A Port, a City, and a Mountain

By Dr Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union – Tur Levnon

It was in 1860 that the former principality of Mount Lebanon regained political, cultural, and economic autonomy under the new Governorate regime called Moutassarified. The period of newfound autonomy was characterized by an uninterrupted “long peace”, which lasted until the start of World War I in 1914. This half-century of peace and prosperity became a shining example within the Ottoman Empire, prompting some of the senior Ottoman officials to advocate this model for other Ottoman provinces. The only thing missing in Lebanon was a city to become its capital.

In 1876, in the midst of this period of prosperity, Sultan Abdul Hamid II ascended the throne of the Sublime Porte. His gaze soon turned east to Beirut. A very special but peculiar feeling attached him to this city. The new Sultan saw her as the figurehead of the modernization of his Empire. He dreamed of Beirut as the queen of the eastern Mediterranean.

From the very beginning of his reign, as early as 1877, the sultan ordered the reconstruction and expansion of the Grand Sérail and its bell tower, which symbolize his desire for precision. At the same, he entrusted the construction of the Petit Sérail to the great architect Béchara Avédissian. Avédissian designed it in the classical style with Doric pilasters and provided it with the large garden and gazebo in the Place des Canons. A lover of fine arts and photography, the Sultan never missed an opportunity to beautify Beirut; the Hamidié fountain that bears his name, gardens such as the Arts and Crafts (Sanayeh), and the Pin Forest.

The urban transformation and beautification of Beirut went hand in hand with industrialization and technical progress. In 1885, the gas lighting of the city was entrusted to Alexandre Gérardin. In 1887, the construction of the port was given to a French company. And, in 1899 the Post and Telegraph Office opened its doors in the city center.

In 1888 Abdul Hamid II made Beirut the capital of the new Vilayet named after it. Surrounded on all sides by the territory of the Mount Lebanon Governorate, the jurisdiction of this Beirut Vilayet extended from Latakia in the north to Acre in the south. But it was paradoxically with the territory independent from it, “autonomous Lebanon”, that the city of Beirut formed its complementarity, its own future vision and cultural identity.

In 1895 the railway between Beirut and Damascus was finished. Like the port, this project was also entrusted to the French. With the bankruptcies of the railways of Jaffa and Haifa, Beirut became the most important port in the eastern Mediterranean.

France continued its influence in Lebanon, especially in the fields of education and culture. The Saint Joseph College of Aintoura was expanded and provided with a new chapel and clock tower. In 1888, the Saint Joseph University in Beirut established its medical faculty. Saint George Orthodox Hospital, established in 1878, also saw much development during the reign of Abdul Hamid II. At no point did this sultan take his eyes off Beirut. From the very beginning of his reign until his fall in 1909, Beirut was continuously developed and beautified. In 1901, a new coastal railway from Maameltein reached the port by means of a tunnel through the cliff of Mdawar. And in 1906, Beirut got its crown jewel, the tram. The governor of Mount Lebanon, Ovhannes Kouyoumjian, tells us in his memoirs that the Sultan contrasted with the endemic sluggishness of the Ottoman administration when it came to matters pertaining to Beirut’s development.

The Autonomous Governorate of Mount Lebanon was established in 1860, after the massacres had forced displacement of Christian survivors from Mount Lebanon and Damascus to Beirut. This Francophile population was attracted by the urban security, but also by the many cultural institutions, which in turn were further stimulated by this demographic influx. The Mount-Lebanese who had settled in Beirut and its suburbs, and spawned by its universities, played a predominant role in governance, finance, and cultural life. Abdul Hamid II saw in them, in their Christian cultural institutions and in their Western upbringing and way of thinking, an asset to the modern city of his ambitions for the Ottoman Empire. Beirut fed on the Mountain. Mount Lebanon in turn drew its strength from it. The Mountain zealously developed its agriculture, industry, schools, and its sericulture. Mount Lebanon was covered with blackberry forests and there were many magnaneries, often run by the French, especially from Lyon. Silk from Lebanon was loaded in the port of Beirut onto ships bound for Marseille. They returned laden with red tiles. Soon Beirut and all the villages of Lebanon were covered with these beautiful glittering roofs.

The Mount-Lebanese developed and enriched Lebanon’s architecture. Its churches, which were small cubic chapels, saw the emergence of the new Syriac Maronite style (Béghdédé) alongside them. This ‘Latin’ style has a roof covered with red tiles and a tall bell tower in the western style. Family houses too were enriched with the same red tiles, and their bay windows were enlarged with the development and use of the three-arched type window, representing the Holy Trinity. Not only was Beirut conquered by this architectural style, but it also exported it to all the districts of its vilayet.

The cachet of Mount Lebanon, its wealth, its books, its ideas, its diaspora, its tiles, its colors, and its identity have all passed through the port of Beirut. Beirut would never have been the cultural and cosmopolitan capital it is without its port, nor without the essential contribution of the Mount-Lebanese. Beirut would never have been what it is without Lebanon and Lebanon would not be what it is without Beirut.

And without its port, Beirut would not exist!

Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union: Tur Levnon. Amine Jules Iskandar has written several articles on the Syriac Maronites, their language, culture, and history. You can follow him @Amineiskandar2

For the article in French see L’orient le Jour

For the article in Spanish see Maronitas.org

Also Read from the same author:

Language in the Formation of Nation States

“KAFNO”: The Genocide on the Christians of Mount Lebanon during the First World War

The Mysterious Origins of the Language of the Maronites