In Beirut between art and conflict

Beirut is one of the oldest cities in the world, an eternal survivor, a phoenix reborn from its ashes, continuously reinvented by its tenacious population, which has 18 different religious faiths. It is in this way that she has managed to carve out a niche in the global art scene, transforming the suffering that followed conflicts, occupations and civil war into creative force.

Chaos is the first word that comes to mind as soon as you arrive in Beirut by taxi from the airport: the chaos of a busy metropolis, consisting of tall buildings and abandoned houses, minarets and churches, surrounded by the blue waters of the Mediterranean and the green peaks of Lebanon.

The different neighbourhoods, such as the redeveloped centre and the legendary Corniche of the seafront, the elegant Hamra and the luxurious Gemmayzeh, bear everywhere the marks left by the invaders over the last two millennia: Phoenicians and Romans, Arabs, Crusaders and Ottomans, up to the influential French protectorate after the First World War. Only in 1943 did Lebanon gain independence. Since then, Beirut has been a cultural crossroads that has resisted the attempts to invade Israel and Syria, but since 1975 it has suffered 15 years of civil war between Christians and Muslims.

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Even today, its geographical location in the heart of the Middle East makes Beirut a central hub and laboratory of modern creativity with a variety of cutting-edge artists, film directors and producers, musicians and DJs, designers and designers. This city feels the precariousness of life because of its changing history, but precisely for this reason the strength to create and make things happen is really intense and perceptible. All you have to do is spend a day in what was called the Paris of the Middle East to appreciate the archaeological sites and the spectacular contemporary art.

Beit Beirut

This project, a novelty on the metropolitan cultural scene, is a memorial to the ten-year conflicts, but also a look to the future thanks to art and photography exhibitions.

It is its own building that makes the Beit Beirut Museum special, located right on the Green Line that divided the Christian and Muslim areas during the civil war. This neo-Ottoman villa from the 1920s was used as a sniper’s bunker and was kept as it was, including rubble.

As architect Youssef Haidar explains, visitors “begin their experience the moment they see the facade of the museum. Inside, we left the damage of the explosions, the walls drilled with blows, the graffiti of the snipers intact. The visit is touching for both Lebanese and foreigners

Mohammed al-Amin Mosque

A 15-minute walk along Rue de Damas will take you into the heart of the city centre, amidst the glittering blue domes and slender minarets of Mohammed al-Amin’s Mosque, known as Lebanon’s Blue Mosque. Indeed, architect Azmi Fakhuri admits that he was inspired by the famous Ottoman sanctuary in Istanbul. The mosque, completed only in 2008, dominates the panorama of the city and at night its lighting is impressive. It is open to the public, except during prayer hours, and the interior is enchanting: in the soft light of huge crystal chandeliers, the vault is covered with intricate typically Islamic motifs.

Behind the mosque is a labyrinth of Roman ruins and next to it is the Maronite cathedral, which has been observed by 40% of the population and whose roots in Lebanon date back to the 4th century.

Orthodox Cathedral of St. George

The oldest church in Beirut is located in the shadow of the Blue Mosque, near the Roman ruins. Dating back to 2000 years ago, this small Byzantine jewel that survived earthquakes and wars, was rebuilt dozens of times and today its original architectural beauty has been restored. Inside the incense-scented church, in addition to the beautiful frescoes and golden icons of St. George, there are pillars and mosaics still marked by bullets and graffiti, historical memory of when the church was on the line of fire. In the crypt you can admire the fascinating underground archaeological museum.

The Sursock Museum

A 5-minute taxi ride will take you to the elite neighbourhood of the illustrious Sursock dynasty, whose luxurious homes and lush gardens seem to have remained intact over time. The highlight is the sumptuous palace of patron Nicolas Sursock, built in the eclectic Ottoman-Venetian style. In 2015, after seven years of restoration, it was reopened as a museum of modern art.

The design by renowned French architect Michel Wilmotte retained the stained-glass façade and decorated balustrades and included large halls to host contemporary Lebanese art exhibitions and shows such as Let’s Talk About The Weather, where artists deal with climate change issues.

Plan Bey Gallery

At the very end of the steep St Nicholas’ Staircase that connects Sursock with the more evocative Gemmayzeh, Plan Bey is a luxurious art gallery with a range of exhibitions ranging from vintage photo prints from the Lebanese wars to collages of glamorous retro posters, provocative graffiti stickers and books.

Gallery Plan Bey

At the very end of the steep St Nicholas’ Staircase that connects Sursock with the more evocative Gemmayzeh, Plan Bey is a luxurious art gallery with a range of exhibitions ranging from vintage photo prints from the Lebanese wars to collages of glamorous retro posters, provocative graffiti stickers and artist’s books.

This, however, is not a gallery like the others, on the contrary it is an example of the dynamic art scene in Beirut, in fact the owners are artisan publishers of artistic prints and multimedia creations. Plan Bey exhibits limited edition prints, made in collaboration with many local artists, and bizarre political comics such as Barrack Rima’s Beyrouth Bye Bye, which portray the city submerged by mountains of garbage and attacked by crocodiles and ninjas. Unlike more expensive galleries, Plan Bey’s principle is that art is accessible to all.

Armenia Street

Despite the difficulties in a territory shaken by perennial tensions, Beirut has been able to continuously reinvent itself as the festive capital of the Arab world. A striking example is Armenia Street, a 10-minute walk from Plan Bey, a street that until a few years ago was a heap of dilapidated houses and car repair shops. Today, every space has been converted into a bar, boutique, bistro or club.

Explore the different venues: from the retro, international-style Milan 60s setting to Central, where a mixology guru will tell you about how he learned the art of cocktails in a fashionable London pub; and from the romantic Prune, more chic than a Parisian bistro, to Anise, where white-jacketed bartenders serve 30 different types of absinthe and handcrafted arak from every region of Lebanon.

Byblos Castle

Take a taxi to Byblos, a historic Phoenician port 30 kilometres from the city centre. On a small hill above the fortified port stands the majestic Crusader Castle, built in the 12th century, when the Crusader knights fought to conquer Jerusalem. The panorama includes Greek and Roman temples, Turkish souks and the well-preserved Church of St John the Baptist.

This section of the city, considered Beirut’s Saint-Tropez, is a trendy summer destination and stretches across an area that has been populated since the Stone Age and boasts UNESCO-protected monuments. The castle also houses a small museum, but the real jewel of the place lies at the end of a steep staircase, where a fortified tower awaits you to admire the view.

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