Modern Capital, Venerable Past
Beirut, with its million-plus inhabitants, conveys a sense of life and energy that is immediately apparent. This dynamism is echoed by Capital’s geographical position: a great promontory jutting into the blue sea with dramatic mountains rising behind it. A city with a venerable past, 5,000 years ago Beirut was a prosperous town on the Canaanite and Phoenician coast.
The City That Would Not Die
Beirut survived a decade and a half of conflict and so has earned the right to call itself “the City that would not die.” As if to demonstrate this resiliency, the Lebanese have launched a great rush of building activity, including the public service infrastructure.
In the ruined City Center, a huge reconstruction project is underway to create a new commercial and residential district for the 21st century. Commerce is second nature to Beirut is, who long ago discovered that their port city on the East-West cross-roads was ideally placed for trading and business all kinds. A banking center with free currency ex-change, the chief employment here is in trade, banking, construction, import-export and service industries.
The Lebanese capital enjoys a vigorous press that publishes in Arabic, English, French and Armenian. Five Universities help keep ideas and innovations flowing.
The flourishing art scene, including theater, film making, music and plastic arts adds to the sense that is indeed a city on the move.
Its many advantages also make Beirut a natural venue for international, regional or local conferences and conventions. Beirut’s Port,
the largest in the eastern Mediterranean, is equipped to handle tens of freight and passenger vessels.
Further updating of its busy facilities will be made as part of Lebanon’s general reconstruction plan.
Beirut International Airport, which serves the national carrier Middle East Airlines and numerous foreign airlines, will have an annual capacity of six million passengers by the start of the 21st century.
Beirut stands on the site of a very ancient settlement going back at least 5,000 years. Its name appeared in cuneiform inscriptions as early as the 14th century B.C.
In the first century B.C., Berytus, as it was then called, became a Roman Colony and under Roman rule was the seat of a famous Law school which continued into the Byzantine era.
But the power and the glory of Berytus were destroyed by a triple catastrophe of earthquake, tidal wave and fire in 551 A.D. In the following century Arab Muslim forces took the city and in 1110 it fell into the Crusaders. Beirut remained in Crusader hands until 1291 when it was conquered by the Mamlukes. Ottoman rule began in 1516, continuing for 400 years later until the defeat of the Turks in World War I.
The French Mandate Period followed and in 1943 Lebanon gained its independence.
Uncovering the Past
A city continuously inhabited for millennia, until recently most of the few archaeological discoveries in Beirut were accidental. However the war’s end in 1991 provided opportunity for more comprehensive and scientific investigation.
Beneath the ruined downtown area, which is under reconstruction, lie the remains of Ottoman, Mamluke, Crusader, Abbassid, Omayyad, Byzantine, Roman, Persian, Phoenician and Canaanite Beirut. With luck, a good portion of Beirut’s history will be uncovered before reconstruction is complete.
Beginning in 1993, archaeologists and builders began cooperating on just such a project. Teams from Lebanese and foreign institutions have found significant remains from each of Beirut’s historical periods. All discoveries are being carefully recorded and many will be preserved.
The 1.8 million-square-meter reconstruction project for Beirut’s Central District includes hotels, office space and residential areas. But not all the buildings will be new. Some 256 structures will
be restored by 1998, plus historic mosques
and churches. Beirut’s souks or markets
will be reconstructed in the traditional
style by 1999.
Solidere, the private company taking on the challenge of this 25-years project, plans a modern infrastructure of roads utilities, public areas and marine works. More than half a million square meters of landfill will provide land for two marinas, a se aside promenade and a green park.
S I G H T S A R O U N D B E I R U T
Roman and Byzantine Structures –
Group of five columns
These columns found on the left of the St. George Maronite Cathedral, were once part of a grand colonnade of Roman Berytus. They were found in 1963.
Discovered west of the St. George Maronite Cathedral, this semi-circular cultural building was moved in 1963 to Blvd. Charles Helou near the eastern entrance to
the modern port.
Behind Bank Street are the remains of the Roman bath which once served the city’s population. Originally discovered in 1968-69, it underwent a thorough cleaning and further excavation in 1995 – 1997.
Four corniced columns
These columns in front of the Parliament Building in Nejmeh Square were discovered
Highly carved colonnade
Found in the 1940’s between Nejmeh Square and the Great mosque, this five column colonnade is part of the Roman basilica. The columns were later erected across from the National museum on Damascus Street.
These mosaics came from a Byzantine church of the 5th century A.D. They were moved from Khalde south of Beirut to a site near the National Museum in the 1950’s.
-Crusaders, Mamluke and Ottoman Structures-
An excavated wall dating from Crusader and Mamluke times can be seen north of Weygand Street along the old Patriarch Howayyek street.
A large Crusader land castle once stood near the present port area. Excavations in 1995 revealed a large well-preserved section of the foundation wall complete with Roman column drums used as bond-stones or reinforcements.
The Grand Serail
Constructed in 1853, as an ottoman military barracks, this building was the headquarters of the French governor during the French Mandate. After Lebanon’s Independence, it became the Governmental Palace.
Ottoman Clock Tower
Located near the Grand Serail, this tower was built in 1897 and restored in 1994.
Ottoman Military Hospital
Just in front of the Grand Serail, this large building was constructed in 1860 as a military hospital. From the French Mandate Period until the 1960’s it served as Law Courts. Completely renovated, it now houses the Council for Development and Reconstruction.
Originally the Crusader Cathedral of St. John (1113 – 1115 A.D.), the building was transformed into the city’s Grand Mosque by the Mamlukes in 1291.
Zawiyat Ibn al-‘Arraq
Built in 1517 by Mohammed Ibn al-‘Arraq ad-Dimashqi, this building was originally an Islamic law school and continued as an Islamic sanctuary into late Ottoman times. It was rediscovered during the post-war clean-up process in 1991.
Amir ‘Assaf Mosque
Also called Bab es-Saray Mosque, this was built by Emir Mansour ‘Assaf (1572 – 1580) on the site of the Byzantine Church of the Holy Savior.
Located opposite the Municipal Building.
Amir munzer Mosque
The Amir Munzer Mosque was built in 1620 on an earlier structure. Also called Naoufara (Foountain) Mosque, there are eight Roman columns in its courtyard.
This mosque was constructed in the mid-19th century and named after the Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Majid I (1839-1861).
The Greek-Orthodox Cathedral of Saint George
Until the recent war in Lebanon this church, built in 1767, was the oldest functioning church in Beirut. The decorations on its walls were lost during the war.
The Greek-Catholic cathedral of Saint Elias
This mid-19th century church with it’s vaulted interior was once decorated with a marble iconostasis.
The Saint Louis Church of the Capucins
Inaugurated in 1863, this church served the foreign community of the Latin rite in Beirut.
The Evangelical Church
This church was built in 1867 by a group of Evangelical Anglo-American missionaries.
The Maronite Cathedral of Saint George
Built in 1888, the style of this church is neo-classical.
Museums – National Museum
Opened in 1942 to house Lebanon’s archeological treasures, the National Museum on Damascus Street is temporarily closed.
Projects are underway to restore the building and gradually bring this national institution back to its former importance.
On Beirut’s western-most tip, is a popular area with something for everyone. Its most famous landmark is Pigeon Rocks, huge formation which stands like sentinels off the coast. Numerous restaurants in Raouché serve local and foreign cuisine, while cliff-side cafés offer a good range of snacks. But walking and jogging are the favorite pastimes on this seaside promenade.
The shores near Pigeon Rocks have yielded the oldest evidence we have of human existence on the site of Beirut.
Flints and basic tools found here are displayed in the AUB Archaeological Museum.
Things To Do
University campuses are common venue for cultural events form abroad as well as local productions. The American University of Beirut and Lebanese American University, with their lovely, park-like campuses are pleasant places to visit.
A number of tour companies provide a wide selection around Lebanon.
Food and Entertainment
Restaurants specializing in Lebanese food offer a chance to sample this well known cuisine at its most authentic.
A large selection of foreign restaurants serve cooking from around the world in surroundings as elegant or as cozy as you desire. Night life in Beirut is non-stop. Discos, dinner-dancing, bars and pubs of every variety invite visitors to join the fun.
You can sample some of the trendiest places going or opt for super-sophisticated night-clubs. The Casino du Liban, with its luxurious gaming rooms, is another favorite.
The Al-Nouzha Bath last operating public Bath located in Basta Tahta, provides a real glimpse of old Beirut. Although not traditional in style, the scrubdown you get is authentic. Sauna, steam room and massage facilities can be found as well.
Women’s hours: Monday mornings; men’s, all other times.
Those who appreciate the best in horse racing will enjoy Beirut’s racetrack, where every Sunday pure bred Arabians run.
Beirut’s Golf Club is open to foreign visitors who can use the 9-hole course, swimming pool, squash and tennis courts for a moderate fee. Along Beirut’s shores are many resort complexes, beaches and swimming clubs with aquatic amusements and sports on offer. More exercise is available at health clubs in the city.
Name what you want and it is almost sure to be available in the shops and street markets of Beirut. Traditional crafts, high fashion, jewelry or everyday needs, all are easy to find. Most standard shopping can be done in the Mar Elias area, Hamra Street, Rashid Karamé Street (ex Verdun), Ashrafieh and Furn el-Shebback.
Bargain hunters are urged to try Bourj Hammoud and Basta-Tahta.