Beirut



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One of the centres of civilisation, Lebanon lays claim to the world's oldest continually inhabited city, it was the seat of the Phoenicians for 2500 years and like Scotland, has exported so many of its citizens that there are more people with Lebanese descent outside of its borders than within. It has had a hard time in the last century however, most notably with the civil war which destroyed its capital Beirut, and the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war which undid so much of the country's progress since that time.

I visited Lebanon for a weekend on a budget trip out of Dubai, staying in Beirut and visiting Byblos and Jounieh up the coast. I found Beirut itself to be a tense and edgy place, particularly as I was visiting during the Arab Spring in 2011, which set in motion in Syria just one week after I left. What these photos don't show is the amount of soldiers, private security, checkpoints, military vehicles and razor wire which festoons the city. As a photographer it was quite oppressive, without photographing anything obviously risky I was still shooed away many times, questioned and had my camera contents inspected and in some cases deleted by men with large guns. Edgy.


Beirut density

Beirut is very densely packed onto a small peninsula sandwiched between the Lebanese mountains and the Mediterranean. Although there are no great distances involved and the airport is barely ten clicks from town, traffic is heavy and taxis will happily rip you off.



Place de L'etoile forms the centre of Beirut, all of which has been rebuilt since the end of the civil war in 1990.

Place de L'etoile


The Paris of the East

Prior to the start of the war in 1975 Beirut had become known as The Paris of the East. Since restoration, some of that former glory is resurfacing.



The Mohammed al Amin mosque is the centrepiece mosque of Beirut, and is immediately adjacent to its centrepiece cathedral, St George Maronite Cathedral.

Mohammed al Amin Mosque


Inside the mosque

Inside Mohammed al Amin mosque. From the outside it looks somewhat like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.



The Old Souks of Beirut were swept away after the end of the civil war, with the exception of this single dome. As the bulldozer approached it broke down, and although it was shortly restarted the driver was then suddenly paralysed and couldn't operate the controls. It was hailed as a miracle, and the dome still stands today in testament to that.

The miracle dome, Old Souks


Beirut New Souks

The New Souks were finally opened in 2009, and are really a fancy modern shopping centre, partly open air. The layout of the "streets" follows the old Hellenistic street grid.



Lebanon has been home to many civilisations over the millenia, and evidence of the Romans remains in the form of these baths by the Grand Serail.

Roman baths


Grand Serail

The Grand Serail itself is the Government Palace and headquarters of the prime minister of Lebanon. It was originally built by the Ottoman Empire in 1832.



In central Beirut stands the statue of Riad al Solh, the first prime minister of Lebanon following independence from France in 1943. It's tough to be a politician in Lebanon, and he was assassinated soon after leaving office in 1951. I like his hat though.

Riad al Solh


Murr Tower, Beirut Trade Centre

Despite much reconstruction in Beirut since the civil war, the city is still littered with reminders of its recent past. The Murr Tower was built to be Beirut's Trade Centre in 1975, but could not be completed before the war broke out. It was a favourite spot for snipers, being close to the border between Christian East Beirut and Muslim West Beirut. There it still stands today, an empty shell.



Bullet holes pepper the fašade of this colonial French style building opposite the new Beirut Souks.

Bullet holes in building


The ruined Holiday Inn Beirut

But the most obvious monument to the Lebanese civil war must be the enormous ruin of the Holiday Inn Beirut. It was a focal point in the "battle of the hotels" of the late 1970s, and was hammered by rocket attacks. The owner has stated he will not refurbish it until he is satisfied that the city is stable again, so there it stands in ruins.



The modern Phoenicia Hotel was also involved in the "Front des Hotels" (as it was known in French) but has since been restored. The hulk of the Holiday Inn still peers over from behind it.

The Phoenicia Hotel


Stop Solidere

Another casualty of the civil war, the St George Hotel and Yacht Club was once one of the finest in the Mediterranean. Its reconstruction has been mired in controversy, centred around the company Solidere which was set up by Rafik Hariri and the government to rebuild Beirut. It was outside this hotel that Hariri himself was assassinated in 2005.



At the top end of Martyrs' Square is the tough-looking remains of a cinema, still bearing bullet hole scars around its base.

Cinema by Martyrs Square


Martyrs' Square

Martyrs' Square itself sits on the imaginary Green Line which once divided the Muslim and Christian parts of the city from each other. When I visited they were setting up for a rally, which I saw on TV the following day. The Palestinian refugee camps which appeared just over the road from here in 2006 have since been moved on.



These propaganda billboards could be seen all across the city.

Lebanese propaganda billboard


Hosni Mubarak

I was in Beirut in March 2011, during the height of the Arab Spring, and Hosni Mubarak had only recently been ousted from Egypt. Here he is in Lebanese grafitti, with the Arabic word for Egypt (Misr) next to him.



This was the only piece of Lebanese security measures I was willing to attempt to photograph. Concrete blocks such as these were blocking roads all over the city, decorated to look like the national flag.

Beirut security measures


Beirut Corniche

The Beirut Corniche is the centrepiece for street activity, seeing and being seen. It has been partly redeveloped but still bears visible scars in some of the buildings lining it.



Pigeon Rocks at the far west point of the Beirut peninsula, seen as the sun sinks into the Mediterranean. I was really quite surprised to find such a feature in an urban setting.

Pigeon Rocks


The Corniche at sunset

Strolling along the Beirut Corniche at sunset.



The sky changed from yellow to purple, behind the lamps of the Corniche.

Purple sky behind Cornich lamps


Monot bar district

Beirut is renowned for its nightlife, so I headed to Monot district to get a taste of it. Fancy new restaurants like The Greedy Goose have appeared, and there are plenty of bars tucked away in this area. Unfortunately things don't really get going until after midnight, and I had a bus to catch at 7am the next morning...



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Copyright © Ross Wattie 2011