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

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)

Arts and Entertainment
Sheeran arrives at the 56th annual Grammy Awards earlier this year
musicYes, that would be Ed Sheeran, according to the BBC
Sport
Rio Ferdinand, Alan Shearer, Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker during Hansen's final broadcast
Sport
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Arts and Entertainment
'Deep Breath' is Peter Capaldi's first full-length adventure as the twelfth Doctor
TVFirst episode of new series has ended up on the internet
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Dynamics CRM Developer (C#, .NET, Dynamics CRM 2011/2013)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Dynamics CRM D...

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?