Though rumors abound that Tyre, one of Lebanon’s historical sites, might be crossed off UNESCO’s World Heritage List, “There is [presently] no real danger,” according to Firas Khateeb, the UN body’s press officer.
But a few weeks ago, statements by Maha al-Khalil Chalabi, president and founder of the International Association to Save Tyre (IAST) alarmed friends of the ancient Phoenician city. Chalabi told NOW Lebanon that construction around the port, the souks and the south highway pose a menace to Tyre’s archeological heritage and threaten its spot on the list.
The issue, experts told NOW Lebanon, is not that the city is necessarily in danger, but that Lebanon delayed in submitting to UNESCO a yearly report on the state of the city’s preservation. Regardless, any attempt to move Tyre to the World Heritage Danger List would not be made before another year, Khateeb told NOW Lebanon.
Despite this, Chalabi stands firm in her accusations, pointing to the Tyre municipality’s lack of involvement in operations by the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), which oversees cultural heritage projects that receive international funds, as well as a number of other projects to renew the ancient port, including some by the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation.
The CDR’s Cultural Heritage and Urban Development Project (CHUD) was created by parliament in 2004 and works closely with the Culture Ministry’s Department of General Antiquities, the Department of Urban Development and the Municipality of Tyre, according to Nabil Itani, head of CHUD. In addition to Lebanese government funding, CHUD is financed by the World Bank, the French Development Agency and the Italian government.
“We work on urban, archeological and technical assistance, with a goal to both develop the city and preserve its heritage. Our goal is to enhance public spaces, create sidewalks, improve infrastructure and landscaping, and make it more lively and inviting for pedestrians,” Itani told NOW Lebanon.
“The CDR has performed a number of preliminary studies to ensure the project’s viability. We have also taken into consideration plans by prominent architect Pierre Khoury,” blueprints which, according to Chalabi, the CDR failed to properly follow.
Though Khoury’s plans were not implemented in full, as he died in 2005, “Our project has been approved by Pierre’s brother, Rafic,” Itani said.
Hasan Dbouk, the head of Tyre’s municipality, also stressed that none of CDR’s work threatens the city. “These projects were discussed among different NGOs and in front of the very NGO that is objecting to it today,” he said in reference to Chalabi’s IAST.
He and Itani also dismissed accusations that CDR was demolishing the fisherman’s syndicate building in order to replace it with a tourist café. “It is being redesigned but will continue to be used for fishermen only,” said Itani. “We are not planning to remove it, and have no prospects of tailoring it to tourists.”
Many of the wider city’s problems are also being addressed, Itani added, with plans to clean the old port, rework the sewage system and even reduce air pollution.
“I personally think the situation regarding Tyre has been blown out of proportion,” he said. “I think the problem arises with people not understanding our project in detail.”
Despite such reassurance, one cannot help but notice the poor state of the port, with trash and sewage being dumped into the waters, as well as rampant construction throughout the nearly-5,000-year-old city, which was once conquered by Alexander the Great. The World Heritage Committee has, in fact, urged the Lebanese government to curb construction in Tyre.
“I have been fishing since I was 12. Company workers are stealing relics and throwing garbage off our coast, and the municipality is giving them carte blanche,” said fisherman Rabih Bawab.
The company Bawab is referring to is called Khoury (it is not related to the Khourys of the CDR’s projects) and operates under the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation, which, despite several attempts, did not respond to NOW Lebanon’s request for an interview.
According to Dbouk, the Khoury Company is revamping the port to protect it from waves, rebuilding some destroyed parts, and performing some dredging, none of which, he said, involved damaging relics or stealing artifacts.
He maintains that the hubbub over Tyre’s heritage being in danger is political.
“I believe that this is a highly politicized issue. I would like to see what [the IAST] has done for Tyre for the past 20 or so years. They have done nothing except hold press conferences to attack Tyre, and attack every project aiming at developing it.”