Like most sites in Beirut, the National Museum – the principal museum of archaeology in Lebanon – hides a turbulent story in the background. Inaugurated in 1942, it was severely damaged during the Civil War of the 70s since the building stood on one of the front lines that separated various military factions. As the war raged, the famous “museum alley” became a check-point for several militias, and the edifice turned into barracks for the fighters, while enduring heavy shelling. Thankfully, the ancient sarcophagi were protected with sand and concrete casings, the mosaics were covered with cement layers, and the small artefacts were whisked to the basement to evade obliteration. Despite the efforts, though, destruction was not avoided. Once the war ended and the Lebanese started putting their lives and cities together again, they discovered that the museum had flooded and the antiquities, hidden for over 15 years under inadequate conditions in the humid basement were severely damaged; the building’s walls bore the scars of innumerous bullets, and grotesque, graffiti inscriptions from the militiamen; and the lack of ventilation in the casings used for the large stone antiquities had caused significant erosion. A fire had destroyed maps, photographs, unique records, and many objects; the laboratory equipment was lost, and numerous exhibits – many of which had been transferred to Byblos or Sidon to avoid destruction – were stolen or auctioned. Despite all these challenges, today the building and its exhibition halls have been restored into a priceless bijou, and they stand as silent story-tellers of Lebanon’s colourful past. [Read more…]
It was a cold, December evening and the Nejme Square (Place de l’ Etoile) at the Centre Ville of Beirut was plunged into darkness. The somberness of the dusk was reinforced by a celestial murkiness that obscured any light, and the recent downpour had left puddles in every crack of the road. The figure of the St George Orthodox Cathedral delineated at a slightly darker shade against the gloomy background and, for a while, I attributed the silence and lack of any human presence to the weather, the late hour of the day, and the vicinity of the Beirut Souks which, with their luxurious cafes and Christmas decorations, were more joyful and welcoming.
“This place used to be bustling with life and tourists were queuing till late in the evening to visit the Cathedral,” explained the warden of the church, contradicting my thoughts. “Rafic Hariri used to take his coffee at this corner, being close to the Parliament, and this square – the most important square of Beirut – was busy and humming with activity. The tourists have not returned yet; the silence that you experience tonight is rather the norm nowadays.” [Read more…]
The Roman architecture – one of the most important legacies of the Roman Era – evolved echoing the character of its creators and their need for organised structures, practical solutions, and flamboyant celebrations of the Empire’s grandeur. Influenced by the Egyptian and Greek architecture, the Romans adopted the elements that best reflected the requirements of their new society, discarded any minimalistic features (like the Dorian style) that were too plain to the Roman eye, and invented the vaults, domes, and arches which were to define Western engineering for the centuries to come. Roads and major traffic arteries, bridges, aqueducts, arenas, and public baths further complement the construction designs and networks that dominated a large part of the antiquity’s known world. The essence of all this glory is still palpable, especially while rambling around the currently turf-covered remnants of the Roman cities that dot the lands of the once-mighty empire.
As a rule, most urban planning outside Rome followed a similar pattern: two wide axis streets (a north-south one known as the cardo, and an east-west one called decumanus) with the town center located at their intersection; a forum; temples, theaters, and public baths; some well-developed villas; and many ordinary, mud-brick abodes.
Leaving aside major, well-known metropoles, there are five Roman towns outside Italy worth exploring in depth. [Read more…]
When in Beirut, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the horrendous traffic, the non-stop car horns, the chaotic flow of vehicles and people alike, the disorderly erected buildings, or the lack of any decent pavements. As such, the visitor risks missing the elegant old mansions which, though mostly dilapidated, still represent a mysterious, latent expression of the city’s hidden spirit.
Elongated Ottoman-style arches; broken windows; decorated facades; elaborately designed iron gates; semi-rotundas; unexpected signs of life; a few samples of art-deco: they all stand tall, surrounded by either modern houses – often of questionable aesthetics – or, even worse, by the heavily war-battered buildings whose gaping holes keep reminding of the recent conflicts and the relentless bloodshed.
The below photo-journey through the Al Hamra and Clemenceau districts of West Beirut is a tribute to the elegance and the secluded soul of the city which, hopefully, will not be eradicated but, instead, will be reserved as part of the Beirutis’ identity and inheritance. [Read more…]
The Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles overlooks today the modern districts of Tripoli (in Lebanon), surrounded by densely-constructed, dilapidated apartment buildings that reflect little of the city’s glorious past. But this was not always the case.
The Castle takes its name from Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse – widely known as Raymond de Saint-Gilles – who was among the leading architects of the First Crusade and who, along with Godfrey of Bouillon, Bohemond I, and Baldwin I, invaded in 1097 the lands of Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine, ultimately conquering Jerusalem in 1099.
By 1103 and despite his active involvement in the broader expedition, Saint-Gilles was still without any fiefdom of his own, while the other leaders had already secured and controlled areas of importance: Bohemond was the ruler of the Principality of Antioch, Godfrey was the King of Jerusalem, and Baldwin was the leader of the County of Edessa, before becoming King of Jerusalem after Godfrey’s death. As such, Saint-Gilles focused his attention on Tripoli whose wealth had not been plundered yet by the occidental forces; he camped at the outskirts of the city and declared himself Count of the region. [Read more…]
Despite its small geographical area, Lebanon offers such a broad variety of historical sites, shrines, or areas of natural beauty that can be overwhelming for a first-time visitor. On top of that, its thousands-years-old past along with the complexity of the social fabric and the subtle balances (or, frequent imbalances) among various subgroups of the population create even more confusion and ambiguity. Still, Lebanon seems to have the ability to cast a mighty spell on every visitor since we all end up disregarding the chaos in the streets, the apparent lack of any order, or the lingering aura of the ‘70s which blends with the war-scarred buildings and the modern architecture in an ambiance that makes no sense, and we return again and again just to experience the essence of the Lebanese hospitality and dance to the crazy rhythms of the Lebanese heart.
To those visiting Lebanon for the first time, I would suggest they leave quickly behind the siren of Beirut and venture in the countryside, where most remnants of the country’s past can be found and, through them, a further understanding of these quite complex pages of Middle Eastern history can be achieved. Rent a car – preferably with a driver, since, driving in Lebanon seems to me an unnecessarily challenging task – and begin your road trip. I share here twelve favorite destinations which, I believe, should be included in everyone’s first trip, though, of course, they are the rather obvious touristic landmarks, and they merely scratch the surface of the mystery that is called “Lebanon.” [Read more…]