Nicolas Lupo

Demolishing Lebanese identity

One of the buildings in Tall Square, Tripoli. Most of the heritage buildings in Tripoli are damaged and in danger of collapsing. (Photo courtesy of Elias Khalat).
An Ottoman-style house in Beirut. Many old houses in Beirut have been destroyed, but the owner of this one, located on Khalidi Street, pledged to restore it (Photo courtesy of Save Beirut Heritage)
Gemmayze Street at the beginning of the 20th century (Photo courtesy of Save Beirut Heritage)
The construction of many skyscrapers in Beirut is a consequence of real estate speculation, and now many, like this one in Rmeil, are empty. (Photo by Nicolas Lupo)

The cars are parked in a line adjacent to Ottoman and French-style buildings in Beirut’s Martyrs Square. A tramway surrounds the square, and people walk along the wide sidewalk of Foch Avenue. This is how downtown Beirut looked in the first decades of the last century, now preserved only in old pictures.


“My grandfather suppresses a tear when passing by what used to be Martyrs Square and the adjacent souqs,” says Pascale Ingea, from the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage (APLH).


Lebanon’s post-war period has seen the destruction of most of the buildings that made Beirut the Paris of the Middle East. “This kills our identity,” she adds.


During the 1990s, the Ministry of Culture put together a list of historical landmarks in the country. The Direction Générale des Antiquités (DGA) included approximately 1,600 buildings in Beirut, most of them from the Ottoman period or the French mandate.


As of this year, 80 percent of the buildings on the list have been demolished, say representatives from both APLH and Save Beirut Heritage (SBH). There are many reasons for the mass destruction of heritage buildings, but the two associations cite the lack of enforcement of the heritage law by successive Lebanese governments out of corruption and lack of interest, as well as non-existent construction regulation. They also note that the DGA’s budget of around $3 million represents less than 0.02% of annual government spending.


Another problem is Lebanon’s old rent law of the early 1990s, which stipulates that people who signed a contract before the law was passed have their rents fixed at that rate. Landlords cannot increase rent or kick tenants out. “The old rent law doesn't allow the owners to reclaim what is theirs, as long as the tenant lives and brings family to live with them ad eternum, in return for revenue too meager to keep the house in good shape,” explains Pascale. Hammour says there have been cases of families renting an apartment for $300 per year, and the owner was forced to sell the house just to make money to live.


One consequence of the destruction of the country’s heritage buildings is that it affects one of the main economic resources of the Lebanese economy: tourism. “By losing our traditional neighborhoods in favor of malls, modern buildings, parking lots and shopping outlets, we are stripping Lebanon of its traditional and touristic cachet,” says Ingea. “This policy of urban development is economically beneficial to the promoter, but in both the short- and long-run, the Lebanese public is on the losing end.”


“We copied the wrong model, the one of the Gulf cities, while we should had reflected on the Mediterranean countries,” says Georges Zaioun, who worked for UN Education Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) for many years and helped to reestablish its headquarters in Lebanon.


Beirut still has old buildings that remind residents of what the city used to be. “Walking through my new city, I found little jewels like Sursok Palace,” says Joana Hammour, who moved to Lebanon four years ago. Hammour, 30, left the country for Paris with her family soon after she was born. “I used to hear how beautiful Beirut was, but when I moved, that didn't match the reality.”


If the heritage of Beirut has suffered because of its economic dynamism, other cities like Sidon and Byblos have taken advantage of their historical centers. The souq in Sidon and the port of Byblos are little oases on an overcrowded coast.


Tripoli is also struggling to conserve its historical buildings. The city has around 150 historical monuments on the DGA’s list. “Most of them are not maintained and are in danger of collapsing,” explains Elias Khlat, who developed the National Campaign to Preserve Tal Square, which works to conserve Tripoli’s historic square. Another 150 buildings that are not on the list, says Khlat, also urgently need protection. One recent example of a destroyed landmark was the famous Inja Theater, which was demolished after its owner, MP Mohammad Kabbara, received a permit to work on it.


The destruction of the archeological ruins of Minet el-Hosn in downtown Beirut shocked many Lebanese last June. Bulldozers erased any trace of the ruins after the Ministry of Culture granted a construction permit to Venus real estate company, which will build three luxury apartment towers. Hisham Sayegh, archeologist of the DGA, announced his resignation one day after the destruction, accusing Culture Minister Gaby Layoun of allowing it. In his resignation letter, Sayegh said he received payoff offers from Venus real estate.


In addition, in January, the house owned by renowned author Amin Maalouf was destroyed. Culture Minister Layoun said last year he would not allow the demolition of the house, but some months later he gave the owners permission to do so. Layoun himself accused Lebanese state of not being interested in the conservation of the country’s heritage after the Maalouf house’s demolition.


Yet the activists who work for the preservation of Lebanon’s historic buildings are not pessimistic. The mentality of the Lebanese people and their politicians can be changed “if we are determined and have united directions,” says Ingea. Apathy is an enemy to the preservation of historic houses, as well as greed. They encourage Lebanese to get involved in any way they can, in order to preserve the last vestiges of the Beiruti architectural style that was once prized so highly.


Read this article in Arabic

One of the buildings in Tall Square, Tripoli. Most of the heritage buildings in Tripoli are damaged and in danger of collapsing. (Photo courtesy of Elias Khalat).

“This policy of urban development is economically beneficial to the promoter, but in both the short- and long-run, the Lebanese public is on the losing end.”

  • sr

    Might be of interest also The Lost city: Beirut modern on the scale of the city how and what do we preserve? As a city grows, mutates and becomes more contemporary the question of what to PRESERVE becomes more intrinsic. Do we stand still in time? Do we want to reserve everything ‘old’? http://spatiallyjustenvironmentsbeirut.blogspot.com/2012/03/lost-city-beirut-modern.html

    February 12, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    ...And the destruction of Beirut's history, lest anyone forgets, was done in two phases: Phase one - 1975-1990 by: 1- Yasser Arafat's Sunni Palestinians. 2- The Maronite Phalangists of Amine Gemayel and the Lebanese Forces of Samir Geagea. 3- The Sunni Mourabitoun militia. 4- The Druse Progressive (not) Socialists (not) of Lord Jumblatt. Then in phase two (1990 to date): 4- The uneducated money whale Rafik Hariri who bulldozed whatever remained of downtown Beirut in his haphazard and uncultured hurry to rebuild Beirut under the Syrian occupation (a mistake he paid dearly for at the hands of said Syrians). This is what you get when your "leadership" is made up of bazaar merchants and gutter politicians parading themselves as national heroes and saviors. Note that all the above-named heroes are by and large members of the Freedom-Independence-Sovereignty choir of March 14 fossilized traditionalists of the Lebanese political order.

    February 12, 2013

  • Trudes

    My office used to overlook the now demolished 'Maalouf' building. I fell in love with it several years ago not knowing the heritage. I immediately envisioned it as a hotel + restaurant + jazz bar ....without realizing that even then it was on death row. I'm so sad for Beirut...and Lebanon.

    February 11, 2013