Walking the front line of Lebanon’s Civil War

Originally published on Apr 12th 2012 for The Daily Star, Beirut, Lebanon

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BEIRUT: School-room history books gloss over it, and there’s no national memorial to its dead, but Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War is very much present in the memories of those who lived it and those who came after. It’s also embedded in Beirut’s architectural fabric. The city has spawned its own war memorials, and with the 37th anniversary of the war’s outbreak on April 13, walking by, in, and simply remembering these places is one way to preserve the Civil War and its horrors in Lebanon’s collective consciousness.

Most of the landmarks on this tour are well within walking distance of central Beirut, for those who have the time. The bus in Haret Hreik and the Mar Mikhail Church in Shiyyah are a bit far, but catch a service or a bus from the National Museum and – for the seriously energetic – these sites can be seen in a day.

The Holiday Inn, Mina al-Hosn

During the 1975-1976 “battle of the hotels,” the hotels of Mina al-Hosn played host to snipers firing guns and artillery from roofs, rooms and balconies. Many establishments in the district were damaged, and some revamped postwar, such as the once-again shiny Phoenicia Hotel. But the two-toned Holiday Inn, now with large chunks missing, appears to have strong foundations as it is still towering above the new developments, a reminder of what the area once bore witness to. The edges of a disk shape peek out of the top floors, tell-tale signs of the space-age revolving restaurant Holiday Inns were once known for, further dating this ruin.

Burj al-Murr, Mina al-Hosn

Down General Fouad Chehab Avenue, the gray concrete Murr Tower pokes out of Beirut’s skyline nearly 40 years after it was built. Construction began in 1974, and by the war’s start in April 1975, 28 stories had been completed. Work continued on the tower, which was meant as office, retail and restaurant space, until it was halted in 1978 at 40 floors. Its height and placement over the “Green Line” that divided Muslim West Beirut from Christian East Beirut (religious divisions that have since proven overly simplistic) made it an ideal spot for snipers and rumors persist of militias throwing victims off of its heights. For years the empty Murr Tower was set for demolition but its fate is now uncertain, except as a hulking souvenir of the war and the commercial prospects of a prewar country.

Beirut City Center Building, Downtown

Now head for the building that’s hard to miss. Known by a variety of names, including the egg, the bubble, and the saboune (soap), this oblong cinema was designed by Lebanese modernist architect Joseph Phillipe Karam and built in the 1960s. It was intended as part of a larger shopping complex, but those plans were scrapped during the war and in the 1990s part of the dome was lopped off as the site was allocated for a new Finance Ministry. The whimsically shaped theater, which now has a flowery tree growing out of one open level, has been subject to plans for destruction and renovation, but none have come to fruition yet. It’s now a mix of mid-century modern and decay in the midst of the brand-new.

Martyrs’ Square statue, Downtown

Although most of the buildings at Martyrs’ Square were razed in post-Civil War reconstruction, its central statue remains and its bronze bodies host multiple meanings. Erected in 1960, the piece commemorated Lebanese executed by the Ottomans in 1916 for their involvement in a nationalist uprising. During the Civil War, one of the figures lost a left arm, and all three were shot through with bullets. Its pedestal has since been cleaned up and the statue was given a new finish, but the missing arm and war wounds have not been repaired. The square and statue are in the sights of “the egg.”

Mar Mikhail Train Station, Mar Mikhail

Veering off to the north from Martyrs’ Square, the Mar Mikhail train station is set between a bus graveyard and Charles Helou. It’s a stark reminder that yet another victim of the war was public transportation. The station officially opened in 1895, according to Elias Maalouf, founder of Train/Train, an organization dedicated both to preserving Lebanon’s locomotive history and pushing for a revival. Trains on the lines between Beirut, Damascus and Aleppo and Naqoura to Tripoli both stopped at the Mar Mikhail Station, and it although much of it is now in a state of disrepair, with flowers growing out of trains from centuries past, the station’s main buildings are in fairly good condition, and one was renovated several years ago. It’s a surprisingly vast space and if you promise not to take pictures, a railway employee will happily show you the spot where water was poured into steam engines, the old arched workshops and a revamped train car sitting on still intact tracks. Trains came to a halt in 1975, started up again for a few months in 1982 and in 1992, but nothing stuck. Look for the bright red sign.

Beit Barakat, Sodeco

It’s a bit of a walk, but head back to Martyrs’ Square and then follow Damascus Street south until it hits Independence Street to find the “Yellow House.” Built in the 1920s and 30s, it was a standout in its time for its modern architecture, especially the segment left open but for its colonnade. Its Green Line location turned the building – also known as Beit Barakat –into a sniper’s den during the Civil War and it finished the war years as a yellow skeleton. It’s set to be revamped into “Beit Beirut,” a museum and cultural center that will leave the original structure intact but add a modern component, too. Organizers have said the first floor will be a Museum of Memory, where the ravages of the war will be clear. There haven’t been signs of life there for a while, but in the meantime visitors can still see the beautiful ruin and follow the renovation process at www.beitbeirut.org.

The National Museum, Beirut

nother Green Line building further down Damascus road, the National Museum of Beirut shuttered at the start of the war. Despite desperate efforts to protect its treasures – including the underground storage of valuable items, covering mosaics with concrete and protecting statues with sandbags – much was destroyed, and like elsewhere along the dividing line, the area around the museum had to be demined before restoration efforts could begin in earnest. Now visitors can view a short video on the efforts staff undertook to save the museum’s collection, as well as the restoration. Some war-wrecked artifacts are on display alongside the museum’s trove. For more information, call 01-426-703.

Mar Mikhail Church, Shiyyah

The church stands on the Shiyyah side of the road between the majority-Muslim suburb of Shiyyah and the majority-Christian area of Ain al-Rummaneh. Here were some of the war’s earliest and fiercest battles, including the bus massacre on April 13, 1975 that supposedly started it all. The church has been revamped since the war, and in 2006 it played host to a historic meeting between Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, where the two signed a Memorandum of Understanding allying their groups.

The Bus, Haret Hreik

Although its origins are certainly more complex, many date the outbreak of the Civil War to an Ain al-Rummaneh killing of Palestinians traveling by bus to the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp. The date that the war began, April 13, 1975, and the bus itself were made iconic with pictures of the vehicle gracing front pages the following day. The Fargo-make vehicle has since been recovered and is on display, in all its rusty multicolored glory, at the Hangar Umam in Haret Hreik. This year a new bus is setting off from the Hangar Documentation & Research Center in a roving project called “The Bus Takes the Podium.” The bus will travel across the country, hosting and prompting a variety of activities all about preserving and spreading Lebanese memory. For more information, call 01-553-604.