BMCR 2006.08.44

Ancient Lebanon: Monuments Past and Present

, Ancient Lebanon : monuments past & present. Past & present. Los Angeles: Vision, 2004. 71 pages : chiefly color illustrations, map, plans ; 20 x 30 cm.. ISBN 9788881621422 $29.95.

The rich archaeological sites of Lebanon have been underrepresented in scholarship. Decades of political turmoil have severely damaged the cultural heritage of one of the most important regions of the Mediterranean, and sadly, the outlook for the immediate future is also bleak. During visits to Lebanon in 1998 and 1999, most of the sites that I visited were unprotected. Worse still, several were base camps for the Syrian army. Amidst the impressive Roman/Byzantine villa complex at Beit Meri, I witnessed Syrian soldiers with rockets and tanks dug in amidst the mosaic floors and crumbling walls. At the time I was struck by the irony that the Syrian army was bivouacked in the Beqaa Valley at ‘Anjar more than 1250 years after it was built by the Syrian Umayyad caliph al-Walid. Elsewhere, in the Beqaa, my driver showed me the place where a small late antique church had been bulldozed by treasure hunters in the years immediately after the 15-year Lebanese civil war. This is the kind of activity that Robert Fisk and Helga Seeden have written about and which continues to menace the nation’s cultural heritage.1

With the cessation of hostilities in 1991, life in Lebanon was slow to return to normal. Archaeology had never been conducted there at the same pitch as some neighboring states. But the beginning of excavations in downtown Beirut in 1993 should have ushered in new era of feverish activity. Foreign teams did return to Lebanon—witness the British excavations at Sidon and Polish work at Shhim—but as has so commonly been the case in Lebanon, publications are maddeningly sparse. The lack of an archaeological gazetteer and database for Lebanon is acutely felt, and one can only express hope that an effort will be made in the coming decades to create a comprehensive work.

If, however, Lebanon is once again to witness the numbers of visitors who flocked there in the 1960s and 1970s, there is little doubt that archaeological remains must not only be conserved, but presented to a worldwide audience who must be made aware of the wonderful sites that the nation possesses. Ancient Lebanon (hereafter AL) by M.J. Strazzulla, does a fine job of offering up these enticements in an attractive format that will be of interest to general readers and non-specialist scholars who wish to get a quick overview of the major ancient sites of Lebanon.

AL begins with a brief introduction that covers the geography and history of Lebanon. This is general information that offers nothing new. The Bronze Age and Iron Age receive slightly fuller treatment than the Hellenistic and Roman Ages, and the Islamic period is barely touched upon. From the outset it is therefore clear that this book deals primarily with pre-Islamic sites. Unsurprisingly, the focus is monumental architecture of the Roman period. The architectural remains are presented in high quality glossy color photos, and sixteen of these are accompanied by an acetate overlay imprinted with a reconstruction. These enable the reader to place the hypothesized superstructures of the buildings over the present-day remains that are presented separately. Reconstructions rarely please specialists of any kind, but those presented in AL are conservative and at times somewhat drab; for example there is no attempt to reconstruct any of the painted exterior of classical cultic buildings, which we know were certainly not left uncolored in antiquity. This is somewhat disappointing, firstly because readers who do not know otherwise will think that all ancient monumental buildings resembled the Lincoln Memorial in their finished state, and secondly because reconstructions already require a certain degree of artistic license, so why not take it one step further?

Baalbek is the first site discussed. Unsurprisingly, the greatest site in Lebanon has more space devoted to it (25 pages including the acetate overlays and text) than any other. There is a nice aerial view of the Temple of Jupiter accompanied by an overlay reconstructing the Great Court and the Temple of Jupiter from above. The accompanying text is descriptive and rather dry: although it provides the measured dimensions of the temple, this is not enough to communicate to the reader the awesome stature of the Temple of Jupiter Heliopolitan, which dwarfs the visitor like no other. Byblos is the site presented with the best balance. In addition to stressing the importance of the place in the Bronze Age, the text provides a bit more discussion of the Iron Age, the Roman theater and the Byzantine-Arab periods. Beirut is treated rather briefly, despite the considerable excavation of the downtown area. It is disappointing that there are no reconstructions of any of the excavated areas of the capital city. Qala’at Faqra with its Roman cultic and funerary architecture is next covered. Sidon follows, and in this instance Strazzulla took care to provide some coverage of the medieval period and to provide a reconstruction of the Crusader castle defending the harbor. The treatment of this monument is the only instance of a full discussion of use and re-use of a building up to the twentieth century.

Buildings and sculptural finds from Bostan esh-Sheikh are well-described in the next section. The ground plan of the site, while clearly drawn, offered a missed opportunity to put the layering effect of the acetate to good use in order to separate the various phases on the plan. The latter now has the Byzantine church opposite Iron Age temple ruins; this lack of clarity in the chronological sequence mars an otherwise nicely drawn and clear plan. The Pool of Ashtart is the lone reconstruction that adds color to the walls and frieze. If elaborated this would have been a nice effect. The chapter on Tyre is, as is the case throughout, well illustrated and includes an attractive city plan and images of a number of finds from the city. The brief historical narrative outlines Tyre’s importance as an Iron Age trading center. The main Roman street and hippodrome are discussed and reconstructed. The only Islamic period site discussed is ‘Anjar, at which excavations began in the 1930’s. Little is known of the history of the site and the text focuses on describing the monumental architecture.

While the overall effect of this book is pleasing, there are a number of errors: (p.2) “Middle Age” instead of “Medieval” and (p.61) Alexander built a causeway, not a dam during his siege of Tyre, which is mistakenly dated to 322 B.C. A number of awkward turns of phrase and strange word choices reveal the fact that this is a translation and spelling errors have slipped into the copy, such as the “hyppodrome” of Tyre. Perhaps most disappointing is the fact that, although excavation reports were clearly consulted, and sometimes quite heavily relied on for the text, there is no bibliography or further reading list. It is a great shame not to have offered those new to the history and archaeology of Lebanon additional resources. On the whole AL will be successful at enhancing the general public’s awareness and appreciation of the cultural legacy of Lebanon. Scholars and teachers will find the images and reconstructions the most useful aspect of the work.


1. R. Fisk, “The Biggest Supermarket in Lebanon: A journalist Investigates the Plundering of Lebanon’s Cultural Heritage,” Berytus, 39, 1991, pp. 243-252; H. Seeden, Lebanon’s Archaeological Heritage (viewed August 21, 2006).