LEBANON: Efforts made to save Beirut’s historic architecture

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You know things have spiraled out of control when the Minister of Culture himself opens a special hot line for residents to report old buildings and mansions that are threatened with demolition in their neighborhoods.

‘Help protect traditional houses in your neighborhood,’ reads a little slip of paper printed in Arabic, English, and French and handed out by Lebanese conservation activists.


The statistics are troubling. Officials estimate that a mere 400 out of 1,200 old mansions that were inventoried in the mid-1990s by the Lebanese culture ministry are left, according to Agence France-Presse. In a bid to prevent more mass destruction of Beirut’s historic architecture, any demolition order reportedly must now carry the signature of the Lebanese culture minister, Salim Wardy.

Meanwhile, Lebanese conservationists and concerned citizens alarmed by the sight of old Ottoman mansions being flattened in their neighborhoods recently stepped up efforts to salvage what remains of Beirut’s historic architecture and racheted up pressure on the Lebanese authorities to prevent the capital from turning into a concrete jungle in the hands of developers and promoters.

On Saturday night, hundreds of people took to the streets of downtown Beirut for a candlelight walk in support of the city’s old architecture and to call for an end to further destruction of historic buildings.

Pascale Ingea, one of the organizers of Saturday’s march and a founder of Save Beirut Heritage, told Babylon & Beyond that up to 500 people turned out for the event. For the occasion, she handed out T-shirts bearing the slogans ‘Save Beirut Heritage’ and ‘Development Turning Your Past Into Rubble,’ along with red candles and signs condemning the ‘Dubaification’ of Beirut.

Ingea lives in an Ottoman building that her grandfather built in the 1930s. She is deeply disturbed by the fact that she doesn’t recognize her hometown anymore. ‘I used to see the sea, the church. Now it’s all construction sites. We are living in a prison,’ Ingea said. She helped found Save Beirut Heritage earlier this year to protect Beirut’s old architectural identity and lobby the government to implement stricter laws to protect historic buildings.

Powerful, politically connected forces are leading the drive to reshape Beirut. Some local officials were reluctant to let Saturday’s march go ahead, even though unions, political parties and others regularly hold demonstrations in the city.

Ingea, an artist and art history teacher, spent an hour at Beirut city offices trying to persuade officials to give her the permit for the march.

Beirut’s construction boom began at the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, and wealthy Gulf Arab investors and expatriates have hiked prices in the Lebanese construction sector, an industry in which accusations of corruption and bribery continue to surface.

As cranes rise along the city skyline and construction sites mushroom in Beirut’s narrow streets and alleys, the capital’s old French colonial and Ottoman architecture and its lush interior gardens are increasingly being bulldozed to make room for modern high-rises, making the city once known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ increasingly resemble glitzy Arabian Peninsula hubs like Dubai.

But the preservation movement seems to have made some progress in recent days. Through close cooperation with other heritage groups, Save Beirut Heritage says it has been able rescue 20 old mansions from demolition just in the last couple of months.

Ingea warns, however, that the demolition of old mansions has spread to other parts of Lebanon, such as the northern city of Tripoli, where the historic Anja theater was partially demolished this month after having been removed from the list of protected sites earlier this year.

Aside from introducing tougher laws on the protection of historic buildings, Ingea says that her group is also calling on the government to forbid the building of high-rise towers in areas with a lot of old architecture; to create more green spaces in Beirut; and to provide more support to owners of old buildings.

Meanwhile, the movement is planning more public events and awareness campaigns, including conferences at universities and schools around Lebanon to educate the youth about their capital’s historical heritage.

‘Every week we must do something. This will not be on my conscience,’ Ingea said.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut