Beirut's treasures saved from the bulldozers: Planners of a new metropolis on the ashes of the old have abandoned Manhattan brutalism and embraced a past both tragic and glorious, Robert Fisk writes from Beirut

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LIEUTENANT Maher Halibi of the paramilitary 'Squad 16' police led the way behind the minefield, down the back of the ruined Maronite church, his two armed companions gingerly following in our footsteps. Through a screen of undergrowth - mined and re-mined in 15 years of civil war - we descended an earth embankment into a crypt.

'See this?' Lieutenant Halibi asked. There were arches and great stone columns in this dank underworld. 'They can put lights in here and everyone will be able to see the older church.' In a corner beneath the vaulted roof, archeologists are already digging, down to the foundations of an even earlier, Byzantine church.

Across the road, the mildewed wreckage of the Grand Theatre exudes a stench of sewage through its broken front-doors. The seats are still there, the fillings torn out, the royal box whence the corpulent Farouk of Egypt once ogled the dancing girls is layered in dust. Torn scenery displays an angel tootling on a horn but the stage is still firm enough for any poor player to strut and fret his hour. Under the old, Manhattan-style plans for the rebuilding of Beirut, the whole place - including the beautiful domed roof - was to have been bulldozed away for office blocks.

Not any more. A more modest scheme for the centre of the Lebanese capital will restore the Grand, shore up Ottoman facades that were condemned only a year ago and, to the approval of almost every architect in Beirut, provide gardens on a new peninsula of land rather than the grotesque and towering trade centre once planned on an artificial island. Even the archeologists are happy. Funded by Unesco, they are this week commencing four digs into Berytus, one of the finest Roman cities on the Mediterranean until - in the first of a series of catastrophes that were to overwhelm Beirut regularly in its history - a huge earthquake destroyed it on 9 July, AD551.

'The new plan is magnificent,' one of the city's most prominent archeologists - and one of the old plan's bitterest critics - said this week. 'The Cap Normandie, as the land-fill will be called, is going to be partly a park. There will be a lagoon with an underwater breakwater and the old Avenue des Francais will become a walkway with trees. I'm convinced that everything the critics asked for has been granted. Perhaps not that much money came in from investors.'

Untrue, according to Rached Fayed of Solidere, the company which is to rebuild the city by selling shares to investors. The city centre has been valued at dollars 1.17bn ( pounds 780m) and Solidere already has liquid assets of dollars 700m. Investors can start buying shares later this month to a maximum of 10 per cent of the company. Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister, is personally taking 10 per cent. Three of the 12 founders of Solidere are Saudis - as is Lebanese-born Mr Hariri - although Mr Fayed claims that at least seven Lebanese investors have pledged amounts equal to Mr Hariri for the project. Saudi Arabia is none the less intimately linked to the new city.

The financial attraction of these sepulchral ruins is at first hard to understand. On one day last week, Mohamed Sulayman, a Saudi with money to invest, could be found prowling the wreckage of the old souks in the company of Captain Ihsam Karem of the Lebanese army, one of the officers who will have to unseed thousands of mines from this dangerous wasteland. 'Our problem,' as the captain put it, 'is that the armies of the civil war did not make maps of their mine-fields. And the front line moved across the city over the years. So every building, every square yard, has been a front line. There are Russian mines, Israeli mines, American mines, French mines, Italian mines . . .'

Yet within minutes, Mr Sulayman was sitting in Mr Fayed's air-conditioned office on the edge of the ruins, pledging dollars 100,000 in future shares for Solidere. A year ago, the earlier, more grandiose city plan aroused furious criticism, not least from those city-centre landowners who were to receive shares in return for their ruined property.

The government began dynamiting ruined buildings, a number of which should have been preserved, including the magnificent old police station in the Place des Canons. But in the absence of any alternative method of rebuilding Beirut - the company will effectively make tenants as well as property-holders into shareholders - the city-centre project appears more credible. Instead of a New York-style super-city which might have taken a century to complete, Lebanon should have a brand new capital in just 25 years.

Instead of regarding the archeologists as a nuisance - as the city fathers originally did - the burghers of Beirut have realised that their city's antiquity can promote publicity and therefore have its own financial value. French and British archeologists, including John Schofield of the Museum of London, hope to uncover the ruins beneath the ruins, those of Berytus, and then dig right through to the bedrock, a journey that will take them through Ottoman, Islamic, Byzantine, Roman, Hellenistic, Phoenician and prehistoric Beirut.

If the Lebanese press is to be believed then these worthy diggers will also find the famous Berytus Roman law school, whose scholarship was immortalised in the account of the 6th century Bishop of Mytilene and which gave the world Justinian law, the principles of legislation in most modern societies. But you would be unwise to raise the matter with the archeologists.

'I'll discuss anything - but don't talk to me about the bloody Roman law school,' one of them raged this week. 'We would love to find spectacular things. But the school was totally destroyed in the 551 earthquake - so badly that the Romans rebuilt the school in Sidon. They didn't write in stone in those days but probably on papyrus. So there will be no documents.'

Hareth Boustany, one of Solidere's architects, says that 'it's true that the Roman law school was destroyed'. But, he adds, 'it was the school that gave us the Justinian code. We may find a room down there. No, we won't know if it's from the school but hypothetically it could be. But what we want to remind the world of is the idea of the law school. We want people to remember Beirut not as a place of war but as the place where all democratic laws originally came from. The vestiges of this great epoch are there and that is what is important.'

There were those who said that the 1975-1990 conflict itself should be remembered in the new city, with a single ruined building preserved to remind the Lebanese of the folly of a war in which 150,000 men, women and children were killed, many of them in the very city centre which is to be rebuilt. Mr Boustany, however, wants to commemorate his country's tragedy by preserving the shattered Martyrs Memorial in the city's central square. Originally erected to commemorate the hanging by Turkish troops of 16 Christian and Muslim Lebanese who dared to seek independence from the Ottoman empire during the First World War, the statues - a rather matronly Independence standing above a group of condemned men - have been honeycombed by hundreds of bullets fired during the war.

'I want to keep the memorial just as it is now, with all the bullet holes,' Mr Boustany says. 'It will remain as a symbol not only of our martyrs of 1915 and 1916 but as a symbol of this war, of a martyred people.'

(Photograph and map omitted)