BEIRUT: Baalbeck’s Roman Heliopolis may be the first image that pops into people’s mind when thinking about the ancient city.
Often the focus of archaeological efforts and historical research, it has eclipsed the presence of treasures from other eras, such as the newly restored remains of Bustan Nassif, a 12th-century medieval town next to the Bacchus Temple.
The archaeological area showing a former garden, traditional bath house, city walls, a khan and residential areas was officially handed over to the Directorate-General of Antiquities in November, having undergone a large research, restoration and conservation project by the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) and the Lebanese University.
First excavated in the ’60s by the DGA and studied in 2008-2015 by the DAI’s Heike Lehmann, a conservation plan was created and put into action with this research by LU professor Jeanine Abdul Massih (who supervised the restoration) and Lebanese architect Maroon Hoshaymeh. For three years, starting 2016, the site was restored by a team of about 40 workers.
“The general urban plan of the site and its evolution was respected in the implementation of the general circulation in the site. The roads were reopened and reused as pathway for tourists,” Abdul Massih told The Daily Star. “The ancient techniques of construction and the original building material were reused and applied as the main philosophy of the conservation work.
“Some minor additions were necessary for the security of the site and the monuments and in some case for [understanding the function] of some features,” she added.
“It is, for example, the case of the hammam [public baths] located in the western part of the Bustan, where some basins and pipes were reconstructed to give a better [notion of] the monument.”
Baalbek has been settled for almost 10,000 years and was a significant medieval center. The Zengid dynasty developed Bustan Nassif into a fortified castle and successor dynasties invested intensively in the city, using it as a border fortress against crusader kingdoms and benefiting from this economically.
“The medieval city walls were reinforced in the 12th century by the Zengid Emir Noureddine Mahmud, perhaps in reaction to the invasion of the Mongols in 1260 A.D.,” Abdul Massih said. “After the destruction by the Mongols, of which some catapult spheres still bear witness, the district was newly reconstructed in the Mamluk period [13th-14th century].
“The straight road implemented on the remains of a colonnaded street dating from the sixth century runs along the mosque,” she added, “and the khan on one side and the residential quarter on the other side, leading also to the public bath.
“The bath preserved in Bustan Nassif dates back to the late Ayyubid period in the 13th century.
“Close to the main gate of the citadel, it most probably played a role for both the residential quarter and visitors of the citadel,” Abdul Massih explained. “The district was later abandoned in the 15th century and transformed to a garden land.”
The vegetation has been one of the main issues conservators encountered, and will continue to need maintenance, especially as a species of poison ivy covering the area has proved impossible to kill.
“Plants have grown for centuries in these areas and their roots crisscross the foundations everywhere,” DAI German Archaeological Mission of Baalbek Director Margarete van Ess told The Daily Star. “One main issue was to remove them without destroying the walls, however, this is not fully possible.
“We ... added lime mortar into the outside joints in order to keep moisture and rainwater out,” she continued. “At the same time we highlighted certain areas by using pebbles with different colors and installed information panels in order to explain the structure and the function of the quarter.
“Our aim is to make this quarter visible and understandable for visitors,” she said, “and to explain that Baalbeck not only played an important role in the Roman period but in the Islamic medieval periods as well ... showing how people lived at that time.”
During the three-year project, the team hosted regular visits and the participation of about 12 archaeology students from the Lebanese University, who took part in the regular conservation work.
“Three of them worked all through the three years and became the leading team. One of them supervised and assisted me in all the conservation work,” Abdul Massih said. “Two architect-restorers of the School of Restoration in Tripoli joined the team and were responsible for the documentation, drawings and the conservation work.
“All the participants were trained on the comprehension of the architecture and the phasing of each wall,” she added, “archaeological sounding and documentation, analysis, use of material/construction techniques, consolidation and site management.”
Van Ess said Bustan Nassif would soon be opened to the public. The handover is part of the DGA’s ongoing project to enhance the site’s facilities, with a new entrance planned and additional archaeological areas, along with better information panels.
Source: | Daily Star | Saturday 2 February 2019