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Ancient Cities; Modern Ruins


© St. Petersburg Times

A friend drove us in from the airport and as the headlights swept over great empty spaces where parts of the city had been, our hearts sank. What was left of this place where we had met, married, made our home in a little old red-roofed Turkish house, built on a set of arches stepping out over the sea?

Well, the house was gone (but we already knew that) and in its place rose a concrete monstrosity, an unfinished 20-story apartment block totally out of keeping with the little fishing harbor that somehow survived in its shade.

This was hard to take. We were to find plenty such shocks, but for most of them there was some sort of compensation, a silver lining either tangible or of the spirit. Thus, Beirut -- the ancient city of the Phoenicians, full of their self-assurance, vigor and unashamed materialism -- was still there before us, sadly disfigured but starting to rise, phoenix-like, from the ruins of its old self.

To start with, there was the relaxed and easy-going atmosphere we encountered at every level, as genial as it had always been. The natural instinct of the Beiruti is to assume that anyone he or she meets, especially a foreigner, will find the same enjoyment that the Beiruti does in social contact. Their smiles are unforced; if you venture a word or two of poor Arabic, they will laugh -- with you, not at you.

In other ways and despite the shadow of those intervening years, the spirit and style of the Beirut we knew seemed little changed. The food is as lovingly prepared and as graciously served as ever. In particular we enjoyed the Lebanese specialty of the mezze, anywhere from half a dozen to perhaps 20 little dishes of hummus, tabouli, meatballs and fresh vegetables, accompanied by delicious unleavened bread and a glass or two of arak, whose taste is as clean on the palate as a surgeon's scalpel.

This sort of meal is all around you, not just in fancy restaurants. The mezze was still at its best, just as always, at Nasser's eating house, by Pigeon Rock.

Car hire is cheap in Beirut, and so it should be: No rational stranger would tangle with the local drivers, whose brinkmanship seemed to me even more exaggerated than in the past. Traffic lights are extremely rare in the city and the accepted procedure at intersections is for two cars to drive at each other until only inches separate them -- when one driver will admit defeat and the other will sail through, with no appearance of either triumph or resentment.

This was actually an improvement from the old days, and we got the impression that in this and other things, the people of Beirut had learned to conduct human relations with a sense of tolerance and good nature.

There is no orthodox public transport to speak of in Beirut. Instead you have the sensible system of the "service" taxis, which cruise along the main streets, picking up and setting down passengers wherever they please for a flat rate of about 50 pence. This splendidly simple and economical arrangement provides a natural meeting ground for the shy visitor.

We took a service taxi all the way to Byblos, 26 miles up the coast toward Tripoli. We hadn't intended to, but the driver became interested in our expedition (it was in Byblos that we met) and, having never seen Byblos, decided to come with us and finally brought us home -- for a total of 9, instead of the 5O or 60 it would have cost us to hire a car with a driver.

The leading characteristic of the Lebanese, and of the Beirutis in particular, has always been their enterprise, as merchants, traders, speculators. The enterprise is still there, as one always felt it would be, even in the darkest days of the civil war or during the Israeli siege. It is reflected in a hundred ways, some of them admirable, others deplorable. One of those evidences is the rush to replace, without planning and with the cheapest materials, buildings lost in the war.

The results confront you in many parts of the city, still more in the suburbs and along the coastal approaches from north and south. The fact is that until recently -- the civil war was brought to an end just seven years ago -- there was an almost total lack of discipline in town planning, with no regard for aesthetic or environmental considerations.

There's no disguising the consequences, but once again it seems the lesson has been learned. It won't be possible to undo much of the jerry-building that has disfigured some of the residential districts. But strict controls and a detailed plan are in place for the reconstruction of the historic center of what, when I first knew it, was the business capital of the Middle East.

Of course, this huge plan for urban redevelopment has been entrusted to a single construction company, named Solidere, which is the creation of Prime Minister Elias Hrawi. But Solidere, alone in Lebanon, has the resources and trained manpower to undertake a program estimated to embrace 445 acres in the heart of Beirut.

When the company was formed three years ago and the public was invited to bid for shares, the goal of $650-million was oversubscribed by almost 50 percent. Stock-ownership priority was given to those who had owned property in the area to be rebuilt, and after them to Lebanese individuals and companies.

The redevelopment area, so recently a battleground of rival militias, now is acres of rubble, or open space from which the rubble has been cleared, alongside a number of fine old buildings that the surveyors have decided can be restored. The rubble is being carted away in a seemingly endless line of trucks and dumped in the sea to provide 140 acres of reclaimed land, which will allow less density and more parks and open spaces than existed in old Beirut.

Conducted tours of the project, organized by Solidere, are becoming a principal tourist attraction. Just down the hill from the Grand Serail -- the fully restored seat of government from Ottoman times -- bulldozers uncovered an extensive complex of Roman baths, complete with the usual heating arrangements and a fine set of mosaics.

The Roman baths, along with other archaeological discoveries of Canaanite, Phoenician and Hellenistic periods, are to be protected in the wider reconstruction program. Once the restoration of this area, known as the Beirut Central District, is complete, the hope is that it will so impress the residents that they will insist upon the same degree of disciplined planning for the rest of their city. It will go against the grain, at least for the older generation of Beirutis, but it just might catch on.

There is a long way to go with this fascinating and challenging endeavor. For those of us who knew the place before the catastrophe -- you might call us the antediluvians -- the exciting prospect takes some of the sadness from our recollections.

For my wife and myself, there was an unexpected bonus of serendipity when we turned a corner by the shell of the Hotel St. Georges and gazed past a wasteland to see, gleaming white in the midst of desolation, the tiny church of All Saints. From there we had set out, 40 years earlier, to make our first married home in the little house by the sea. Freelance writer Michael Adams lives in England.

Originally published August 10, 1997

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