An Interview with Archeologist and Historian Farid El-Khoury
Located at the crossroads of three continents – Asia, Europe and Africa – what is now Lebanon has been visited by processions of civilizations. Some passed through, others stayed. The Phoenicians, Assyrians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Arabs and, more recently, the French, all left their traces.
In Lebanon, our children have the opportunity to see firsthand the layering of cultures in many archeological sites, said archeologist Farid El-Khoury, who teaches ancient civilizations and history at Rafik Hariri University and Middle East University.
It is important for them to understand our multi-faceted history because we ourselves are not the product of one culture. By re-excavating our heritage with our children, we help them understand their uniquely complex and rich identity as Lebanese.
As many ancient artifacts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have been destroyed in the turmoil of war, we want our children to appreciate the riches we have and to understand the importance of respecting and protecting them, El- Khoury added.
So, how can we inspire a sense of wonder and respect for Lebanon’s rich heritage in our children? El-Khoury suggests three steps: read stories, take them to sites and model the behavior you want them to imitate.
Three Stories of Lebanon’s Heritage
El-Khoury has three favorite stories for sharing with his children and students.
The stories are brutal, as many ancient tales are. El-Khoury shares them here with HOME for Summer, recommending parents customize them to the ages and interests of their own children.
The World’s First Teacher: The story of Cadmus, a Prince of Tyre, who went to save his sister Europa and, in the process, shared the Phoenician alphabet with the Greeks, is found in both Phoenician legend and Greek mythology. According to Greek mythology, Zeus, the king of the gods, saw the prince’s sister Europa and immediately fell in love with her. He transformed himself into a gentle bull. She mounted him and he carried her across the sea to Crete, where he married her, and as a marriage gift he named the continent after her. Europa became the first queen of Crete and her son King Minos gave his name to a great civilization, the Minoan. Her brother, Prince Cadmus, went in search of her, settled in Boeotia, founded the Greek city of Thebes, and taught the Greeks the Phoenician alphabet. He built the Acropolis, which was named the Cadmeia in his honor, and was an intellectual, spiritual and cultural center. These events took place approximately 200 years before the Trojan War.
“This story has so much in it – our sense of adventure, a missionary spirit to educate, bravery and courage,” said El-Khoury.
Elissa, Founder of Carthage: Elissa, nicknamed Dido (wanderer) by the Romans, the founder of Carthage, “is a model of wisdom, ambition and strong will,” said El-Khoury. “I admired Queen Elissa so much that we named our second daughter after her.”
As told by the Greeks and Romans, Elissa’s father, the king of Tyre, had willed his kingdom to both Elissa, a lady of extraordinary beauty, and her younger brother, Pygmalion. Elissa married the high priest of Melkart who had secret treasure. Pygmalion wanted the treasure so he killed Elissa’s husband in order to seize his treasure, but Elissa would not let him find it. She smuggled the treasure and fled to the coast of Africa, where she purchased land from a local chieftain and, despite many challenges, established Carthage.
The Siege of Tyre: “The history of Tyre has had a great influence on me and the story of its conquest shakes me,” said El- Khoury. Tyre was strong and prosperous, so many wanted to capture and control it. In the sixth century BC, King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon laid siege to the city for 13 years.
In 332 BC, Alexander the Great marched his army into Phoenicia, and he planned to capture Tyre. After a siege of seven months,his soldiers entered the city across a causeway they had built and, according to ancient historians, 6,000 fighting men were killed, 2,000 crucified on the beach and some 30,000 inhabitants were sold into slavery. The city was destroyed. The fall of Tyre put an end to Phoenician civilization.
“These stories tell about the intelligence, the sacrifice, the courage of our predecessors,” said El-Khoury. “They show how incidents in Lebanon’s past forever changed its future.
Visit Ancient Sites “We live in a place that is very deep rooted,” said El-Khoury. “There’s so much to learn.”
“As parents, we must first teach ourselves,” he said. When our children go with us, they will see us model curiosity, a desire to learn and respect for our heritage. Learn the role of archeology in understanding history so you can make the connections for your children.”
It is also important that schools engage their students with fieldtrips to ancient sites and museums in the country.
For these visits to be successful in their comprehensive purpose, the history teachers must themselves be knowledgeable of and have participated in archaeological digs in order to give their students stimulating experience.
Here are a few locations to start with:
El-Khoury’s Top Six Archeological Outings:
The National Museum of Beirut: Be sure to see King Ahiram’s Sarcophagus from 1100 BC. On its lid is carved an inscription containing the earliest form of the Phoenician alphabet ever found.
Byblos (Jbeil): Considered among the oldest, alongside Aleppo and Damascus in Syria, continuously inhabited cities in the world. It was possibly occupied as early as 8800 BC and continuously inhabited since 5000 BC, with five levels of civilization. It has the foundations of the world’s oldest house.
Tyre: An ancient Phoenician city with a Roman hippodrome, a triumphal arch and columns, and layers of roads of Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras.
Baalbek: In the Bekaa Valley the largest temple complex in the Roman world can be found.
Anjar: Also in the Bekaa Valley, Anjar is HOME to the ruins of an early eighth century Umayyad Palace.
Beirut: Lebanon’s capital city is very ancient. After the Civil War, “rescue excavations” took place in the city center, which revealed layers of consecutive ancient civilizations from prehistoric times until the Ottoman era.
By taking our children to these sites, we fill a gap that is in their education, said El-Khoury. “It is essential to integrate archeology into their education so they can appreciate and understand the importance of archeological sites, and the importance of protecting them.
When they are gone, they are gone forever.”
Walk the Walk
Children learn more from what we do than what we say, the famous saying goes. So volunteer to go on an archeological dig and help discover more of our past. Show respect for the sites by being careful about where you walk and what you touch (While children are not allowed on digs, yet some excavators accept volunteers. Teachers of social studies are highly encouraged to join as volunteers.
Parents might arrange voluntary work as well. To volunteer, one must contact the Directorate General of Antiquities in Lebanon (http://culture.gov.lb/indexar.htm). El-Khoury has taken students to spend a day at a dig site in Beirut and reports that it was “a great nostalgic experience for them.”
Voice your concern about clandestine excavations. This is the heritage of us all and must be protected. “Raising awareness has a domino effect,” said El-Khoury.
Having a guide with you and your family when you tour ancient sites can enrich your experience. Guides from the Ministry of Tourism are available at major sites. You can also arrange with the Ministry to hire a private guide. Prices range from $50 to $150, depending on the type and time of the tour.
The Lebanese Heritage Series by Youmana Jazzar Medlej and Joumana Medlej. This series includes titles in French, English and Arabic. El-Khoury’s favorite is Excavating Beirut. Beautifully illustrated, they are appropriate for all age groups.
Lebanon in Pictures. Series: Visual Geography, Minneapolis, MN: Lerner, 1992. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
New Light in an Ancient Land by Elsa Marston. New York: Dillon, 1994.
Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Phoenicians, Lebanon’s Epic Heritage by Sanford Holst. Cambridge and Boston Press, 2005. Appropriate for teens.
Lebanese Americans by Sandra Whitehead. Series: Cultures of America, New York: Benchmark Books, 1996.
Appropriate for teens.