Robert Fisk’s World: Beirut's history can't be reduced to a mere 'heritage trail'

The Romans were here. The Crusaders were here, and then the Muslims came

Share
Related Topics

They've just discovered a bit of Beirut's Crusader castle. Most of the other great coastal cities of Lebanon – Tripoli, Batroun, Jbeil (for which read Byblos) and Sidon – have their castles in various states of perfect preservation or decay, but the Ottomans and then the Lebanese commercial elite managed to destroy the great keep that guarded the port of Beirut, the first to use as a quarry for their own walls, the latter out of greed.

After all, who wants a bloody great Crusader castle blocking the road to a thriving new port? So "zap" went Beirut's majestic castle. You can see it now only in the sketches of W H Bartlett in 1838 and of Samuel Green and – already in a pathetic state of disrepair – at the bottom of a British war department map of 1857.

Until, that is, Hans Curvers, one of the archaeologists who have dug through the underworld of Beirut and who is no helping, along with urban planner Amira Solh, to create a "heritage trail" – yes, aaagh, I hate the word "heritage" as much as any reader, of which more later – came across the very lowest wall of the castle. He shows it off proudly and, for a moment, I rather thought this Belgian-German archaeologist would like to claim ownership. The beautifully dressed Crusader stones – each with a delicately cut rim – are the base of a tower, the westernmost limit of the Crusader castle. The Ottomans built their own fortress on top of it and part of their tower exists too.

And, of course, you can find Crusader stones in the Ottoman fortification, just as you can find Roman columns embedded for support within the Crusader remains and – can we be surprised? – the 19th-century Brits, when they arrived in Beirut to defend the Druze from the Maronites (the French had already arrived to defend the Christians), built their own barracks on top of other defences. In other words, each new military force, Roman, Omayad, Turkish, British, the Lebanese themselves, physically used their predecessor's history. Walking through the ruins with Hans, you can, far below the level of the forthcoming "trail" – outside the dry moat of the lost castle – see the relics of a Canaanite wall. In other words, the old city of Beirut is a giant historical club sandwich, the lower slice of stone "bread" being about 5,000 years old.

Like archive photographs, therefore, ancient cities are about memory – not so much about loss, but about witness. The Romans were here. The Crusaders were here, and then the Muslims came. Indeed, one of the most beautiful mosques in Beirut, less than half a mile away, was a Crusader church, and when you go inside, it clearly was a Christian place of worship, complete with medieval arched windows and apse. And when the French mandate authorities built their own shopping streets, they often used real Roman marble columns on either side of their doors to prettify their buildings. Then came the 1975-90 civil war to wreck the lot. Most of mandate Beirut – though not the Ottoman bit, which was also trashed – has been restored. But the French street names have remained. So the titans of my Dad's First World War – Foch, Clemenceau, Allenby, Weygand – still grace the walls.

Weygand – the man who dismissed Churchill's 1940 offer of common citizenship as "fusion with a corpse" and initially joined Vichy – has survived, but the hero of Verdun did not. When the British, Free French and Australians invaded Lebanon, they wouldn't tolerate "rue Maréchal Pétain" any more. As Hans discovered, it was appropriately changed to "rue de France", a good idea since Lebanon was ruled by Pétain's Vichy for more than a year, complete with Nazi anti-Jewish laws. And, of course, wartime tourists thus included visitors from the Gestapo. But, since we are talking history, it should be recorded that this racist legislation was vigorously condemned at the time both by the Sunni Mufti of Beirut and the Maronite patriarch.

Hans, archaeologist and consultant to Solidere – which owns much of the centre of the city and continues to build there – is the giant behind the magical mystery tour, pointing to a Persian gate complex at one moment, then blithely leading the way past Canaanite buttresses, a bullet-pocked wall (from the 1975-90 smiting), a Hellenistic sacred well, and a mass of late Roman straw grinders. Angus Gavin, the head of Solidere's urban development, describes Beirut as the "multilayered city par excellence"; in fact, the entire pre-1830 city lies in the Solidere area. A site museum would be included in the tourist walk; indeed, the whole trail would itself be a museum.

But I'm worried about the "heritage" bit, with its corny linguistic inheritance. There might be a site museum on a 5,000-year old Canaanite wall, but no one's going to dress up in Roman uniform or Crusader armour. It's true that there have been so many political assassinations in Beirut that one group of students has also cruelly suggested an "assassination trail" for tourists. I think "history trail" might be better for Solidere. Even a "memory trail" – but which of Lebanon's religious communities will then try to lay claim to the largest memory?

And there's one other problem – and I'm setting aside a main road with Lebanon's homicidal drivers that bisects the two-mile trail – and that's the Berri militia. To be fair, it's a car park of trucks belonging to Beirut's parliament police force whose boss is the Shia speaker, Nabih Berri. He is one of Lebanon's smartest politicians – he also once helped to save my life during the civil war – but he really should move his lads off the site, which contains another part of Roman-Persian Beirut. The only alternative – an exclusively Fisk idea, I have to admit – is to incorporate these armed men as antiquities themselves, so that tourists can take pictures of their clapped-out vehicles and exotic grey camouflage uniforms and poppy-red hats. Then you really could use the word "heritage".

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas