BEY006 - Windows on the Souk
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The Byzantine portico and shops

IntroductionThe Souks of Byzantine Beirut

The sequence of at least eleven shops excavated on the Souks site gives a striking impression of a Byzantine street frontage and the shops that would have lined it. Though the archaeologists think that the mosaicised portico from the Souks site does not represent the Decumanus Maximus (the main axial east-west street) it must have been a thoroughfare with a sufficient volume of traffic to allow the shops to remain trading.

The ground plan of the shops themselves is fairly uniform though changes are recorded in the morphology of the shops from east to west which breaks them into three groups. It would be tempting to explain these groups in terms of functional differences or chronological establishment but the picture thus far established is slightly more complex. Further work may resolve these problems.

The portico itself was composed of three main elements. The section of portico up to the north-south street which shops A, B, G, D, front on to, was probably established sometime during or after the second century AD. Two phases of mosaic were excavated (Modules 4, 12) the lowest bedded on an earlier bedding which had its original surfacing removed. This surface abruptly stopped or was truncated by the insertion of the paving for the north south road.

The second section of portico to the west, was bedded on earlier graveled and metalled surfaces representing either an earlier road, yard, or simply part of the construction bedding. It extended as far as shop I in plan (the rest had been mistakenly removed by infrastructure works in October 1995) but has been traced further to the west by other excavators since the completion of the Souks site. This mosaic was a single phase and seemed to be later than the mosaic to the east. Shops E, G ,Z fronted onto this section of the portico and were morphologically different to those shops to the east.

The third element of the portico was the paved road and stylobates, dividing it from the mosaic pavement. Most of these were observed during the Weygand Fence excavation in December 1995 and it is possible that they supported columns and column bases robbed at a later stage. It is not clear at the moment whether the column base discovered during the main excavations on the portico was in situ or not, and further work is necessary to determine the true character of this frontage. It is likely however, that the portico discovered on the Souks excavation was colonnaded. The road surface excavated in December 1995 seems to end along the Souk Tawileh line where it turns at an angle of 100 degrees to the north. The Souks excavations clearly demonstrate that no colonnaded street continued to the east along the line of that excavated to the west.

The four shops at the eastern end of the portico were all composed of single rooms with an open courtyard at their rear. This courtyard was supplied with water and the archaeologists think that this was drying space associated with a laundry and fullery for washing clothes, dying and processing fabrics. Shop A contained 2 mortar lined troughs or vats undoubtedly for washing and treating fabrics and this shop may have been more to do with processing rather than a direct point of sales. It is likely then that shop B was the sales and distribution point, the two shop units being linked to the same trade. Shops A and B each had their shop numbers emblazoned on the successive portico mosaics marking the position of their doors.

Shop G to the west was probably subdivided at a later date with the insertion of Shop D . In reality the true functions of these shops is not yet known and definitive interpretation must await further study of the material, they have however been a glass shop and a money changing shop and could convincingly be reconstructed as such in any public display. From this block of shops only shop D sported a mosaic floor (see Gazetteer and Module 12).

The block of three shops to the west E, G ,Z, have an axial symmetry through shop Z. The dwarf wall at the front of shop E "The Lion Shop" is probably a later addition as is the incorporation of the rear quarter of the "Lion Shop" into the "House of the Fountains". This then leaves an arrangement of three shops with a room allocation of 3-2-3 from east to west. The function of these shops is unclear but it is possible that the shops operated as a single unit and not as three shops at all, or that the space at the rear of the shops was unconnected to the shop frontages. These questions cannot be resolved without further work on the finds and structural record. The presence of a stairwell to the west is the first structural evidence of an upper storey to the portico. The stairs would have given access to the accommodation above the shops.

The stairwell associated with shops E, G, Z was accessed via a corridor to the west of shop Z. This corridor was probably arched over allowing a connection between the blocks to the east and west at first floor level. The passageway would have had a lockable door opening onto the portico. (See Gazetteer)

The morphology of shops H ,Q , I , IA varies again from those to the west. Shops A, B, G, D, were arranged in a linear, single cell, arrangement. Shops E, G , Z, were arrange in alternating 3-2-3 cells. Shops H ,Q , I , IA seem to be arranged in groups of 4 rooms either side of a central corridor or stair well, the front rooms being linger than the rooms to the rear.

The chronological development of the shops may in someway reflect an adaptive architectural style as parts of the city expand and take on a higher status. It seems that the central group of shops postdate the shops to the east and certainly the buildings to the west (which may have later been converted to shops). It may also be true that the shops east of the north south road were only converted to this function once the portico had been extended west of the north-south road. Whatever the case further work is necessary to fully understand the chronological and morphological development of these buildings, and their relationship to the portico.

Created by the Digital Documentation Center at AUB in collaboration with Al Mashriq of Høgskolen i Østfold, Norway.

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