Beirut Downtown Part II: Sights, Souks, Solidere

August 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

Soon after I saw the protest which I mentioned in my last post,  I arrived in Downtown Beirut itself.


Beirut is an ancient city, older than Athens or Rome.



(Here’s some Roman-vintage oldness, right in the heart of everything)


(I wasn’t the only one gawking at them, of course)

But although the city’s been around for thousands of years, most of its downtown’s buildings are actually really new.

Consider, for example, the Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque, which is probably the biggest and most immediately recognizable religious building in the city:


It’s so imposing that I had trouble even photographing all of it at once (especially given the way that a lot of streets and other areas downtown are fenced off)– here’s a shot of the portico…


And here’s a shot with its blue dome and minarets from down the street.


We can credit this guy, who’s buried at the mosque for it.  He’s Rafik Hariri, a Lebanese businessman who became a multi-billionaire in the ’70s by building big projects for the Saudi royal family.   He and the Saudi royal family helped negotiate peace between Lebanon’s various factions in 1989, bringing a long, bloody civil war to a close.  In the ’90s and early 2000s, he became Lebanon’s prime minister, and his assassination in 2005 led Lebanon’s people to revolt and end the long Syrian occupation of their country.  He also provided social services and patronage to a lot of his political supporters, and so, understandably, was a popular dude.

Other aspects of his legacy are a lot more mixed, though.  In the ’90s his government privatized a lot of Lebanon’s publicly owned infrastructure, which probably helped the country’s economy get off the ground in the short run, and certainly helped a lot of Hariri’s friends and political supporters get rich, but probably also has something to do with its 3-hour-a-day blackouts, its brackish, undrinkable tapwater, and the weeklong garbage crisis which only just finished up here.


(the garbage crisis in action, up by AUB’s fence)

One of those privatizing ventures was Solidere, a private/public cooperative real estate development company which renovated Beirut’s badly war-damaged downtown.  It untangled the area’s really complicated patch of property rights by forcibly buying out everybody who wouldn’t sell to the company, usually for a lot less than the land was worth.  Beirut’s a small city and real estate here is expensive, so Solidere basically stole from a lot of people.

Anyway, though, I meandered my way around the mosque and got to spot the sea:


As you can see from the ships in the harbor, Beirut is a busy container port.


Some Beirut teenagers, wearing pretty representative Beirut middle-class teenager outfits.  Some aspects of youth fashion in Beirut feel like a flashback to the early 2000s in the US– T-shirts with prominent corporate logos, distressed jeans.


A little further along, you can see tons of construction going on.  Can you spot all six cranes in this picture?


So, here’s what post-Solidere downtown Beirut looks like.  As you can see, they’ve tried to keep the Ottoman/French Colonial style of the buildings there.


It’s quite lovely…


But also often quite empty.


One of the city’s sanitary workers.  I remember that the weather was savagely hot that day, so that blue jumpsuit must have been murderous.


One of the intact older buildings in the downtown area– the Masjid al-‘Umari, a former Crusader church which the Mamluks of Egypt turned into a mosque after taking the city.


In the foreground, you can see an old man taking shelter from the sun, which, typical for Beirut, was very intense.


You need to pass through checkpoints to move into the pedestrian area at the heart of downtown.  I got waved through, and if I recall correctly, these two stylish-looking guys were too.  Snapped quickly over my shoulder because I didn’t want my camera to get taken away.


This square, with its clock tower is right in the middle of the pedestrian area at the heart of town.  As you can see, it’s nice to bike around, albeit like much of the rest of downtown, surprisingly empty.


But the area is quite dense in fashionable people– like this guy, letting his jacket hang off one shoulder like a boss.


And these women, who are clearly awesome at colorful headscarf/rest of outfit coordination.


There are also several religious buildings in the center of town.  This one has a mosaic of St. George (ie: the dragon-killing one), the city’s patron, and the namesake of the city’s harbor.


And here’s the entrance to the city’s oldest Greek Orthodox church.  As you can see, the people entering are fairly modestly dressed– in fact, you can’t go in while wearing shorts.  Since I plan to come back to the city sometime during the winter (when I’ll be able to walk downtown in long pants without melting into a puddle of sweat and collapsing), I’ll pay the religious buildings a closer visit then.


After I checked out the square, I headed north to Beirut Souks, the city’s glitziest mall.  It was built atop the ruins of the city’s medieval covered market (which was in terrible shape thanks to the war), in the style of a covered market.


You can even see the ruins of the ancient mall in the new mall itself!  I’m not sure if this postmodern touch is cute or really obnoxious.


Although the interiors are pleasantly cool


And filled with beautiful people.


And fine Italian menswear.

However, much like a lot of the rest of the city center, Beirut Souks was strange empty.  To some extent, this emptiness could be explained by it being Ramadan– from what I understand, something between 2/3 and 3/4 of Lebanon’s people are Muslims, and the daytime fasting has to put a damper on going out.  But I also suspect that it relates to some structural problems.  Some of my acquaintances here have mentioned that the Souks and Downtown were built with wealthy tourists from the Gulf states in mind.  Unfortunately, because of the civil war in Syria, a lot of those tourists are just opting to shop and schmooze and sun themselves in Dubai instead.  Beirut’s downtown is really lovely, but I suspect that the city’s people would have benefited much more from investment in basic infrastructure and services.


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