Beirut’s architectural heritage in danger after the double explosion

The double blast that hit Beirut on Tuesday damaged museums and, according to the Lebanese Minister of Culture, “hundreds” of buildings classified as national heritage, sometimes several hundred years old. Repairs can cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

It is not just Beirut’s future that has been darkened by Tuesday’s double explosion. The murderous and devastating drama did not spare the remnants of the Lebanese capital’s glorious past, smashing museums and historic buildings with traditional architecture.

Famous for its triple arch windows, typical of Beirut, hundreds of architectural gems from the Ottoman Empire or the French Mandate (1920-1943) already suffered the ravages of time.

After weakening during the Civil War (1975-1990), these taxes saw the explosion on Tuesday – equivalent to a magnitude 3.3 earthquake – which gave them the final blow.

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Some of the oldest buildings are actually located near the port, where several tons of nitrated ammonium, stored for six years in a warehouse, exploded.

In a castle from the 18th centurye century, the explosion destroyed antiques older than Lebanon, which this year marks the centenary of its creation.

In the Patrician residence decorated with marble columns, the door was pulled down and wooden panels from the Ottoman era reinforced with Arabic calligraphy were damaged. Broken stained glass windows, more than 200 years old, were swept into a corner.

“It’s like a rape,” said Tania Ingea, heir to the house, formerly known as “Palace of the Residence.”

Built by one of Beirut’s great fortunes, the Sursock family, in 2006 the palace survived the civil war and the destructive war between Hezbollah and Israel.

Blowing glass windows and damaged works

With the explosion “regrets the now and the past”, Tania Ingea complains. “It is an interruption in the transmission of the memory of a place, a family, of a part of the history of the city.”

Nearby, the Sursock Museum, a center of cultural life that houses an impressive collection of modern and contemporary art, has not been spared. Just a few months ago, it hosted an unprecedented Picasso exhibition.

Jute bags filled with rubbish are piled up in the courtyard, at the foot of the monumental staircase of honor where the newlyweds took pictures of themselves, in front of the chiseled facade of immaculate white and colored stained glass windows. These famous stained glass windows have been smashed and the windows are nothing but gaping holes.

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The palace, built in 1912, an exhibition of Venetian and Ottoman architecture, became a museum almost 50 years later, as its owner Nicholas Sursock, an avid collector, wanted.

Between 20 and 30 jobs were damaged, mostly by shards of glass, according to a spokesman.

Among them is a centerpiece of the collection: a portrait of Nicholas Sursock painted by the French-Dutch Kees Van Dongen. The explosion caused the painting to fall and cut the canvas.

The museum reopened in 2015 after eight years of renovation. Jacques Aboukhaled, the architect who led the work, ensures that the structure is intact, even if the rest has been blown away.

“I did not expect much damage (…). I am very attached to this building. It is like our house”, adds the sixty-year-old. According to him, the repairs can take more than a year and cost “millions” of dollars.

The National Museum was spared

But a miracle. The National Museum, which contains a huge collection of Greek, Roman and Phoenician statues and antiques, has escaped the worst. Only the outer facade is damaged, according to Minister of Culture Abbas Mortada.

Located on the old boundary line during the Civil War, the neo-Hellenistic building found itself trapped in the fighting.

The main parts of the museum had been saved from looting thanks to the insight of the former curator, Maurice Chéhab, who had cast them in concrete.

Today, “hundreds” of buildings classified as national heritage are damaged, the minister said. “It will take a lot of work.”

A team is doing a census of the damage but the repairs will cost “hundreds of millions” of dollars, AbbasMortada estimates, hoping for help outside, especially from Paris.

“We need to carry out renovations as soon as possible,” he says. “If winter comes and it is not over, the danger will be great.”

With AFP