Beiteddine: A vibrant testimony of early 19th-century Lebanon
Beiteddine - It is an imperative leg on the itinerary of any visitor of Lebanon and one of the country’s main tourist attractions. Beiteddine — the House of Faith — a small village nestled at an altitude of 850 metres in the heart of the Chouf Mountains, is a vibrant testimony of early 19th-century Lebanese architecture with its four palaces, old stone houses and hanging gardens and terraces.
While other villages are spoiled with multistory buildings and concrete structures, preserving the traditional and historic features of Beiteddine, 41km south-east of Beirut, is at the core of the municipality’s development strategy. “Look around you. You can only see stone houses. It is forbidden to use other materials or build more than one level above the ground floor,” municipal council member Alfred Najem said.
He said the municipality is planning to build a road that bypasses the village to reduce traffic through its narrow roads and preserve the old buildings from pollution. “Only those coming to Beiteddine proper would be using the old road, the others would go around it,” Najem said of the 2.4-sq.-km village.
Beiteddine Palace complex, which was built in the early 19th century by Emir Bashir Chehab II, the ruler of Mount Lebanon, is indisputably the highlight of the Chouf Mountains. Sitting majestically on a hill surrounded by terraced gardens and orchards, the palace attracts thousands of visitors annually.
“Arab tourists have become extremely rare for the past five years, since the war started in Syria,” Najem said. “Also foreign visitors are scarce but we rely a lot on internal tourism. Students visit Beiteddine Palace as part of history class.”
It took 30 years to build the palace with the help of Italian architects. “Emir Bashir built friendships with many foreign dignitaries and rulers, from Italy and France. He was not very rich. He used to dispatch his cavalry to help the Italians in their wars against the Ottomans and in return they sent him architects to build the palace,” said local guide Georges Dib.
“The emir requested each of his able-bodied male subjects provide two days of unpaid labour to help in the palace construction. All the intricate stone and marble carving was done by local hands and the wood covering ceilings and walls came from cedar trees, while marble was brought from Italy,” Dib added.
Walking through, al-Midan, the outside courtyard, at the palace entrance where horsemen used to demonstrate jousting talents, then into the inner court and its elegant fountain enclosed between the palace arcaded wings, visitors are thrust back two centuries.
A highlight of the palace visit is the hammam, or baths, a predecessor of modern-day spas. It is divided into three sections, a cold room for undressing and relaxation before and after the bath; the lukewarm room, which was used for massages; and warm rooms for the actual washing.
“Supplying the palace with water from a source in the valley was a main concern at the time that even puzzled the Italian architects but a ‘fool’s’ wisdom solved the problem,” Najem recounted.
“One day, the emir shared his concern with his ‘fool’, Akhwat Chanay, and the latter replied: ‘It is very easy, my lord. You just have to line up your troops between the palace and al-Safa spring (in another village at a higher altitude from Beiteddine) and ask each one of them to dig his own grave.’
“That’s how running water came to the palace and the Channel of the Emir is still being used today,” Najem said.
The palace, used as a summer residence for Lebanese presidents, includes a museum where old costumes, jewellery and weapons are displayed. A sword given by Bonaparte to the emir disappeared from the museum during the 1975-90 civil war when militiamen occupied the palace.
Beiteddine, also known for its annual international art festival, boasts Lebanon’s only hotel located in a 200-year-old palace. Also built by Bashir for one of his three sons, Emir Amin Palace was turned into a five-star hotel, the Mir Amin, in 1974. With its 24 rooms and suites that open onto private patios and a hanging garden, guests experience palace life in the 19th century.
In the summer, the palace is a favourite venue for wedding receptions, general manager Tony Gergess said. “It is a prime location and a unique building where any bride dreams to celebrate the most important day of her life. She is the princess of the palace for a whole day,” he said.