Written by Dr. Arturo Rey da Silva, Honor Frost Foundation Post-Doctoral Researcher, the University of Edinburgh, and Edinburgh Marine Archaeology Cultural Heritage Specialist

Lebanon, with a coastline of around 225 Km and a population of nearly 6 million people, has one of the oldest and more concentrated archaeological repositories of the Mediterranean. The tangible and intangible, cultural or natural heritage related to centuries of connectivity between local communities and the sea here is essential to understand the formation of today’s society and the effects of the anthropogenic use of the marine environment. Despite an increase in international funding to research and protection for the Marine Cultural Heritage (MCH) of Lebanon, it remains challenged by the increasing needs to find rapid solutions to the country’s economic debacle.

During the last three weeks of February 2023, I worked in Beirut as a part of my research on Marine Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Development, looking into the multiple challenges the country faces and the role heritage, particularly MCH, can play to improve current socio-economic realities. The research, partially financed by the Honor Frost Foundation, aims to make MCH relevant to people’s lives, harnessing economic, social, and environmentally sustainable development. As learnt from the work carried out in East Africa within the Rising from the Depths project, heritage is here understood as one of the basic needs to be considered when designing development strategies to improve people’s livelihoods, especially in times of crisis and immediate threats, as those posed by rapid economic development.

Demographic and urban development is rapidly changing Lebanon’s coastline, affecting the uses of the marine spaces and the values historically attributed to certain coastal areas (Photo: A. Rey 2023).

Lebanon is suffering an increasing economic crisis which results in hyperinflation that has devaluated the Lebanese pound by 98% of its previous value, which adds to the already significant energy and fuel shortage. With a very volatile economy, and an unstable public system, the preservation of cultural heritage is not among the priorities of the country. The Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA), although committed to its preservation and management responsibilities, find themselves without the human and financial means needed to protect the country’s rich archaeological heritage, let alone the heritage found underwater. By analysing the international assistance focusing on the heritage of the country, we can see a shift pointing now almost exclusively to the restoration of old buildings affected by the 2019 Beirut Port blast and to maintaining the Outstanding Universal Value of Lebanon’s World Heritage Sites, none of which include MCH, despite most being historical coastal cities. Most projects towards the research and preservation of archaeological sites are normally framed within emergency action programmes, prioritizing inventorying, documenting, evaluation, and stabilization without establishing a long-term self-sustained heritage practice. The fragmentation in international aid for cultural heritage has also affected the prioritization of certain heritage aspects, those more valued under official heritage discourses, neglecting other undervalued and less visible sites, like those found underwater.

Although the country acceded to the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage in 2007 and inserted all its text into the national legislation through Law 772 in 2006, it did not harmonize accordingly its regulatory system to fully implement it. The Law 37 of 2008 defined what is to be understood as cultural property and included, for the first time, the heritage found in the country’s territorial waters, without entering to analyse other dispositions of the UNESCO 2001 Convention related to archaeological remains found in other maritime zones (i.e., the Contiguous Zone, The Exclusive Economic Zone or the Continental Shelf, or the Area), where important oil and gas offshore economic activities are now to taking place. Furthermore, none of the laws related to public works, transportation, port development, environment preservation, mineral extraction, or impact assessment protocols, among others, have been revised to consider the activities that could affect submerged archaeological sites.

Marine cultural heritage assets along the Lebanese coast are suffering from a lack of prioritization and valorization in view of current socio-economic challenges. Marine erosion, lack of effective management plans, or insufficient planning could destroy MCH before it can be understood as a resource to be utilized to improve people’s current challenges. (Photo: A. Rey 2023)

How can maritime archaeology become relevant in the current situation of the country? How can people, institutions and government start seeing MCH as an important asset to contribute to alleviating the different socio-economic challenges affecting them? Has the investment in maritime archaeology research in Lebanon contributed to improving people’s lives or to increasing heritage understanding and its presence within national policies? The findings from my research point to a huge gap in how maritime heritage research connects to present-day problems. It is clear that investing in the research and study of the past is needed, as much as creating education opportunities and awareness-raising activities. The HFF has successfully consolidated these trends in the country with initiatives like the Minor Programme on Marine Heritage at the American University of Beirut, the establishment of a HFF Lebanon Team, and the many different research projects dealing with MCH from Tripoli to Tyre. Is this achieving a bigger impact that can place maritime archaeology in a relevant position as a social and scientific discipline that can contribute to socioeconomic priorities? Whereas the actions developed during the last decade in maritime archaeology are advancing the knowledge of past maritime societies in the country, a focus shift is needed in the way MCH is studied and utilized. Also, a turn in the way funding is provided and how projects are monitored and evaluated can help guide expected results needs to meet current needs. Marine Cultural Heritage in Lebanon should be treated as a resource that is at high risk of being lost. Equally, investment in MCH research should focus on achieving data, information, or benefits that can contribute to transforming it into a resource to be sustainably used as a means for social well-being.