.

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

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