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Friday, September 15, 2006

Whither Byblos?

Byblos, an important military and trade post for 17 civilizations in Lebanon, came under attack during the 34-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah from the sea -- by way of an oil slick.

Native Beirutian Rabih El Khoury says it's gotten better, but serious concerns remain there.

"Most of the oil has been extracted from Byblos port. Archeologists, however, are conserned that oil spots that stuck to the watchtower base may have affected the stone composition, which would lead to faster deterioration. Last i heard, a team of international--mostly Dutch--experts were taking all necessary measures to minimize any potiential further damage.

But this is not the shocking story. Prior to the oil spill, local officials from the tourist and archeological bureau of Jbeil, the city where the Byblos site is located, have been in a row with the Ministry of Tourism and the United Nations for more than a decade. The argument is over the Byblos Port quay which, according to Jbeil officials, needs to be reinforced and extended to protect the watchtower from the seas. About a year ago, I chatted with the Port's Chief Mariner who explained that the current quay design and structure, which dates as far back as the watchtower and the port it is made to protect, has become ineffective as climate change has altered the intensity of the waves and the tides. "I've been here [at the port] for more than 40 years. I've noticed the changes in the sea myself", the Chief Mariner said. Being a United Nation's Heritage Site, any major sickle, hammer, or shovel directed at Byblos, its port, and its quay is subject to UN approval. The process of getting approval is (suprisingly) neither tedious nor lengthy. So what's keeping the quay from getting the required fix-up? As it turns out, and in true Lebanese politics fashion, several key memebers of the unit at the Ministry of Tourism, in which Byblos is part of its jurisdiction, are at personal odds with Jbeil's chief archeologist and head of the new quay project propsal. Issues of insufficient funds and delays of approval (from the related UN bureau and the ministry's own Projects Unit) have been cited by the Ministry of Tourism. For some ten years. The real sad but true part: Jbeil's chief archeologist who proposed the new design is no longer in office. Still, the project bears his signature. So Byblos waits. In the meantime, according to the Port's Chief Mariner, the watchtower's base stones are slowly disintegrating. A catalyst in the form of an oil spill was really the last thing one could have wished for."

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