Tripoli’s old souks in Lebanon offer bittersweet experience
TRIPOLI, LEBANON - A visit to the old city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon — with its medieval caravanserais, hammams and crowded souks — is a sweet experience with a bitter taste.
While a visitor admires the carved wooden mashrabiya windows adorning the old stone buildings that overlook vaulted shops where traditional crafts are being performed in a lively and chaotic ambiance, the decaying state of the city’s heritage strikes a sad reality.
Tripoli’s old centre had the credentials to figure on UNESCO’s World Heritage List but poor urban planning, government neglect and dilapidation have prevented the city from qualifying, said architect Khaled Tadmori, a specialist in heritage restoration and urban conservation and a member of Tripoli’s Municipal Council.
“Old Tripoli is a living museum because it has been inhabited since it was built by the Mamluks in the 13th century. It hosts more than 185 historical monuments and it is the only place in Lebanon where visitors can have a feel of the Orient,” Tadmori said.
Old buildings bordering the Abu Ali River were razed by the government following flooding in the 1950s to enlarge the river’s bed, which was transformed into a concrete waterway.
“The river used to sinuate between the buildings, reminiscent of Venice,” Tadmori said, pointing at an old black-and-white photo of the city. “Unfortunately, the government built roads for cars to access the old city, removing many buildings along the way.”
“The civil war (1975-90) was a blessing in a way because otherwise the plan was to remove the old souks and keep the main edifices that would have become islands surrounded by modern structure without the urban fabric of the old city, as it happened in Beirut’s old downtown,” Tadmori added.
Sitting at the foot of the crusader’s Citadel of Saint Gilles, Tripoli’s old medina is a tight tangle of alleyways and dead ends designed to thwart a military invasion.
“Unlike other medieval Arab cities, old Tripoli did not have walls and ramparts but it was built as a fortified labyrinth,” Tadmori explained. “Invaders are easily lost in the maze of alleyways. They cannot enter in big numbers in the narrow passages; roofs are connected enabling dwellers to flee and porches are low and cannot be accessed on horseback.”
The old souks, named after the crafts that were commonplace, branch out of the central Grand al- Mansouri Mosque, which was the main gathering place in the city. The location of the souks was carefully chosen. The coppersmiths’ market was far from the mosque because of the noise, as was the tanners’ souk because of the smell. The mosque’s gates opened on al-attarine (perfume makers) souk, the golden souk and Khan al Saboun — the soap souk — which also served as a caravanserai.
Tripoli was famous throughout history for its soap-making, a craft that lives on with inherited recipes blended in the traditional way. Soaps of different colours, shapes and fragrances are smartly displayed in Khan al Saboun. However, the place was built in the 16th century and is in desperate need of restoration, like most heritage sites in the city.
“We have beautiful heritage in Tripoli that is falling into ruins. It needs preservation and a (functional) government to save it. Unfortunately, it is all fading away amid total government indifference,” said Jamal Najem, who owns a shop in Khan al Saboun.
A few sites have been renovated in the last few years, including Khan al Askar (soldiers’ caravanserai), Khan al-Khayateen (tailors’ market) and Hammam (Turkish bath) Izzedine, thanks to foreign funding.
Tripoli’s only functioning hammam, Hammam al Abed, has served clientele for more than 500 years. It has the typical pierced domes of Mamluk and Ottoman era public baths. The interior, with its cushions, central fountain, traditional fittings and towels hanging on lines, is a living museum.
Abu Rashed said he has been working in the hammam for 40 years. “I was a young man when I started here,” he said. “I must have scrubbed and washed more than 5 million people since.”
The place is open daily for men. For $21, a customer gets the full treat of a modern spa, including sauna and massage in a traditional routine and surrounding. Women need to book an appointment at the hammam in advance.
The Syrian conflict next door and the influx of refugees have kept foreign visitors from Tripoli but Brigitte Basset, a Swiss tourist, said she could not resist the attraction of the old city’s oriental features.
“What attracted most to the souks are the people and the lively and chaotic movement that we do not have at home. It is about the colours, the noise and the smells as well as the artisanal crafts, which we have lost in my country,” Basset said.
The old souks of Tripoli continue to play their traditional role, even though little has been done to preserve and renovate their architecture or infrastructure.