With zoning laws like these, who needs wars?

Beirut’s traditional Ottoman-style mansions are being razed in favor of high rises that can be sold as having an ocean view.

People can sell these ancestral homes with their glorious oasis-like gardens to developers because there is not a single law on the books protecting properties younger than 300 years old. Evidentally there aren’t any basic zoning laws either, or else there’s no way they’d be allowed to strip the city bare of 2 and 3-story homes and replace them with 20-story towers.

The only law on the books that protects old homes in Lebanon dates back to 1933 when the country was under French mandate. It mainly protects buildings constructed before 1700 although younger buildings can be placed on the list of protected sites either by government directive or private initiative.

“The law basically focuses on the protection of archaeology and antiquities,” Culture Minister Tarek Mitri told AFP.

A survey commissioned by the government in 1997 identified about 250 buildings in Beirut that cannot be demolished.

“The list is outdated now,” Mitri said. “Plus it was done hastily. Some buildings that should be on it aren’t.”

The list is of little consolation to activists like Hallak, who say the issue is more about preserving the country’s heritage than merely saving a building or a mansion.

“It’s important to save an entire street, what we call a cluster… there is a social structure that is completely tied to these buildings,” Hallak says.

“We need a modern law that will allow us the flexibility to preserve these buildings.”

Amen, sister. Those ocean views won’t even exist once the whole town is paved with high-rise towers because they’ll obscure each others panoramas, so it’s really it’s in everyone’s interest to preserve Beirut’s distinctive architectural personality.

Besides, Beirut has been through the wringer, bombed and bullet-riddled and every other violence under the sun. How monstruous to think of its famous beauty having survived all that only to be destroyed by a real estate bubble.

Where London’s bodies are buried

The Museum of London and The Times have collaborated to bring us a most delicious weekend-waster: an interactive map of London with skulls pinpointing the exact location of tens of thousands of buried skeletons found during construction and often reinterred.

Zoom in to see who was caught dead underneath a specific street, or just browse around the town, clicking on the skulls to read about the remains found on that spot. There are some great ones.

Another skeleton was found with a metal spike lodged in its spine. Its owner, a man who was buried in Smithfield, East London, in about 1350, was probably hit with an arrow or spear, but the attack did not kill him. He survived only to catch bubonic plague in his late thirties or early forties. “Somehow the injury didn’t cause an infection,” Mr White said. “The body has reacted by building bone around the projectile. He survived for months or possibly years. He was found in a large plot of land set aside for burying victims of the Black Death.” It is not known why the man was attacked, but it is thought that he may have been a soldier in the Hundred Years War.

Such a burn, surviving a spear in the spine in the Hundred Years War only to die of plague along with a good third of the rest of Europe.

The syphilitic, insane prostitute with rotten teeth and rickets from having been kept out of sunlight in childhood is a tragic figure of Hugoean proportion as well. I can’t help but wonder how much business she did, what with the deformed bones, decaying mouth and suppurating syphilis sores.

Writer’s Rooms

There’s a neat article in the Guardian with wonderful pictures and descriptions of the rooms in which some well-known British writers past and present have put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).

Roald Dahl’s writing shedRoald Dahl’s raggedy little shack brought a tear to my eye, because on the walls you can see letters from schools and fans that he saved for years. I sent him a letter when I was in 5th grade and got the most wonderful personal reply from him. The 5th grade students the year after wrote him when the teacher was reading “The Witches”, and he answered them too.

Historian Eric Hobsbawm’s room is another favorite of mine. It’s layered in books and papers, and Hobsbawm’s description is endearing as hell.

Some of the shelves visible on the picture behind the two desks contain books on subjects I still work on: nationalism, the history of banditry. Most of them, however, are filled with the foreign editions of my books. Their numbers amaze and please me and they still keep coming as new titles are translated and some fresh vernacular markets – Hindi, Vietnamese – open up. As I can’t read most of them, they serve no purpose other than as a bibliographic record and, in moments of discouragement, as a reminder that an old cosmopolitan has not entirely failed in 50 years of trying to communicate history to the world’s readers. And as an encouragement to go on while I still can.


No lamp post, no peace!

A retired archaeologist in Bristol chained himself to a Victorian lamp post Tuesday, and went on a hunger strike to keep the city from digging it up and moving it to a posher part of town.

They’d already taken 17 of the cast iron lamp posts, so with only 13 left, David Cemlyn felt he had to take a stand.

‘The lamp-posts have been here for over 100 years and have been part of what makes a community, along with the red pillar boxes, the railings and the park benches,’ he said. ‘Taking them away is destroying the ambience of the area and it’s breaking down the community.

‘I’m a retired man used to working in my allotment and I’m not used to chaining myself to anything – but if I have to do it again I will do. Dozens of people have gathered offering support and drivers are beeping their horns.’

The city council claimed the hundred-year-old lamps were being replaced by modern ugly ones to help prevent crime and to comply with environmental standards, although how the poor, benighted residents of the beautiful and historic Clifton district with its endless Georgian terraces are meant to cope with the despoliation of their environment and dizzying spike in roadside crime rates inherent in the lamp posts, the council didn’t mention.

The protest worked. By the end of the day, the council suspended the lamp post looting and agreed to talk it over further with the community. :boogie:

Paris 3000 years older than she looks

It must be all the smoking. Either that or the convenience of its riverbank location.

An area about the size of a football field on the south-western edge of the city, close to the banks of the river Seine, has yielded thousands of flint arrowheads and fragments of animal bone. The site, between the Paris ring road and the city’s helicopter port, is believed by archaeologists to have been used, nearly 10,000 years ago, as a kind of sorting and finishing station for flint pebbles washed up on the banks of the river. Once the dig is complete, the site will be occupied by a plant for sorting and recycling the refuse generated by the two million Parisians of the 21st century.

“You could say that we’ve come full circle,” said Bénédicte Souffi, one of the two archaeologists in charge of the site. “Our ancestors were sorting rubbish from usable objects here in 7600BC. We are going to be doing much the same thing on a more elaborate scale. Maybe, there is a lesson there.”

No doubt. Someone should make a black and white movie about it characterized by a syncopated these-antithese of staccato emotional outbursts and existential ennui.

My sudden affinity for stale old French stereotypes aside, not only is this find cool because it tells us people have been puttering about Paris for 3000 years longer than we realized, but also because it’s the result of a government program of “preventive archaeology”, where building sites are investigated thoroughly by archaeologists before the builders start.