The battle to save Beirut's unique architectural heritage

The battle to save Beirut's unique architectural heritage
In the aftermath of Beirut's explosion, citizens are fighting to protect the city's historic buildings.
5 min read
24 September, 2020
Over 600 historic buildings were damaged by the blast. [Getty]

Beirut's port explosion didn't just wreck lives. It also damaged more than 8,000 structures, including 640 historic buildings, approximately 60 of which are at risk of collapse. 

The buildings are a unique part of Beirut's cultural heritage and the city's residents have started several initiatives to safeguard them in the aftermath of the devastating blast. 

Many of the damaged buildings represent the architectural glamour of the Ottoman and French-mandate eras, but thousands more have already been lost in a real estate frenzy to construct high-rise apartment blocks and skyscrapers.

Most heritage buildings are not just homes; they often host restaurants, museums and churches. Located in the heart of the historic neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael, they are a key part of the social fabric of these areas. 

"You know, me and others have been fighting for 30 years to preserve those houses from being demolished," Youssef Haidar, an architect and activist, told The New Arab.

"Even before the blast, some of those houses' owners wanted to sell. But I really feel there is a consensus on the ground: it's our city, we have our workshops, galleries, shops, studios, restaurants, and offices, in here. It's the real 'downtown' of Beirut and we won't let it go. It's a fight worth having."

  Historic buildings, many dating to the Ottoman and French-mandate eras, are a unique part of Beirut's cultural heritage  

Haidar refers to the decades of activism to maintain the social fabric of a city plagued by a frenzy of construction. Some organisations, like Save Beirut Heritage, are helping owners to find solutions so they don't have to sell to developers, who would probably destroy the homes.

Other activists have managed to turn heritage buildings into museums and exhibition areas, like Youssef Haidar did with Beit Beirut, an iconic 1900s apartment building that was damaged during the civil war, as it marked the 'border' between the East and West of Beirut.

A general view of a heritage building heavily damaged after Beirut's explosion on 4 August, 2020. [Getty]  

Immediately after the blast, activists reported that property developers were already on the ground. Naji Raji from Save Beirut Heritage told PRI that "on Tuesday, the blast happened. On Thursday, we had news of investors …agents going around the street trying to take advantage of what happened and the weakness of the people at that time […] We hope that they didn't succeed."

Soon, the slogan "Not For Sale" emerged, online but also on the walls of the damaged neighbourhoods. Initiatives soon followed, like "Li Beirut" on 27 August, an international appeal to raise funds to support the rehabilitation of schools, historic heritage buildings, museums, galleries and the creative economy. Launched by UNESCO, the initiative aims to raise money for heritage sites, artists and galleries that have been affected by the blast.

"We must protect the spirit of the city, even as we work to rebuild it. We must build back – but, more importantly, we must build back well. This means protecting the unique heritage of these neighbourhoods, respecting the city's history, and supporting its creative energy," said Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO's director-general.

A more local movement has also been implemented. Called "Beirut Heritage Initiative", it is described online as "an independent and inclusive structure that strives to restore Beirut's architectural and cultural heritage by bringing together key actors within a unified and transparent framework". Lynne Tahini, a member of the coordination committee, told The New Arab that "many people and organisations from the cultural environment of Lebanon came together and decided to help save the heritage buildings damaged during the blast". 

  The idea is that the people who lived there should be able to come back. It's more than just about the heritage, it's about our way of life  

"It is an entity that wants to protect and maintain the social fabric of the city and the region, as Beirut is a major cultural hub in Middle East," she added. "The idea is that the people who lived there should be able to come back and take on their activities again. It's more than just about the heritage, it's about our way of life. There was a decision from the Minister of Finance to freeze property sales in this region, but we don't know for how long." 

The group have already started working on the ground, with a team assessing the needs and which buildings should be prioritised while volunteering contractors reinforce structures and cover roofs in order to protect them before the winter rains. "At the moment, we are working on around 25 buildings, but we have assessed that around 80 need reinforcing and over 100 roofs need to be covered," Youssef Haidar, who is also one of the founding members of the initiative, told The New Arab.

Damaged windows are seen at Sursock Palace (1860) following the colossal port explosion. [Getty]  

"For now, we have many volunteers and we are receiving international help, but soon people will have to go back to paying their bills and won't be able to give time and energy like this." 

Nicolas Jean Tueny is one of the building owners who has received assistance from Beirut Heritage Initiative for his two and a half story house built in 1720 on the historic Sursock street. "The entire roof was destroyed," he told The New Arab.

"It was a roof of traditional red tiles, Venetian style. All of the windows and doors are destroyed, the furniture inside as well. The walls are painted, I really love this house, I don't want to lose it because if I lose it, I feel like I'm losing my country and my family. After over a year of economic crisis, I don't have the means to restore it on my own, but I have the will."

For now, his roof has been covered and he is extremely grateful to Beirut Heritage Initiative. "It's good to have people who want to keep their city, their country's collective memory and the actual happiness of seeing those beautiful houses the Lebanese built so long ago. I want to keep it and pass it on for the next generations of Lebanese."

Florence Massena is a freelance journalist based in Norway after six years spent in Lebanon. She reports on the environment, women's issues, human rights and refugees in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

Follow her on Twitter: @FlorenceMassena