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.”
The interior of the church was enormous and radiated a friendly ambience. Even though it was illuminated by artificial light that reflected on the vaulted ceiling, it offered the warmth of a candle-lit room – maybe because of the contrast against the darkness on the outside. I walked around in reverence, observing the mosaic on the floor near the entrance – which looked old – and the frescoes on the walls which appeared to be new. It was difficult to determine whether this was an ancient church or a modern edifice.
“Can I take pictures?” I asked, already preparing my camera. The negative reply took me by surprise. “The priests forbid it,” the warden explained, “even though they do make exceptions for their friends. There are surveillance cameras around, so I cannot permit you. However, if you go just outside the entrance, you can safely take a few photos.” I thanked him and followed his advice.
“Is this church new?” I continued my questions while trying to capture as much of the church as I could, given the restrictions of the long distance from the altar and the limited light of the dusk.
“It is both old and new,” he replied with a whisper that seemed to echo through the centuries. “St George certainly has a turbulent story with alternating eras of standing strong and falling apart.”
“In the 5th century AD,” he continued, “during the Byzantine era, there used to be an important cathedral in the centre of Beirut – or Julia Felix as the city was still called, named after the daughter of the Roman Emperor Augustus. It was the Cathedral of Anastasis (Resurrection), located near the famous School of Law of Justinian. At the earthquake of 551 AD, the church – along with the rest of the city – was decreased to rubbles. We believe that the Anastasis church was located below this Cathedral, but, despite the recent excavations and the numerous findings that confirm the presence of a shrine dating to the Early Byzantine era, there is no scientific proof yet that we have discovered the remains of the specific church.
Later, in the 12th century AD, there was a new, medieval temple built on this spot: one with semi-circular apses and pillars painted with frescoes. It was modest, but being the only Christian church in Beirut, it attracted all Christian communities. Gradually, it was integrated into the social fabric of the city centre, and, by the 17th century, it had become the St George Monastery complex. It was the See of the bishopric, housed the Communal Council, and included a convent for monks, a school, an elementary hospital, a cemetery, and the first printing press of the city, all located in the proximity. Finally, the church built its own marketplace, Souk El Nourieh, named after the nearby Holy Chapel of Sayyidat-al-Nourieh (Our Lady of Light) which hosted, until the days of the Civil War, the miraculous Icon of the Holy Virgin Mary.”
“Why was the church named after St. George if the original one was dedicated to the Resurrection?”
“I cannot be sure. However, St. George has always been a beloved Saint – a Martyr and a Prophet – in the Middle East, maybe because he was born and raised in the Levant area, probably in Palestine. He is revered by Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike because of the legends and religious texts that form the background of his personality, while, of course, he was considered by the Crusaders one of their main supporters – after all, he is the patron saint of England! Undoubtedly, his spiritual presence offers a sense of protection – deriving from his military background and the slaughtering of the dragon – and has always been a reference point in the hearts of the Middle Eastern Christians.”
The warden paused for a moment, and I took advantage of the break to look around in renewed admiration.
“In 1759, a new earthquake destroyed a large part of the church. The community, eager to rebuild it, collected the necessary funds and, in 1764, the works on the new church had begun. Within three years, the church of St George – with one nave, one vaulted ceiling, and one altar dedicated to the Saint – was ready. But it was not meant to be. The roof soon collapsed during a mass – 87 people were buried under the debris – leaving the faithful heartbroken.
Still, the Beirutis are known for their resilience and, in 1772, a new, bigger, church was built, this time in a cruciform, with three naves, three altars (the central one dedicated to St George, the left to St Elie, and the right one to St Nicolas), and a bell-tower. Most importantly, Sheikh Younus Al Gebeily – a leading figure in the local community – donated the majestic iconostasis that still decorates our church.”
We moved closer to the iconostasis, and he allowed me some time to scrutinise it.
“It is wood-carved from walnut trees,” he continued with the details. “22 meters long, 8 meters high, all gold-leaf painted. It is the work of the skilled artisan Wehbe Najajr, the father of Boship Sovorenos of Tripoli. He was also the creator of the Bishop’s Throne and the lectern for the Gospels, both of them gilded as well, and decorated with more icons.
The larger icons on the iconostasis are older than the church, dating to the 17th and 18th century, painted by some of the greatest masters of the era. Only the one that represents the life of St George in miniatures was painted during the time this church was built. The icon of St Catherine – following a different style than the rest of the icons – comes from the St Catherine Monastery in Sinai, painted by the monks in the 16th century.
In 1783, the church had almost taken its present form, after a series of additions to the original building. In 1910, the latest enlargements took place, and the walls were embellished with new frescoes. The signs of the dates can still be seen in Arabic.
That was the golden era of Lebanon. Numerous religious leaders of the Orthodox Christianity celebrated, along with the Lebanese, in this church: the Patriarchs of Antioch, the Russian Church, Jerusalem, and Alexandria – even the Ecumenical Patriarch, and every visiting Archbishop from Europe or the Orient passed by the St George Cathedral. And they all agreed that this was the most splendid, the biggest, and the best decorated Christian church of the Middle East.”
We ambled back to the entrance.
“Then came the dark years. During the Civil War of the 70s, the church was abandoned and vandalised. It was left in ruins, the walls – even the apses – bearing the marks of the bullets, piles of broken concrete covering the floor, and blood-thirsty dogs roaming among the debris looking for the next corpse. Only the columns remained standing, as a promise that things could become better someday.
In the 90s, after the war, the downtown of Beirut was reconstructed – and, along with it, the St George Cathedral. It was at that time that excavations started at the foundations of the edifice looking for the Anastasis church. The history of the church and, consequently, the numerous layers of Beirut’s past have been documented in the Crypt museum below our feet. It is still open, if you rush, you will be able to take a look and explore things for yourself.”
I thanked him and hurried to the entrance of the so-called Crypt Museum, a few meters away from the church. Walking down the stairs, a creepy sound from a loudspeaker filled the corridor, announcing the arrival of the visitors and adding a colourful touch of spookiness.
I found myself under the Cathedral, walking through dimly lit corridors with beautiful presentations of the in-situ findings, transparent floors, and occasionally transparent ceilings that allowed me to observe (and photograph) the interior of the Cathedral from a different angle, and I was taken step by step through the seven layers of the history of Beirut.
Although Beirut has been continuously inhabited since the Prehistoric times, the Crypt museum’s presentation starts from the Hellenistic Era and a small square of the ancient city centre.
The Roman period is represented by a small section of Cardo Maximus (one of the two principal axes in every Roman city), remnants of public baths, a rectangular terracotta sarcophagus that was found empty, and an underground vaulted room, possibly used for the sewage disposal. Emperor Augustus – who also named Beirut after his daughter “Colonia Julia Augusta Felix Berytus” – generously endowed the city with temples and magnificent public buildings, justifying the nickname “Jewel of Phoenicia” by which Beirut became known to the empire.
A few fragments of mosaic floors introduce us to the Byzantine period. One of these pieces, decorated in interlaced motifs and a garland of ivy leaves – typical of the 5th-century churches – is very promising of belonging to the elusive Anastasis Church. However, the apse has been destroyed and, for now, we cannot confirm the hypothesis. Additional mosaic floors seem to have been created on top of the initial one; however, little has remained intact after Beirut’s complete destruction at the earthquake of 551 AD.
A Medieval Necropolis follows the Byzantine era, with 25 burials already found in the excavated area and a tomb containing a well preserved male skeleton, wearing a bronze tiara on his head and an iron arrow-head with three bronze charms placed over his chest.
The Medieval church found after the Necropolis era is the second and best-preserved one after the assumed Byzantine Anastasis church. It follows the same orientation as the present Cathedral, while the discovery of a fresco on one of the pillars, as well as other fresco traces, suggest that this church was entirely painted. The mural is probably of a female Saint standing under an arch. Both the fresco and the church date back to the late 12th – early 13th c. AD.
The Medieval church was in use over an extended period – even during the Mameluke Period – and a new cemetery was added around it. This graveyard most probably replaced the earlier one, which was located underneath the Medieval Church.
The final layer belongs to the Ottoman Period, which starts in 1516 when the Ottomans took Lebanon from the Mamelukes. In the early 17th c, and under the rule of Emir Fakhreddin II Maan, urban development flourished in the city. A part of a covered canal and a paved road, a burial chamber, and an epitaph in Arabic belong to this period.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
To explore Lebanon further, complement this article with A Photo Journey to the Hidden Spirit of Beirut, The Origins of the Citadel fo Raymond de Saint-Gilles, A Bried Description of 12 places to visit outside Beirut, a stroll to the National Museum of Beirut, and the Hidden Treasures in the Old City of Tripoli.