Before and after pictures were at the heart of the project to rebuild downtown Beirut following the Lebanese war. These images filled the pages of promotional material, coffee table books and photography exhibits hosted and commissioned by Solidere, the private real estate firm that undertook the project. Some of these images can still be found displayed at the airport today, 25 years after reconstruction began:
Even holograms have been made to showcase the transformations.
But then there are the before-and-after pictures you don’t see-those that cover the vast majority of neighborhoods in the old city reconstruction zone, which were not restored but demolished.
Take this image that was recently uploaded to Facebook by Gabriel Daher. (If you like old Beirut buildings, you should definitely be following him.)
You might recognize the large Capitole building on the right, a former cinema that still stands today and is more recently known for hosting nightclubs like the now defunct Buddah Bar and its current rooftop lounge. The Riad Solh statue would later occupy the empty space in the corner, which seems to be still under construction here.
While Capitole–and the corner building just left of it (formally used by Pan American Airways) are often seen in old photos of the city, what is less often seen is the neighborhood in the foreground.
Here is another shot of the neighborhood as posted on the same Facebook thread by another great archivist, Kheireddine Al-Ahdab. This time the perspective is from above the Capitole building (left) revealing a large swathe of buildings across the street, bordering the Lazarieh tower on the far left.
Al-Ahdab identified this neighborhood to be known as Ghalghoul. So what happened to it?
I was able to track down this photo of Ghalghoul from 1991. Many of the buildings appear to have survived the war:
But during reconstruction, the entire area was eventually leveled.
In this picture from 2013, we can see Ghalghoul has been reduced to a series of parking lots. All that remains is the double arched building in the photo above. Its blue canvas roof now replaced with red tiles.
The big hole in the foreground was supposed to be a mall but that project was stopped when ruins were found on the site and a public pressure campaign began not long after photos of the excavations were leaked to the public. You can read more about those discoveries here.
In this shot we can see that the Capitole building on the far right has been restored, but now faces a large void where Ghalghoul once stood.
Dozens if not scores of buildings were razed, leaving barely any trace of the neighborhood.
Here is an aerial view showing the extent of the destruction in between El Amir Bachir street and the Fouad Chehab highway ( Route 51) and in between Syria street and Cheikh Toufik Khaled-nearly all flattened as parking lots.
In fact the only time Ghalghoul saw life again in the postwar period was during the protests of 2006-2009, when a tent city was established in its parking lots by opposition parties calling for the resignation of the government.
I tried to find more about Ghalghoul but the only results seem to be images of its destruction shot in the early 1990s, such as this 1995 series by Fouad Elkhoury. Many of the buildings were still standing:
Until the bulldozing began:
It’s often said that more of Beirut was destroyed by the bulldozers of reconstruction than through the shelling of the war. In fact, some 80 percent of the old city was reportedly demolished under the Solidere plan. So while there are plenty of pictures of the 260 odd buildings that were restored, you won’t find any trace of the hundreds of buildings that were leveled, entire neighborhoods and streets erased, not only in Ghalghoul but everywhere large parking lots are found today such Martyr’s Square, Saifi, Zeitouni and others. Wadi Abu Jmel, Beirut’s old Jewish quarter is among these. I was lucky enough to document some of the last buildings and meet the Wadi’s last resident before she died in this piece a few years ago for Al Jazeera.
How many other untold stories are out there from people and neighborhoods that were left out of Solidere’s vision?
If anyone has any memories of Ghalghoul or other razed neighborhoods, please feel free to share in the comments below and I would be happy to update the post.