“I am a small Phoenician fisherman fishing for fossils in Byblos,” says Pierre Abi Saad, as he carefully strikes the edges of a piece of limestone with a hammer and a chisel. Like his grandfather, Joseph Abi Saad, before him, he is searching in limestone for one of the country’s most amazing natural wonders. With manual archeological tools, he and his brothers, Joseph, George and Albert, dig in the mountain villages of Haqil and Hjula in hunt of perfectly preserved fossils of fish that died 100 million years ago. It was during the French mandate when their grandfather first discovered the fossils in the sedimentary rock hundreds of meters above sea level in Jbeil.
Abi Saad says there could be other fossil sites in limestone, which was formed in the seas that once covered what is today Lebanon. “From what I have seen so far in our mountains and the presence of limestone [in the country], there is a big possibility that there are other sites,” Abi Saad says. But for now, Lebanon’s three fish fossil sites in Haqil, Hjula and Nammura are the only known ones in the Middle East. “Lebanon has the best fish fossils site in the world,” according to Abi Saad, who collaborates with a number of universities, the National Museum and well-known museums in London and Lyon, France.
In a showroom that Abi Saad and his brothers opened some 20 years ago in the old souk of Jbeil, he welcomes visitors of all ages, most of whom stand astounded after seeing the fish fossils. Among the dozens of species, visitors can see an ancestor of the stingray. Called Cyclobatis Oligodacylos, the fish thrived in the sea between the Eurasian and African plates 100 million years ago. “All the fossils date back to the upper cretaceous era, meaning they are all 100 million years old,” Abi Saad tells visitors, who can visit the showroom and listen to his presentation for free.
“To put it simply, the upper cretaceous era is the heart of the age of dinosaurs,” he adds. During this time, Lebanon was 200 meters below sea level. At some point, in an apocalyptic scene, plankton absorbed all oxygen below the surface of the sea water in the region. The process, known as water bloom, released poisonous substances into the sea, killing marine life instantly. “Interestingly, the fish that sink to the bottom of the sea are quickly covered by sediment which, with the lack of oxygen, allows them to be preserved in a perfect manner,” Abi Saad tells visitors.
“The land of Lebanon 100 million years ago was under water and part of the African plate … during the formation of the Lebanese mountain 40 million years ago, these fossils were pushed up with the mountains,” he says, adding that the fossils were subsequently exposed through soil erosion. “This is what I do. When I tell the visitors the stories of these species, they just don’t believe that they are real … they don’t believe that these are real fossils with all their beauty and color,” Abi Saad says.
He grabs a water spray bottle and dampens the surface of the limestone to show the fossils’ magnificent details. “It’s a fish, it definitely loves water,” he says. After receiving a brief explanation of the fish fossils, most visitors to the showroom spend much more time than they had initially planned. In addition to species that have gone extinct, visitors can also find fossils of some of the most popular fish today. “Some of the biggest pieces of fish fossils are the two and three meter long sharks, turtles, octopus, flying fish and others,” says Abi Saad.
“The coelacanth, the oldest known fish in history, is still found in south Africa.” The species, which was thought to have gone extinct at the end of cretaceous era, was rediscovered in 1938 off the coast of South Africa. “Many scientists believe that coelacanth is the turning point of evolution between sea life and land life … others theorize that human beings might have evolved from them,” he says, grinning. According to Abi Saad, it’s a puzzle to find the right layer of limestone. “You can feel a change in the layer of the rock when you slide your finger over it,” he says. While small pieces of fish fossils are offered for sale, the fossils of rare species are kept for study.
“We have to keep at least 10 specimen from each species and each size of the species to study them.” Jean-René Fourtou, a French visitor, says every time he visits the showroom he is more fascinated by the discoveries. “I was here 10 years ago, and today it fascinates me even more,” he says. “I also like buying and having a collection of whatever is up for sale.” The fossils attract tourists from around the word, as well as the attention of media, from CNN to the National Geographic Channel and several science magazines.
Scientists and school children alike visit the showroom in Jbeil and the mountains where the fish fossils are excavated. “I am happy to have schoolchildren visit the site and the showroom to see their country’s heritage,” he says, adding that when students realize that the species are from the era of dinosaurs they become even much more interested. “The more I tell them, the more questions they have,” he says.