Hidden Villas of Beirut

One of the great things about walking the streets of Beirut is discovering the capital’s hidden and often abandoned mansions, known locally as villas. Some can simply be found off the beaten path such as this castle-like yellow building:

It seems to have been converted to apartments and was very well kept:
Interesting to note was its surviving perimeter wall–used to block the unseemly sight of the neighbors?

When I asked around, people living nearby referred to the building as “Villa Kettaneh”–Kettaneh being one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in the country. If anyone can verify if Kettanehs actually lived here, please let me know. I’ve driven down this narrow side street dozens of times without ever noticing it!
In fact, driving is a problem when looking to spot Beirut villas, especially the more traditional ones, which are often cloistered behind a dense patch of trees and bushes. Because many of these villas are located on busy city streets, they would appear as nothing but a patch of greenery when zipping past in a car–as one would do in Beirut.
But when walking (something many Beirut residents try avoid) the details of the streets and their buildings come alive. For example, while shooting some photos near Villa Kettaneh, I spotted a kind of steeple roof I had never seen before a few blocks away:
So I decided to get a closer view:
Turns out it was one of those typical bushy patches I’d driven past a million times before, but barely glanced at for more than a second.
On foot though, and from a distance, shapes emerge from the dense foliage and the abandoned past seems close to being revealed– that is, until you reach the front gate.
These rust-caked steel doors leave almost nothing to public view. Thanks to the civil war however, they are pock marked with tiny shrapnel holes and one near the bottom was large enough to fit my camera lens into. The hole was so small I could only see inside by viewing my camera’s LCD screen:
Intrigued, I tried to get a better view by sneaking into an alleyway around the corner…
But the brush from years of neglect was too dense to make anything out:
Amid this virtual urban rain forest, I came upon a shanty-roof settlement of Syrian migrant workers. They claimed that some men had squatted in the house for a couple of years but then abandoned it, without saying why. I’d heard similar stories about other abandoned villas, which begs the question: who owns these historic homes, and why have they been abandoned in the first place?
One answer often heard is that the owner was some wealthy Lebanese businessman who fled the country during or before the civil war in the 1970s and never returned, only to die abroad with no direct heir or interest in reclaiming the property.
Whether or not such cases actually exist, there are bound to be hundreds of stories waiting to be told behind the decaying gates of these once majestic homes. Abandoned or refurbished, the hidden villas of Beirut add a little flair to the ever-mysterious, and thus somewhat magical state of affairs in Lebanon.
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  1. I could give you more info on all these villas. Our place in Beirut is a few steps away. I have heard of fights between greedy owners and even greedier developers and squatters being caught in the middle etc I tuned it out because these stories all sound the same I heard Jumblatt was involved on the side of preserving the old villas

  2. I am going to be in Beirut for Christmas and I will get the scoop and let you know. I just know that my mom and Mrs Nora Jumblatt were fighting to preserve the old villas in that neighborhood.

  3. There are tons of them all around beirut, the ones you don’t notice are too ugly because no one ever takes care of them, and some of them are in areas that don’t seem to be of interest for developers.
    But we should push to have every single one of them renovated, downtown beirut style, instead of having them replaced with new bineyet.
    Every time i pass one of those houses, it’s like a piece of heaven in the concrete jungle..

  4. I agree Fadi, though I don’t think we need to copy the model of Solidere in downtown–preserving the villas would make for a great walking tour, good for tourism and preserving the city’s heritage.

  5. Just came across an old comment of yours on my blog… do you still keep up this blog?

    Either way, I’ve actually scaled that wall once and went around that building (it’s locked so you can only look inside through the broken windows). It has a gigantic garden (full of garbage on one side) as well. That’s one building I would love to return to its old glory!

  6. Interesting Nicolein– doesn’t this villa also have another entrance on spears street, near future tv, across the street? There’s a big wall and trees there too..

    As for the blog, yes I have many posts planned, but slightly distracted by other projects at the moment–restarting soon though!

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