Friday, December 26, 1997

LebEnv #44


by Fareed Abou-Haidar

The quarter of Ain el-Mreisseh in Beirut was once like a small village within Beirut. Sitting at the bottom of a hill overlooking it to the north, and with small bays east and west of it, it was relatively isolated from the rest of Beirut. It even had its own fishermen's port. Pedestrian walkways and stairs linked Ain el-Mreisseh together.

Ain el-Mreisseh was also an architectural jewel. It included a high concentration of old Lebanese houses, mansions, and other buildings. Several of these buildings overlooked the sea to the west, including one two-story building with a two-tiered arcade of pointed arches framing the balconies. This western view of Ain el-Mreisseh was a classic, the subject of many paintings and postcards.

Unfortunately, this neighborhood lay in the way as cars and trucks began to overrun Beirut. It lay smack in the middle between the Corniche and the Port of Beirut, blocking the way to the southern half of Lebanon. In 1974, the government began a huge project that essentially ended Ain el-Mreisseh as we knew it. On Ibn Sina Street, an entire row of old Lebanese buildings on the north side of the street was destroyed so the road could be made into a boulevard. The magnificent arcaded building overlooking the sea was also destroyed. The sea was filled in so the boulevard could be extended from the then-American embassy eastwards. A bridge was built so that the old port remained accessible.

Ain el-Mreisseh today is indistinguishable from the rest of Beirut. The old port, hemmed in by the boulevard, is a sorry sight with no charm; a huge, ultra-ultra-ultra luxury building (with its own private boat parking underneath!) looms over the port and blocks the view of the sea from the neighborhood behind it. The old mosque is separated from the rest of Ain el- Mreisseh by a wide, hard-to-cross street. The once-classic view looking east from the old American embassy site is now dominated by featureless multi-story buildings. Old buildings that survived the government's prewar massacre as well as the war itself continue to be destroyed and replaced by new buildings.

The need for roads connecting the port with the west half of Beirut was undeniable. However, the uniqueness of Ain el-Mreisseh should have been reason enough to do the utmost to save the area, probably through the building of tunnels under existing streets, something that now seems to have caught on in post-war Beirut.

(See other photographs from some of the areas mentioned above.)



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