When it was built back in the 1860’s, the view from rooftop of the Qasr Ziade was probably the finest in town. Surrounded by gardens and orchards, this rather fortress-like three storey home on Beirut's Rue Hussein Beyhum looked down on the walled city, across to the rolling dunes of Ras Beirut and the olive orchards of Ashrafiye and out over Mount Lebanon and the Mediterranean.
It was one of the first houses in one of the city’s first new neighbourhoods outside its walls, which is perhaps why it was enough, at the time, to refer to the area simply as the neighbourhood of ‘the paved street’.
Modern Beirut has plenty of streets, albeit in varying states of paving, and the days when Zoqaq al-Blatt was a leafy extramural outpost have long since been forgotten. The house, though, is just as it was then. True, the neighbourhood is now dense, very inner city. It is also true that the orchards and gardens have long since gone but the Qasr Ziade still dominates its surroundings and I suspect that even although its view now is mostly of the similarly distinguished Qasr Hneine, it is entirely possible that the view from the two turret-like masyaf (summer rooms) on the roof, is still entirely magnificent.
I say that I suspect this maybe the case because I wasn’t able to find out for myself. Like many of its neighbours, the Ziade Mansion is squatted by former refugees (in this case from Beit Lif in southern Lebanon) who perhaps understandably, were less than thrilled by the idea of a stranger trampling around their living rooms and so I was unable to get inside the house to have a look around.
Ralph Bodenstein, a researcher formerly based at the German Orient Institute, was more successful. Not only did he manage to get inside and but he also published his findings in book produced by the Institute called “History, Space and Social Conflict in Beirut”. He discovered that the mansion has been subdivided into smaller ‘apartments’ and that the large central hall on the top floor, once used to host political and literary salons, and probably the odd dinner party or two, is now used as a play space by the children of the current residents.
Like many of its neighbours, Qasr Ziade was looted by militias during the war but two years ago at least, some of its original features, including marble fireplaces and (badly decaying) decorative wood ceilings, remained intact. Bodenstein pointed out that the elaborate degree of decoration as well as the house’s immense size (an entire wing was built expressly to house the kitchen and scullery and the entire ground floor is composed of vaulted arcades) makes it likely that this house was commissioned by a very wealthy client indeed.
Who that might have been is unknown. The first names associated with the mansion are its putative architect, an Italian by the name of Altima, and its first owner, a merchant by the name of Youssef Nasr. A trader who made his fortune doing business in England, Nasr purchased the mansion in the 1870’s and for the next 50 years, it remained in his family’s hands.
In the 1930’s, Dr. Joseph Ziade and his brother Louis, relatives of the Nasr family, moved in and the mansion got its current name. Each brother occupied a separate floor, which given the separate entrances leading to the first and second floors, is probably the way the house was originally designed to be used.
The Ziades and their children lived in the mansion until the war when, like many of the neighbourhood’s other Christian residents, they felt compelled to leave. Theirs was one of the first waves of sectarian ‘transfers’ (forced and voluntary) that culminated in the creation of the relatively divided city we live in today.
Despite Zoqaq al-Blatt’s prestigious pedigree – repository of haute bourgeois architecture, epicentre of the Arab Renaissance and one of the earliest nexus of modern (i.e. Western) traditions of education in the Ottoman Empire - it is this later, more tragic aspect of the neighbourhood’s history that attracts the most attention these days. If Zoqaq al-Blatt is known for anything now, it is for the way it has changed demographically and culturally, not to mention the way its neglect and decline has been cruelly emphasised by the redevelopment and reconstruction of the adjacent city centre.
I suppose that it is about now that I should insert an obligatory plea (or perhaps heartfelt vignette) for preserving Beirut’s architectural legacy. Given that this is where modern Lebanon (and to a degree) the modern Arab World was born, if any of Beirut’s neighbourhood deserves more attention, it is this one. But in a city wilfully determined not only to ignore but also to efface its past, on every level, I wonder whether such sentiment even has a place? Beirut does not wear its history with pride. It papers over cracks and tears down its history with gleeful, almost wanton delight. In part, that is what makes this city so exciting and so very alive. I admit that Beirut’s marked preference for Hip over Heritage may simply be a result of not knowing its history very well but I suspect too, that it is the way Beirut has always been. How many other 7,000 year-olds do you know with the va-va-voom of our Babylon by the Bay?
Still as someone who has hoped his entire life to live, one day, on the 163rd storey of some shining glass spire (preferably once we all get around by flying car), I’m all for Tomorrow, so perhaps I am not best qualified to pontificate on preservation but the current, practically industrial pace of demolition - sorry, (re)construction - going on around Beirut raises at least three rather important questions.
First of all, why is it always Beirut’s more aesthetically pleasing and architecturally interesting historic buildings that are torn down and transformed into parking lots or high-rise holiday homes for middle class Saudi Arabians? Especially when there are so many other mush less salubrious candidates practically begging to be demolished.
Secondly, if all of old Beirut is erased or Disneyfied, what will be left to distinguish new Beirut from any other modern city anywhere else in the Middle East? Worse yet, what if Beirut’s legendary charm and the Beiruti joie de vivre is actually dependant, in part, on the city’s built environment? I mean glass towers are great but as replacements for, does the new aesthetic contribute in the same way to ambient contentment?
Lastly, and perhaps most pertinently, for all the frantic redevelopment going on, has anyone really thought about what kind of city will we be left with once all the towers, hotels, shopping malls and flyovers are finished? Regardless of its degree of verticality, will it be a city that is kinder to its inhabitants, easier to get around, more comfortable to live in and better serviced than before? Or will the rise of the Brave New City only emphasise the divide between the haves and have-nots, making this a harder, meaner place, where islands of perfection and prosperity float in a sea of densely inhabited neighbourhoods distinguished only by their second-rate buildings and decaying facilities?
Perhaps then, should this come to pass, we will miss the old Beirut; the comforting fustiness of its broken red tiles and cracked mandaloon windows, the scent of its jasmine bushes and the dust from the crumbling sandstone walls of its Ottoman and Mandate-era villas. We may wonder why we allowed buildings like the Qasr Ziade and neighbourhoods like Zoqaq al-Blatt, or for that matter Clemenceau and Gemmayze, to be used up, worn out and torn down.
Or perhaps we will drift past those balconies on the 163rd Floor and marvel at the modern wonder that Beirut has become, a city of vertical thrills, the world’s youngest 7,000 year old. After all, there wouldn’t have been a Zoqaq al-Blatt to eulogise over - or for that matter a Gemmayze, a Hamra or even a Wata al-Mousseitbe - if people hadn’t wanted to live lives different to the ones they were born into. Transmutation, transformation, change. Isn’t that what Beirut is all about?
Originally Published in A Magazine