Southern Lebanon’s Archaeology

Penny Young on new excavations in one of the most historically rich areas in the Middle East.

Lebanese archaeologist Ali Badwi will never forget the night the Israelis evacuated Beaufort castle, west of Sidon. The troops drove off southwards at midnight and Ali was there by dawn, gazing up in awe at one of the most famous crusader castles brooding like an eagle on the edge of its eyrie. It was an emotional moment.

Ali, along with archaeologists and historians in Lebanon and from abroad, are rubbing their hands with anticipation over the prospect of the work to be done in the south of the country. The Israeli occupation ended in May 2000. It had lasted for twenty-two years, making the area largely inaccessible. Now, work can begin again in one of the most historically rich areas in the Middle East.

There is certainly much to do. When the Israelis pulled out of Beaufort castle, they blew up parts of it, despite a request by the Lebanese government to respect an already ravaged historical site.

Balanced on the edge of a ravine with sweeping views over the countryside, Beaufort castle (Qala'at ash-Shaqif in Arabic) once rivalled Syria’s huge Crak des Chevaliers castle in size and strength. Beaufort is believed to originate from the Byzantine period. It was restored and added to by the Arabs who were later replaced by the crusaders. In 1138, the castle was captured from a local Druze prince, Sheha'b ed-Din, by Fulk of Anjou, King of Jerusalem. The castle was later besieged and captured by Saladin. In the seventeenth century, the Druze prince, Fakhreddine, used Beaufort as a base in his struggle against the Ottoman Turks.

In modern times, the castle was used by Palestinian fighters in the 1970s. Then, like all the invading armies through the centuries, the Israelis realised the castle’s strategic importance in dominating the route between Tyre and Damascus and Beirut and Jerusalem. They made it their own for more than two decades. Regaining Beaufort was an important psychological step for the Lebanese.

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