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At a time when so many historic sites are being demolished in Lebanon, it’s refreshing to see that some in the country are also interested in preserving the past, and seeing a value in that.

Just last week I reported on the removal of an ancient Roman city wall in favor of a real estate project in Bachoura, Beirut– one among countless historic sites have been erased in the country in favor of Dubai-like prefabricated towers. But it is important to note that there are also rare victories for preservation and perceptions are changing about the value of historical spaces.

Take the current exhibition being held in the Grand Sofar Hotel, built in the late 1800s in the mountains above Beirut and once one of the most celebrated hotels in the Middle East. It was abandoned in the 1970s during the Lebanese war and probably occupied by various armed groups including the Syrian military.

But thanks to the art work of Tom Young, the hotel has welcomed guests for the first time in decades, as part of his latest residency.

As he has done before with projects like the Rose House (covered in this previous post) and Beit Boustani, Young spends several months or even years at a decaying and often threatened building, excavating its history and drawing paintings that are both conceptual and realistic, to convey an interpretation of a place’s past.

Tom often uses souvenirs or relics found in the buildings to help tell the story and frame the art. The Grand Sofar was also famous for its casino, where prime ministers, Kings, and spies probably tried their luck.

An old roulette table where the good times must have once rolled:

Often the pieces are paired with art and historical textual references. “I do not deny that I was fascinated by my first sight of this strange invention,” wrote the Lebanese novelist Ameen Rihani in his 1910 short story The Heart of Lebanon. “I considered myself lucky to have reached my long sought objective, which was to see the roulette,” he added in reference to the Sofar Casino, according to a caption prepared by Young.

In the kitchen, Young used old photographs to paint the chefs:

There is even an ancient kitchen elevator machine that looks like it may have been one of the first of its kind:

Old photographs of the former natural landscape around the hotel (now lined with houses and buildings) and old guest books are also on display:

A broken down piano:

Revived with new music during the opening night:

An ancient fridge, or was it an “ice box”?

But sometimes it is the items that are not on display, not part of the exhibition, that give additional meaning to the building’s story. Check out these vintage stickers, from old shops in Lebanon. Where these stuck up on the walls by the wartime militiamen, trying to making the place more homey?

Did they desire a more glamorous life than shooting at snipers?

There is even a homage to the 1980s hit Knight Ridder and its leading man, David Hasselhoff.

Photo: Tom Young

Meanwhile the hotel’s famous night club “Monkey Bar” may have seen better days:

But it’s brought back to life with an old Middle East Airlines advertisement:

And the revelatory scenes are recast by both Tom’s imagination and records of famous guests like legendary singers Oum Kulthum, Farid el Atrash and Asmahan.

I won’t spoil it all. There are dozens of more paintings and historical pieces to see, including memorabilia and portraits from the old trains that used to whisk guests to the hotel, photographs and records of famous patrons and politicians who frequented the place and more information about the owners from the super affluent Sursouk family.  (There are rumors that the family plan to reopen the hotel, perhaps as a cultural space.)

And needless to say, the backdrops are almost as rich as the installations.

Best of all, the exhibit is totally FREE and there are even occasional shuttle buses available. It’s open every day from 11AM-7PM except Mondays and runs until October 14th. 

There are also performances and events for children. For more info on Tom’s work and the show visit his website. Here is a video of the Hotel Sofar event, as well as one of his previous projects, Beit Boustani.

“We will find where you live,”  a watchman yelled at me after taking a picture of ruins on his construction site. He had followed me across the street to issue the threat, claiming to have memorized the license plate number on my car. “Wait and see what they will do to you when they come to your house.”

Source: Teloduh

This vast site, believed to be a 1st century artisan workshop (for at least part of its occupation), was uncovered late last year and could help tell the little-known story of Berytus, one of the most influential cities in the Roman empire.

Source: L’Orient Le Jour

 

Instead it is scheduled to become a glass skyscraper, serving as the headquarters of a private bank, SGBL (Société Générale de Banque au Liban).

 

The skyscraper is being designed by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano, one of many celebrity architects transforming Beirut’s skyline with high end real estate towers worth billions of dollars and far out of reach of most Lebanese people. Piano is also designing the massive 160,000 square meter Pinwheel Project, which consists of a series of hotel and condo towers in the heart of downtown, as well as a city museum project, which is also to be built atop of a ruins discovery.  

Source: RPBW project conception

Sadly the type of violent threats and harassment I experienced is not unusual when attempting to document the wonders of the ancient world being unearthed for the first time in contemporary Beirut.  One would assume that a 2,000 year old site is one the entire country should be able to see, to learn from, to explore, to be inspired by, to build a sense of place, pride in preservation or national belonging. But in Lebanon, history can be private property. Several journalists and activists have been threatened or physically attacked for documenting the impact of real estate projects across the country.

To appease critics, some investors have recently pledged to preserve very limited sections of ruins, displayed decoratively as part of their real estate projects or concealed in parking garages. Yet these are often placed out of context or difficult for visitors to access and comprehend.  In the case of the Piano project, can the design of such a large building possibly preserve the vast vista of ruins beneath? Can the design be changed in any way meaningful enough to communicate its significance and that of ancient Berytus?

Upon closer view, we can see the interesting rock patterns in the walls. What do they tell us?

At the top corner of the site, the stones are entirely different, much larger and better carved, resembling grand Roman structures. Was there an important building near this site?

Most importantly, will the public ever get a chance to experience this piece of the puzzle of a city and great civilization we are just beginning to understand? With large walls surrounding the permiter, as seen in the photos above, passersby are not allowed even a glimpse of it.  (Photos in the post were taken from other buildings or openings in the wall.)

At any rate, the site might not be around for much longer.  Clearance may be closer than we think. In photos taken a few months ago, we can see nearly 20 tents set up in the dig:

Photo: Timo Azhari

But today there are only a few tents left, meaning the archeological teams may have largely packed up and left:

Is this why the developer is so aggressively keeping it off limits to the public? The site workers must have been threatened themselves if anyone is allowed to get a photo out.

It’s unclear if the diggers have already started to clear the area or penetrate to deeper levels as their position has changed since I first began documenting the site earlier this year.

Compare this image taken in January 2018:

To this photo taken from the same vantage point in recent days:

In addition to the removal of tents, we can also see the position of the two bulldozers is further into the site than they were early this year.

Here’s another shot from January 2018:

And the same vantage point today:

From a closer perspective, we can some of the amazing wall detail on the left section:

So what to make of the threats issued to me for taking these photos? They were taken from the public street, from the sidewalk, at a brief moment when the door to the site was open. There is no legal basis for banning photography in public space. There is no basis in banning the Lebanese public from seeing their own history.  But who was the man who threatened me and why?

The owner of SGBL bank is known to surround himself with those capable of serious violence. His bodyguards have regularly engaged in alleged criminal acts, including armed assaults and even a shootout in nightclub, according to news reports. In 2015, a bodyguard formerly employed by the owner stabbed a man to death in broad daylight, and was subsequently sent to prison. Is this the type of violence and threats that a Pritzker-winning architect like Renzo Piano would like to be associated with?

Interestingly, SGBL itself claims to be “a strong advocate of culture and arts in Lebanon,” according to its website. While Piano, who has been involved in several projects across Beirut has said: “Cities are beautiful because they are created slowly; they are made by time. A city is born from a tangle of monuments and infrastructures, culture and market, national history and everyday stories. It takes 500 years to create a city, 50 to create a neighborhood.”

In fact, the city of Beirut has not been developing just for 50 or 500 years, but for thousands of years and several millennia. Would it be too much to dream that Piano and SGBL live up to their stated ideals? Since both Piano and SGBL have profited so generously from Beirut, could they possibly give something back by preserving a bit of its illustrious past for the coming generations to enjoy?

 

 

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    A protest was held last night in Mar Mikhael after residents learned that a historic passageway through their neighborhood was being eyed by developers.

    Residents told me surveyors arrived last week and planned to remove telephone poles along the old steps known as the Massad Stairs, which lead to their homes. When residents questioned the surveyors activity, the workers reportedly replied: “If removing the telephone poles bothers you, what are you going to do when we tear up the whole stairway?”

    This led to last night’s protest:

    Here’s what the stairs look like during the day:

    Source: Paint up

    Only recently a group of students pitched in to beautify the steps:

    Source: Ashrafieh Stairs

    Residents told me the developer plans to demolish the Massad Stairs to make way for trucks and bulldozers to access a plot of property about midway up the stairs.

    That would mean destroying a historic passageway, one that links to several other sets of steps throughout the neighborhood.

    The Massad Steps form part of a network of steps that interconnect throughout the hilly, historic Ashrafieh neighborhood. The steps served as a stop along the old trolley car line and were also known as the Salwan Steps, a nearby shopkeeper told me:

    He couldn’t put a date on them but said the stairs were easily 150 years old. Back when he was a young man in the 1960s, droves of people used to take them on their way to or from the tramway.  He also remembers an old man about 90 years old who used to come and pray at the stairwell every few days. When asked why he was praying, the old man told him people were buried underneath the steps–that the site was once an ancient graveyard, “like much of Ashrafieh.”

    Indeed a number of Roman grave sites have been found in the Ashrafieh area over the last decade and some have been demolished to make way for new developments. I suppose it’s not hard to imagine that this practice is not new, that graves have been built over in past decades as well.

    The residents are meeting this week again and plan to take sustained action to protect the Massad Steps– they’ve also set up a Facebook page “Ashrafieh Steps” for updates.

    It was nice to see a number of reporters on the site last night such as Bassam Kuntar from Al Akhbar. Fellow blogger Gino Raidy also has a interesting post up, recalling the stairs from his childhood.

    It looks like this site is getting a lot of attention, which may make it difficult for developers to have it their way.

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      For years, an odd checkered building has been lying abandoned across the street from the Ministry of Interior on Spears Street. Recently it was covered in green canvas. This often means preparations for demolition as we witnessed earlier this year with the landmark Clemenceau building, which is now gone.
      The Sanayeh building has some interesting features including the checkered facade:
      And arched windows:

      The designer had some interesting influences to say the least. And as the building looks to be quite old, it must have been even more of a shocker in its day.
      The location is near Sanayeh public garden, next to a relatively new mosque and across the street from both the ministries of information, tourism and interior. See red arrow:

      This high security area doesn’t lend itself to photography, so I just took a few shots from the car, which explains the pretty bad compositions. Note security barricades everywhere.

      I’m sure this building has an interesting story. If anyone knows anything about it or its fate, please share in the comments. 
      I’ll try to get some better pictures in the meantime. 
      UPDATE Nov 2, 2013: This post has led to so interesting revelations about the building’s old occupants and the developers plan. Read more in this new post.

      Did you know Lebanon has over 100 years of locomotive history? Neither did I and that’s why I’m so glad I attended today’s lecture at the “Train, Train” exhibit currently being held at the Souks of Beirut.
      Though the tracks were halted in the early 1970s, Lebanon still retains a unique collection of old trains–some that can’t be found anywhere else–and yet our wonderful ministers attempted to sell them for scrap a few years ago. Thankfully groups like the NGO that put on this event are lobbying to create a train museum, preserve old stations and cars and even restore some of the tracks.
      They are holding a series of lectures all week so check it out!
      Today’s lecture covered Lebanon’s illustrious railway history and was given by one of the curators, Elias Maalouf.
      In an effort to lobby for public transport alternatives to Lebanon’s exhaust choked highways, the Train Train group is trying to build 15 kilometers of track linking Jbeil and Batroun to prove to the state that reviving the rails is indeed possible and to ask “what are you waiting for?”
      In fact, more than a few engineering feats were mastered over a century of track laying. Maalouf said the planners had built some of the steepest rails ever, while completing national links in record time, well before today’s technological advances.
      Back in the day, Lebanon had some 115 stations including its own locomotive repair and production–yes production– facility at Riyaq station in the Bekaa. According to Maalouf, the factory was even used to produce five aircraft for the French during World War II and the first plane was named “Riyaq 43” in honor of the town where it was built.
      By contrast, recent governments have been fumbling over plans to relaunch the railways for the last 20 years, carrying out costly study after study with no tangible results, Maalouf noted.
      The exhibit has dozens of great pictures, like this 1973 Bhamdoun crossing:
      The proud men who worked the lines:

      And some cool old film reels, showing how tunnels were dug and when those engravings you see on the old sea road were actually chiseled:

      It’s nice to know there was a time when Lebanese entrepreneurs not only bought and sold things but actually made things and contributed toward building industries that create skilled jobs people could be proud of.
      I’m so thankful that folks like Elias and his organization exist. They serve as an essential watchdog on an infinitely corrupt state while informing the public about a rich heritage that would have otherwise been forgotten.
      More importantly groups like “Train Train” remind us that there are indeed people in this country who think beyond their own wallet and help us imagine a future where more Lebanese would do that too.