Batroun, Lebanon’s ancient coastal city waiting to be unearthed
It has Phoenician ruins, Roman artefacts, a medieval castle, Byzantine-style churches and arcaded Ottoman souks; however, its heritage is still waiting to be uncovered. The origins of Batroun, one of Lebanon’s ancient coastal cities, is still not known but is believed to date to before the time of the Phoenicians who ruled much of the eastern Mediterranean from 1,500BC to 300BC.
“There is a controversy over Batroun’s origins. Some say it is Phoenician; others say it is Roman, and others say it dates from the time of the Crusaders. The truth is we don’t know. There is a civilisation underneath the ground that we have not discovered yet,” said Georges Mubarak, an excavator and former Greenpeace activist from Batroun.
“Under the old castle, there are vestiges and structures that I personally visited. If we don’t uncover this heritage, we cannot say that Batroun has a civilisation and, without civilisation, the city has no international value,” Mubarak added, noting that of all ancient cities on the Lebanese shores, Batroun is not listed by the UN cultural agency, UNESCO.
Mubarak said he has tried for many years to engage Lebanon’s Directorate of Antiquities and the Ministry of Culture to excavate beneath the seafront medieval castle, which was heavily damaged by an earthquake. A lack of funds has prevented archaeological excavation.
“This entire region is an archaeological area,” Mubarak said. “We are sitting on huge treasures. You name it: Potteries, jade artefacts, glass… There is a lot. I, myself, retrieved several pieces.”
Nonetheless, Batroun, 50km north of Beirut, boasts enough ancient vestiges and edifices — in addition to tree-shaded beach resorts, seafood restaurants and bustling nightlife — to woo large numbers of local and foreign visitors, especially during summer.
“With its many archaeological and historical sites, its old souks and churches, Batroun is a tourist destination par excellence,” said Batroun Mayor Marcellino al-Hark. “The city was the biggest trade centre on the Lebanese coastline in the early 19th century. Today, most investments are centred on tourism-oriented projects.”
Batroun’s beaches are popular for their crystal-clear waters. “It has been tested. It is the only stretch of coast in Lebanon that has zero pollution because we have always had a proper infrastructure for sewers. Our efforts are geared towards providing good services. We are not an industrial area or an agricultural city. Most investments are in the tourism sector,” Hark said.
The city of 20,000 inhabitants has undergone some face-lifting in the past decade. A large part of the old vaulted souks has been renovated and floored, red-tiled old houses — some turned into motels — and restaurants restored and churches revamped. Restoration work is ongoing at the site of the Crusaders’ castle.
“We have strict laws on how to deal with old structures,” Hark said. “You cannot do any restoration or touch any old house without a special permit and we have a list of specifications that one has to follow. This is our wealth; we do not want to waste it. It is for us and for our children.”
The old part of Batroun was built from sandstone chipped out of the “Phoenician wall”, which was sculpted by its inhabitants more than 2,000 years ago to protect them from storms and invaders. People quarried stone to build temples, houses and churches. Only 225 metres remain from the original wall, which was more than 1km long, about 5 metres tall and 1 metre wide.
Typical to any coastal city, the sea has traditionally contributed to Batroun’s wealth. Since ancient times, merchandise was imported and exported through its port. The sea produced fish, salt and high-quality sponge and its warehouses store imported food items.
Batroun and its surroundings prospered from agriculture, including mulberry trees — whose leaves provided the staple food of silkworms — olive trees, vines, almond trees, wheat and barley. However, none of these activities has survived.
“We had the best quality of sponge in Batroun’s sea. I used to dive 15 to 30 metres to fish for sponge when I was a boy. Sponge was exported to the United States for use in medical industries. Unfortunately, the sponge animals are extinct now because of random fishing, pollution and dynamite use in fishing (during the 1975-90 civil war),” noted Mubarak, who said he was keen on reviving Phoenician heritage by building bronze replicas of Phoenician ships that departed from Batroun and other cities on the Lebanese coast to cross the Mediterranean for trade.
With its many old churches, traditional houses and ancient relics, in addition to services and entertainment facilities, Batroun is claiming a place on Lebanon’s tourist map, though it is not listed as a UNESCO heritage like its renowned neighbour, Byblos.
However, for the veteran excavator, what is above the ground is much less than what is buried underneath.
“What we care for the most is our heritage, our civilisation. We want to know our origin,” Mubarak said.
- Khalil Jahshan is executive director of the Arab Center in Washington.
- Copyright ©2017 The Arab Weekly