From the Walled Town of Eight Gates to the Architecture of the City

Sociologist and historian Waddah Chararah delves into the two-hundred-year story of how Beirut spilled out beyond the confines of a walled town and began to encompass the suburbs of the surrounding hills.

From the walled town of eight gates to the architecture of the city. Sketches by Bassam Ramlawi.
It took nearly seven decades for Beirut to leave its gates behind. Once a walled town of narrow alleys, families, craftsmen, and small natural harbors, it started to formulate various new networks of interconnection. These decades of transition began with the campaign of Ibrahim Pasha in 1830-40 and continued until the turn of the twentieth century. This period witnessed the establishment of the Beirut-Damascus Road at the end of the 1860s and the modern foundations of the port in the late 1880s. A new municipal council took control over the city’s urban planning, along with its expansion and organization. The council did away with the tightly packed, interconnected shops of the narrow Fashkha market street, which ran from Bourj Square to Bab Idriss, and established Tareeq Al Mulahimeen (Sailors Street) as its parallel to the west, making room for agencies and offices of multinational corporations to set up shop.

Before the destruction of the wall as a material, architectural, ideological, and social entity, the gateways, or portals, stood watch over the alleys, roads, and markets of the city. They watched over the city night and day, over the commercial and social relations between its interior and exterior. The city’s heart before the wall was destroyed – or left to collapse – used to be Al Amri Mosque, where men of learning were taught, where they passed down knowledge, prestige, and influence through generations of their families. When the Petit Serail was constructed, modeled after the Grand Serail on the hill overlooking the sea, it was established near the cemetery of the eastern Bab Kharija, one of the wall’s gates that stood opposite the central Bab Idriss.

Cemeteries are fixed points outside of a vacillating and always changing reality. Bachoura – first the cemetery, then later the namesake of a neighborhood – was a suburb close to the walled town. Bachoura was adjacent to the wide square outside the city walls. The square was given the strange name of Aal Sour (Along the Wall), an expression of its location and place. The suburban square was, one might say, the mother of the gateways. It was a stage for the celebration of public festivals, before these celebrations were relocated to Horsh Snowbar (the Pine Forest Park) in the distant secondary suburbs. Festivals, be they religious, folkloric, or popular traditions, are a suburban space vis-à-vis the centrality of everyday life, with its monotonous timekeeping and religious strictures. During festivals, either in the square or in the coastal area of Ramlet Al Baida, people of the city could to do what they forbade themselves and their children from doing under normal circumstances, in the interior space of the walled city. Playing, dancing, and mixing together were partially permitted, along with song, intimate glances, and perhaps even physical affection; their clothes were elegant and decorative, the bonds of neighborhood and familial identity loosened.

The Festival 

In 1909, Sheikh Ahmad Tabarra, one of the well-known learned men of Beirut, went to the Ottoman officials and informed them of “the events in the Aal Sour Square during the Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha holidays and [explained] how these events violated both religious and state law.” The sheikh gave an account of the violations perpetrated by the holiday revelers. According to Tabarra, they were gambling and transgressing the prohibitions against Maysir and playing games. Women paraded around and bore their faces to men in open scandal for all to see. The celebration of the holidays in the square – which was, up until 1850, a sandy space mainly covered by large, thick sycamores, on the southern side of the old town between Bachoura cemetery and the inhabited alleys connected to the Great Amri Mosque – could not have proceeded without the installation of swings and merry-go-rounds. Children rode these machines – boys and girls, young men and women – and were lifted up and spun dizzily in the air as a fever ran through their bodies. According to the Beirut newspaper The Fruits of Art, these machines also “ruined morals and abolished all shame” and “broke several limbs.” Riding the seesaws and “dizziers,” as they were called by the commoners, was one of the many leisure and entertainment activities that represented a distinct departure from the familiar reality of everyday life, whether or not that reality was usually bound by the confines of religious law. The space of festival celebration also became a stage for “masters of performance” as they were called, the performers of Qarakoz and farces, which featured love stories between the prince and the commoner or told of the just ruler’s revenge on thieves and corrupt officers.

Inside, Outside

The celebration of the festival in this way required leaving the old, fenced-in Beirut behind and departing to the nearby exterior, which lacked architecture. Inside the city, according to accounts of residents, were “narrow and crooked streets, a half meter in width or, at the widest, a meter and a half.” Indeed, the descriptions by travelers and diplomats in the first half of the nineteenth century about the interior of Beirut were no less harsh than accounts by its residents.

The Islamic quarter in particular appeared “as if it consisted of merely a large group of prisons … and it is possible to say that every single house in Beirut appeared to be a defense center.” Thus, the popular celebration of Eid Al Fitr was not held in the markets of the city, with their twisting alleyways and dirty backstreets, as these areas were described by people born there and by their descendants. These narrow spaces were not wide enough to set up the tents, swings, and spinning machines that the festivities entailed. But another, more compelling reason prevented the celebration of the festival within the confines of the old town: the city’s populated and planned interior was free of the mixing, corruption, and abuse that were central to the festivities. These celebrations had to take place beyond the decaying wall, with its crumbling gates. The activities of the holiday in the exterior space broke away plainly from the standards of normal life. The festival kept pace with the mind-sets of children and women and the desires of young men and girls before they reached the age of modesty. This occurred through the mixing of men and women without taboo. The activities enabled participants to join together into circles, to crowd together, and to mingle. The festival blended different groups and various social classes. In a way that would be impossible to achieve in any other societal situation, the festival enabled people to mix without discrimination based on religion.

The Shame of Knowledge

Towards the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, just before World War I, Siniyya Hubbub – the Muslim girl and daughter of the famous Beirut grain trader Mustapha Hubbub – signed up for Junior College at the American University in Beirut. She then enrolled in medical school there. She “used to wear the malaa [a fabric wrap] and the hijab,” would go “all by herself and ride the tram to the American University,” and then return to her home in Ain Mreisse by herself. Her comings and goings to the university without supervision and her mixing with the people on buses, with anonymous pedestrians, and with her classmates elicited “family objections” and “the scorn of men,” who would spit in her face. Consequently, her father was forbidden from praying in the mosque. Siniyya was forced to travel to the United States in order to study medicine there. In the meantime, between 1908 and 1918, the Altram Electric Company had laid the tracks for its first tram line between Bab Idriss and Al Manara, the lighthouse. Beirut was witnessing transformations in lifestyle, architecture, and education – transformations that city residents would contend with for decades to follow. Thus, there can be no doubt that the celebration of the festival in Aal Sour Square as described above – taken together with the treatment given to Siniyya Hubbub despite her family background, famous father, her hijab, her modest manner of dress, and the fact that she lived in an affluent suburb – was a far more flagrant violation of tradition than anything the young medical student did some ten years later.

The comparison between the celebrations in Al Sour Square on the one hand, with the social and spatial configurations these celebrations engendered, and the new fruits of modernity in Beirut on the other, does not mean that such celebrations were welcomed by the people or ever became established custom. It is more likely that the Sheikh Ahmad Tabarra was not alone in his opinions. No one in the community openly called for the acceptance of gambling, except during the few days of Eid Al Fitr, the release following the Ramadan month of fasting. Similarly, no one publicly called for women to show off their charms and appear in public in ostentatious clothing. Family and clan traditions were strict about this, especially in the urban and settled areas. But the celebration was not a spontaneous event. Its violations and deviations from everyday life must be seen in relation to the role of the celebration as a tradition in itself, bound by a limited time, in this case Eid Al Fitr, and place, along the old wall that separated the settled interior from the vast and empty country.

Four Ayyoub

But a departure from the sacred taboos and social practices of trade, worship, and governance in Beirut were not limited to Eid Al Fitr, the religious and secular holiday. When the Muslim residents of the city used to stage the celebration of Four Ayyoub on the last Wednesday of April, they would go out from the neighborhoods to the beach in Ramlat Al Baida and Shawran “in the company of horses and tambours, and they would clap, sing, and wail,” in a way befitting a spring celebration. When they reached their destination, they would set up huts and construct paper kites. They would dance and sing, grill meats, smoke arguileh, and race on the sand and in the water. They would gather seashells, fly kites, and provoke fights and quarrels with the girls to while away the time. As evening came they would wash, and then call out in remembrance of the healing of Job, the Quranic and Hebraic prophet of patience, who was cured from leprosy after bathing. This was the prophetic justification for this exceptional day.

Just as during the days of Eid Al Fitr, on Four Ayyoub Beirutis would leave behind their daily routines. The day of Ayyoub also mixed age groups and encouraged the youth to mingle with each other. But the high priority given to food in the festivity and to the pitching of tents and flying of kites – all of this took on a significance among the people that had no equivalent in the rituals of Eid Al Fitr. The choice of the faraway shore, beyond the city wall, its gates, suburbs, cemeteries, markets, and coffee shops, evinced the desire for temporary liberation from the vestiges of society. It represented a desire to leave them behind and suspend them, like the suspension of work during official holidays. The people of Beirut – as individuals and collectively – desired flight and liberation from the pressures of society and the flesh. Living in family buildings had shackled the Apollonian impulse, held in secret according to Greek, Egyptian, Persian, and Berber traditions.

Celebration of the Interior 

In addition to the exterior celebrations, Beirut witnessed at the same time an interior celebration. At the moment of the sighting of the crescent moon at the start of the lunar month of Shawal, cannons were fired in Sahat Al Qishla (or the Grand Serail), announcing the start of the month. The troops would stand in formation at the side of the central Fashkha market, on the road that led to the Small Serail, the seat of the government in Bourj Square, behind the Amir Assaf Mosque to the east and the Great Amri Mosque and Bab Idriss to the west. It was named the New Road in 1894, the year that the road was widened. The governor would park his carriage, as would the mufti, the Ottoman provincial representative, and the chief of the honorable nobles in a procession of the major functionaries. The procession would head toward the mosque through the northern gate, which had been restored after the widening of the crammed Fashkha market, and the crowd would hail them in Turkish: “Bad shahim juq yasha!” (Long live our Lord the Sultan). The governor and his entourage would perform the festival prayer. The procession would then head from the mosque to the barracks. It would display military power at the site and extend greetings to the commander and the major officers. The procession would then visit the hospital of the imperial troops in the neighboring building, present gifts to sick soldiers, and return in retinue to the house of government. From the procession would come forth “the great functionaries, persons of power and office” to offer greetings and acknowledgments. After the festival prayer and the great exchange of felicitations, those in attendance would disperse to head off to visit the graves. The giving of alms proceeded before the festival prayer on the last day of Ramadan, according to the ruling of the religious court. The women would make preparations in the houses on the eve of the first day, in order to “distinguish the day” and polish the house so that it might “shine with cleanliness.”

This holiday was performed in the political, religious, administrative, and economic heart of Beirut. To a much lesser degree, this was also the center of city’s population. When Beirut was elected capital of an independent state unconnected to Syria or Damascus at the end of the 1870s, the nearby suburbs were still mere villages. But the area of settlement was expanding. The population crept in from many areas and regions, from Turkey in the north and Egypt in the south, and, above all, from Mount Lebanon. These people inhabited the suburban villages. As places of settlement, these areas are a measure of the strength of bond between the group of settlers and the location where they were settling. The areas that divided these settlements – Aal Sour Square or Bab Al Dirka between Bachoura and Zouqaq Al Blatt – often remained empty fields, suspended spaces. Despite the hemorrhaging of the old Arab city and the gradual migration of its inhabitants to the suburbs, where they were received without having ever been there before, the geographical heart of the city did not fall apart.  It widened and split open for constantly renewing markets, for inventive professions, for new products and unknown trades. The city opened the doors of its markets, souks, khans, and some of its shops and living quarters to resident foreigners and many novel characters. So the center, or the heart, witnessed the emigration of the population as they left behind their homes and alleyways; it welcomed the arrival of traders, as well as the renewal of the city’s architecture and planning.

Social Hierarchies and Their Disintegration

Despite certain aspects of the celebrations, with their tendency to intermingle social groups, bringing them out of their introversion through forbidden temptations and appealing to the calls of desire and pleasure, the celebrations also renewed the city’s sanctioning of different social classes and legitimized the distinctions between social groups. The celebrations enforced these roles. The celebrations caused these roles to vacillate back and forth between the house of government, the military barracks, and the great mosque on the one hand, and between these two poles – the government and the mosque – and the eyes of the people on the other hand. The official central celebration affirmed the precedence of the Turkish Ottoman ruler over the Arabs and the preponderance of the sword and arms over the power of collective belief and doctrine. It also affirmed on this level the preeminence of the warring ruler in comparison to the positions of the judge and the civil servants. Yet the celebration did not only rank the functions of people, or divide them between classes. It also connected one class to another by means of the comings and goings between the two poles.

The tense and continuous departure from the old town of Beirut over the course of about one hundred years (1820-1920) occurred in the context of a widespread desire to exchange the city’s lifestyle patterns and the classes associated with these sociological practices in favor of new social configurations. The departure from the walled town with its portals to embrace the Mediterranean port, the major seat of the state and later the capital of the republic, involved four interrelated factors: the expansion of Beirut’s trade and its port situated on the Mediterranean; the breaking of the social, governmental, religious, and legal restrictions against the spread of city land and the addition of nearby land to create a continuous enclosure to the east and south; the connection of the port to the Lebanese and Ottoman hinterland; and the incorporation of the preceding three factors in the formation of a cohesive social and economic country. All of this required easing the obstacles between a retreating interior, weak in resources and structure, and many outer circles elaborately interconnected in their desire for connectedness.

City of War and Trade 

In 1772, a Russian fleet bombarded Beirut and its Ottoman port and prevented the prince of the mountain, Youssef Shehabi, from providing security in the area that he struggled to control against the governing sultans in Bilad Al Sham (Greater Syria) and Lebanon, first referred to as the Mountain of the Druze and later as Mount Lebanon. The prince wrote to Outhman Pasha that “the country is just a village” without any “surrounding wall or enclosure and with no commanding general.” In response, the governor sent four hundred cavalry and two hundred ground troops. They were led by a young Albanian man named Ahmad Bek Al Jazzar. It was Al Jazzar’s responsibility to hold together the troubled country, the population of which numbered at that time from four thousand to six thousand, most of them Muslims. He was supposed to protect them from attacks from the sea by Romans, Russians, Berbers, and Italians, as well as from pirates. To the local military government, he was the intermediary in 1775 between the delegations of the governors from Acre and Saida, responsible for the withdrawal of the territory – which was influenced by the nearby emirate of the mountain, with which it dealt closely when it came to campaigns from the sea – from the control of the Shehab family. Between Youssef Shehab and Al Jazzar the Albanian, a struggle ensued over the profits from food sources. The withdrawal of the sea port from the Shehab family, the rulers of the mountain, and the Maronite Church, resulted in a great benefit. This benefit was the maritime blocking of the mountain from Mediterranean European politics, in particular from the prevalent French policy that sought to dominate the sea. Al Jazzar immediately took to securing the towers and fortresses of the wall, as well as its four primary gates. He loaded them up with combatants. He prepared most of the troops for an extended deployment. He gave out plots of land and sectioned off each side of the wall to the officers who had taken over control of guarding the wall. Some of these men, after a decade and a half, were able to obtain their own pieces of land for themselves and for their spouses and children. Al Jazzar focused on fortifying the towers of the two gates that stood opposite the mountain and the roads that led down from it: the Dirka Gate and Kashaf Tower to the east, and the gates of the old Serail behind the Amir Assaf Mosque near the seaside citadel, to the east and north. He strengthened the towers of these two gates and stationed fighters and troops within them. The Albanian was not stingy with resources toward the wealthy and fortunate inhabitants of the city.

The truth is that over the course of some three decades, Ahmad Bek Al Jazzar made Beirut into a prominent walled, fortified, Ottoman city. The restored wall, fortresses, towers, and military administration, as well as the city’s isolation from Mount Lebanon and French trade relations, brought about a withdrawal onto a plot of about 750 meters in length and 350 in width. The wall, supported by pillars and large imported stones, reached from the foot of the hill of the Grand Serail, turned east to the Maronite Church of Saint George, then sloped down to near the Amir Assaf Mosque, the Mosque of the Serail dating back to Fakhreddine. It then went down to the port and the Majidiyya Mosque. The wall surrounded this mosque and passed north and west, dividing the Zawiya of Imam Ouzai, on its interior, from the Capuchin Church, on its exterior. The wall encircled the architecture of the inhabited area and wound around it, rising from the road opposite Bab Idriss and closing it off from the foot of the hill. The overbearing wall fortified the sea city that gathered around its port and seaside citadel.

The port, and the city more broadly, took on two roles, sometimes at odds with each other: the war function, wherein the port faced French ships that cut through the Islamic side of the Mediterranean on their trade and military routes, and the trading function, which flourished in times of peace and during periods of extended political ties to European capitals. The French traders would stay near the port around the Kashshaf Tower, whose height reached sixty feet and width twelve feet. It was said by one of the intelligence officers of the Egyptian Ibrahim Pasha, shortly before the Pasha’s army entered Beirut in 1831, that this tower “ruled the city.” The war function required cordoning off Beirut with its wall fortresses and towers and filling the harbor with earth, stones, and large rocks, as Fakhreddine was forced to do when an Ottoman naval assault threatened him. It also required cutting off trade routes to and from the mountain, both in and out of the souk of Beirut. The trade function required opening the gates and receiving foreigners who came from two directions: from Mount Lebanon, with the areas and markets of Bilad Al Sham behind it, and from Mediterranean Europe.

Two Architectural Forms

The Ottoman war function of the city was not distinct from the civil, architectural, and socio-political structures exemplified so clearly by the rule of Ahmad Bek Al Jazzar, the Albanian. But Al Jazzar did not invent these structures. The plans of Beirut, inherited from the eighteenth century and perhaps even from the two preceding Ottoman centuries, have as their central points the great mosques, smaller mosques, and zawiyas – places of Sufi worship. Facing the sea, from east to west, was an almost continuous and unbroken row of mosques and zawiyas: the Mosque of Amir Mansour Assaf, Great Umari Mosque, Majidiyya Zawiya, and mosques of Amir Munzhir Fazawiti, Abdalrahman Al Uzai, and Sheikh Raslan. The mosques and zawiyas stood parallel to the old sailor’s way, which was the city’s balcony looking out over the port. Some of these structures, like the Umari Mosque and the Mosque of Amir Munzhir, were in the middle of the city, right in the middle of its population centers and souks. These only became isolated as unique structures when the city left behind its wall and gates. There were no mosques on the southern side of the city, beyond the Umari Mosque and the Mosque of Amir Munzhir. The only religious edifice on the southern line of the wall, before the construction of the Muhammad Amin Mosque in 2005, was the Maronite Church of Saint George. This church faced the school of the Lazarite nuns and their medical clinic, built in 1848. The Maronite residents of Beirut, who came from the Chouf and Keserwan, were not able to build a church in the middle of the city, in contrast to their Orthodox countrymen. Nor did they build one facing the sea, where the French Capuchins had built theirs outside the city wall. Rather, after some time, they built their church to the south, in the direction of the Chouf and Metn.

People lived in houses, twisting alleys, tight streets, and markets – all of which bespoke their own introverted identity. Near the Umari and Munzhir Mosques were the portals, or small gateways, of Youssef Ida, Sheikh Raslan Alley, Hadra, Forty Men (adjoined to the Saint George Church), and the small door at the port on the great wall. Just as with the gates of the wall, the gateways of the alleys and small streets were locked two hours before sunset and reopened again just before dawn. The thick barrier between the street and the domestic interiors, the restriction and focus of one’s concern onto the home, the permission to throw garbage into the street, the height of the great walls and the walls’ encirclement of the homes, the covering up of one home’s harem from the view of the next, and the rule of the courts against offenses in public – all of these factors gave rise to the phenomenon that I am attempting to describe, to the narrowing of transmission and exchange between the most prominent areas of the city. Above all, the concern was the transmutation between the foreigner – he who is not a “known son” according to the tribal definition of the Bani Hilal – and the protective impulse of family and civil society.

The leader of the Maghrebi Protectorate did not make new customs and traditions for the Ottoman economic administration. The number of different taxes collected from citizens reached nearly 1090, according to a late statistic by Muhammad Kardali. Certainly, extortion of undue taxes also accompanied this collection. The trades and professions, with all of their types and subdivisions, were regulated from above, that is by the bosses, chiefs, sheikhs, and notables. They took over responsibility for negotiating on behalf of those under their command and for the distribution of individual taxes. In this sense, they were a class of themselves, a closed rank. The persistent coherence of particular alliances – whether sects, families, tribal communities, alley and neighborhood groups, or the unity of a Sufi order – was a vital obstacle faced by the public administrators and those with political and military power. And these factors – that is, coherence and social structures, feelings of unity – required the gathering together of these actors to the greatest degree possible and the dedication of buildings that dealt with the interrelationships between people and with the relations of these groups with the administration.

Accounting for the Gates

Under the government and state of Ahmad Bek Al Jazzar, the gates were largely left as they had been. For the last and only time, the gates numbered four: Bab Al Dirka to the south, Bab Al Santiya to the west, Bab Al Dabbagha to the north and east of the port, and Bab Al Serail to the east beyond Amir Assaf Mosque at Bourj Square. Between the four stable gates, he built up their fortifications, with the exception of Bab Al Santiya. This gate, despite its namesake (which means fortress), was not a fortified gate. 

Given that only a few pieces of evidence exist, limited to the Dirka and Dabbagha gates, we can infer that the other gates were modern. This is clear from the fact that these gates lacked fortification. These other gates were Bab Yaaqoub, the counterpart to the new Grand Serail to the east, Bab Abu Nasr at Bourj Square, and Bab Idriss. If this is correct, it appears that among these new non-military gates, two of them – the Yaaqoub and Idriss portals – open to Beirut’s south and west. These two directions represented circles of rapid and active expansion: mercantile expansion within the wall and population expansion outside of it. The seventh new gate, the portal of Abu Nasr and its souk, opened to an interior mercantile expansion. It also opened to the accelerated growth of wide mercantile and residential settlement patterns, extending throughout the second “bank” of the old Bourj Square. This second bank consisted of the Christian city, despite the intermingling of Christians and Jews throughout the city and their residence in the old Arab and Ottoman areas of the city, as well their widespread property assets in the suburbs and the Muslim ownership of land in Ashrafieh. This bank established two wide bridges of trade with its counterpart to the west: a sector of souks to the south, between Saifi and the Bab Al Dirka, the shop of the Lazarite nuns, and the interior gate of Forty Men with its souks (later called Maarad and Nawriyyah), and the sector of the port with its souks, between Rmeil, the souks of Bab Al Dabbagha, and the market of Fashkha to the city’s western side.

It is not only by the three new gates that we identify in this chronicle. According to the accounts of some who have realized the form and function of these gates, both their closings and their openings, there are in fact five gates: Dirka and Yaaqoub to the south, Musalli and Dabbagha to the east, and Santiya to the west. The permanent gates, then, are three: Dirka, Dabbagha, and Santiya. In its second and final division, Beirut became independent through several factors: its establishment as an independent state (vilaya, to use the Ottoman term), the paving of a full road from Beirut to Damascus (1863-1888), the laying of a Beirut-Damascus railroad (1865), and the establishment of the modern port (1894). The city also stabilized in another sense: the establishment of a new gate through the expansion of trade and the establishment of new souks, Idriss and Abu Nasr. Also, the Musalli Gate, if it is valid to call it a gate rather than a place, was the site of prayer recital during two festivals near the Baba Al Saraya, Bab Al Dabbagha, and the outer gate. The gate became known by all three of these names. This three-fold name reminds us of the participation of the portal of the wall in a certain function and of the proximity of two swiftly moving currents: Bab Al Dabbagha overlooked a market that does not allow the interior to accept it, just as it overlooked the cemetery of the exterior, or of the strangers (who, some say, were exiles from Andalous, banished and forced into exile).

The Obstacle of Cemeteries 

The connection between the northeast gate and a grave site requires us to note the strong connection between the gates and a particular phenomenon of the nearby Islamic city. Accordingly, we can divide the outside from the inside according to its strongest meanings. This is the firm existence of the cemetery across from the gate of the wall: Bachoura cemetery was established across from Bab Al Dirka, as well as Bab Yaaqoub, while the Santiya cemetery was established across from Bab Al Santiya, and the outer cemetery was across from the outer gate and Babs Dabbagha, Serail, and Musalli. The gates rise above the graves of the Muslims and the city of the Islamic port and surround it from its three sides. The souks behind the wall reach into the interior, into the tombs and visitation sites, infiltrating the family plots of graves for dead relatives and kinsmen. They add another constricting encirclement to the girdles and enclosures that distanced the interior from the outside, placing a thick barrier between the two. These gates functioned like the fortified obstacle – renewed in its structure by Ahmad Bek Al Jazzar – that stood between the Ottoman Islamic city and the city occupied by Lebanese from the mountain, by European traders, consulates, and Byzantine pirates. The expansion of the markets and their connection in the east and west, as well as the crowding of residential areas, led to the relocation of many graves. Levels of gravestones and monuments were smoothed out and built over. This all occurred in conjunction with the disintegration of the wall and its portals as a symbolic entity. The discrimination and distinction between the outside and the interior weakened, and new obstructions had to be erected between the two. This was all borne witness to by the celebrations in Aal Sour Square, all the way into the early twentieth century, before its banishment to the forest of Snobar. Eventually, the square was merged with the great cemetery in 1975-76, shortly after the overcrowded Bachoura cemetery closed.

Shifting Lifestyles

It was not long before the first signs of change in inhabited architectural space began to appear. These first signs appeared not far from the wall and its southern portal. The French consul Henri Ghais – who was appointed in 1808 and served from 1808-10 and 1824-28 and was entrusted by Ibrahim Pasha with the construction of the health quarantine area (Karantina) – claimed that the suburban areas of Beirut, which later became its neighborhoods, “have been affected … and the number of their inhabitants has increased to the point that there is no county under the sway of the prince of the mountain so populous and so rejoicing with life as that suburb neighboring Beirut that stretches from the river of Maameltein to the Little Chouf.” This description refers to “Middle Beirut” about a century and a half before the advent of “Greater Beirut.”

The city – or rather, the large town, according to the contemporary population numbers of the area – was situated in the middle of a plain planted with white mulberry trees. The cultivation of the silk worm by the population of the city and the suburbs led to the construction of huts across the central part of the plain, where the passage between the sea and the mountains narrows. A number of factors led some of the more fortunate members of the population to build more expansive, comfortable, and stronger buildings in the gardens of the suburbs: among these factors were the additional security created by the departure of the French from Egypt, the blockade of England, the preoccupation of the Egyptians with their own internal struggles, the death of the Pashas of Acre and Saida, the truce between the new Shehabi Emir and the Ottoman governor which followed the founding of a new vilaya, and the gradually increasing boom of the silk trade in the mountains and the suburbs of the seaside area. According to consul Ghais, “The Muslims began to compete with the Christians in building so that only a very few of the people had not bought up some land – if only a few meters – on which to build a structure.” In 1843, Gérard de Nerval looked down from the high tower of Fakhreddine on the southeastern side of Bourj Square, down onto the wide plain below. He saw the wall and its towers running along the coastline, while “the masts of the consulates” and other inhabitants spread out in the opposite direction. It was a comparison that followed shortly upon a strongly felt contrast, remarked upon over and over again by the speakers at ceremonies for the dedication of new buildings: Faris Nimr drew this contrast at the opening of the Hamidiyya promenade at Bourj Square in 1884, Abdallah Bayham and Al Matran Tubyan Aoun at the dedication of the New Road in the Fashkha Market in 1891.

The Wall of Souks and Bazaars 

There can be no doubt that the description above of the municipal, governmental, and residential areas of Beirut in 1861 and then in 1880 reveals patterns of settlement in the city that are also confirmed by the fact that great residences were being built in the suburbs and surrounding areas. But our account builds on this evidence and also examines the new neighborhoods that are not mentioned in the surviving documents, giving account of the persistence of populated areas that did not decline until the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth. The areas of Dabbagha, Sheikh Raslan, and Fakhoura were still populated, despite the onslaught of new trade depots and the interconnection between shops in new markets. We take into account also some neighborhoods in East Beirut and its surroundings, such as the Saifi neighborhood, Rmeil, Ashrafieh, Qirat, and eastern Ras Al Nabaa, as well as some others that are neglected in the few surviving documents. Included in the western portion of the city, outside of the wall, are Bachoura, Zouqaq Al Blatt, Msaytbeh, Mazraaa, and western Ras Al Nabaa.

The field of Saifi quickly underwent a transformation just before 1850, when it was sold by Tanous Fayad to Boulous Trad. It transformed from a field of mulberry trees between Bourj Kashaf and the sea into a populated plot of land with settlements such as a monastery, the Jesuit school, and the Bagha Souk. It also contained parking spaces for carriages, and its souks were connected to the nearby port. On the southwestern corner of Aal Sour Square, the hill of Zouqaq Al Blatt became the site of palaces of the Hamadeh and Beyhum families very early on. These families were among the notables who competed for precedence in the Muslim community. Nearby lived one of the most notable traders in Beirut, Youssef Jiddi, as well as the Farrij family. Before the American Evangelists acquired the wide enclave of land at the Tantas plot overlooking the sea in Ras Beirut, they chose Zouqaq Al Blatt, that suburb nearby the wall and close to the mercantile and government centers of the city, as the site of the headquarters for their school and mission. They rented the castle of Hajj Abdalfattah Agha Hamada and built not far from it their printing house and a church. The road that curved down from Bab Yaaqoub became known as the Americans’ Way. On the plot of land itself, schools multiplied. The teacher Boutros Al Boustany, having embraced Protestantism while translating the Old and New Testaments of the Bible into Arabic, chose this area as the refuge for his National School. The Nazarite nuns did the same (perhaps before the main site of their monastery in Ashrafieh was sold in 1869), as did their sisters in the order of Saint Joseph of the Annunciation and the Roman Catholic patriarchate.

Souks sprouted on the path of the wall, where it had been re-built again and again encircling the seaside town like a tightly constricting belt. Also in the inner folds between the developing neighborhoods beyond the gates, and between the old markets in the shadow of the wall, souks and bazaars grew like fungi. The markets never extended beyond the wall. The salt souk was in the port, while the jewelry and gunpowder souks and the Amir Youssef and Sheikh Abdulsalam Al Amad bazaars were next to the perfume souk around the Mosque of Amir Munzhir. The Tasu Souk remained in Rasif Place, at the edge of the souk of Bab Yaaqoub inside the wall. The jewelry souk became permanently part of the Bazirkan Souk to the north of the Amir Munzhir Mosque. The bazaar of the Bayham Ladies, in the Fakhoura quarter, near the alley of Sheikh Raslan, became connected to souks of Sayour and Tawila. The souks overflowed beyond the wall and gates into previously unpopulated areas, often cutting neighborhoods off from one another. The Dabbagha Souk rose up in the Dabbagha quarter, between the cemetery to the east and the gate to the west. It was duly accompanied by other bazaars: one close to the Mina citadel, another just next to it, and a third constructed by the sons of Boustros Qubail Jala Al Jarar and known either as the market of the Roman Othodox or as the market of the sons of Boustros. Not far from this group of new souks, a trader from the Barbir family built his new souk followed by those of Raad, John Boulos Trad, Al Hallaj, and Al Halwani. South of Bourj Square, between Saifi and Qirat, Al Hajj Muhammad Bin Mustapha Al Kanafani built Souk Kanafani, which on its upper level housed an inn and coffee shop and which had a bakery and twenty-six shops on its lower level. Next to it there was Souk Niqash, or Kashaf Tower Souk, then there was the Hamana or Metn Souk. A number of souks joined the ranks: Tayyan Souk in the Maqsam neighborhood west of Kashaf Tower, Asfar in Dihdah, Sayyour in Saifi, Amir Amin in Galghoul, Shartouni in Qirat and Dihdah, Muhammad Ahmad, Mazikah in Bab Yaaqoub, and the small souk in Bab Al Dirka. Nearby were two souks belonging to the Tabet, Sursouq, and Zahar families, on the eastern edge of Bachoura.

The Enclosure

Souks stood in the spaces dividing the walls and markets from the lush architectural spaces of the suburbs, fields, and villages. This entire phenomenon came to be known occasionally as “the city of the wall.” This architectural connection was, at the same time, an obstacle, a dividing belt of a particular kind. The mix of mercantile activities and temporary residences lacking any public dimension, and the gathering together of both of these in an almost continuous line following the disappearing traces of the wall – these factors established between the old city and the modern suburbs an enclosed area of bazaars, souks, coffee shops, and, at a later stage, places of entertainment (cinema and theatres). So the souks – which gradually overwhelmed the center of the city and loosened the populated centers of its neighborhoods and corridors – took the place of the nearby and pure exterior.

What is certain is that the overflow and extension beyond the wall originated from a rapid transformation in population patterns, trade, and finance, as well as the strong support by the governmental and economic policy of the campaign of Ibrahim Pasha. The population, which numbered between four and six thousand at the start of the nineteenth century, reached fifteen thousand by the end of the 1820s. Consul Ghais counted the population according to the following categories: seven thousand Muslims, four thousand Orthodox, fifteen hundred Maronites, twelve hundred Catholics, eight hundred Druze, four hundred Armenian and Syriac Christian, two hundred Jews, and four hundred Europeans. The number of inhabitants increased in these proportions throughout the next two decades, even as the city’s forts were ravaged by infectious diseases that assailed half of its population. This increase would have been impossible without aid from outside, from the nearby area, and from the expanding population circles outside. As for the population centers of Orthodox Christians and Muslims, their numbers reached about eleven thousand, or around double their number twenty years previous. That net increase works out roughly to a five percent increase per year.

The Everlasting Wall?

These many and various factors, over the course of some two decades, gave rise to an urban social structure whose precise form can be understood by the measures taken by Ibrahim Pasha during his entry to Beirut in 1831-32. He invested the members of the Shura Council with the function of being intermediaries between the occupying government and the people. There were twelve members of the council in total: six Muslims from among the leaders of the families and clans (including Abd Al Fattah Hamada, Omar Beyhum, Ahmad Al Ariss, and Hassan Barbir), and six Christians, most of whom were Catholic or Othodox (including Gabriel Humsi, Bashara Nasrallah, Elias Mansa, and Moussa Boustrus). Despite the nature of Ottoman power with its firm control over the coast, Christians, trade, and legislative power, Ibrahim Pasha dispensed his favors to the sects and peoples of the country. On the model of his policies in Egypt, he granted protection to non-Muslims, endorsed the liberalization of trade, and made a call to Europeans to settle there and invest. These measures were taken in return for the universal collection of taxes, the compulsory conscription of troops, and the feudal control over agricultural land.

Throughout the years of Egyptian rule, which lasted less than one decade, the number of inhabitants of Beirut reached thirty thousand by 1840 (the year of the Egyptian’s departure), or twice what it had been twelve years earlier. No doubt this increase primarily originated from the mountain and the coast (Tripoli, Byblos, Jounieh, Sidon, and Tyre) and from Egypt itself. Toward the end of the period of civil struggles in Lebanon in 1863 (the “Syrian disasters,” as they were called by Shaheen Mikaryus), the number of Beirut’s inhabitants had reached sixty thousand. That number surpassed one hundred thousand around the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Thus, after a period of twelve years in which the population doubled (from fifteen thousand in 1828 to thirty thousand in 1840, which practically coincided with the Egyptian period), a further two-fold increase required twenty-three years. In the course of sectarian hostilities in Beirut in 1903, which left about fifteen people dead in clashes between rogues in Ras Al Nabaa, most of whom perhaps were Christian, around thirty thousand Beirut Christians left the city to seek safety in the mountains.

The Four Sectors

Within the three sectors – the Ottoman Arab city, the sector of the eastern suburbs, and the sector of the western suburbs – and on the plan of the wall with its gates and markets covering the rubble of ancient graves, a fourth sector took shape. It formed both a functional and symbolic barrier between the three sectors and connected them together at the same time. The fourth sector was composed of restaurants, cinema halls, the red light district, trading shops, temporary markets, transportation hubs, and old lower- and middle-class residential areas (Ghalghoul, Tamlis, Al Khandaq Al Ghamiq, Qirat, Gemmayze, and Kharijah), as well as city squares. It was the connection between the two inhabited sectors and the previous areas that competed for the function of being special centers of trade. This mixed connection existed in the face of an interior, and it was both united and fractured by the existence of an insolent exterior that was not constrained by strictures of division, discrimination, or arrangement, nor by the prevailing customs of the interior. This connection arose, with all its structures and attainments both material and ideational, on the borders or edges of the Ottoman Arab city and its deteriorating armaments. This was accompanied by the relative dominance of the importance of one sector (the eastern sector) over that of the other, while both sectors participated in the flowering of the city.

This urban growth was what all the European foreigners, Muslims, and Christians agreed upon. The enthusiasm of the Muslims of Beirut reached the point that they called upon Faysal Bin Hussein as he returned to Damascus from the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 by way of the lively and vibrant Port Road and pleaded with him to select Beirut as the capital of the Arab Kingdom. Having reached a suburb of Damascus, the prince replied that an Arab capital on the sea could not possibly be defended but would collapse if attacked by fleets. Yet he did not speak in the tongue of the inhabitants of Beirut and the sons of its families. As for this Arab spokesman, there can be no doubt that the reply of the prince was convincing and successful in diverting attention from the calls to enhance the prominence of this mixed mercantile city, whose main landmarks of identity were its storehouses of goods, theatres, dance halls, coffee shops, screens, and travelers stations.

Translated by Sam Wilder


The sources used in this study are numerous. I shall limit this list to the sources that deal with Beirut, its planning, and the states of its architecture and demographics in the nineteenth century. The following sources by Abdulateef Fakhouri are of primary importance:

Dean Mukhtar Itani and Abdulateef Fakhouri, Bayrutna [Our Beirut] (Beirut, 1996).

Abdulateef Fakhouri, Al Bayarita, Hikayatu Amthalihum Wa Waqaaiu Amthalihum [The Beirutis] (Beirut: Dar Rihani Printing and Publishing, 2009).

Abdulateef Fakhouri, Manzul Bayrut [Houses of Beirut] (Beirut, 2003).

Additional works consulted include the following:

Assam Muhammad Shbaro, Ain Al Mreisse (Beirut: Dar Misbah Al Fikr Printing and Publishing, 2000).

Omar Zayn, Min Dhakirati Beirut [From Beirut’s Memory] (Beirut: Sharikah Al Matbuat Lil Tawziaa Wa Al Nashr, 2011).

Other works consulted include histories of prominent Beirut families, including the Bani Sinno, Sinno, Tabarra, and Itani families.

Narratives by French consuls and travelers of the modern period, such as Boujoula, Ghais, and de Nerval, were also helpful.

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Waddah Chararah is a Lebanese writer, sociologist, and the author of Ahwaou Beirut wa Masarihouha (Beirut’s Passions and Platforms) (Dar Annahar).

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