This is Beirut

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Israel-Hezbollah War Endangers Archaeological Sites, Ecosystems

August 15, 2006 (Bloomberg) The Roman temple complex in the Lebanese town of
Baalbek has somehow endured the region's centuries of bloody-minded
conflict. But it may not survive the latest bombing raids of Israeli fighter
planes, which destroyed two buildings in the town square and damaged the
Temple of Bacchus.

The well-preserved structure, which has withstood wars and earthquakes since
its construction in 150 A.D., was cracked in the raids. The nearby Temple of
Jupiter, the largest religious structure of the Roman Empire, is so far
unscathed. Both buildings are among the great examples of Roman architecture
still standing.

Baalbek is just one of many archaeological treasure troves in the Beqaa
Valley to fall victim to shelling. In addition, the ancient city of Tyre,
with its important archaelogical sites and architecture, also has come under
fire. There is no information yet on possible damage to the city's Roman and
Phoenician ruins, according to Gaetano Palumbo, director of archaeological
conservation for the World Monuments Fund.

Beirut and Sidon, about 27 miles to the south, both have important historic
buildings going back to the 10th to 13th centuries, Palumbo says. Among
those structures is Chehabi Citadel in Hasbaya, which is on the fund's 2006
most-endangered list. A fortress for the armies of the First Crusade in the
11th century, the Citadel was taken over in the 12th by the Chehabi emirs,
whose descendants occupy it to this day.

Damage in Arqa

Israeli bombing raids destroyed the modern bridge at Arqa, about 62 miles
north of Beirut. Just 70 feet from that bridge, according to the Biblical
Archaeology Society, is an excavation site believed to have been damaged in
the pounding -- including Hellene and Iron Age pottery pieces and the
structures that house them.

Israel is also getting hammered. Archaeologist Ryan Byrne, speaking by
telephone from Memphis, Tennessee, says he was forced to leave Tel Dan, one
of the more important sites in the Golan Heights near the Israel-Lebanon
border, after two of Hezbollah's rockets hit a megalithic cemetery nearby.

The site, which chronicles some 9,000 years of human history, is better
known for the world's oldest intact arched gateway, a 4,000-year-old,
mud-brick structure now protected under a modern shelter but still quite
vulnerable to the errant missile.

Jeroboam's Altar

No real damage was done here, but Byrne and his team have packed it in and
postponed further work until next summer. Also on site is an altar set up by
King Jeroboam. ``Standing on top of it, you have a good view of the war,''
Byrne says.

Megiddo, or ``Armageddon'' as the Greeks like to call it, has been home to
37 different cities over thousands of years and is a trove of archaeological
treasure. Excavators can see -- and feel -- incoming missiles, but this
Unesco World Heritage Site has not been directly hit, yet.

Some Christians believe the Apocalypse is to take place here, with Megiddo a
staging area for the final battle between good and evil, according to the
Book of Revelation. Good is expected to prevail, a victory that will presage
the Rapture, in which the saved are rewarded with eternal paradise, while
the rest suffer the travails of a violent earthly existence.

Archaeology sites and ancient temples aren't the only cultural attractions
under fire. The Baalbeck International Festival shut down on July 12,
canceling the Eifman Ballet Theatre of St. Petersburg, the Budapest Symphony
Orchestra/Nice Opera joint production of ``Lucia di Lammermoor'' and a rock
concert by Deep Purple.

Environmental Toll

Another war casualty has been the environment. It will be a while before we
know the full extent of the ecological nightmare unleashed by the Israeli
strike on the power station in Jiyyeh, but we do know that at least 13,000
tons of oil have spread over 93 miles of the Mediterranean into Syrian
waters, a spill that could grow to three times that amount, at which point
it will reach Exxon Valdez proportions.

That oil slick, like the incontinent bombing from both sides, has no regard
for the sanctity of archaeology. Byblos, an ancient harbor 25 miles north of
Beirut renowned for its Canaanite ruins, is now tarred with oil. A few miles
to the north, a tremendous rock wall carved by the Phoenicians 2,800 years
ago to protect their ships docked off Batroun is likewise on the verge of
getting a horrific lube job. But a full assessment of the spillage -- let
alone cleanup efforts -- cannot even begin until the shelling stops
completely and Israel lifts its naval blockade.

Torching Forests

Israel, meanwhile, has its own eco-troubles. Forest fires -- hundreds of
them -- started by Hezbollah's wayward Katyushas have torched forests all
over Galilee and environs. Thousands of acres of grasslands in the Hula
Valley are toast, as are at least a half-million pine trees in the northern
Galilee hills.

Just hours before the U.N. cease-fire resolution was to go into effect,
Israeli defense forces continued to pound eastern Lebanon, while Hezbollah
lobbed hundreds of missiles into northern Israel. Israeli bombers also
dropped a more benign payload over Beirut, leaflets asking the Lebanese
people, ``Will you be able to pay this price again?''

The answer, I think, is obvious. Destruction of history is a price you pay
only once.

(Mike Di Paola writes about preservation and the environment for Bloomberg
News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer responsible for this story:
Mike Di Paola at mdipaola@nyc.


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