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Beirut is Back

The sun is brutal, the sea breeze has yet to sweep away the morning's humidity, and the undisputed grande dame of Beirut is far from happy. It's not the heat that's troubling Yvonne Cochrane. Nor is it the recent surgery that's left her dependent on a cane to safely navigate the slick marble floors of her ancestral home, Palais Sursock, a 19th-century Neoclassical mansion on a hillside above the city's harbor. It's the direction in which she feels her birthplace is headed.

"When I was a child, this was a garden city," says Lady Cochrane. "We had the best vegetables in the world, the best fruit." The architecture back then was "extremely light," she says, the neighborhoods surrounding downtown full of elegant stucco houses decorated with "the most delicate columns." An ardent preservationist and the widow of an Irish baronet, Lady Cochrane turns her gaze to a dense stand of trees at the back of her Italianate garden. Like the fabled Green Line—a slash of weed-infested, bomb-damaged buildings that divided Beirut into Christian east and Muslim west during the civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990—the trees separate the Palais Sursock from everything Lady Cochrane abhors. Gleaming waterfront skyscrapers compromise the refreshing breezes ("Without the sea, Beirut would suffocate," she says). Shiny Range Rovers bully their way down narrow side streets. And there's a multistory Virgin Megastore at the foot of Place des Martyrs, a once-bustling downtown square that is now little more than a cluster of tidy parking lots hemmed in by construction sites. "Beirut," Lady Cochrane says flatly, "has been ruined."

One person's ruin is another's phoenix.

Occupying a hilly promontory that juts like a shark's tooth from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, the capital of Lebanonhas spent millennia rebounding from destructive elements: devastating tidal waves in the fifth century a.d., bombardment by multi-national forces in 1840, famine during World War I. The bombs and fires of the country's 16-year civil war did more than level the heart of the city and fuse ancient Roman glass vases in the National Museum into iridescent lumps, which are now poignantly displayed in a small case at the top of the museum's grand staircase. They also resulted in approximately 150,000 deaths and scuttled cosmopolitan Beirut's reputation as the Paris of the Middle East, the Pearl of the Levant, transforming this 26-square-mile city of sand-colored buildings and umbrella-shaped pine trees into a universal synonym for carnage, a New Age Guernica. Little more than a decade after the bombs stopped falling, however, Beirut is back in business.

Curtain-wall skyscrapers may not be the proper architectural companions for the exquisite villas remaining from Beirut's time as an outpost of the Ottoman Empire and later the centerpiece of the short-lived French Mandate of Greater Lebanon (1920-46), but as far as many here are concerned, the past is history. The worst faux pas a foreign visitor can make is to ask if one of the 2 million residents comes from east or west Beirut. The firm but dignified answer will invariably be the same: "I'm from Beirut."

Tensions still simmer, of course. The Lebanese government is a close ally of Israel's foe Syria, a Greater Lebanon sibling that was instrumental in ending the bloody civil war. So tourists with Israeli stamps in their passports are barred from visitingLebanon, and Syrian soldiers in camouflage are a familiar presence on Beirut's streets. Geographically and spiritually, the city is whole again and safer than it has been in decades. That reunion is further cemented by the shared wartime deprivations of its populace and by the belief of many that better days have come, with more on the way. As oil-equipment executive Radwan Kassar explained over a glass of anise-flavored arak at Karam, a Christian Liaigre-minimal restaurant in the meticulously rebuilt downtown, Beirutis "experienced so many bad things during the war. Now they just want to grow, to live, to create."

Above the fashionable seaside promenade known as Avenue de Paris, the towering Beirut Hilton still stands in all its bomb-damaged ignominy ("It's an eyesore," a disgusted pedestrian said when I stopped to snap a picture of the abandoned hostelry). But at its flanks, bulldozers and construction cranes witness the multimillion-dollar redevelopment efforts of Solidère, formally known as La Société Libanaise pour le Développement et la Reconstruction du Centre-Ville de Beyrouth. The organization was founded in 1994 by Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and dedicated to the rebirth of the smoldering remains of central Beirut. In the years since, Solidère and Hariri have been dogged by accusations of everything from outright graft to blindly constructing high-rent stores and office buildings rather than addressing the housing needs of ordinary Beirutis (the average income is about $200 a month). Whatever its faults, even Solidère's detractors agree that the company has fueled a surge of improvements. Everywhere you look, construction cranes stretch into the endlessly morphing skyline, blurring the line between what's being torn down, what's being built, and what's just a shrapnel-pocked relict waiting to be revived.

One of Solidère's latest ventures stands across a magnolia-lined avenue from downtown: Saifi Village, a New Urbanist-style neighborhood of winding cobblestoned streets lined with apartment buildings, town houses, and shops, done in Arabic and French-colonial style. (Beirut-born Reem Acra, the celebrated New York wedding-gown designer, recently bought an apartment here, which she's busily decorating long-distance.) Though Saifi Village appears not unlike the densely woven, mixed-use cityscape seen in pre-war photographs, critics complain that it and the shopping arcades of the city centerhave about as much soul as a theme park. Philippe Starck, who is collaborating on a hotel-and-entertainment complex just south of downtown, has dismissed Saifi's neo-traditional romanticism as "the architecture of what was." The critics have a point: buildings in Beirut can be numbingly pristine. One particularly egregious example is the Maronite Cathedral of St. George, an 1890 landmark that was gutted during the war. Today, along with hundreds of acres that surround it, the cathedral has been restored to film-set perfection, right down to the installation of creamy marble so lustrously polished, so free of any flaws, it might as well be Corian.

Still, to many observers, brand-new is better than scorched rubble. "The important thing is that Beirut is being rebuilt," explains Annabel Karim Kassar, one of the city's top architects (and wife of entrepreneur Radwan). "Give it ten years and the newness will wear off," adds the Paris native, whose firm is involved in transforming the battle-scarred souks a few blocks east of downtown. Right now the site is just a thicket of reinforcing rods and freshly poured concrete, but one day it will be a 360,000-square-foot, $100 million retail destination with a major department store (rumor has it, Galeries Lafayette), a gold and jewelry district, a children's museum, restaurants, an IMAX theater, and a traditional souk of about 200 shops. Kassar also devised the harem-hip décor of Marrakech, a striking Moroccan restaurant that's entirely underground, reached by a room-sized round glass elevator furnished with banquettes.Aboveground is the elevator's sculptural machinery, designed by architect Bernard Khoury. Beirut's answer to Ian Schrager, Khoury also came up with the idea of setting a nightclub, B-018, inside a former military bunker.

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