After years of war and bomb attacks, it's now an economic boom that's reverberating around Beirut, but it's bringing a new challenge for the historic city.
Sunday, October 10, 2010 - 20:30

The Lebanese capital has been virtually rebuilt in recent years, but some estimate that over three quarters of its historic buildings have been lost in the race for redevelopment.

Video journalist Yaara Bou Melhem takes a tour with campaigners, Save Beirut Heritage, and sees some of the lucrative skyscrapers that have replaced historic buildings, amid controversy over lack of properly enforced planning laws.

She also meets the mayor and developer, Solidere, who are proud of their fast regeneration of a war-torn city, but what is the answer to balancing the needs of old and new Beirut?


Yaara Bou Melhem writes for the Dateline blog about how a couple of small facebook groups have grown into a big campaign to save Beirut's heritage...

I’m sure there are a few high-flying developers in Beirut, who are scratching their heads at the moment over how the power of facebook is affecting what they do.

'I saved six houses this week," Naji Esther from the Save Beirut Heritage facebook group tells me over the phone while we’re coordinating shooting schedules.

Yes, that small facebook group, only in its infancy with no money and little political clout, has been taking on development giants through social media and is actually scoring a few points for its campaign.

Naji believes Beirut is becoming another Dubai, but with nicer weather.

He and fellow activist, Pascale Ingea from the Stop Destroying Your Heritage facebook group, are campaigning against the demolition of Lebanon’s traditional buildings.

Beirut’s skyline of bombed and burned-out buildings is rapidly being transformed with the rise of glitzy and often empty skyscrapers.

But the campaigners say it means architectural gems dating back from the Ottoman and French colonial period are being bought up and demolished across the Lebanese capital.

Appalled, the soft-spoken arts masters student Pascale Ingea decided to take action. Armed with little but a heap of passion and charm, she started taking her movement beyond facebook and reached out to politicians, philanthropists and the media.

Naji and Pascale are now working with Lebanon’s Ministry of Culture, protection authorities and NGOs to get their message across.

They’ve seen a freeze on building licenses without a review, sparked a public awareness campaign and have staged a march through one of Beirut’s most iconic streets.

'We’ve managed to do in six months what no group has done in maybe ten years," Pascale Ingea tells me while marching through Gemmayze Street.

Clearly, Pascale and Naji’s facebook groups aren’t just a fun place to put pretty pictures of heritage homes. They get things done.

Now, they’re taking their movements off facebook and turning them into an NGO - The Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage.

It means that they’ll legally be able to raise funds and purchase homes in their association’s name to keep buildings protected.

But the groups will remain active where they started, on facebook.

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Now to Lebanon, and in particular to what seems to be its perpetually embattled capital, Beirut. Beirut is a city that boasts a history going back 5,000 years, to the Phonecians. Since then, it's been under Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, and of course Arab rule. Now that chequered history is under a very different, very modern kind of threat - from greed and the wrecking ball. Here's Yaara Bou Melhem.

REPORTER: Yaara Bou Melhem

Beirut is booming. After a brutal civil war and another clash with Israel four years ago, sections of the city were little more than rubble and gutted ruins. Now, investors are flocking to the thriving metropolis. But with all this progress, the past eras of Beirut's grand old homes - otherwise known as castles - are being forgotten.

NAJI ESTHER, ARCHITECT: We're going to two castles that have been protected recently - Honeiny and Ziedy castles.

22-year-old architect Naji Esther is appalled with what he's discovered.

NAJI ESTHER: The whole movement of saving my own heritage - apply pressure on the owners and the municipality of Beirut to stop the demolition of this castle and to stop the destruction of those sold castles here.

Naji and fellow activist Pascale Ingea are driving a new campaign to rescue Beirut's architectural soul from the hands of developers.

PASCALE INGEA: Come, come. Come and see.

Already, many irreplaceable treasures are gone.

PASCALE INGEA: Come and see what's left. Look at this home. It was a beautiful Lebanese house - a beautiful one.

While skyscrapers tower over family homes in a city that dates back to the Phoneicians.

PASCALE INGEA: I feel a little bit sad and kind of angry because, you know, this house is like a prison between two giants, two monsters.

Naji is documenting homes he believes should be heritage-listed.

NAJI ESTHER: This building dates from the Turkish mandate, from the design and from the windows, from this arc here.

And his sources tip him off to any potential demolitions, which he quickly reports to the authorities.

NAJI ESTHER: If we don't protect it, it will go, like all the rest. So I take pictures, and send them to directory of the antiquities in Beirut and they discover if they can save it or not.

Khaled al-Rifai from the Department of Antiquities has the challenging task of trying to preserve Beirut.

KHALED AL-RIFAI, DEPARTMENT OF ANTIQUITIES (Translation): Unfortunately, the Beirut Municipality is like any other. I think there is no vision, there is no holistic vision, no complete vision in Lebanon, it's all reaction to action. We work by reaction.

Even the home of Lebanon's most famous singer, Fairuz, was under threat.

NAJI ESTHER: This was Fairuz's home. She used to live here but they planned to destroy it, but we stopped them. It was a mansion. Beautiful mansion with red tiles and stained glass and - it was abandoned during the war, and then they sold the land to someone who wanted to invest in skyscrapers, maybe.

PASCALE INGEA: I'm not against construction, but I'm against the destruction of old buildings and old houses where the tradition and culture of my country are vanished away. It's - for me, it's a crime.

KHALED AL-RIFAI (Translation): People started building housing towers and because the towers provided a good return, and either sell the land or just demolish and rebuild as an investment that provided an excellent return because they'd build 30 floors, even more sometimes;. ;Here comes the responsibilityof the municipality. The municipality didn't try to regulate the rebuilding trend so as to encourage investment in buildings. As we know, such investment is an excellent revenue for the municipality.

REPORTER: There are people who say that Beirut is becoming another Dubai.

DR BILAL HAMAD, BEIRUT MAYOR: Well, in Dubai, it's different.

Beirut mayor Dr Bilal Hamad is proud of his city's successes.

DR BILAL HAMAD: Most of the construction that's going on is actually to solve the problem of resurrection apartments. So it's different than Dubai.

REPORTER: Are you aware that there were 1,200 protected homes, and that now the figure is 250 protected homes?

DR BILAL HAMAD: If you see only an arch in a building, this doesn't mean this is a building that has to be preserved. But in some of the buildings, they bring - I have, for example, a building, and I have a structure report from one of the most construction engineers in the country. And the bottom line is this building cannot be repaired. So what can I do? How can I repair it?

Downtown Beirut - once a creator-strewn and mine-ridden wreck, it was the first centre to be rebuilt after the civil war. The entire project was handed over to Solidere, a dual public-private company with powerful government links.

AMIRA SOLH, URBAN PLANNER, SOLIDERE: Where we are standing was a no-man's-land with weeds and demolition everywhere.

Solidere urban planner Amira Solh takes me through the rebuilt city centre, where only a third of the traditional buildings were salvaged. But the jewel in the company's crown is their newly opened Souks district - a historic meeting place and commercial centre.

AMIRA SOLH: Of course, it's all historic buildings and, then right at the end you've got a new modern building with a view open to the sea.

Luxury clothing shops, though, are a poor substitute for the original Souks. According to veteran environmental journalist May Abi Akl.

MAY ABI AKL, JOURNALIST (Translation): They are not the markets Solidere promised to build - that market area is; a lie, a big lie. This is not Beirut Markets - it is a mall - it is a mall that they call Beirut Markets.

AMIRA SOLH: You know, this is where the controversy becomes of what is heritage and what is heritage buildings? And definitely at some point there's going to be disagreements about what is kept and what is not. And you know - it was a very destructive war. So it's also about the cost of preserving the structure versus the ability to rebuild.

And with no properly enforced planning laws, owners of traditional Lebanese homes find the developers' money just too tempting. Even when homes are protected, many owners purposely allow them to fall into disrepair to get them off the heritage list. But there is some hope in sight.

SALIM WARDY, MINISTER FOR CULTURE: Preserving our heritage is not preserving a house. We are preserving who we are.

Salim Wardy, Lebanon's minister for culture, is an activist within the government. He understands the financial temptations faced by property owners, so he's come up with a novel solution - allowing people to sell the space above their houses to developers in other parts of the city.

SALIM WARDY: If you have a heritage building that's - that is now constructed of -- 4-storey building, and the area now allows a 10-storey building, you can sell these storeys that doesn't exist and are not going to be built into a certain area that we will allow to have skyscrapers in.

This plan is part of a new law - that when passed through the parliament will finally protect Beirut's heritage.

SALIM WARDY: We are the only country in the area that hasn't passed a law to preserve these houses.

REPORTER: So you expect the law to be passed - Some time this year?

SALIM WARDY: Well, we're waiting to see the law passed. We're trying our best to preserve the heritage buildings we still have. We have freezed all licences to tear down buildings, and now buildings are being teared down are being very selective, and we're not allowing any heritage building to be torn down.

But even with a freeze on demolitions in place, the fight is still far from over. This new ad campaign - a collaboration between Naji, Pascale and Minister Wardy, is increasing the pressure to get the new law passed. The activists are also taking their campaign to the streets.

PASCALE INGEA: The event will be a symbolic walk in a symbolic street - Gemmayze.

Pascale and Naji led a crowd of 300 people down the iconic Gemmayze strip.

MAN: I've known Beirut in times of war. I've known Beirut in times of peace. I think that Beirut in time of peace has been more disfigured and destroyed than time of war.

MAN 2: I understand people want to make new things and make new money, but boy, there's some wonderful stuff in Lebanon that goes back to the mandate period, the Ottoman period, that ought to be preserved, or you have no more Beirut.

PASCALE INGEA (Translation): Lebanon without heritage is meaningless! Lebanon without identity is meaningless!

The protesters stop at sites they refer to as "crime scenes," where traditional buildings have already been lost.


PASCALE INGEA (Translation): Cinema Vendome once stood here, now it's gone.

The cinema may be gone, but this movement is hoping that the destruction of the city will also be a thing of the past, leaving the spirit of Beirut still in tact.

GEORGE NEGUS: Yaara Bou Melhem on not the usual sort of battle for Beirut... and Yaara has a blog on our website on how that whole campaign actually "mushroomed" from a couple of small Facebook groups. The social networks strike again! That's at







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10th October 2010