Rebuilding Downtown Beirut

by Ilona Ilma Ilyes on October 9, 2015


Beirut’s city centre is now mostly rebuilt. A quarter century after it was destroyed during the Lebanese civil war, the area is now a polished mix of restored buildings, ancient ruins and glass towers. But a place that once drew all of Lebanon’s diverse people to its souks, cafes, cinemas and hotels is a somewhat rootless zone of empty luxury stores and unoccupied apartments. Rebuilt as a destination for international money and tourists, it is no longer the heart of Beirut but a very costly monument to vanity and self-delusion.

Lebanon’s capital long ago lost its place as the “Paris of the Middle East” and its current efforts to compete with the oil-fuelled Gulf cities were doomed from the start by changes in the global maps of money, travel and business. Outside of the Beirut Central District (BCD), the city is suffering from the deep failures of governance that afflict the whole country. Public transport is almost non-existent, there is no social housing, a half comfortable life relies on generators and private tankers to bring in water and more people look to confessional groups for help than to the moribund municipal government. The city often ranks low in international liveability surveys, even falling behind its Middle Eastern neighbours like Amman and Cairo. In the summer of 2015 garbage piled up on the streets while protesters waved signs telling the government “You Stink.”

The reconstruction of BCD has thrown up dozens of books and articles and near torrent of denunciations by local architects and activists. Solidere, the private company that runs the downtown, undermined the public good, violated the constitution, demolished too many buildings and acted only in the interest of international investors, according to the critics. Solidere responds by asking what other mechanisms would have worked amidst Lebanon’s polarised politics and shortages of money? The company also points to the buildings that stand where trees grew in the rubble. Beirutis in turn ask “At what cost?”

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

  • Rebuilding that is driven by the few for the few will fail.
  • Core values of accountability and transparency in planning matter.
  • 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 essentially but so is an integrated plan for the whole city.
  • Reconstruction will not mend deep political divisions but it 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.

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  • Dr Emma Cunliffe - February 11, 2016

    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 its 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 benefiting 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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