Architecture: Building a new Lebanon ravages its Ottoman treasures

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The Independent Online
Lebanon's cultural heritage of Ottoman mansions and villas is being destroyed - even as the country rebuilds itself after 16 years of civil war. In a nation where only land - not property - has value, speculators are tearing down a magnificent legacy from the 19th century.

They are disappearing like old friends. For years, I had driven past a declining Ottoman villa opposite the Ein el-Mreisse mosque near my home in Beirut. It had arched windows with delicate lead tracery and a bright red tile roof - one of the very red roofs that TE Lawrence admired when he visited the city before the First World War.

Then one day, I had to make a detour on the coast road because a massive ball-and-chain machine had been erected on the road and was busy smashing down the villa. Today, in its place, there stands a cheap block of concrete apartments and, on the ground floor, a hamburger joint.

The books of old photographs which are now so popular with Lebanon's upper classes show that Beirut was once the most beautiful city on the eastern Mediterranean coast, a noble, dignified place of castles and gardens and gentle rectangular houses of cut stone and Turkish windows and fluted pillars.

It was a town of traders, Christians and Muslims, Jews and Armenians, Turks and Egyptians and French and English, a city whose houses were often smothered in bougainvillaea.

Its shameful destruction began in the Sixties, when developers used bulldozers to pulverise the great Ottoman houses on the sea front near the St George Hotel and allowed the Gulf Arabs to build apartment blocks in the mountain villages. The wartime militias and the Syrian and Israeli armies destroyed the city a second time in the Eighties.

Now its third destruction has begun. Down are coming the red-roofed homes on the coast that survived the civil war. Down are coming the colonnaded old schools only lightly touched by shells. On the heavily-damaged quayside in Beirut, Solidere - the company charged with rebuilding the city - levelled a street of magnificent Ottoman facades.

True, Solidere is restoring hundreds of buildings, though many of them are of French mandate (1920-46) vintage. Even the mock-Baroque facade of the Martyrs' Square police station was smashed down after the war. "It was an error," one of Solidere's leading shareholders told me later. "It will be rebuilt as it was." But it has not been rebuilt.

All across Lebanon, it is the same story. Buildings of dressed stone and pretty balconies and hallways entered between Egyptian-style pillars are being left to rot. Some were damaged in the war, their roofs torn off by artillery fire and now allowed to decay.

Others have been deliberately left to die, the very last of Lebanon's civil war wounded, abandoned on the battlefield. For seven winters since the war ended, the rain has guttered through the eaves, the storms have smashed at the remaining carefully cut glass in the Arabesque windows. Piles of marble floor tiles, wrought-iron balustrades and wooden rafters can now be bought as job lots in the Basta flea-market in Beirut. A piece of Carrera marble costs 50p. "It's now practically hopeless to think that we can keep the old Beirut," Costa Domani says. As a leading member of the Association Pour La Protection des Sites et Anciens Murs de Liban (Apsal), he has watched the Lebanese ignore their country's heritage both during and after the war as the old capitalist ethos that inspired the nation turned the old villas and palaces to dust.

"Anything in Lebanon is tied to money value - not sentimental or architectural value. The land is the thing that is valuable - anything built on the land has no value whatsoever. Those who have made money have done so through land speculation. To safeguard old houses, you need a change in people's thinking."

Apsal believes that owners of fine old properties could be encouraged to restore them by preferential tax treatment, even by reintroducing the old Ottoman system of sharafieh - whereby those residents who overlook a beautiful house or its gardens would be asked to contribute towards the upkeep of them. "We would like to create a snowball effect with property owners to make them see that if these houses could be maintained they would have real commercial value. There could be laws which demand preservation."

Already in the Chouf mountains, largely inhabited by members of the Druze faith, Walid Jumblatt - leader of the Druze and a minister in the Lebanese government - has ordained that no house of historical value or beauty may be destroyed.

He has filled the palace of Beit Eddine - once the home of Emir Beshir the Second and now the site of an annual music festival run by his wife Nora - with Roman mosaic floors. He has supported the preservation of the wonderful old stone walls and "serail" in the Christian mountain town of Deir el-Qamar.

The new downtown Beirut project - much praised by the press and foreign governments as a symbol of Lebanon's post-war rebirth - has promised the Lebanese a new city of high-rise hotels and business centres, banks and archaeological parks and apartment blocks.

But the pictures boasting of the "new" Beirut look frighteningly similar to Jeddah and Abu Dhabi and all the other Gulf port cities which used the wealth of the 1970s to destroy their heritage for money. Solidere has poured millions into restoration - some of it spent on valuable discoveries of Beirut's Phoenician, Roman and Byzantine past.

But Domani, who himself lives in a 150-year old house in Sursock Street in the Ashrafieh quarter of Beirut, is not satisfied, alleging that the company has wrecked 17th-century areas "without pity" and has preserved less than 50 per cent of the 550 old buildings in the ruined former wartime front-line. Solidere is preserving the old Jewish synagogue in Wadi Abu Jamil - damaged by civil war fighting and also by Israeli shellfire in 1982 - in the centre of Beirut but, according to Apsal, seven beautiful Ottoman houses in the same street have been destroyed to widen the roadway.

"We have to be more active ourselves," Domani says. "We must look for sponsorship from abroad, from wealthy companies and individuals; and we must come up with projects that would give these buildings an economic significance. At the moment, some of these houses are lived in by tenants paying tiny fixed rents - so the houses are uneconomical for the owners who can do little to improve their revenues. And the people who have money in this country don't realise what they can do with these beautiful houses - there's a lot of status quo from living in a mansion. Yet all these people want is to live in modern condominiums."

How to change a people? "Pity the nation that ... boasts not except among its ruins," the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran wrote in 1934. He can say that again.