The reconstruction of Beirut: Lessons for Aleppo

by The Aleppo Project on November 24, 2015

There are many lessons for Aleppo from what happened in Beirut:

• Rebuilding driven by the few for the few will fail.
• The core values must be accountability and transparency.
• Aleppo should not focus on investor-led fantasies of what the city might be but concentrate on rebuilding families, their businesses and the local economy.
• Economic resilience should be a key part of any reconstruction.
• Rebuilding the city centre is essential, but so is an integrated plan for the whole city.
• Reconstruction will not mend deep political divisions, but can be used to rebuild common public spaces that promote reconciliation.
• Democratic control may mean reconstruction takes longer, but it will be done better and is less likely to deepen social divisions.


  • Reconstruction in Aleppo must be focused on local economic and social needs rather than those of globalised capitalism. The vast sums spent developing Beirut Central District (BCD)  into an area for international investors and tourists have left it particularly vulnerable to geopolitical and economic shocks. The war with Israel in 2006 and the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011 both seriously undermined the Solidere redevelopment. Gulf investment is fickle; it moves quickly and can be withdrawn for any number of economic or political reasons.The price Beirut has paid for selling its city centre to the highest bidder is immense. Those who promote this form of development will always blame outside shocks for their problems but the reality is that it is a very poor way of rebuilding cities in that it meets the needs of only a very narrow group of the population and only by taking enormous financial risks.
  • The priority must be on re-developing a city centre in Aleppo that is lively, inclusive and as important to city residents as it is to investors and tourists. The fact that there is no major new school, university, social housing, popular market or popular gathering place in BCD is a major problem. If a city fails to attract people it will not provide the returns to investors. Cities require heterogeneity to succeed.
  • Private models of redevelopment exacerbate inequality, which was already a serious problem in pre-war Aleppo. Public-Private partnership may work on a smaller scale but it is clear that they cannot deliver on the wider set of benefits needed in a post-conflict city. Social harmony, equality, representation and memorialisation need to be considered along side business interests or narrow political views.
  • Redevelopment must be realistic. Aleppo will not be a new global or regional centre, it will not recover quickly and rebuilding some of its core will not mend a ravaged society. The focus of rebuilding must be on more modest aims – recovery of families and communities, the return of small businesses and the development of a sustainable economic base.
  • Ownership models should not be seriously disrupted. Ending the effective ownership of thousands of people and then handing them shares in a company over which they had little control was not a satisfactory arrangement. By insisting on very expensive reconstructions and a rapid timetable for rebuilding – which it often could not meet itself – Solidere put additional pressures on owners to accept shares rather than reclaim their property. In Aleppo, ownership issues are going to be very complicated after the war. Large number of buildings, particularly in the Old City, are formerly owned by religious foundations but are let on long leases. Other buildings have multiple owners, some of whom would have been died intestate or may not return. Solidere ultimately ran roughshod over ownership culture, even if it was able to bend the law to its side.
  • Concentration of control. Urban planners tend to admire systems that sweep away planning law and put schemes in the hands of all-powerful special agencies or public-private partnerships. However, although they are often able to turn infrastructure problems around rapidly, they tend to concentrate power, eschew any accountability and run roughshod over public opinion. From the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to the London Docklands Development Authority to others in Berlin, Etablissement Public d’Aménagement de la Défense in Paris and in the Middle East, these powerful organisations have not always delivered much more beyond big office parks isolated from their cities and not much loved by their residents.[1] A serious debate is needed about how much democratic control to cede to these authorities, particularly in a post-conflict situation where any mechanisms of judicial or public oversight are likely to be extremely weak.
  • Funding for the reconstruction of Aleppo is going to be a challenge. Most of the money and work will be done by owners themselves, not by foreigner investors. Regulations must be tailored to support the interests of city residents above any narrow group of investors. Investment money is going to serve narrow interests – in the case of Aleppo probably the eventual redevelopment of tourism infrastructure and industry. International support should allow for the establishment of effective credit mechanisms to support reconstruction and new businesses. This should not be left entirely to the private sector as experience in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that banks are often corrupt and mostly involved in money laundering and lending to the politically connected.
  • Tourists and investors are more impressed by an authentic city that retains its culture and identity. Paris will always have many more visitors than Dubai and they will likely stay longer and spend more. Aleppo should focus on restoration of its historic centre not just as a tourist destination but also as a living city. This means maintaining a mixed economy, a range of social groups, public space that is defined in different ways and attracts mixed groups and few efforts at exclusion on the grounds of excessive security.
  • Reconstruction takes time whether it is done as a public-private partnership or through individual investors. Berlin and Beirut started rebuilding their city centres at around the same time and both are incomplete and evolving processes. Both put commercial interests too much to the front, creating lifeless central districts designed by famous architects that are overshadowed by their more interesting and creative neighbours.
  • Despite the long history of violence in Beirut, security features seem to have been ignored in the planning of BCD. Rather than building in relatively inconspicuous security devices, they were added later, cutting off large areas around government buildings and preventing life from returning to the centre. Some new buildings, for example the United Nations regional office are relatively insecure despite blast proofing and other efforts. If government offices or embassies are to be located in sensitive areas then security needs to be considered from the start.
  • The memories of those who left Aleppo and take many years to return will be quite different from those who stayed and endured the full hardships of the war. Those who lived in the east and west will have different experiences and memories. Reconstruction and memorialisation of the war needs to be an inclusive process that brings together as many voices as possible. Amnesia and amnesty have been the choices of the powerful in Lebanon but not always of the victims of war and their families. Even if memories cannot be addressed right after a war, there still should be some effort to document what happened in order to address these issues in the future.
  • Finding appropriate memorials after conflict can be a struggle. Lebanon has done little to deal with its past and so redevelopment has felt more often like erasure rather than recovery. The peace process did not allow for any real examination of what had happened in the civil war as the participants were all in power. Any memorialisation was likely to dredge up memories that the powers wanted suppressed. Consequently even places of great significance in the war are unmarked. All peace processes are flawed and Syria’s eventual peace is likely to come at the cost of truth about the brutality of war. But Lebanon shows us that erasure is not the solution. Rebuilding cannot hide what went before.
  • Many private corporations are not known for their inclusiveness or sensitivity to the needs of women or minorities. Solidere, for example, does not have a single woman on its board. It does have eleven Lebanese men, all with backgrounds in business, finance or law. The narrowness of decision making in the private sector and the lack of transparency or processes of appeal make it an unsuitable mechanism in a post-conflict society.

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  • The Aleppo Project - February 11, 2016

    A comment on Rebuilding Downtown Beirut: Lessons Learned for Aleppo

    Dr Emma Cunliffe
    Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East & North Africa (EAMENA)

    The recent publication of the Aleppo Project’s report regarding the lessons Beirut has for downtown Aleppo has a large number of interesting suggestions for the future of this important city. They represent a significant amount of work and the views of an experienced and committed group of professionals, clearly dedicated to promoting the best outcomes for the people and the city of Aleppo. The recommendations in it are well thought through and are based on a community-driven approach, which we can only hope will be integral to future work not just in Aleppo, but in Syria and the wider region. However, in one area I feel it is lacking, as it has failed to adequately comprehend the legal, economic, social and historic importance of the heritage of Beirut, and the corollaries this has for Aleppo.

    Whilst the report acknowledges the heritage dimension in Beirut, it makes no mention of Aleppo’s World Heritage status in tis recommendations and the impact that will have, which distinguishes it from Beirut to some extent. As a World Heritage site, Aleppo is subject to a World Heritage management plan, implemented with the oversight of the World Heritage Committee, and the World Heritage Charter, both of which have legal implications [1], as well as Syria’s own heritage laws [2]. These will constrain and define the rebuilding to a certain extent. As acknowledged in the report, these additional rebuilding constraints – if mishandled – will increase the problems experienced by the residents [3]. However, evidence from studies in the UK [4] and Japan [5] suggests that World heritage status increases the desirability of property. In addition, it does increase tourism, and can bring in much needed revenue. Again, these factors can hinder as much as harm, supporting the Aleppo Project’s concerns about the risks of pricing local people out of the market, and of the inadvisability of building a city that is dependent on tourism. One only has to look at Egypt and Tunisia [6] to see the poverty experienced by people when their primary / expected source of income – dependent on a volatile security situation – fails. However, to fail to consider or adequately incorporate the effects of World Heritage status decreases the chances of benefitting from it, and increases the risks of negative outcomes outweighing the positive potential.

    In addition, quite aside from listing legal and economic impacts, the true value of World Heritage is the acknowledgement of the value of the heritage to people – the so-called “sacred values” viewed as intrinsic to life itself. Such values are acknowledged to be of benefit in peacebuilding [7, 8], and it is acknowledged that if mishandled they can spark a resurgence of violence [7, 9]. Furthermore, I would contest your statement that “Reconstruction will not mend deep political divisions but can be used to rebuild common public spaces that promote reconciliation”. Whilst it is certainly true that it will never mend divisions by itself, heritage can do much more than provide public spaces where reconciliation may occur. Evidence from Spain [7], Cambodia [10], and elsewhere [11] has shown that when incorporated into the rebuilding process, heritage can be used to aid in healing trauma, and re-humanising the ‘demonised’ other.

    The division created in the report between archaeology as an ancient discipline of old classical ruins and the more modern heritage of the Arab peoples – their religious and historic buildings and traditions – is an artificial one, which helps neither archaeologists or the heritage of the people of the countries concerned. Whilst archaeologists do indeed investigate ancient classical ruins, they are involved, for example: in using forensic excavation techniques to excavate mass graves in countries such as Iraq and Argentina; protecting and/or restoring historic or religious buildings of any era; or studying / protecting the intangible heritage and languages of current or historic communities. The division drawn not only does a disservice to archaeologists and their discipline, but to the people who live in these places. In separating the remains of one era from the remains of another, you artificially separate the people of the region from a continuous history stretching back many thousands of years. In addition, there are many local people in Syria today who work to protect their heritage of all eras, not just classical ruins, or post-Islamic buildings, valuing them all equally [12].

    Lastly, I would contest the idea that archaeology was successfully incorporated into the rebuilding of Beirut. Whilst presented as a success story, Beirut had many thousands of years of buried history that had never before been accessible. Little or no plan was made to excavate this when the reconstruction plans were drawn up. As a result, only limited excavations were conducted, when in reality virtually the entire downtown area would have been worthy of excavation. According to one Lebanese archaeologist “In the name of modernity, ancient landmarks of Beirut, such as elements of the ancient port, Roman baths, and Byzantine churches were either destroyed or dismantled” [12: iii].

    Although it is obviously not feasible to excavate so large an urban area, given the urgent need for reconstruction, had it been incorporated into the reconstruction plans it could have been much better handled. No money was allowed for it, and so it was managed according to the ‘developer pays principle’ which always leads to: pressure on the archaeological team to complete early, often inadequate funding, and no money for storage of the finds or publication. In fact, now there is a storage crisis in Beirut as the Antiquities staff are given objects from these ongoing excavations, with no building or money to store, study or publish them. As far as archaeology is concerned, Beirut very much has lessons to teach, although there have been benefits [12, 13, 14, 15]. These lessons are particularly applicable to Aleppo, as it, too, has an extensive history of continuous occupation going back more than 6000 years, most of which has been inaccessible to archaeologists. In the post-conflict rebuilding, as the rubble is cleared, all these areas will come to light for the first time, with the possibility to shed light not only on the history of the city, but human occupation in the region, and human development from hunter gathers to settled peoples. That being said, this is not a cry that all development be halted until all heritage can be fully recorded. The needs of the people for a functioning city are vital, but heritage should be incorporated into the rebuilding plans, and adequate funding allocated for all aspects – the excavation, recording, storage and publication of the materials found. Ideally, in turn excavation plans would be drawn up in consultation with building planners, to try and accommodate the needs of both. Building on this, at all stages the rich heritage of Aleppo can be utilised in peacebuilding to best serve Aleppo’s people.

    The Aleppo Project is undertaking vital work for the people of Aleppo – providing them a voice, and attempting to secure the best possible outcome for their future. It is to be hoped that this future can also incorporate their amazing past.

    [1] Lostal, M. 2015. Syria’s World Cultural Heritage and Individual Criminal Responsibility. International Review of Law 3. Available
    [2] Syrian Arab Republic, Ministry of Culture, General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums. Antiquities Law. Passed in Legislative Decree #222 of October 26, 1963 With All its Amendments. Available through UNESCO website:
    [3] Assi, E. 2008. The Relevance Of Urban Conservation Charters In The World Heritage Cities In The Arab States. City & Time 4 (1): 5, 57-63. Available:
    [4] Pricewaterhouse Coopers Llp. 2007. The Costs and Benefits of World Heritage Site Status in the UK Full Report. Prepared for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Cadw and Historic Scotland, December 2007. Available at:
    [5] Aoki, M. 2011. World Heritage listing has its price. 04 October 2011. The Japan Times. Available at:
    [6] Feteha, A. 2016. Egypt’s Tourism Collapse Stretches From the Pyramids to the Beach. 01 February 2016. Bloomberg. Available at:
    [7] Viejo-Rose, D. 2013. Reconstructing Heritage in the Aftermath of Civil War: Re-Visioning the Nation and the Implications of International Involvement. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding: Special Issue on Cultural Interventions 7 (2), 125-148.
    [8] See examples in the work of the CRIC Identity and Conflict Project: Cultural Heritage and the Re-construction of Identities after Conflict. Cambridge University:
    [9] Isakhan, B. 2013. Heritage Destruction and Spikes in Violence: The Case of Iraq. In: Kila, J. D. & Zeidler, J. A. (eds.) Cultural Heritage in the Crosshairs. Protecting Cultural Property During Conflict. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 219-248.
    [10] Sirk, S. 2015. Arts and Peacebuilding. In: Summer 2015 Insights Newsletter. August 28 2015. United States institute of Peace. Available :
    [11] Lostal, M. and Cunliffe, E. Forthcoming. Cultural Heritage That Heals: Factoring in Cultural Heritage Discourses in the Syrian Peacebuilding Process. Historic Environment: Policy and Practice (Special Issue: World Heritage in a National Context) 7 (2/3).
    [12] Perini, S. and Cunliffe, E. 2014. Towards a Protection of the Syrian Cultural Heritage: A Summary of the International Responses (March 2011 – March 2014). Vol I. Girona: Heritage For Peace.
    —. 2014b. Towards a Protection of the Syrian Cultural Heritage: A Summary of the International Responses (April 2014 – September 2014). Vol ii. Girona: Heritage For Peace.
    —. 2015. Towards a Protection of the Syrian Cultural Heritage: A Summary of the National and International Responses (September 2014 – September 2015). Vol iii. Girona: Heritage For Peace.
    All available at:
    [12] Charaf, H. 2015. From the Guest Editor. Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies 3 (4), iii-vi.
    [13] Massena, F. 2014. Beirut’s archaeological heritage threatened by construction. 17 October 2014. Al-Monitor. Available at:
    [14] Lawler, A. 2011. Rebuilding Beirut. Archaeology 64 (4), July/August 2011. Available:
    [15] Perring, D. 2009. Archaeology and the Post-war Reconstruction of Beirut. Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites 11 (3-4), 296-314.

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