Lebanon – Beirut

Beirut – The arcades of the Banco di Roma
Scientific director:
Giorgio Gullini
Excavation director:
Fedora Filippi

On the occasion of the city centre’s reconstruction after the civil war, many remains of Beirut's urbanistic and architectural history, from the Neolithic age to the time of the Ottoman Empire, were brought to light. The Italian mission attempted to document the field results of these investigations as thoroughly as possible, introducing the principles and methodologies of urban archaeology: we must specifically keep in mind the documentations, especially the photogrammetric and laser scanner survey campaigns, of what was brought to light in one of the city’s most important central quarters. The project also included an archaeological excavation campaign conducted in Place de l’Etoile in 1996-1997.


Beirut, nowadays the capital of Lebanon, occupies an especially important position on the Mediterranean’s eastern coast: a major seaport and commercial centre in antiquity, it combined its access to the sea with its good connections with the inland area. In fact, the ancient road network provided it with quick access to the Syrian region, through the Beka’a Valley, as well as an easy connection to the area’s major coastal cities from southern Turkey to Egypt. The Roman colonization of the “Syrian” coast immediately followed the battle of Actium and the conflict from which the Roman Empire was born. Strategically important for controlling an area of the Mediterranean characterized by a great historical and commercial tradition, the establishment of Roman colonies in the main coastal and inland centres of Syria also provided an outlet for the army’s excessive density by rewarding troops loyal to the emperor with land in recently occupied regions. Although still controversial, the foundation of the Colonia Iulia Augusta Felix Berytus should date back to Rome’s first imperial period. From 22 to 19 BC, Octavian Augustus travelled through the eastern provinces, establishing Vespasian Agrippa in Beirut as governor. It is believed that Agrippa stationed two legions to Beirut, assigning them part of the territory of the Beka’a Valley. Thanks to Augustus, the city enjoyed Roman rights and important privileges such as the ius Italicum (ca. 15 BC), which exempted citizens from paying taxes.

During the second half of the 19th century Beirut underwent major transformations, especially thanks to the development of commerce and to the strengthening of its ties with Europe, and soon became one of the most important centres of the Ottoman Empire. Under the rule of Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909), in 1888 Beirut rose to the rank of district capital: for the first time since the Roman Empire, the city once again became the main seaport of the eastern Mediterranean area, enjoying the reputation of “showcase” of the Ottoman Empire, certainly not undeserved if Kaiser Wilhelm II, visiting in 1898, defined it the “crown jewel of the Padishah”. The position assumed by the city of Beirut thus resulted in a programme of architectural and infrastructural renewal: government buildings, public hospitals, development of the communications network (railway stations, seaport infrastructures and postal service), monuments celebrating the Sultan’s glory, public schools, irrigation and drinking water canals and the introduction of gas lighting and the tram line all contributed to the modernisation of Beirut. The urbanistic works also entailed the construction of a network of roads connecting the city centre to the harbour. Over the course of just a decade (from 1894 to 1903), an intense modernisation of the urban and extra-urban road network took place (the inauguration of the Beirut-Damascus railway line dates back to August 3, 1895). In addition to the creation of new roads and the regularization of old ones, existing roads were rebuilt, paved and maintained, attesting to the Ottoman administration’s firm commitment to modernization. The last, decisive urbanistic transformation, dating back to the French mandate and which radically redefined the appearance of the city’s historical quarters, imposing a western layout that, although possessing a charm of its own, radically altered the spirit of the eastern metropolis, thus took place in the context of a carefully planned urban fabric.

Survey campaigns

The first Italian mission (1994-1995) consisted in the conduction of a photogrammetric survey campaign of what are known as the “arches of the Banco di Roma”, a portico of niches, built from marble and local limestone, that delimited the eastern side of the Roman Forum. The photogrammetric surveys not only provided a very precise documentation of the monumental façade, but also concerned the constructions behind it, which, containing the hill’s slope, ensured the presence of a covered passage behind the façade. The second Italian mission (1996) concerned the central area of Place de l’Etoile, where an archaeological excavation that yielded some more useful elements for understanding the spatial layout of the Roman Forum was conducted. The archaeological excavation was complemented by a photogrammetric survey campaign, conducted on several structures, respectively studied by the American University of Beirut (BEY045) and the Lebanese University (BEY004), that proved of fundamental significance, due to the systematic destruction site BEY045 was later subjected to. The latter site was an extraordinary architectural complex, of which the two main phases could be documented, respectively ascribable to the height of the Roman colonial phase and the early Byzantine period (after the earthquake that in 551 AD completely destroyed the city of Beirut). As for the road network, in which the Cardo Maximus was recognized, the photogrammetric survey, added to the topographical network that was subsequently created, allowed important corrections to be made to the previous historical interpretation of Roman Beirut, that reconstructed a grid of regular city blocks divided by orthogonally intersecting streets running parallel to the two main roads. Completing the Italian mission, a topographical campaign (1997) allowed the structures that until then were positioned only on a local scale to be ascribed to an absolute reference network.

Archaeological research in Place de l'Etoile

The work carried out in Beirut by the Centro Ricerche e Scavi di Torino per il Medio Oriente e l’Asia, promoted by Giorgio Gullini, is a contribution to the complicated reconstruction of the old town centre which began in 1994: many European archaeological teams were involved in the attempt to document and safeguard the significant archaeological heritage of a site whose history goes back several thousands of years. The commitment of the Italian mission, from 1994 onwards, was addressed to the central Place de l’Etoile, seat of the Lebanese Parliament. During the reconstruction of a building adjoining the Parliament, remains of a façade with niches came to light, belonging to a Roman monumental substruction of a hill to the south of a square lined by the basilica of the Roman city and a colonnaded portico on the east side, which in the 1960s had been included in a small archaeological area in the centre of this square. The Centro Scavi was requested to survey and implement the dismantling of the portico with niches and to carry out the archaeological investigation at the centre of the square: this was intended to be preliminary to the relocation of a clock tower and the creation of an underground museum. Actually, this project envisaged a spatial connection of the ancient city Forum to the Place de l’Etoile above it, currently the historic centre of modern Beirut, illustrating in this way the sequence of settlements preserved in seven metres of layers. This however was not implemented due to the interruption of the dig caused by the transit of the new drainage system in the square, which disturbed the archaeological levels. It is well known that after the Hellenistic phase the city, sited on a promontory jutting into the Mediterranean, became the first – and remained for a long time the only – Roman colony in the province of Syria by the wish of Augustus, with the colony name of Iulia Augusta Felix Berytus. But if the ancient sources describe it as having a wealth of monuments, the complex vicissitudes in the city’s history have so far hindered the discovery of satisfactory archaeological evidence, particularly in the public area. The excavation carried out in the centre of the square has revealed the entire sequence of settlements starting from the Ottoman suk, followed by the various mediaeval, Byzantine and late Roman periods. It is particularly the Augustean rebuilding that raises interesting questions regarding the culture which the colony developed, since it formed a bridge between the eastern and western parts of the Roman empire. And in fact the town planning programme and its public monuments may give us some information in this context. The work done has enabled a first conjecture to be made regarding the layout of the so-called western forum of Berytus, which received important architectural renovations in the centuries following to the Augustean reconstruction work and particularly in the Severan period.

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