The tale of Lebanese cities that overcame destruction
Beirut - Aleppo, Homs and Palmyra in Syria, Nimrud in Iraq and Yemen’s Sana’a are world-renowned historic cities and archaeological sites that have fallen prey to war and violence. Before them, cities in Lebanon such as Tripoli, Tyr and Baalbek, in addition to Beirut’s city centre, had their share of destruction and damage caused by conflicts, which claimed the people’s lives as well as their cultural heritage and collective memory built over centuries.
Restoring and preserving old vestiges as part of the cultural heritage was recognised in Lebanon as a requirement in post-war reconstruction at the end of the country’s devastating 15-year civil war in 1990, leading to the creation of the Ministry of Culture as an independent entity in 1993.
“When we came out of the war, we were in disarray and looking for our roots. The Lebanese felt that they had lost part of their identity and cultural heritage,” said architect and conservation specialist Nabil Itani.
“Before the war, the approach to heritage was limited to archaeological sites and antiquities. Other aspects of the cultural heritage, including urban or built heritage and the non-tangible legacy such as traditional food and folklore, were not in the scope. All that has changed now, not only in Lebanon but around the world as well,” Itani added in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
After focusing on Beirut’s war-devastated old centre for many years, the state’s reconstruction efforts shifted to five historic cities housing many of the country’s cultural vestiges.
A former professor of architecture, Itani has been managing for the past 12 years the ambitious Cultural Heritage and Urban Development Project (CHUD) implemented by the Council of Development and Reconstruction (CDR), a government body created during the war to help rebuild the country.
The $62 million project, financed by the World Bank, France and Italy, aims at rehabilitating and protecting selected historic sites in five cities while enhancing local economic development in the city centres. These include world heritage sites of Tyr, Baalbek and Byblos, in addition to Tripoli and Sidon.
“We are trying to execute pilot projects for post-war restoration of old cities in order to create the best conditions for economic and social development and at the same time preserve and present our cultural heritage in a better way, enhancing tourism among others things,” Itani said.
The project is based on a strategy that sees the old centres of the selected cities “as hubs from where one can move on to rehabilitate the environs”, he explained. “The idea was to have the project trigger a snowball effect.”
A priority list of spots identified for renovation under the CHUD project has been established in each city. “We are being selective because we cannot claim that we will be able to overhaul the whole of the cities. It is just impossible and very costly,” Itani stressed.
For instance, in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, which is very rich in old structures, restoration covered the ancient citadel and the adjacent old souks, including the caravan serail of Khan al Askar, dating back to medieval time under Mamluk rule. The development project also comprised the rehabilitation of the banks of Abu Ali River which runs near the old city.
In Baalbek, renovation work focused on the Roman metropolis and the public squares around it, whereas in Tyr special effort is being placed on the restoration of the old fishing port, a part of the city’s history and traditional socio-economic landscape.
“The port of Tyr was selected for rehabilitation in order to encourage fishermen to continue practicing their job in the same traditional way, using fishing nets, which is part of the cultural features of the city,” Itani pointed out.
In Byblos, the old souks, the entrance to the old city and the Roman square were rehabilitated and green areas have been created around the ancient fort and the Phoenician ruins to facilitate access for visitors. Whereas in Sidon, the renovation of the “land fort”, which was built by the crusaders along with the sea fortress and the old city in which it is located,are encompassed in the project.
While each city has its particular cultural features, they share common problems, including old and rundown infrastructure, difficult access and jamming, Itani noted, warning that renovation should be genuine in the sense of restoring the old features of the sites without tampering.
“Restoration is not about beautification. While all modern facilities, including elevators, electricity and internet could be installed, the old vestiges should be returned to what they looked like in the past.”
Under the state’s post-war policy, new museums will be created and existing ones renovated in the main historical cities, Itani pointed out. “Each museum will tell the history of the city and the region in which it is located. The idea is that we won’t need to bring pieces from Byblos, for example, and place them in the national museum in Beirut, they would be displayed in Byblos museum instead.”
“In that way you will be also encouraging the people to move and visit different places.”
In addition to preserving the collective memory of people, the cultural heritage is a scientific necessity, notably for architecture students who need to be aware of the evolution and history of architecture in their country, Itani contended.
He said he appreciated that there is a growing public awareness about the importance of cultural heritage, including the ratification of modern conservation laws.
“Countries around the world envy us for all the heritage and cultural vestiges that we have. It is an everlasting wealth. Oil and gas will eventually be depleted whereas our heritage can be preserved and sustained indefinitely.”
Lebanon’s experience in post-war reconstruction could provide a good example that can be replicated in historical cities in Syria and other parts of the region once the guns fall silent.