Why Beirut? Reputation, Charm Fueled by Energy, Samir Kassir’s History of Birûta

By Brigitte Caland

Reputation, Charm Fueled by Energy

Samir Kassir’s

History of Birûta

Histoire de Beyrouth

(The History of Beirut)

By Samir Kassir

Fayard,  Paris, 2005

Samir Kassir’s “The History of Beirut” is an accomplished and valuable book of over 700 meticulously well-documented pages. It is a voyage through the political, architectural, social and intellectual history of a city as it became one of the jewels of the Middle East, attracting visitors from all over the world.

Beirut shares a long and rich story, filled with geographical and historical importance. Many influences have contributed to Beirut’s development, from the Canaanite city-states of antiquity to the archeological traces found during Beirut’s reconstruction in the early 90s; from the origin of its name Birûta, which was most probably given for the city’s multitude of wells (burtu in Akkadian, be’er in Hebrew and bîr in Arabic), to its relationships with the pharaohs; from Alexander the Great to the Romans. This book reminds us that Beirut was once a Roman colony named “Colonia Augusta Iulia Felix Berytus,” a tribute to the daughter of Octavius the Emperor.

The thorough research and knowledge of Kassir, who was both born and killed in Beirut (1960-2005), reveal the multicultural facets of this city. Once a Christian city, as mentioned in the New Testament, Beirut is the site of St. Barbe’s death, according to tradition, and the place where many Christians still celebrate the discovery of the real cross in Jerusalem. Every year on September 14, Beirut continues to commemorate the event by lighting the traditional fires (abbuleh) on mountain crests. This city’s law school, founded under Septime Sévère at the end of the second century, was famous, and in the 6th century, its collection of judicial writings designed the Justinian Code on which Christian Europe was later founded. Beirut was also once ruled by the Byzantines, Muslims, Franks and Mongols, who fought, won and lost successively until the all-powerful Ottoman Empire secured the area in 1516-1517.

As Kassir relates the dense history of the city, the reader is reminded of its ascents and descents. Known for its metals, textiles and its fertile land that produced the delicious wine praised by Nonnos and Pline, this prosperous city was devastated by a series of natural catastrophes. Beirut suffered from several earthquakes, including a cataclysm in 551, during which the sea covered more than a mile of coastal land, ravaging everything in its path; a conflagration in 560 destroyed what was left of the city, blanketing it in ashes.

The expansion of Beirut can be traced through a series of quotes by authors and travelers that Kassir includes in his book. Simply mentioned by the famous historian Baladhuri (died c 892) in “Futuh al Buldan,” Beirut was conquered around 635 by the Arabs and was considered a ribat, meaning land located at the far end of the Islamic conquests. In 649, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, Caliph Mo’awiya asked Beirut, famous for its craftsmen, to build the fleet that allowed him to seize Cyprus.

Idrissi (1099-1166 AD) in “Nuzhat al-mushtak” describes Beirut during the Crusades, and the Byzantine Jean Phocas writes, “It is not a natural harbor, but a real piece of art. It is situated in the middle of the city and is in the shape of a half moon; at its two extremities lie two big towers that look like horns linked together by a chain, preventing ships from entering the port.” Kassir also includes quotes from travelers and writers who visited the city in the 19th century, including: Gérard de Nerval, a French author visiting Beirut in 1843; Henry Guys, a French Consul; Maxime du Camp, a traveler coming from Alexandria; and Charles Auberive. All their accounts take us nostalgically back in time. Old paintings, drawings, maps and photographs enhance the book.

Along with facts and quotes from travelers, Kassir includes many stories that reveal the origins of traditions and names attributed to streets and squares. One of Beirut’s central locations, Cannon Square, acquired its name when the Russian army bombarded the city in 1773 and settled with their weapons and cannons – one big cannon in particular – in front of the walls of the city.

From the independence of a sandjak or mutassarifiyya (province) to Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar’s defiance of the Russian navy in 1773 to the reign of Egyptian general Ibrahim Pasha, Beirut, with its harbor, its streets and its unique atmosphere, attracted poets, authors and men of commerce. Michaud and Poujoulat’s correspondence in 1831 notes a population of 9,000 residents. But the city grew fast, attracting ever larger numbers of people. By 1834 the harbor was expanded and a “quarantine” of 12 days was set to try to slow the flow of epidemics into Syria. Inside Beirut al-mahrusa (guarded Beirut), several religious buildings became historical landmarks. A French merchant, Blondel, conducted a survey of five or six mosques and a few Christian churches in 1838, noting that the seafront streets were occupied by foreigners and that one could get lost in the narrow, dark streets nestled deep in the city. But these streets were widened and cleaned.

The Egyptian occupation of Beirut, which began in 1831, enhanced the city’s prosperity and development. Kassir includes a description of the city in 1837 by Goupil-Fesquet: “In the distance, we see country houses that make the visit to this country delicious. Leaving the city, over 300 houses lead towards the mountains, all set in the middle of the most seductive landscape. Most of them are residences of American missionaries and European families, surrounded by gardens of orange, pear and olive trees.” Indeed, Beirut could not be contained within its walls any longer.

Kassir’s inclusion of economic development statistics and architectural maps helps the reader imagine Beirut’s huge and unexpected expansion during the 19th century. Between 1841 and 1876, the city grew to more than 15 times its original size, and streets, banks, hotels, hospitals, schools, newspaper publishers, businesses, political parties and two universities appeared. The military building Al Qishla, the first building of a new architectural era and today the Prime Minister’s headquarters, was built on Qantari’s hill to lodge the seventh regiment of the Ottoman army based in Beirut. After the construction of this great building, other projects were undertaken, including the creation of Hamidiyyeh Square, a public park complete with alleys, a pond and a music kiosk alit at night with a coffee shop and, at its center, the tughra or the sultan’s seal. At the border between the East and the West, St. George’s Bay, with its deep waters, was the ideal place for boats to dock.

In the early 1860s, construction of a road through the mountains and the Bekaa to Damascus began. As Kassir notes, this new road facilitated economic growth as well as increased immigration, which further diversified Beirut’s demographics. Because of this road, as well as the extension of Beirut’s harbor and the 1895 construction of the railway from Beirut to Damascus, Beirut furthered its development and access to resources.

Kaiser William II, who visited the city at the time of its boom, said, “Beirut is a precious jewel of the Sultan’s crown.” In 1898, Wali Ismail Kemal Bey proclaimed explicitly, “Beirut is a source of opulence and a center of education” and promised that civilization would quickly progress. But to answer historians’ question, “Why Beirut?” when examining the reasons Beirut became such a major cultural center, Kassir suggests that Beirut was chosen only because it was too late for Tripoli (as its history was linked to the decline of the Mamluks and Aleppo) and too early for Haifa.

When Lebanon rediscovered its glamour under the reign of Fakhreddine, Beirut did as well. At the turn of the 20th century, Lebanese and Syrian silk production was controlled mainly by Europeans, and because the silk left the region via Beirut’s harbor, the city became the capital of this economy. Its court regulated various problems, and many families from Beirut, such as the Bassouls, Pharaons, Sabbaghs and Trads, were involved with banking activities related to silk. Some of these smaller banking ventures eventually became large banking institutions, creating a new bourgeoisie. Kassir also recounts the histories of other Beiruti families, including that of the Sursocks, who were typically (Christian Orthodox) businessmen who mainly exported cereals. Originally from Mesrine, the Sursocks became an established family in Lebanon during the 17th century and were protected by the Greek, Russian, American and even French Consuls. Other families reinforced the Christian side of Beirut, and these include: the Orthodox Bustros and Fayads; the Roman Catholic Abelas and Chihas; and the Greek Catholic Pharaons and Malhames.

Kassir’s pages on the intellectual nahda (renaissance) of the 19th century help the reader become acquainted with important figures such as Maroun Naccache, who adapted and staged Molière’s play“L’Avare” in his house and who wrote two plays himself, one of which was about Caliph Haroun al-Rashid. Kassir also introduces readers to Ahmad Faris al-Chidiaq, arguably the central figure of this renaissance, whose body now lies in a small cemetery in Hazmieh on the way to Damascus. Also featured in Kassir’s text are: Nassif al Yaziji, who was the secretary of Emir Haydar Shehab and who taught, translated and wrote many essays, including one about al-Mutanabi; Yaziji’s son Ibrahim, a grammarian and translator who was interested in music, medicine, painting and astronomy and who helped develop Arabic fonts for typewriters; Boutros al-Bustani, an Arab pioneer in Arab letters and an encyclopedist (all three of these intellectuals were Christian); the Druze Emir Mohammad Arslan; and the Muslim Sheikh Youssef al-Assir, who also participated actively in the renaissance.

Kassir also looks at the effects of the growing European presence in the more recent history of Beirut. Because of the development of missionary schools established by the French and British, local schools were opened to rival these foreign ones. Some of these schools, including L’école de la Sagesse, Zahrat al Ihsan and Al Makasid, the first public Muslim school, are still open today. Before World War I, Jesuits, Marists, Sisters of Nazareth, Sisters of Besançon and others established religious schools. In 1905, the Mission Laïque Française opened its doors, and the Universal Israelite Alliance, a French institution, was founded to receive the Jewish community of Beirut. In 1870, the Syrian Protestant College (SPC) bought three vast plots of land in Ras Beirut. Three years later, after raising funds in the United States and England, Daniel Bliss opened a new institution, which later became the American University of Beirut.

Many pages are dedicated to the 20th century, the European influence on Beirut and the changes that occurred among the elite, specifically within the Muslim community. Stories and pictures about the election of “Miss Lebanon” in the 1930s and other specific moments that feature women traveling to foreign countries and other behaviors that challenged traditions recreate this era on paper for the reader.

Kassir writes of how Beirut has changed: “In the 60s and 70s, a traveler coming from the Gulf for the first time would be surprised when he entered this city, where nothing resembles what he knows. The urbanization, the chaos, the abundance of shops, the leisure possibilities, the multitude of neon signs, the bustling day- and night-life, the freedom of appearance apparent in the diversity of the people strolling by, especially the women.… Europe had not yet become the destination it became after the oil boom, and Beirut at that time was the closest model of the West; a West that spoke the same Arabic but with a softer accent… It seems, as the fairies decided one day how to distribute the jewels among Arab cities, that Beirut would become ‘the dolce vita city,’ visited by Pompée, Saladin and Jazzar – victorious against Bonaparte in Acre – Mo’awiya, possibly Ramses II, and even Jesus.”

Kassir uses what he calls “the three Bs” (Beirut, banks, brothels.) His work provides an abundance of details, fulfills our curiosity and leads us through Beirut’s rich past, from antiquity to better-known periods, which include the fight for independence, the many wars Lebanon and Beirut have faced, intellectual and social events, intriguing facts and familiar names and dates. Arab, Mediterranean, Western and cosmopolitan, once besieged by the Palestinian leadership, city of hospitals and universities, capital of the Arab press and printing and center of finance, Beirut became in the early 1960s one of the major centers of the Middle East. More than just the services it provides, Beirut has a reputation and charm fueled by its energy. Beirut has always been a paradise for intellectuals deprived of freedom in other Arab countries and praised by poets and authors such as Nezar Kabbani and Mahmoud Darwish during times of war. As the poet Nadia Tueni writes, “Beirut has died and been revived a thousand times.”

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no. 52 (Summer 2005)

Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid