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Tires over Tyre: US Ambassador Ruins Ruins

[A screen shot of the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir's website, 6 February 2013.] [A screen shot of the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir's website, 6 February 2013.]

Touring Tyre on foot can be tiring, to be sure. But whether US Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly was too tired or too busy to get out of her car to survey these marvelous vestiges of antiquity, nothing excuses her regrettable decision to drive a convoy of vehicles over this ancient site, damaging a stone wall in the process.

Ambassador Connelly’s convoy passed near the golden Roman Triumphal Arch through a narrow dirt path that is not designed for cars. Unfortunately, one of the cars in her convoy veered off the “road” and demolished a large section of a supporting stone wall. What has not yet been reported is that to get to this pathway, she also had to drive over a Byzantine roadway. Because the convoy had to wait for a winch to pull the vehicle out of the ditch it had just made, her visit was temporarily delayed. 

The US Embassy, in response to the outcry over this incident, claims that the vehicle collapsed a “modern wall built to shore up the main road” to the ancient Al-Bass site at Sour ruins. However, any archaeologist familiar with this site knows that vehicles are not meant to drive on that small path—and it is not, in any way, the “main road.” In response to the upset, the Embassy released a statement: “Ambassador Connelly expresses the U.S. Embassy’s regret at this incident,” and she is “coordinating with the Ministry of Culture and the Municipality of Tyre to pay for the damages.” 

Ironically, according to statements released after an outpouring of criticism in the Arab and Lebanese media, Connelly claimed she was visiting Tyre to promote cultural heritage, survey project sites under the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, and discuss “further ways that the United States may help contribute to the protection of Tyre’s rich cultural heritage.” The humorous—and tragic—juxtaposition of her stated mission with the image of her convoy toppling a wall on such a historic site is providing comedic fodder for several media outlets. 

In the car with Connelly at the time of the incident was the Mayor of Tyre, Hassan Dbouq, who immediately came under criticism in the media for allowing American vehicles to drive over and destroy antiquities. During her visit, according to the Embassy, Connelly also met with the head of the Union of Tyre Region Municipalities, Abdul Mohsen al-Husseini, Dr. Ali Khalil Badawi, Director of Antiquities for South Lebanon with the Ministry of Culture, and members of the Tyre Municipal Council.

To deflect attention away from this unfortunate and easily avoidable damage, the Embassy, in a statement released on 7 February, advertised two ways in which the US Ambassador’s Fund in Lebanon has been used to support archaeological projects and cultural heritage: In 2003, the United States supported the restoration of the funerary complex at the al-Bass Necropolis, including the conservation and cleaning of an ornate Byzantine mosaic. In 2006, the program funded the conservation, protection, and restoration of the first century B.C.E. Mubarakeh Tower in the historic port of Tyre.

US cultural diplomacy and archaeology have always been intimately connected, and archaeology forms a crucial component of the State Department’s diplomatic efforts abroad. American foreign policy looks to archaeologists and anthropologists to promote mutual understanding, protect archaeological sites, and build cultural bridges. Over the past several years, the US has poured millions of dollars into supporting archaeological projects, research centers, and archaeological salvage efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan—the only two countries where US embassies have on-site staff archaeologists. 

For instance, at Mes Aynak in Afghanistan, the US has invested millions of dollars to save the remains of a large Buddhist temple complex before it is to be destroyed by the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC), as the temple sits on top of a copper mine worth more than $100 billion. Unlike the global outcry against the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001, the planned demolition of this 2,600-year-old Buddhist hub has failed to attract significant media attention or global outrage.

The articulated intentions of these archaeological efforts and preservation investments by the US in Afghanistan are connected to a clear diplomatic agenda: to show Afghans that the American presence is not just about fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but also about restoring a sense of national identity and pride to a war-torn country, and helping local people reclaim their heritage after years of destruction.

With headlines like “Connelly’s Convoy Violates Tyre’s Antiquities,” allusions to “sexual assault” to describe the convoy’s destruction at Tyre illustrate how this damage is perceived as an attack not just on “stones,” but on “bodies.” As I have written, objects of antiquity, frequently referenced in political and media discourse in terms usually reserved for “bodies,” have become loaded with meaning that goes beyond the material plane and into a moral and even gendered dimension.

One of the websites covering this Tyre story asked: “What would happen to the Lebanese ambassador in the US if his convoy (and he does not have one) were to destroy ruins from the 19th century, or even an old building?” The answer supplied is almost as telling as the question in terms of how the US is perceived in the Arab world: “He/she would have been sent to one of the fifty countries that torture on behalf of the US government around the world.”  

The United States has been suffering for years from a terrible image problem abroad. The ambassador’s unfortunate and easily avoidable photo-op of a US vehicle endangering the past—and further tarnishing the government’s reputation in the present—carries within it another ironic and foreboding image as well. Set behind the demolished wall and the beached vehicle is the Roman Triumphal Arch. It is a timely and grim reminder that the Roman Empire, once triumphal, today lies in nothing but ruins. 

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