Saida, Lebanon’s authentic city
Saida - Named Sidon by the Phoenicians, Saida by the Arabs and Sagette by the Crusaders, the so-called capital of southern Lebanon has existed through numerous eras that forged its identity. Its Phoenician and Roman archaeological sites, iconic Crusader Sea Fort, old churches, mosques and caravanserais testify to Saida’s rich and diverse history.
Only a 30-minute drive from the Lebanese capital Beirut, Saida bears the scars of the brutal mutations of 20th-century urbanisation and the 1975-90 civil war. However, the old part of the city remains largely well preserved with its typical urban fabric and its social and cultural traditions.
Visitors approaching the city from the north are greeted from afar by the Sea Fort standing on a small rocky island 80 metres from the coast. Built by the Crusaders in 1227 to protect a thriving port, the citadel has become the emblem of the city.
Sitting on the edge of the old city adjacent to the port, Khan al-Franj, or French caravanserai, is the best example of the restoration works in old Saida. Heavily damaged by squatters and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the khan was restored to its former glory by the Hariri Foundation. The institution, which was set up by late Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, a native of Saida, rented the place from the French in 1992.
“The Khan was built by Emir Fakhreddine II at the beginning of the 17th century. The ground floor used to be a warehouse for stocking merchandise, while merchants stayed in bedrooms on the first floor. It remained a centre of trading activity until the end of the 19th century,” said Khan’s director Tahani Santina.
With its rectangular inner court and vaulted galleries, the historic building has been used as a French consular residence, a Franciscan convent and school and an orphanage. Today it serves as a centre for heritage and cultural activities. The khan has six rooms converted into an auberge, part of the international youth hostels network, with prices ranging from $15 to $35 a night, depending on the season.
Visitors, especially foreign tourists, however, have become rare due to regional instability. The place once attracted more than 40,000 visitors a year but in recent years the figure has been 12,000, mostly students.
Saida is also renowned for its thematic souks, a maze of paved narrow alleys lined with old stone buildings where items from cloth to kitchenware and shoes are on display. In their small vaulted shops, artisans practise old crafts and trades, including sweet-making and carpentry.
“My family has been in this souk for 150 years. I learned the trade from my father and forefathers but today our merchandise is rotting in the sun. Too much competition by Chinese products… I fear our trade is becoming extinct,” said Ahmad, a carpenter.
A small door in the middle of the souk leads to Saida’s Saint Nicholas Cathedral, which dates from the eighth century, and a shrine where the apostles Peter and Paul are said to have met in 58AD.
“The church records say that Peter and Paul met in this room. While being taken to Rome as a prisoner, Paul asked the commander of the ship, Julius, for permission to visit friends in Sidon. He came here where he encountered Peter by chance,” said Greek Orthodox priest Nicolas Bassil.
The cathedral was partitioned with a stone wall following a schism in the Orthodox Church. “In 1818 and after a long battle in court, the Ottoman wali decided to divide the church in two parts, a Greek Orthodox and a Greek Catholic,” Bassil said.
Another landmark of the old city is the Soap Museum, previously a soap factory, which relates the history of handmade soap. Built in the middle of the 17th century, the factory operated until the civil war started in 1975. After the war, the owners, the Audi family, turned the site into a museum.
“We inform visitors about the way soap was being manufactured in the past, the traditional way. It takes around 50 days to produce the soap,” said a museum guide, as she showed old stone sinks where sodium-enriched water was filtered before being mixed and boiled with olive oil in big containers and then perfumed and dyed.
With the slowdown of tourism, foreign visitors in Saida such as Julia Borovitch from the Czech Republic are rare.
“I reside in Beirut and it is the third time I come here,” said Borovitch. “Every time I have visiting friends and family I bring them to Saida. It is a nice place. There is a lot to see and the people are very friendly and hospitable.”