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Beirut

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© Lonely Planet Publications
262

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Beirut

HISTORY

‫ﺑﻴﺮوت‬

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class
universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and
swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear
it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned
museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and
power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and
kicking – despite its frequent volatility.

HIGHLIGHTS

SPIRITS AGAINST BULLDOZERS

Take part in a Beirut ritual with a leisurely Saturday evening stroll along the
Corniche (p273)

Corniche

Stop for a nargileh break at a café overlooking Pigeon Rocks (p274)
Experience 6000 years of history at the
National Museum of Beirut (p270)

Downtown
Rue
Gouraud

Pigeon Rocks

Follow Beirut’s young and beautiful to
Rue Gouraud’s (p278) chic bars
Eat your way though the city’s eclectic
selection of top restaurants (p283)

National Museum
of Beirut

Wander through Beirut’s reconstructed
Downtown (p274), marvelling at the
contrast with many of the city’s still bullet-riddled edifices
Float it out in one of Beirut’s beach club pools (p279), sipping on a killer cocktail
TELEPHONE
AREA CODE: CODE:
01
03

and Byblos, but after Alexander the Great’s
conquest it starts to be mentioned in Hellenistic sources, and excavations have revealed an extensive Hellenistic city upon
which the later Roman grid was based. It
wasn’t until the Roman period, however,
that the city really came into its own, both
as a commercial port and military base,
with large public buildings and monuments
swiftly erected, along with a series of baths,
a theatre and a number of markets. Evidence of both the baths and the main public
square, the Cardo Maximus, are still visible
today in modern Beirut.
By the 3rd century AD, the city had
found particular fame and prestige through
its School of Law, one of the main Roman
centres of jurisprudence, which rivalled
those of Athens, Alexandria and Caesarea.
It was actually here that the basis of the
famous Justinian Code, upon which the
Western legal system drew inspiration, was
established. The city’s importance as a trading hub and centre of learning continued as
the Roman Empire gave way to the Byzantine; its commercial enterprises flourished
around the si...
262
TELEPHONE CODE: 03 POPULATION: 4.7 MILLION AREA: 227,420 SQ KM
BEIRUT
lonelyplanet.com
BEIRUT
What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully recon-
structed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of
rejuvenation over disaster. If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or
Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s
no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes,
or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark
past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of
Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab
Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee
camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a
base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary
general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.
Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class
universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and
swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear
it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned
museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and
power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and
kicking – despite its frequent volatility.
HIGHLIGHTS
Take part in a Beirut ritual with a lei-
surely Saturday evening stroll along the
Corniche ( p273 )
Stop for a nargileh break at a café over-
looking Pigeon Rocks ( p274 )
Experience 6000 years of history at the
National Museum of Beirut ( p270 )
Follow Beirut’s young and beautiful to
Rue Gouraud’s ( p278 ) chic bars
Eat your way though the city’s eclectic
selection of top restaurants ( p283 )
Wander through Beirut’s reconstructed
Downtown ( p274 ), marvelling at the
contrast with many of the city’s still bullet-riddled edifices
Float it out in one of Beirut’s beach club pools ( p279 ), sipping on a killer cocktail
AREA CODE: 01 POPULATION: 1.3 MILLION
Gouraud
Rue
of Beirut
National Museum
Downtown
Corniche
Pigeon Rocks
HISTORY
For most outsiders, Beirut’s history begins
and ends with its bloody civil war, waged
for 15 years along the infamous Green Line
that cut the city in two, with Muslims to
the west and Christians to the east. But its
story stretches back much further than its
modern strife, and the city’s surface today
conceals a fascinating, though often barely
visible, ancient history.
The earliest traces of habitation in Beirut
date from the Stone Age when the area now
occupied by the city was in fact two islands
in the delta of the Beirut River. Later, when
the river silted up, the area became one land
mass. Excavations in the Downtown area
have revealed a Canaanite site dating from
1900 BC, with an entrance gate of dressed
stone, and, nearby, the remains of Phoeni-
cian canals.
The city’s name is probably a derivative
of the Arabic for ‘well’ or ‘spring’ (mod-
ern Arabic still uses the word bir for well).
The first historical reference to Beirut dates
from the 14th century BC, when it is men-
tioned in cuneiform tablets discovered at
Tell al-Amarna, Egypt, in the form of letters
from the Canaanite king of Beirut begging
the pharaoh Amenhotep IV for assistance
in repelling Hittite invaders.
In Phoenician times, Beirut appears to
have been overshadowed by Sidon, Tyre
and Byblos, but after Alexander the Great’s
conquest it starts to be mentioned in Hel-
lenistic sources, and excavations have re-
vealed an extensive Hellenistic city upon
which the later Roman grid was based. It
wasn’t until the Roman period, however,
that the city really came into its own, both
as a commercial port and military base,
with large public buildings and monuments
swiftly erected, along with a series of baths,
a theatre and a number of markets. Evi-
dence of both the baths and the main public
square, the Cardo Maximus, are still visible
today in modern Beirut.
By the 3rd century AD, the city had
found particular fame and prestige through
its School of Law, one of the main Roman
centres of jurisprudence, which rivalled
those of Athens, Alexandria and Caesarea.
It was actually here that the basis of the
famous Justinian Code, upon which the
Western legal system drew inspiration, was
established. The city’s importance as a trad-
ing hub and centre of learning continued as
the Roman Empire gave way to the Byzan-
tine; its commercial enterprises flourished
around the silk trade, and Beirut became
the seat of a bishopric. But then, in 551, a
devastating earthquake, combined with a
tidal wave, almost destroyed the city, killing
a vast number of citizens. The School of
Law was quickly evacuated and moved to
SPIRITS AGAINST BULLDOZERS
While wandering Downtown Beirut, you’ll doubtless come across the immense building site
known as the Souqs Project, a vast new leisure complex now scheduled to open sometime in
2008, incorporating shops, restaurants and office units. Standing on the opposite side of the road
to view construction work going on over the fence, you should spot one incongruous little old
dome among the profusion of glass and steel. This is the remains of a zawiya, or hospice and
religious school, built by 16th-century mystic and scholar, Mohammed ibn Iraq al-Dimashqi; it’s
the only Mamluk building still standing in Beirut, and one with a curious tale attached.
The Souqs Project stands on the site of Beirut’s historic main souqs, destroyed during the
civil war. In 1992, the rubble was first cleared by archaeologists who worked against the clock to
investigate the area before it was built over by developers. A bulldozer clearing an area in what
had been Souq Tawile was scooping up debris when it came up against a small, domed building.
The machine suddenly stopped. The driver, wanting to finish his job, started the machine up
again, but when he tried to move the controls, his hand was suddenly paralysed. Later, when
he moved away from the site, the paralysis disappeared.
News quickly spread of the ‘miracle’ that saved the building and crowds visited the shrine,
with reports circulating of miraculous healing among the ill who had prayed there. Muslim re-
ligious authorities erected a protective wall around the zawiya, announcing that it would not
be demolished. Thus, when the Souqs Project finally opens its doors for business, you’ll see the
mystical zawiya standing proud amid yet another Beirut shrine to shopping.
B e i r u t تو
BEIRUT •• History 263
© Lonely Planet Publications
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