Al mashriq - The Levant

"Place des Canons"

Fakhreddine Il Maan (1598-1635) Emir of Lebanon was an enlightened and energetic ruler.His sojourn at the court of Florence impressed him with the architecture of the Italians. He summoned Italian architects and landscape artists to build him a magnificent palace in Beirut in the midst of beautiful gardens.

Henry Maundrell visitcd the palace in 1697 and has left us a detailed description. He writes that the Palace consisted of several courts, stables, yards for horses, dens for lions and other savage creatures. But the most impressive sight was the orange garden. Maundrell tells us it was made of a large quadrangular plot of ground, divided into 16 squares, 4 in a row with walks between them shaded by orange trees. In the stone-work were troughs for conveying water all over the garden with little outlets cut at every tree for the stream of water, as it passed by, to flow out.

"At one corner of the garden stood a tower 60 feet high", Maundrell observes, "built with an extraordinarily strength, its walls being 12 feet thick". Maundrell climbed to the top of the tower and had a view of the whole city. Fakhreddine, it is said, used to walk through his garden to the tower (Burj) from the height of which he used to gaze upon and admire Beirut.

The palace and gardens of Fakhreddine were situated in the area of the Burj, also known as the "Place des Canons" and called today ~Place des Martyrs". In the year 1772, during the reign of Emir Youssef Chehab" the Russian fleet sailed from the Baltic through the Straits of Gibraltar to the East Mediterranean, ready to come to the support of any adversary of the Ottoman sultan. Catherine the Great was at war with the Ottomans and news of the revolt of Ali Bey, the sheikh al-balad and chief of the Mameluks in Egypt came to her ears. In the spring of 1772, Russian squadrons sailed towards Egypt, Syria and Lebanon in support of Ali Bey.

Emir Youssef at this time was on the side of the Ottomans.

The Russians sailed to Beirut, chief port of the Druzes, and began to bombard the town on June 18. This went on for 5 days. More than 500 canon balls were showered on the city. On June 23, the Russians landed. BeirutŐs center of activity during this period was the square that extended between Burj Hashish and the land castle. When the Russians landed, thhey unloaded one of their heaviest pieces of artillery and set it in the middle of the square. This impressed the inhabitants of Beirut to such an extent that the square was at once called the "Place du Canon".

A British admiralty map drawn in 1831 shows the walled city of Beirut with its gates and towers as well as the emplacement of the guns on each of the tower that at one time protected the city from attack by sea. This could be the reason why from the early part of the 19th century, the square was called "Plaace des Canons". Another possibility is that when Napoleon III, Emperor of France, sent French troops to Lebanon as a result if the civil war that had broken out, General de Beaufort d'Hautpoul camped with his artillery in 1861 in the center of Beirut. It was soon after called hy the French-speaking inhabitants as "Place des Canons".The Arab and English-speaking population called the place Burj (tower) after the Burj el-Kachaf that stood at the south east of the place.

Years later in 1881 the "Petit Serail" was built in the "Place des Canons" on the initiative of the Wali of Syria, Hamdi Pasha and the President of the Municipality, Fakhry Bey. The Serail served as the seat of the wilayet and a public garden was laid out for the inhabitants of Beirut. In 1883 the public garden was inaugurated and called "Hamidie" after the reigning Sultan Ahdul Hamid II, but was better known as "Menchie".

In 1908 after the declaration of the Constitution at Constantinople, it was called "Place de la Liberte" or "Place de l'Union", but this was short-lived.

The "Petit Serail" was built by Bechara Effendi, chief engineer of the Wilayet. In 1917 the Wali Azmi Bey transferred the seat of the wilayet to the Barracks soon to be known as the "Grand Serail"..

In 1919 the place bccame the site selected by the Ottoman authorities for the execution of Lebanese and Syrian nationalists. They died with courage and dignity in a public hanging and subsequently the place was named "Place des Martyrs" in their memory.

It was in the year 1930 that a monument was erected for Lebanon's martyrs south of the place: Two women, one Muslim, one Christian clasp each other's hands over an urn. However, in 1948 a man, mentally deranged and who obviously did not appreciate the monument mutilated it with a hand ax. "Le Petit Serail" was pulled down in 1950 to enlarge the "Place des Martyrs" and became a public parking lot for cars and buses.

The present memorial to Lebanon's martyrs was erected in 1960 and still stands today, solitary and silent in the center of the "Place des Martyrs". No matter what you may call it - "Place des Canons", "Burj" or "Place des Martyrs", this rectangular piece of land in the center of Beirut will always hold a privileged and cherished place on the minds and hearts of all Lebanese.

Sources: Nina Jidejian, Beirut Through the Ages, Beirut: Dar el Machreq 1973. Fouad Debbas, Beyrouth, Notre Memoirel Reyrouth: Naufal,1986. Nina Jidejian