Lebanon's national library given new lease of life after Beirut port explosion
In a ceremony inaugurated by Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Minister of Culture Mohamed Al-Murtada, a memorial plaque was unveiled at the entrance of the newly refurbished Ottoman-Era complex, built between 1905 and 1907 under the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II and located in the Sanayeh district of Beirut.
This has been the library’s home since it was moved from what has become the Lebanese Parliament building in Nijmeh Square in the early 2000s.
"In difficult times, culture remains a common refuge for all people...but to guide them to the intellectual rules and scientific mechanisms that can overcome it, away from provoking fanaticism, selfishness and factionalism"
“Despite all the challenges and political, economic and social concerns that surround us, [our] words and culture will [remain] in the heart of the capital as living witness that Beirut will not die,” said Mikati. “And, if it is destroyed under different circumstances, it will rise again to remain the beacon of the East.”
“I salute the efforts of His Excellency Minister Mohamed Al-Mortada and the curators of this National Library who carried out the restoration work,” he said. “I especially thank the State of Qatar and the Aliph Foundation, and I hope to spread these meetings and intellectual and cultural centres throughout Lebanon.”
The explosion caused only minor structural damage to the building itself. However, the windows, electrical systems and much of the interior were almost completely destroyed by the force of the blast.
The institution that would eventually become the National Library originally began as the private collection of Viscount Philippe de Tarrazi, a noted scholar.
At his suggestion, the government founded the Great Library of Beirut in 1922, located in the Prussian Deaconess School.
“Philippe de Tarrazi donated [a collection] which contained more than 20,000 books and about 3,000 manuscripts, thus forming the foundation of the National Library from him own home,” said Al-Murtada. “It is the first official institution built purely by Lebanese hands, unlike many national institutions that were established by the French during the mandate period.”
“[Beirut] was the printing press of the Orient and one of the few open to all cultures, old and new; a place of free expression that produced hundreds of publishing houses, thousands of books, theatres and exhibitions, a modernist literature movement, poetry and other fine arts,” he explained. “The National Library was enriched by the effects of all this, until its shelves were stocked with innovations from everyone.”
By 1937, the Nation Library had moved to Nijmeh Square, where it continued to grow and expand. However, with the onset of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, the institution entered into a prolonged period of difficulties. In 1979, it was forced to close and had lost over a thousand rare manuscripts due to damage caused by the fighting.
Revival efforts did not begin until 2005, with the Qatari government donating 25 million US dollars to provide for the restoration of the current location in Sanayeh. At the same time, work also began on restoring the 300,000 publications in the collection, many of which had been damaged by damp and insect infestations due to poor conditions while in storage.
In December 2018, the National Library was officially reopened to great fanfare, only to close once again shortly afterward for additional maintenance. Between the October Revolution, the beginning of Lebanon’s economic crisis and the Beirut blast, the repairs were consistently pushed back due to lack of resources.
In addition to a wealth of books, manuscripts, newspapers and other rare documents, the National Library’s collection also includes paintings, maps, architectural plans, sheet music and even postcards, alongside newer, more modern elements like CDs and DVDs. Other facilities, all of which will be available to the public, include computers with internet access and printers.
Citizens will also be able to sign up – for a presently undetermined fee – for a library membership that will allow them to make use of the facilities and see the National Library’s collection for themselves.
“It is true that digital technology has come to dominate paper and books in many aspects of our lives, but the book remains the main reference for scientific development,” said Mikati. “On this occasion, I call for action to make the National Archives a part of this National Library, in order to preserve the heritage and to make it accessible to scholars and specialists and all those wishing to be informed [about] the history and present of this country.”
“Yesterday’s vision is dull if it is not accompanied by a vision for the future,” said Al-Murtada. “Hence, we are working to consolidate the role of the Ministry of Culture in protecting this history and handing it over to future generations. The beginning is here, at the National Library, which should complete its pioneering role by strengthening its network of local and international relations.”
Many challenges still lie ahead, both for the National Library specifically and Lebanon in general. The government maintains that reinforcing their ailing country’s cultural centres is a vital stepping stone on the path to recovery.
“In difficult times, culture remains a common refuge for all people,” said Al-Murtada, “not to make them forget their reality, but to guide them to the intellectual rules and scientific mechanisms that can overcome it, away from provoking fanaticism, selfishness and factionalism.”
Robert McKelvey is a British freelance journalist and cultural writer based in Lebanon.
Follow him on Twitter: @RCMcKelvey