Modern Capital, Venerable Past
Beirut, with its million-plus inhabitants, conveys a sense of life and energy that is immediately apparent. This dynamism is echoed by Capital’s geographical position: a great promontory jutting into the blue sea with dramatic mountains rising behind it. A city with a venerable past, 5,000 years ago Beirut was a prosperous town on the Canaanite and Phoenician coast.
The City That Would Not Die
Beirut survived a decade and a half of conflict and so has earned the right to call itself "the City that would not die." As if to demonstrate this resiliency, the Lebanese have launched a great rush of building activity, including the public service infrastructure. In the ruined City Center, a huge reconstruction project is underway to create a new commercial and residential district for the 21st century. Commerce is second nature to Beirutis, who long ago discovered that their port city on the East-West cross-roads was ideally placed for trading and business all kinds. A banking center with free currency ex-change, the chief employment here is in trade, banking, construction, import-export and service industries.
The Lebanese capital enjoys a vigorous press that publishes in Arabic, English, French and Armenian. Five Universities help keep ideas and innovations flowing. The flourishing art scene, including theater, film making, music and plastic arts adds to the sense that is indeed a city on the move. Its many advantages also make Beirut a natural venue for international, regional or local conferences and conventions. Beirut’s Port, the largest in the eastern Mediterranean, is equipped to handle tens of freight and passenger vessels. Further updating of its busy facilities will be made as part of Lebanon’s general reconstruction plan.
Beirut stands on the site of a very ancient settlement going back at least 5,000 years. Its name appeared in cuneiform inscriptions as early as the 14th century B.C. In the first century B.C., Berytus, as it was then called, became a Roman Colony and under Roman rule was the seat of a famous Law school which continued into the Byzantine era. But the power and the glory of Berytus were destroyed by a triple catastrophe of earthquake, tidal wave and fire in 551 A.D. In the following century Arab Muslim forces took the city and in 1110 it fell into the Crusaders.
Beirut remained in Crusader hands until 1291 when it was conquered by the Mamlukes. Ottoman rule began in 1516, continuing for 400 years later until the defeat of the Turks in World War I. The French Mandate Period followed and in 1943 Lebanon gained its independence.
Uncovering the Past
A city continuously inhabited for millennia, until recently most of the few archaeological discoveries in Beirut were accidental. However the war's end in 1991 provided opportunity for more comprehensive and scientific investigation. Beneath the ruined downtown area, which is under reconstruction, lie the remains of Ottoman, Mamluke, Crusader, Abbassid, Omayyad, Byzantine, Roman, Persian, Phoenician and Canaanite Beirut.
With luck, a good portion of Beirut's history will be uncovered before reconstruction is complete. Beginning in 1993, archaeologists and builders began cooperating on just such a project. Teams from Lebanese and foreign institutions have found significant remains from each of Beirut's historical periods. All discoveries are being carefully recorded and many will be preserved.
The 1.8 million-square-meter reconstruction project for Beirut's Central District includes hotels, office space and residential areas. But not all the buildings will be new. Some 256 structures willbe restored by 1998, plus historic mosques and churches.
Beirut's souks or markets will be reconstructed in the traditional style by 1999.Solidere, the private company taking on the challenge of this 25-years project, plans a modern infrastructure of roads utilities, public areas and marine works. More than half a million square meters of landfill will provide land for two marinas, a seaside promenade and a green park.
By Heba Hossam