A Lebanese Army outpost in Beirut…
The face of Beirut has changed a lot over the past twenty years. During the civil war, the downtown area, previously home to much of the city’s commercial and cultural activity, became a free-fire wasteland known as the “Green Line.” However, someone that was in Beirut before or during the civil war period of 1975 to 1990 would hardly recognize it now. In large part this is due to billions of dollars being spent on a massive rebuilding program that has completely transformed the downtown area. Many of those billions have come from the late Rafik Hariri’s development company, Solidere.
The end result of this reconstruction is bittersweet though. Yes, much of the ruins and wreckage has been replaced with office buildings, wide boulevards and cafes. However, in the process, Beirut seems to have lost some of its soul. Now, when one strolls through the modern downtown there is a feeling of sterility – as if one could be wandering through a planned corporate office park. There is, of course, an inevitability to this given that so many special and unique places, such as Beirut’s historic souq, were destroyed during the civil war, but that knowledge does not erase this feeling of emptiness that now permeates the downtown area.
Some of the development that has reached the waterfront:
There is a reason why so many of even the “historic” buildings downtown look so new. For the most part, they are. The Mohammed al Amin Mosque is just one example:
Fortunately, I found the feeling of sterility described above to apply only to Beirut and not the rest of Lebanon. And the above is not intended to suggest that there is not still plenty of evidence of the civil war which ravaged the city from 1975 to 1990. Many buildings bearing that evidence can easily be found:
The Hilton Hotel, which still dominates the Beirut skyline, is a particularly prominent example:
And gold stars will be handed out to dear readers that can identify this war-damaged building:
The below is Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut… It doesn’t look like much, but Martyrs’ Square is a common location for protests and demonstrations, among the more notable being the anti-Syrian demonstrations of 2005’s Cedar Revolution. It is also the final resting place of Rafik Hariri (Well, what is left of him following the overkill nature of his assassination).
A front view of the centerpiece of Martyr’s Square:
A view of the back gives one a better sense of the damage this centerpiece has sustained over years of warfare in Beirut:
This is how Martyr’s Square looked in 1982:
During most of the war, Beirut was divided between a Christian east and a Muslim west. For a better sense of how at least some of Beirut might have looked before the civil war, one can head to the fringes of these divided neighborhoods. Away from what were the front lines, one may find more buildings that predate the civil war. Bombings and rocket attacks still took place in these neighborhoods, but with less frequency than the front line zones.
Here are some buildings from before the rebuilding boom:
There are still many soldiers and heavily armed policemen to be seen patrolling the streets of Beirut.
However, unlike the soldiers of Lebanon’s interior that are more on edge, the Mediterranean influence in Beirut is strong and the soldiers do not seem to take their jobs too seriously.
This Mediterranean attitude carries down to the sea where the civil war feels a particularly long way off. I suppose this is a commentary on the resiliency of life.
Pigeon Rocks… One of Beirut’s top attractions:
It’s funny because underlying all of the trendy bars, cosmetic surgery, heavy traffic, crowded restaurants and rampant reconstruction is the sense that things could start up again at any time. One Lebanese man commented to me that given Lebanon’s various competing factions that what is surprising is not that the civil war lasted as long as it did, but that it ended at all.
And Beirut was bombed heavily by Israel as recently as 2006 as part of its effort against Hezbollah. That was not that long ago and the tensions that led to that campaign are more present than ever.