Rain, Ruins, Everything

Ready for more walking? How about more rain, some ruins, and a little bit of everything else? I left off my last post at St. George Maronite Cathedral in downtown Beirut. Directly next to the church and Al-Amin Mosque, there’s a large area filled with ruins! At the moment, it doesn’t look like much besides a grass-covered pile of rocks. There are a few columns standing, but besides that, it’s hard to tell what exactly is there. Supposedly though, the ruins date back to the Hellenistic period (around 320BC – 30BC) and have layers from the Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, Mamluk, and Ottoman times as well.

Future Garden of Forgiveness

The site was discovered during the post-civil war excavations. There’s a procedure to follow when ancient ruins are found during construction: construction halts, the authorities are notified, and archaeological excavations are undertaken until they are considered complete. Then, a decision is made about what will happen, based on the findings and secretly probably the level of influence of the developer. The ruins are either left in place, moved, or demolished to make way for the construction.

These particular ruins have been set aside in the Beirut master plan as an area to be left unbuilt. The intersection of the Roman city’s two major streets was found there, and archaeologists also think that the famous Roman law school was located nearby. They haven’t found the school, but they know it was next to a church whose ruins have been located. There was a competition to decide what to do with the land, and a plan for creating a “Garden of Forgiveness” was selected. The project hopes to be “a step towards social harmony in Beirut by raising awareness about the need to resolve historical grievances”. The plan integrates the ruins and also includes lots of trees and water features and other things that I guess are supposed to suggest peacefulness and harmony. The construction is currently on hold though, so for the time being, the overgrown pile of rocks is here to stay.

The ruins with St. George in the background

Outside of St. George

There’s ANOTHER St. George church on the other side of the ruins, St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral. It was originally built in the 1760s, but there had already been churches on the same site for hundreds of years by then. The first known church there was built in the 5th century AD, and that’s the one I mentioned that they know was located next to the Roman law school. That church was destroyed along with the law school in the 6th-century earthquake, and a new church was built in the 12th century. Another earthquake in the 18th century destroyed that one as well, and another new church was built. During the civil war, the church was shelled and left in ruins. Geez. Talk about bad luck.

When they decided to rebuild the church in the 1990s, they used the opportunity that the ruined church presented to conduct some archaeological excavations before reconstruction. Over about a year and a half, archaeologists worked to uncover and decode the layers of history underneath the church. They found the ancient cathedral, plus evidence of other churches built on the site. There are also graves, remains of a paved street, and columns that used to line the colonnaded streets of the Roman city.

St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral. I just think this is the coolest picture ever with the lights and the frescoes visible through the windows.

Excuse this picture of a picture, but I thought it was really cool because it shows the church with the floor all opened up during the excavations.

After the excavations were finished, they turned them into a museum and restored the church above. Badveli and went to visit the church first, and it was AWESOME!!!! I love frescoed churches, and literally every surface in this church was covered in frescoes. There were magnificently done, and they actually had them lit so that you could see everything! I wish I’d had all day to scrutinize each fresco, but it would have taken hours to do anything more than quickly glance at them while walking a loop through the church. The frescoes obviously all had to be restored after the war, but a few bullet holes were left as a reminder. I like when they do that… It’s like saying, “We’re rebuilding and moving on because that’s what we have to do, but we also can’t forget about the past or pretend that it never happened.”

Inside St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral

I have no words… except for HOW FREAKING COOL IS THIS???

EVERYTHING was painted.

It’s a little creepy looking up at the church from the museum!

Material timeline!

From there, we went to the crypt museum to check out the ruins. Badveli had never been before, and I was glad that we were doing something new for him so that the whole day wasn’t just him playing tour guide for a bunch of things he’d already seen a million times (most of the day was that, but thanks to this museum, it wasn’t the WHOLE day).

The museum is small, but it’s one of the coolest archaeology museums I’ve ever been to. Since the museum IS the excavation, things are mostly left where they found them. You can see the layers of churches and their different mosaic floors. You can see exactly where graves were found, and a bunch of them still have the skeletons inside. When you first enter, there’s a wall that shows what is basically a vertical timeline of the site. The different material layers in the soil are identified and dated so you can see the various civilizations all stacked on top of one another. The Ottoman layer has a skeleton sticking out, so that’s fun too (eek!). They also have cases with various things in them, but it’s so much cooler knowing that those things were found right next to where they’re now displayed.

A grave… creepy. The last year has made me VERY certain that I want to be cremated because as cool as skeletons are, do I really want people from hundreds or thousands of years in the future digging up my bones? Nooo thank you!

The floor of the medieval church!

It also gives you an idea of how archaeologists piece things together. Since you’re looking at exactly what they were looking at, you can see what columns they used to determine the orientation of the medieval church or the fragment of fresco that was the basis for their assumption that the entire church was painted. The museum has a path for you to follow with numbered stations. At each, you press a button on the information panel, and lights turn on to direct your attention to the places it’s talking about. It was very well done! I felt like I was an archaeologist too, uncovering the secrets of the site as we went from station to station. Maybe I just have an overactive imagination, but it was awesome.

You can see the walkways and information panels

Doesn’t it just look like a cool museum? (I ran around and hit like 5 buttons to turn the lights on for this picture.)

You can see two layers of mosaic floors!

Fresco remnant from the medieval church.

Archaeologists in training!

From there, we walked out into the central square of Beirut. There’s a clock tower in the middle (that escaped damage during the civil war because was disassembled and hidden until it was over) and the Parliament building. It’s a bit eerie because the car traffic is incredibly limited there, so it’s practically a ghost town. Fun because you can walk in the middle of the street, but still just a little weird.

Clocktower! This was taken on a sunny day later in the week, and even with the nice weather, you can still see that there are barely any people out.

The baths on a sunny day when I went back later

Another area of ruins in the city is the Roman baths. They were discovered originally in the late 1960s, were further excavated in the 90s, and are designated as land to remain “unbuilt” in the city. They aren’t the best-preserved baths I’ve ever seen, but they’re definitely still impressive, especially when you think about the fact that they were buried under the city for hundreds of years! The floors are almost completely gone, but they’ve re-set many pieces of the little pillars that held up the floor in the hot room so that the warm air could go underneath. I need to brush up on my Roman bath knowledge again because I didn’t remember too much beyond that, but it was still cool to look at while not knowing anything.

The Roman baths! And you can see the tower of Saint Louis Capuchin Cathedral in the background.

The baths from above

Right near there is the Grand Serail which is the headquarters of the Prime Minister. Badveli said that they can get pretty defensive if you try to take pictures…  even if you only want a picture of the Armenian church Surp Nishan that happens to be right next to it. I’m not interested in getting on the wrong side of someone with an assault rifle, so I didn’t try to take one from any closer than from the Roman baths.

Grand Serail to the left

Surp Nishan from an angle where no one will yell at you for taking a picture.

Inside St. Louis Cathedral

From there, we walked over to ANOTHER church, St. Louis Capuchin Cathedral. It was originally built by Capuchin missionaries and is named after the French King Louis IX. By the time we got there, it was getting dark outside which made it extra dark inside. We couldn’t see much of the interior, but luckily, the stained glass windows were still bright! I went back later on during the day, and I got to enjoy the stained glass again and see the pretty paintings on the ceiling above the altar. No matter how many churches I see, I’m still amazed by how each of them has something that makes it different from the rest. I haven’t gotten sick of them yet! That’s saying something, too, because I’ve been to Rome and I’ve been to Armenia, and they both have more than enough churches to keep you busy.

We saw a couple more things after that, but I’m going to save those for later. When we were both about ready to collapse, we decided to walk the 40ish minutes back to the apartment because it was rush hour. That means walking is probably close to as fast as driving, and I wanted to see the nighttime street life anyway. The walk was nice, though it would have been even nicer with functional sidewalks. I know, I know. I expect too much sometimes.

Check out those paintings!

St Louis Cathedral

Louis from the front

Downtown Beirut Tour!

The next day, Badveli and I braved the rain and walked around downtown Beirut. This was one of those infrequent times when I wished that I had a step tracker or something to know how far we walked because we were on our feet practically the entire day!

This was as much as we could see of the inner part of the museum (I stuck my head through the window in the exterior doors in an effort to see as much as possible)

We started off at another museum, Beit Beirut (House of Beirut). Unfortunately, it was closed, but we looked at what we could from the outside, and Badveli explained the story and described the interior to me. The building was built in 1924. It was an apartment building, originally called the Barakat house after the family that commissioned its construction. The building’s architecture was very transparent, connecting the occupants to the city around them with beautiful, unobstructed views. There were eight families, both Muslim and Christian, living in the building when the civil war broke out. They evacuated, and the building was taken over by Christian militias.

It is located along the Green Line, the road that divided the east and west sides of the city during the civil war. There are five major crossings, and the Barakat building is on the corner of one of them. That strategic location, plus the architecture that allowed for such fantastic views, made it into an ideal location for snipers to prevent people from crossing the street.

After the war, it was discovered by a Lebanese architect, Mona Hallak, who became determined to preserve the building and share its history. She said, “To me it represented Beirut: before the war through the archives I found under the dust and debris, during the war through the sniper additions, graffiti and bullet holes covering its walls, and after the war through my fight for the preservation of our heritage, identity and memory against the sweeping amnesia.”

Beit Beirut

It took years of battling with both the Barakat family and the city, but she was eventually successful in ensuring its preservation. It went through a serious restoration process to make sure it was structurally sound while preserving the interior and exterior damage or “war architecture”. There was also an addition to support its new function as a museum.

I would have loved to go inside. It seems like a pretty spectacular and powerful place, and despite the damage, you can still see the beauty and elegance of the building. Welp… guess I’m going to have to go back to Lebanon! Oh darnnnn…

Ruins on the left, shiny new mosque in the back, construction on the right.

Armenian Catholic Church! It looks exactly the same as every church in Armenia except for the material, doesn’t it?

From there, we wandered towards downtown, pausing to observe the absurd amount of construction happening along the way and wonder about the buildings that have gone seemingly untouched since the war. There’s a big developer that has control over practically all of the rebuilding and development in the downtown area. They have compulsory purchase power which means that they can force people to sell their property even if they don’t want to and pay them way less than it’s worth. There’s a weird feeling that you get in a lot of parts of town that they’ve heavily developed. They certainly look nice, but they’re missing personality and life. There’s no color, both figuratively and literally because everything is built out of the same, yellowish stone. The streets look like they should be full of people, but it’s like the city falls asleep as soon as you step into one of the little development pockets.

I kept having these conflicting feelings because often, I thought that the buildings were pretty. But what’s the point of having pretty buildings if no one can afford to use them? Buildings are made to be used. Otherwise, they’re worthless. Yes, architecture is also art, but what makes it such a cool art form is the fact that it needs to be both functional and beautiful. Without function, you have nothing more than a very large sculpture. The city changes from a living, breathing place into an inauthentic, amusement-park-type attraction.

Here’s one of those pretty but deserted streets… See what I mean?

Also, sometimes you have to wonder if more buildings really are better. More buildings means more people. More people means that you need more space for people to do their living. Not just apartment space, but outdoor space. Space for kids to play and people to socialize. A city with only tall buildings quickly turns into a very isolating, suffocating place.

Detailing on the side of Al-Amin Mosque

From there, we walked past Al-Amin Mosque. It was built between 2001 and 2008 and is the largest mosque in Lebanon. There’s some controversy surrounding the procurement of the land that it’s on, but I can’t mentally handle learning about more complicated history sooo… here’s the one second summary of what I think I know, and we’ll leave it at that: the prime minister at the time was the one who managed to do the previously un-doable purchasing of land which seems a little questionable. That’s all I’m going to say.

Of course, the controversy doesn’t stop there because why would there ever be a simple story for me to tell you? That would be way too easy. The mosque’s architecture is Ummayyad, Mamluk, and Ottoman-inspired, and many people think that it looks out of place in the center of Beirut. It’s also extremely large which makes it stick out even more. The minarets are 72 meters high!

Personally, I didn’t love the exterior. It definitely felt like it was forced and didn’t quite match the other things around it. However, I went back later on my own and went inside… and it was spectacular. The painting, calligraphy, and gilding in the dome were like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I could have stared at the ceiling, marveling at its beauty and complexity, for hours. I kept thinking, “Who the heck can do something like this? And HOW LONG did it take them??”

The church and mosque from behind with all of their towering components.

Well, let me just say… the internet, my friends, can be a wonderful thing. Guess what? The dude who did all of that is named Harout Bastajian, aka definitely Armenian. He specializes in the painting of religious buildings, and he says that the painting of Al-Amin Mosque took him and his team ONLY 3 MONTHS. Ummm how.

Obsessed.

IS THIS NOT THE COOLEST THING YOU’VE EVER SEEN??????

My visit to the mosque was also very interesting because they have a guy there just to talk to visitors. I was the only visitor at the time, so I got to ask him anything I wanted about the building or Islam. He was trying to convert me which obviously wasn’t going to work, but I was excited to have someone to answer my many questions. I’ve been getting more and more interested in learning about other religions so that I have a basic understanding of what other people believe, and reading about religion on the internet only leads to headaches. When you’re talking to someone, you can ask them exactly the things you’ve been wondering about and get answers that aren’t written for religious scholars.

Directly next to the mosque is a church, St. George Maronite Cathedral. One of the complaints about the mosque is that it dwarfs the church, and I guess they decided to deal with that by building a randomly tall clock tower topped with a tacky (in my non-objective opinion) light-up cross. To be honest, I don’t know why they built the clocktower and if it actually had anything to do with the mosque or not, but there is kind of a nice sentiment behind the height they chose for it. It was going to be a bit taller to match the height of this clock tower in Rome, but they decided to cut off a few meters so that it’s the same height as the towers on the mosque to send a message of harmony and solidarity between the religions.

I think that’s enough for now, right? I don’t want to overwhelm you with information all at once… we’ll save more overwhelming for the next post. 🙂

The campanile (aka clock tower)

Night view! You can see my favorite glowing cross.

Inside St. George