Soldiers and archaeologists work side by side at ancient citadel


LETTER FROM TRIPOLI:High temperatures and hungry workers mean slow work at the Citadel of Raymond de Saint Gilles, writes FRANK SHOULDICE

THERE HAS been no shooting in Tripoli this week. By day, a combination of heat and devotion has reduced things to slow-motion – the holy festival of Ramadan is under way so its predominantly Sunni Muslim population is fasting from sunrise to sunset.

Meanwhile, unusually hot August temperatures hover close to 40 degrees to leave this Mediterranean port city gasping in its own vapours.

Lebanon’s second largest city seems to have recovered from a bus bombing two years ago and a gruesome shoot-out with an Islamist faction from the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in the outskirts.

For all Tripolites the absence of gunfire is hugely welcome but few are confident the respite is set to last.

Either way, the Lebanese army is taking no chances. It operates checkpoints in and out of the city and has bases at strategic points around town, including the Citadel of Raymond de Saint Gilles, which commands a clear view of everything as far as the static waters at El Mina.

The Crusaders built this castle in 1103 and it has passed through many hands since.

The latest occupants use two sections of the citadel as lookouts. Sandbags fill the narrow stone openings, khaki hangs from improvised washing lines, stainless steel cooking pots balance on the castle ramparts. It’s as though M*A*S*H relocated to the Middle East.

But since its arrival here the Lebanese army has met with unexpected resistance – from a committed team of archaeologists. Soldiers, the archaeologists have noted, do not care too deeply about medieval treasures. “We want them out of here,” said the team leader, “but they don’t want to go.”

It’s a battle she’s unlikely to win, but the archaeologist, a diminutive and spirited archivist, conceded that the army’s unwanted presence is a sort of history in the moment.

Different militia groups occupied the citadel during Lebanon’s civil war and in its 900 years the structure has borne the brunt of everything from catapults to RPGs.

But now the team leader faced a different problem. Her workmen, nearly all Muslim, were feeling the personal exigencies of Ramadan. Their daily fast includes water, so in addition to losing energy the workmen were losing heart.

“A disaster,” shrugged the archaeologist, herself a Christian. “They’re hungry, they’re thirsty, they’re in a bad mood all day and they don’t feel like working. I know it’s hard when you can’t even take water but I keep telling them that’s their choice.”

When she tried to rally her recalcitrant crew one of the men complained of backache. His workmate attempted a remedy by clasping from behind and lifting the man in a manoeuvre borrowed from Heimlich. It didn’t work. The complainant stooped even lower, shuffling away to sit in the shade.

But work at the fortress had to continue, even if split into two very different camps. Over by the ruins of a mosque a more enthusiastic member of the dig panned through a mound of dirt like a gold prospector. Shaded by an umbrella he sat on the ground happily caked in dust. The job was laborious, he said, but when you found something it made it all worthwhile.

A small trove of medieval utensils – mostly pieces of ceramic pots – testified to his diligence and every find was logged in the team leader’s ledger.

But the Lebanese army was unimpressed. Three soldiers sprawled nearby under a large cypress tree watching in mute disapproval as the archaeologist sifted through another pile of clay.

In a stone turret high above the courtyard a sentry with a machine gun swatted away a fly. No invasion today. Up on the ramparts the only sound was car horns from Tripoli’s clogged streets, the croaking chorus of ramshackle Mercedes exhumed from the NCT graveyards of Germany and Switzerland.

The midday sun was unrelenting. Unmoved by the latest archaeological discovery the sentry blinked, gathering sweat, and stood by his citadel post, gazing towards the sea like hundreds of soldiers before him, watching over the city below.