Beirut is standing witness to the demolition of its history, 80% of the buildings classified as heritage sites have been torn down according to Now Lebanon.
19th century Beirut, with its Ottoman and French-style buildings, is now only preserved in old photographs.
“My grandfather suppresses a tear when passing by what used to be Martyrs Square and the adjacent souqs,” says Pascale Ingea, from the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage (APLH).
Beirut, known fondly as the Paris of the Middle East, has been ravaged during Lebanon’s post-war period. Ingea believes “this kills our identity.”
In the 1990’s the Ministry of Culture drew up a list of historical landmarks in the country. Approximately 600 buildings in Beirut, most of them from the Ottoman period or the French mandate, were included.
The mass destruction of buildings over recent years has occurred due to a lack of strong enforcement of the heritage law by successive Lebanese governments, out of corruption and lack of interest, as well as non-existent construction regulation, according to representatives from both APLH and Save Beirut Heritage (SBH).
They also note that the authority designated to deal with such issues, the Direction Générale des Antiquités (DSG), has a budget of around $3 million. This represents less than 0.02% of annual government spending.
A severe consequence of the destruction of Beirut’s historical buildings is the negative effect upon tourism. “By losing our traditional neighborhoods in favor of malls, modern buildings, parking lots and shopping outlets, we are stripping Lebanon of its traditional and touristic cachet,” says Ingea. “This policy of urban development is economically beneficial to the promoter, but in both the short- and long-run, the Lebanese public is on the losing end.”
“We copied the wrong model, the one of the Gulf cities, while we should had reflected on the Mediterranean countries,” says Georges Zaioun, who worked for U.N. Education Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) for many years and helped to reestablish its headquarters in Lebanon.
If the heritage of Beirut has suffered because of its economic dynamism, other cities like Sidon and Byblos have taken note and advanced their historical centers. The souq in Sidon and the port of Byblos are little traditional oases on an overcrowded coast.
The destruction of the archeological ruins of Minet el-Hosn in downtown Beirut upset many residents last summer. Bulldozers erased any trace of the ruins after the Ministry of Culture granted a construction permit to a real estate company, which will build three luxury apartment towers.
Hisham Sayegh, an archeologist of the DSG, announced his resignation one day after the destruction. He accused Culture Minister Gaby Layoun of allowing it.
Despite the disheartening destruction, the activists who work for the preservation of Lebanon’s historic buildings are not pessimistic. The Lebanese mindset can be changed “if we are determined and have united directions,” says Ingea. Apathy is an open enemy to the preservation of historic buildings, as is financial greed.