Al mashriq - The Levant

Tsunami at Staff Cove

by Elizabeth Kuenzler Marshall '36

It rolled in while we were swimming and not one of us saw the wall of water until it engulfed us. It happened in 1934, or was in '35, or possibly '36 -- so long ago that the exact date quite escapes me.

In Beirut, where we lived on Omar Ben Ibn Abd-el-Aziz (street), my father and I while digging in our garden came upon a piece of stone carved with scrolls. As we dug deeper, it turned out to be more than just a stone. It was the top of a pillar no less! At about two meters we stopped, for it was square-ish, so we knew from the frilly design that it was standing upright. Fresh from just having written my term paper on the history of Beirut, I had the explanation of an upright pillar underneath our garden earth. The peninsula on which Beirut stands had, through the centuries, often been raked by severe earthquakes, which now and then were also followed by so-called tidal waves or tsunami, so that what the earthquake didn't obliterate, tons of rushing water could be counted on to silt in, and smooth over, the rubble. And then the Phoenicians or whoever, came back and cheerfully rebuilt their ancient Berytus. This makes for archaeological nightmares, because uncovering old Roman ruins is one thing, but what do you do with them if you want to get at the older Byzantine walls underneath? To say nothing of the next pre-historic layer down, and so on and so forth. So much for that long-ago tsunami.

Anyway, we were swimming that day at Staff Cove. Let me refresh your memory of how that went. This happened twice a week, and one of our staff -- that day it was our principal Miss Rhoda Orme -- was our chaperon, accompanied by two staffites from AUB. We'd walk all the way to the end of Sukak-el-Hamra, now known as Hamra Street. Then, long ago, it was mostly red, red sandy earth, and absolutely innocent of any kind of pavement. Beyond where Hamra ends there was this little rise and then, Ah, there was our lovely blue Mediterranean! At his point one wanted to run helter skelter, shed, and immerse. But no, we had to WALK to it. I mean, who walks when you can see cool water on a hot day? Instead we walked, well-mannered and orderly, down to the edge of Staff Cove cliff. Staff Cove then was steep and rocky on three sides, sporting a funny little island at its mouth.

On this day we had just put on our bathing suits. You did this by picking pseudo-coverage behind semi-rocks, leaving your clothes, watch, socks, or shoes neatly in crannies. At a signal, when everyone was decent, we all emerged, scrambled down lower to the water's edge, and plunged. Most years at this time ACS had about 50 students, and this day there were only about 25 of us. Perhaps half of us were already in the water, while some of the kids were getting swimming instructions. There were always some odd new kids who actually couldn't swim. I always wondered what they'd done with their lives up to now.

And then suddenly a huge wall of water slammed into us. It felt like a giant swell, but it also roiled somewhat as its force was broken by our small island at the inlet. We were all of us lifted some 20 meters, and then just as quickly set down on the rocks or dropped into the water. Pandemonium! Much screaming, many cries, much confusion. First off all non-swimmers were hauled to safety, and then everyone set to retrieving the jetsam and flotsam of shoes, shirts, towels, socks, hats, etc. If you had a watch or a ring, it was never found again. Some of us had given our watches to Miss Orme for safekeeping. She had put them in her purse, and then insouciantly set the purse down beside her. Fernande Favre '35's watch was in that purse. Why do I remember this so clearly? -- because I was so relived that my watch was out of commission, and I had not been wearing mine at the time.

No more swimming that afternoon. We limped home sopping wet, some with one shoe or none, many wrapped in wet towels. And the sea? Cool, blue, deep, and calm, as only the Mediterranean can look, wondering what all the fuss had been about.

Nota Bene: Don't go looking for Number 11 Rue Omar Ben Abd-el- Aziz next time you visit Beirut. A huge multi-storied complex now sits squarely on top of our pillar.