A legend tells that Beirut was destroyed and rebuilt from the ashes seven times, like a phoenix. Probably this myth is closely connected with the destiny of this city…
An important and heavy past, with millennial roots; the Lebanese capital defies all expectations, a country of culture and cultural and social conflicts, beyond logic and belonging: it is love at the first step, between modern and ancient, hummus and tabulet, the magic of traveling through different worlds in just an inseparable one, though without a solution of continuity…
Five thousand years of history that give it strength and pride, determination and desire to improve and grow, despite the violence suffered.
On the coast of the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea its origins date back to a Canaanite settlement of the nineteenth century BC, the urban core is mentioned in a cuneiform tablet of the eighteenth century B.C. of the Egyptian dynasty, called New Kingdom (1550 – 1069 BC).
The Phoenician name “Bêrūt” means wells or water sources: Beirut assumes a certain importance during the Roman period and in particular in the III century, hosting the Law school, which gets famous as those of Athens and Alexandria.
Years of divisions and conquests follow, including Byzantines, Umayyads and Crusaders till to the Ottomans in 1516, who bring a considerable growth of the economy, conquering Syria and annexing it to the country.
From the second half of the nineteenth century Beirut has commercial and political ties with the imperial European powers, especially with France. Europe aims at Lebanese silk and the city is transformed into an important port and commercial center.
In 1866, Syrian and American missionaries founded Syrian Protestant College, which later became the American University of Beirut, one of the most prestigious universities in the Middle East.
In 1946 Beirut became the capital of the independent state of Lebanon, born in November 1943.
I do not go further within the specific events that follow in historical order after the World War II, because they deserve a separate article, which touches the political and civil context, neighboring countries, such as Syria and Israel, and those that are the interests of each others, that have led the country to live decades of violence and bombing, attacks, blood and terror…
Even today, walking here and there, you can not fail to notice the scars of such bloody clashes, which the inhabitants remember darkening in their faces and of which they talk reluctantly.
After fifteen years of civil war Beirut is literally devastated and in 1992 the Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri gives way to an impressive reconstruction plan, through the foundation of the company Solidere, Societé libanaise de reconstruction.
There are many criticisms with heavy accusations against this society, for not safeguarding the archaeological places and for not recovering the myriad of ancient and historical houses, central core of the city, which are demolished (or worse left to the carelessness) to make space to a modernity that sometimes goes wrong with the traditional Beirut atmosphere.
But nevertheless the city has preserved its charisma and it happens by pulling over the head to remain open-mouthed to see modern buildings set among those older, with graceful iron balconies and bright colors.
Many call it the “Paris of the Middle East”, but I think it is much more similar to New Orleans, with its magic in the Corniche, walking along the seafront to admire the varied views of the city, including the old lighthouse, now jammed between palaces, due to the urban expansion.
Or the Sporting Club, historic venue on Pigeon Rocks and its incredible colors, changing during the day, smiling in the sun in calm and crystal clear waters…
Every corner is a discovery, starting from the famous Place d’Etoile and its Tower with the Rolex watch, among the fashionable streets of the center, full of that French savoir faire, between the typical locales, where you can breathe serenity and history, inside the clubs born where there were underground bunkers in wartime.
Beyond the Place des Martyrs, the most majestic of ancient buildings and construction sites, which foreshadow an unstoppable evolution, the artists’ quarter, a corner of peace with liberty embroideries.
Every moment here was unique: the traffic of Hamra street, called the Champs Elysees of Beirut, and the flood of active and cheerful people; the district of Ashrafieh, full of art galleries and beautiful clubs, in those characteristic of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael, where I stayed, feeling at home in a young and decadent atmosphere, sometimes throbbing and never intrusive.
That living and let live without judgment, without reproach, regardless of form, but only to content.
It is said that the Lebanese are kind and friendly, but always try to make their own interest, to say diplomatically.
I think it is a myth to dispel, because it is true that the whole world is country, and the eyes should always be kept well open, but it is equally true that the grace that distinguishes them, along with hospitality, remind me of our southern Italy and there is nothing more beautiful than this!
I have walked a lot, kilometers and kilometers every day: Beirut is a very busy, chaotic city, and it is not worth taking a taxi and getting bottled for a long time, unless you have to go far: enjoy its streets, the old shops, stop for a snack and a chat, relax at the campus of the American University, immerse yourself in the street-art and do not forget museums, the National one and the Sursock are rare examples of Middle Eastern art.
The cultural heritage of Beirut is unique and constantly evolving: in 1999 it was proclaimed the Arab capital of culture and being a cosmopolitan city fills the Lebanese with pride.
There are nine religious communities, Druze, Maronite Catholics, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Catholics and Protestants… There is nothing similar in the whole Middle East: churches and mosques bordering and embracing each other respectfully of their beliefs: an architectural complexity of districts that is unbelievable.
A little frivolity with shopping in the Beirut Souks, among the latest shops; or for something more typical go to Souk El Tayeb: you will get an idea of the multitude of local and organic products.
The food deserves an honorable mention: try everything, starting with the myriad of starters, which here are a real institution, with fresh ingredients skilfully mixed with spices; the synergy between the different cuisines, Armenian, Lebanese and Syrian, makes Beirut an unparalleled place.
The sunset lights up the city with new colors, pure energy that never goes out, and like the Lebanese I love the night, everything is so clear at night.
Beirut is my city, is the city of all those who see in the journey the growth and discovery, the desire of art, culture and knowledge in socializing without frills, for an articulate and yet fair sharing.
And Beirut welcomes anyone with open arms.
“As soon as my feet touched its soil and I began wandering its street, I felt I was in a different city: not a city of endings, but a city of beginnings; not a city of certainty, but a city of searching. I felt the city wasn’t a complete structure, one you could only enter into as it stood and live as it was, but rather an open and an unfinished project”…
Alî Ahmadi Sa’îdi Asbar, “Adonis”, Syrian poet.
Of this and much more in my next article, to concretely understand the history of a country and its multiethnic people.
Lebanese civil war 1958
Second Lebanese Civil War 1975-1990
War of Lebanon 1978 – Operation Litani
Second Lebanon War 1982 – Operation Peace in Galilee – First Israeli-Lebanese war
Conflict of southern Lebanon 1982-2000
War of Lebanon 2006 – Second Israeli-Lebanese war
Lebanese conflict 2007 – Lebanese army and Islamist groups
Lebanese conflict 2008 – Hezbollah-army
Syrian Civil War overthrow in Lebanon 2011-2017 – Sectarian clashes between pro-Shiite and Sunnis, including Hezbollah, pro-Syrian government.