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.
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.
Archaeological excavations have been mushrooming across downtown Beirut over recent months, providing a glimpse at how the city looked and functioned in ancient times.
The most visible and perhaps most interesting of these is a bustling site located near the Saifi neighborhood:
The site is quite dense and appears to resemble a once vibrant neighborhood, market or industrial city:
Some 900 artifacts have already been recovered from the site, according to an article that appeared in L’Orient Le Jour, which also featured this facisnating drone photo as well as some images of the discoveries:
Among the finds is a first century wall, structures related to roman pottery workshops, well preserved ovens for tile-making, storage silos and vases for transporting oil and wine, a large pond (a possible rare public laundry pool) and a temple for the worship of Minerva, patroness of artisans, according to the article.
The L’Orient article noted that excavations could go on “until 2018” – does this mean a decision has been taken to dismantle and destroy the site as it appears here?
After all the piece of land is owned by SGBL Bank, which plans to build a new headquarters tower here, designed by Italian starchitech, Renzo Piano.
Just a few blocks away, Piano, who seems to be doing well in Beirut (with hundreds of millions of dollars of projects across the city), has also designed a long awaited Beirut archaeology museum, delayed for over two decades since its announcement in the 1990s. It is to be built near the An Nahar building, yet ironically, archaeology was discovered while constructing this archaeological museum.
Finally, a new excavation has just got started also in the Saifi area, not far from previous excavations at the Paul restaurant in Gemmayze.
The site is also across the street and a block up the road from the Saifi Plaza construction site, where a number of ruins also discovered, but have since been cleared away.
In fact, it is the proximity to other excavations which helps us better understand these sites, fill in blanks and provide a global view of ancient Beirut and its many layers of history.
However, increasingly many of these sites are being wiped out, replaced by lucrative real estate projects, tied to political and business elites. Sites that have already been wiped out include the famous chariot race track of ancient Roman Beirut, a site believed to have been a Phoenician era dry dock (potentially one of the world’s oldest shipyards) the remains of Beirut’s Roman theatre, as well as Hellenistic neighborhoods and other sites, including one in which I was assaulted by multi-million dollar developers for merely trying to take a photo of ruins on site.
I’ve created a quick map showing the three new excavations detailed in this post and how the relate to other nearby excavations that I have covered previously, both those that still exist as well as those that have been cleared and built over.
–The sites in red are the three new and ongoing excavations detailed in this post.
-The sites in yellow are recent excavations whose fate remains unclear.
-The sites in blue are previous excavations that are currently on display, but with limited access or explanations.
-The sites in white have already been cleared and no longer exist.
In fact even the few sites that have been preserved contain no signs or information detailing the discoveries to give the public a chance to appreciate them.
And note this map is only a glimpse of a wider reality in the city limited to sites I have personally witnessed or reported on in the last six to seven years. There are tons of sites just east of this map in the Ashrafieh neighborhood, as well as on the western side of downtown, such as the aforementioned demolished Beirut Roman Chariot Race track and Phoenician port site. Meanwhile the fate of many recently excavated sites such as the Roman Gate ruins at Riad Al Solh and the (royal?) Roman cemetery on the Beirut Digital District property remain uncertain. Across the city and the country, dozens if not scores of archaeology sites have disappeared over recent decades, in favor of new high rise towers.
In the shadow of the towers of new Beirut, the ruins of ancient Beirut have literally been dismembered and piled up at the edge of town.
It may be hard to believe today, but ancient Berytus was a very prominent city in the Roman empire, one of a handful of Roman cities to contain a law school, which played a key role interpreting and producing the cannon of Roman law, foundational to legal systems across the world today.
The sad answer is we don’t know and we may never know. Piecing together the story of these columns and the spatial history of the city may now be impossible according to a source with the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) quoted in L’Orient Le Jour, which broke this story a couple of weeks ago.
“Since these stones have not been numbered, it is of course impossible to know to what specific sites or constructions they belonged.Unless the scientific data, formerly collected by the intervening specialists, have been archived … ”
So how could this happen? In the 1990s, Beirut was reportedly the biggest archaeological site in the world, with teams from universities across the globe working in its trenches.
I had a closer look at the ruins last week after blogger Elie Fares pointed the site out, following up on the L’Orient piece.
The columns were hard to find because they are literally invisible from the new waterfront road:
… tucked below the dirt patch, near the water’s edge:
Upon closer look, there were no labels in sight. In fact the ruins were haphazardly piled on top of one another, not even slightly spaced apart:
One was barely balanced on a flimsy piece of wood:
Yet all this seemed uncontroversial to the new culture minister, Ghattas Khoury, who noted that the columns were “well-organized” and “monitored” by the Ministry of culture and “everything is proper and well-preserved,” as he said in this video shared on Twitter.
Minister Khoury, a surgeon with no background in archaeology according to his bio, said the ruins will be carefully moved to Beirut’s park, Horsh Beirut, seemingly as decorative pieces.
The minister rejected criticisms of the government’s handling of the ruins, vaguely laying blame at those who participated in the anti-corruption protests of last year “which led to nowhere.” He also took aim at MP Sami Gemayel who delivered a Facebook live video earlier in the week, angrily questioning the column’s placement after reading about it on social media, and likening the ministry’s handling of ruins to that of extremist groups destroying heritage.
“These are priceless, do you know what that means,” Gemayel shouted. “You are just like ISIS.”
“You don’t protect the country from ISIS, we all protect the country,” responded Minister Khoury, who counter accused critics of “destroying the ministry of culture.”
The columns had been placed in storage around 1992-1993 by the controversial multi-billion dollar real estate firm Solidere, Minister Khoury claimed, adding: “Solidere moved them because they want to work on the marina. And they let us know…”
It seems Khoury was not referring to the yacht marina but rather the giant piece of legally dubious reclaimed seafront he was standing on, known as the “waterfront district,” Soldiere’s upcoming project, worth billions of dollars, as I had reported on previously. Thus the ruins apparently had to be moved to make way for more luxury real estate towers.
But how is it that a private real estate company came to be responsible for housing and moving these ruins instead of the government?
In many ways, the story of these columns can be seen as a metaphor for how archaeology has often been handled during the postwar reconstruction period.
While reporting for the BBC on the discovery of ancient Beirut’s Roman chariot race track, I spoke to the former head of archaeology at the American University of Beirut who was blunt in her description on how ruins have been handled both in the capital and across the country:
“They keep everything secret. People focus on Beirut but they have no idea how many more substantial things are being destroyed across Lebanon,” said Professor Helen Sader.
Since publication of the piece, the chariot race track has now been completely gutted to make way for a bank and luxury villas owned by another minister.
Meanwhile Solidere and other archeologists who worked for company continue to present their reconstruction and archeological preservation efforts as world leading at conferences in Lebanon and around the world. But with ruins tossed in a pile with no labels, something has clearly gone wrong.
Perplexingly, the head of the antiquities department, Sarkis Khoury, claimed in a revealing LBC interview that as the columns are moved, each would be labeled according to its size and physical dimensions.
But why are the columns being labeled now instead of when they were first excavated? After all, it is not the length and height of the columns that tells their story, it is primarily the location where they were found, the archeological context, what structures or artifacts they were attached to and or found around them, that helps us date them and understand their usage. But now most of those excavations have been destroyed.
Director Khoury noted that the ruins would be distributed in gardens and public institutions across Lebanon “so the Lebanese people can benefit from them.” Many have already been moved to the city’s only park, Horsh Beirut.
But does the public really benefit from columns with no identity? Columns that tell no story? Random slabs of granite laying on the ground with no meaning? How did such a massive archeological effort end this way? Why are the columns not being showcased across Beirut where they were found to give people a sense of the Roman city?
Some government archaeologists complain that the public does not appreciate history, but how can they do so if there are no signs or indications of what these stones and structures mean?
I plan to get more answers to these questions in an investigative piece I am working on with the support of a crowd-funding campaign by Press Start. Your comments or suggestions are always welcome.
In the meantime, one major thing has changed since the 1990s and that is social media. Posts by activist groups as well as prominent Lebanese bloggers such as Gino Raidy, Elie Fares and others have helped shed light on these issues, which were poorly covered by mainstream media in years past. But even the mainstream media is changing and becoming more aggressive in demanding accountability, as the reports quoted in this post by LBC’s Sobhiya Najjar and L’Orient’s May Makarem, show.
Going forward, let’s hope that with more media coverage and public debate, ruins won’t be brushed aside so easily in the future and we’ll be able to learn more about ancient Berytus as excavations and discoveries are likely to continue.
Two years ago the Governor of Beirut issued an order to stop demolition of this historically listed Art Deco building in Gemmayze, and shared the news to much fanfare on Facebook, as we reported at the time.
But the image above was taken today and we can clearly see the destruction has resumed after a two year period of quiet. So what happened?
This is not the first time Governor Ziad Chbib has made promises that turn out differently with the passage of time. In a press conference last year, governor Chbib voiced opposition to construction within the city’s only park, Horsh Beirut. He also seemed critical of construction on Beirut’s only public beach Ramlet El Baida. But construction has resumed in both of those projects.
#بلدية_بيروت تبدأ اعمال البناء على قسم من #حرش_بيروت وهو جزء من العقار 1925 وبذلك تستكمل مهمتها بقضم آخر بقعة خضراء في بيروت #اوقفوا_سياسة_قضم_حرش_بيروت
These developments only seem to prove that activist victories must be maintained and government officials can never be left alone or relied upon without continuous monitoring. What is going on with the governor’s promises? Are they mainly PR moves to placate a public outcry? Or is the governor less powerful than private business interests? Or is there more to this story?
Let’s not forget that the developer in this case has allegedly harassed activists and threatened violence, as we reported previously.
UPDATE: Shortly after posting this, I was informed by a member of the Save Beirut Heritage preservation collective that the building will not be completely demolished: it will be entirely gutted but the facade will remain. Four additional floors will also be added. Here is an artist conception:
The Save Beirut Heritage activist informed me that this was a “compromise’ agreement. In fact, the preservation of facades seems to be a popular move being implemented across Beirut, with major construction concealed behind a thin layer of the past. But is facade preservation considered a form of architectural preservation, especially when a building is extended with double the number of floors and turns out looking and feeling radically different than the original?
The nice thing about Gemmayze is that it is one of the few neighborhoods that survived the civil war as well as the even more destructive demolitions of the post war period. It had been one of the few places where one could imagine what Beirut once looked like in the last century, the so-called ‘golden days’ old timers rave about. But that is rapidly changing as more Art Deco and low rise buildings are being torn down, in favor of mega structures, multi-million dollar apartments few can afford and luxury car garages. The result is a radical change not just in the building itself but also the shops, the street life and the overall fabric of the neighborhood, its affordability, its inhabitants.
Go to Gemmayze while you can and enjoy and document as much as possible. In a few years, the neighborhood may be as unrecognizable as the “makeover” this building is currently undergoing.
Beit Beirut, Lebanon’s first memory museum, is finally getting ready to open its doors. After at least a decade in delays, restoration work on the war-ravaged early 1900s apartment building (which became a notorious sniper’s nest during the civil war), is now completed.
You may recognize it from the outside as the swiss-cheese looking building in Sodeco formerly known as the Barakat Building:
Late last month, a few officials and architects were invited to see the completed work, which contains four levels of exhibition space, two auditoriums and a gorgeous panoramic rooftop terrace.
The old building seen above is now complimented by a new glass structure on the backside and the two are joined by a central open-air atrium, which now takes the place of the old inner courtyard:
At the bottom of the atrium, a glass skylight lets light into the ground floor lobby, via a circular ceiling window:
Here is a shot of the lobby from the opposite perspective, revealing the spiral staircase that runs throughout the museum:
At the center of the lobby floor, another circular window allows the atrium light to run continuously down through to the basement:
… which is home to the large auditorium:
The chairs are arranged in near concentric circles around the podium, where officials from the Beirut municipality gave self-congratulatory speeches:
But the real star of the show was architect and activist Mona El Hallak, who has been lobbying to save the building since the 1990s when it was days away from demolition.
For nearly two decades, El Hallak has researched and archived the Barakat building’s storied history and fought against real estate interests to preserve it as a cultural space–a tireless effort that earned her a medal of honor from the French government, which helped fund the project.
The architect, Youssef Haidar, thanked Mona prominently at the outset of his remarks. Oddly enough, outgoing municipal council members failed to make any reference to her work, although alluding vaguely to the contributions of “civil society.”
Following the remarks, we were allowed to roam the space freely. Although it retains thousands of bullet holes, graffiti and blown out walls–a testament to the militias and snipers that once operated here– Beit Beirut has been upgraded with refurbished floors, windows, concealed AC ducts, state of the art security and lighting.
Here are some photos of the interior, and at the bottom of this post, you’ll find a video walking tour of the building I did on Periscope.
The screening room was also a sniper’s nest, seen here from the back wall, which looks onto the chairs below.
Even though the work is completed, Beit Beirut may not open for some time until the management can be appointed and a cultural program is designed. Hopefully this process will not take several years as has been the case with Beirut’s National Library, a sprawling multi-million dollar cultural space largely completed over a year ago, which remains empty and off limits to the public.
For now, here’s a walking tour of Beit Beirut that I shot on Periscope. Stay tuned for updates.
Preserving heritage is not usually a very acceptable activity in Beirut. Activists are routinely harassed for documenting it–sometimes assaulted just for taking pictures of historical sites, even threatened by officials and developers. But the tide could be turning.
Architect and preservation activist Mona El Hallak was just awarded a French medal of honor–the “Ordre National du Merite” by the French Ambassador in Beirut. El Hallak has worked on a number of preservation campaigns over the last 20 years, the most prominent of which is her effort to save the early 1900s Barakat Building, which will now be turned into a museum, with help from French institutions.
El Hallak told me the historic building was just four days away from demolition in the early 1990s in a piece I wrote last year for Al Jazeera about the continuous destruction of old Beirut amid real estate speculation.
At first Mona teared up when she approached the podium, flanked by French Ambassador Patrice Paoli.
But she quickly gained her composure and delivered a rousing speech, casting light on the many battles that have been waged and the many battles ahead, where activists have been volunteering their time and making progress.
These include struggles to protect the last undeveloped seafront at Ramlet el Baida and Dalieh, the struggle to demand the opening of public parks and to resist the destruction of green spaces by municipality projects such the halted Boutros Road–battles to overcome the power of real estate companies and government officials and give citizens a voice in how their city is built. (See Mona’s full speech at the end of this post)
Many of the big TV channels showed up.
And plenty of photo opportunities with Ambassador and members of Lebanon’s vibrant civil society.
But where were our government officials? Mona told me she hadn’t seen any of them. So why is that foreign governments are recognizing the value of our hard-working professionals and not the local Lebanese government that stands the most to gain from their efforts?
And while Beit Beirut is now under construction by the municipality, how long will it take to open? The expropriation order to save the building was issued in 2003 and this 2007 photo shows the scaffolding up:
While this 2010 photo shows the banner has changed with completion date of 2013:
Today, almost 12 years after the first expropriation order, some progress has been made on the interiors and window frames, but the completion date has been moved to 2014, which has now also passed:
If anything, this proves activism and preservation is a long term project in Lebanon, but one that is steadily seeing results. It will take much hard work and dedication from people like Mona to keep the momentum going to push this project and other preservation efforts forward. Maybe now with some international recognition, local officials will slowly start to come around.
Here is Mona’s full speech, delivered at the French Ambassador’s residence on Jan 15:
Thank you Your Excellency Ambassador Mr. Patrice Paoli.
I am honored to be standing here among family and friends receiving such a distinguished
recognition from France in such a remarkable architectural setting. To be decorated in the
Residence des Pins from the porch of which General Gouraud proclaimed the establishment of
L’Etat du Grand Liban in 1920 is almost a dream.
But in Beirut, my beloved city, one has to keep on dreaming…
I dream of a city with proper urban planning where real estate speculation and construction are
regulated by building laws that serve the city’s interest and creates a good urban environment
rather than allow chaotic developments to satisfy the developers’ greed .
I dream of a city with a law to preserve its architectural heritage, where unique early 20th
century buildings are not destroyed for towers to be built changing irreversibly the character
and scale of the few remaining intact heritage clusters in the city. Yet the sign at their entrance
gate still reads in the shadow of the tower:”Rue a caractere traditionnel”…a city where when
they say Sama Beirut, they mean our beautiful blue sky on a sunny Mediterranean day and not
a glass faced tower rising infinitely in a closely knit neighbourhood ruining its unity and
overloading its infrastructure beyond redemption.
I dream of a city where cultural heritage is also preserved in buildings like Theatre de Beyrouth and
Studio Baalbeck. I dream of a city with a public transportation system where people can enjoy urban mobility
without having to drive their car to move from one point to another in the city, or walk safely
on an uninterrupted sidewalk…
I dream of a greener Beirut, of children playing again in Horsh Beirut, the largest public green
space right next to us closed for more than fifteen years now, like I did when my father used to
take me there for the famous swings every Eid.
I dream of a city where public space is celebrated as a necessity in our polluted and congested
where the public sandy beach of Ramlet el Baida is in no way and under no circumstances
thought of as a private hotel and beach resort,
where Daliet el Raouche is an extraordinary public maritime parc on the last coastal area of
Beirut whose morphology and paysage have remained intact with its rich biodiversity and
unique archaeological, geological and cultural significance…not one more private exclusive
resort and marina,
I dream of a city where when the choice is between creating the Fouad Boutros urban parc and
reviving an obsolete 1950’s highway plan that would destroy the beautiful existing fabric with
gardens and open green spaces, the choice would be to find a way to resolve the problems that
make the parc a reality instead of trying to defend the highway and minimize its destructive
I dream that my son Yazan will have the chance to walk in a Downtown Beirut buzzing with life
and people from all over the country and all socioeconomic layers, not a compound built by the
rich for the rich; a beating heart of the city where the Martyrs’ statue is celebrated as a national
monument not left in the dark surrounded by car parks that await further high end luxurious
construction projects that will change the identity of Martyrs’ Square forever.
And I always dream of Beit Beirut “La Maiso Jaune” glowing with its yellow furne stone as a
uniting place in the city,a space for peace and hope, an urban cultural center
dedicated to the memory and the history of the city where people talk and listen to each
others’ stories, instead of fighting and killing each other; a project that will instill some civic
engagement and collective belonging where people will go in to learn more about their city and
go out to discover it, respect it and hopefully preserve it better. a place that will use art as a
means of cultural expression to make memory issues more accessible to the wider public and
through its interactive exhibitions, screenings and lectures , it will be a platform to raise
questions, initiate the debate and address the reconciliation process in the city, 25 years after
the end of the civil war.
When I discovered the Barakat Building in 1994, I found in the first floor East apartment of Dr.
Nejib Schemali an old newspaper with his photo receiving the Ordre National du Merite from
Comte Du Chayla. I never imagined that after twenty years , I would be standing here receiving
the same honor from you, Mr Ambassador. In that paper, there was a verse that read in arabic:
غير بلبنان ما بتروي غليلها فرنسا منَا قلبها دليلها
لو حللوا دمنا تحليل كيماوي فرنساوي وحياة عينك فرنساوي
This is the historical relationship between France and Lebanon : “une histoire anciene et riche
des liens d’amitie” . I take the chance to thank France for all the support it has given the
Municipality of Beirut in the past decade: be it the Region Ile de France in the Bois de Pins
Rehabilitation, Le Projet de Liason Douce, et Le Plan Vert de Beyrouth , or the Ville de Paris
with the project management assistance for Beit Beirut and the institutional and scientific
support from the French Embassy and the Institut Francais du Liban.
Allow me to thank H.E. Mr Yaacoub Sarraf for his invaluable support as the Governor of Beirut
to get the expropriation decree for Beit Beirut in 2003,
to thank the previous Beirut Municipal Council -Mr Ralph Eid is here with us today- and the
present Beirut Municipal Council- who are having their Council meeting right now so no one is
here with us- for making Beit Beirut a reality.
and to thank H.E. Governor Ziad Chbib for keeping Beit Beirut a top priority project inorder to
proceed with the cultural program of the Museum.
I thank my family, my mom who never understood why i fight so fiercely for buildings that are
not owned neither by my father nor my grandfather, my husband Anas who shares my
enthusiasm and tolerates the time it takes me away from home.
Thank you again Mr Ambassador for receiving us in your beautiful residence and inshallah we