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A City Reborn

Destroyed by war, Beirut’s downtown rises once more

Unlike many city centers, Beirut’s downtown is less a commercial center than an escape. To be sure, commerce is conducted here: Downtown is home to Parliament, businesses and cafes. But the area is free of the chaos – the overcrowded and lawless traffic, the cackle of honking horns and the litter and grime – that infests the rest of this once picturesque Mediterranean city. In contrast, downtown Beirut, with its uniform modern buildings, new churches, mosques, walkways and gardens, is pristine.

This is purposeful. When Lebanon’s 16-year- long civil war ended in 1990, after claiming 150,000 lives, Beirut’s downtown was just as devastated as the rest of the country, if not more so. The downtown district, also known as the Bourj, crouched over the dividing line that split the city in two, between the Christian east and Muslim west. As such, it received more than its share of bullets, shells and bombs. It quickly became a ruin.

But before the war, the Bourj had been one of the few places in Beirut where Lebanon’s different religious communities – Christian, Druze and Muslim – mixed. Elsewhere, Beirut was divided into sectarian enclaves, Muslims living alongside Muslims, Christians alongside Christians. Though the war has ended, sectarian tensions remain. Indeed, a recent study by Beirut’s Center for Democracy and the Rule of Law indicates they are worse than ever. Thus, reconstructing the Bourj, a place of common ground, has special significance for Lebanese seeking to get past confessional differences.

“[The Bourj] is special to Lebanon,” said Samir Khalaf, a professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut, who has written much about Lebanon’s reconstruction. “It is a symbol of our collective pride and our shame, and we must reclaim it as a matter of urgency. If we ignore it we run the constant risk of slipping back into the abyss.”

Since the war ended, the Lebanese government, local and international companies and various aid organizations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on redevelopment and reconstruction. By far the greatest concentration of activity and resources is in Beirut, an effort that has its critics. Still, it is not surprising. While Lebanon’s capital spreads over only 2 percent of the country’s land, it contains half of Lebanon’s 3.8 million citizens.

A private company, the Company for the Development and Reconstruction of the Beirut Central District (known by its French acronym Solidere) was incorporated in 1994 and charged with overseeing the development of 19.4 million square feet of the Bourj, including 6.5 million square feet reclaimed from the sea. Solidere laid down the infrastructure, built two residential developments and has almost completed restoring the historic central district (the new gold market is scheduled to be completed next year).

Today, the company’s main task is to manage the Bourj, enforce zoning regulations, building standards and traffic codes.

Solidere is the brainchild of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated in February 2005. (Mr. Hariri was the company’s largest stockholder, with 7 percent of its shares.) But Mr. Hariri’s death has not slowed Solidere’s work. It continues to drive the economy; its shares account for 90 percent of daily trading on the Beirut stock exchange.

The number of landowners in the Bourj made it impossible to rebuild along the lines of a master plan. A plot of land along the main shopping street had 4,700 separate owners. So Solidere cut them a deal. In exchange for their damaged homes and shops, many taken over by squatters, owners were given shares in the company, becoming primary shareholders. Then, indemnity payments were given to some 20,000 refugees squatting in the Bourj to ease the eviction process. (Lebanon is still struggling to deal with war-displaced homeowners and squatters in many other parts of the country.)

“The Solidere model grew out of the specific constraints and realities of postwar Lebanon,” said Mounir Douaidy, general manager of Solidere.

From the beginning of its reconstruction, the Bourj was conceived as an attraction that could bring in affluent foreigners, offering million-dollar condominiums and expensive retail space for swanky restaurants and clothiers. In its vision of downtown Beirut, Solidere and its government backers (most notably Mr. Hariri) subscribed to the trickle-down theory of economics. “A city center has to attract world tourism,” said Nabil Rached, Solidere’s public relations officer. “It has to be popular.”

Diggers first broke ground in 1993. But they soon encountered something unexpected, which forced developers’ plans to change. Underneath the bombed-out buildings lay archaeological treasures. Local and international archaeologists descended on the Bourj, and over the next few years they unearthed a Phoenician well, a Hellenistic sewage system, a Roman forum and Byzantine mosaics, to name only the most impressive discoveries.

“We couldn’t have done this before [the war],” said Leila Badr, the archaeologist in charge of excavating the Roman colonnade next to the Antiochene Orthodox Cathedral of St. George. “The war left the cathedral in a state of ruin and rendered it unusable.”

The unanticipated archaeological discoveries prompted a public debate that Solidere planners never envisioned: a reexamination of the country’s past. In Lebanon, more than in most other countries, history can be a complex, even dangerous, affair, with different religious communities offering their own versions of the past. Traditionally, Lebanon’s Christians have traced their heritage to the Phoenician empire that flourished from 1200 B.C. to 332 B.C. Meanwhile, Muslims tend to stress Lebanon’s Arab roots.

Solidere altered its plans to accommodate its unearthed history. The historical treasures remain exposed, mixing with the new cafes and apartments. Today, for instance, you can sip coffee at the terrace outside Casper & Gambini, a popular downtown restaurant, and look down on an excavated Roman bath.

Meanwhile, the Bourj’s religious buildings have been entrusted to their respective religious communities to restore. The communities have taken to the task with gusto. “The downtown is an important, special place for all Lebanese, all communities,” said Msgr. Michel Aoun, Vicar of the Maronite Archdiocese of Beirut. “It’s important that we all have a presence there again.”

The Al Omari Mosque, first built as a church in the 13th century on the remains of an earlier Byzantine church, required little work. But the Muhammad Al Amin Mosque was destroyed. A new, much larger mosque was built in its place, and with its towering minarets it dwarfs every other building in the Bourj. (The mosque was funded by Mr. Hariri, who is buried there.)

Next door to Al Amin is the Antiochene Orthodox Cathedral of St. George, which originated as a modest church in the 17th century, when Lebanon was under Ottoman rule. The church was improved over the years, until 1759, when it was destroyed by an earthquake. The cathedral was rebuilt in 1767. During the first year of the civil war, in 1975, the cathedral was gutted, with heavy damage to the structure and the interior, including the wooden iconostasis. In 1995, Archbishop Elias Audi, the Antiochene Orthodox Metropolitan of Beirut, announced a multimillion-dollar restoration effort, and the cathedral reopened in 2002.

St. George Maronite Cathedral, built in 1888, also closed after sustaining heavy damages during the early years of the civil war. After a four-year restoration effort, the cathedral reopened in 2000.

The Bourj is also home to several other mosques and churches, including the Emir Assaf Mosque, the Emir Mounzer Mosque, St. Elie Melkite Greek Catholic Cathedral and an Evangelical church. There is also a synagogue heavily damaged by Israeli shells in 1982. Less than 100 Jews remain in Lebanon and work has not yet started.

Rebuilding the Bourj’s destroyed religious buildings is a vital first step for overcoming the sectarian tensions that continue to trouble the country, said Msgr. Aoun.

“Before the war, downtown was mainly residential, where people from all faiths lived together. But now, there aren’t as many residential buildings and it is the churches and the mosques that give us hope for a future, peaceful Lebanon.”

There was concern after the assassination of Mr. Hariri that Solidere’s plans for the Bourj would suffer. From 1998 to 2000, when Mr. Hariri left public office, the government turned away from his pet project, declining to hand out building permits. Construction lagged. Mr. Hariri’s critics believed the country had other priorities and blamed heavy spending by Mr. Hariri’s government for Lebanon’s enormous debt.

While Lebanon has yet to find a solution to its economic woes – Lebanon’s debt stands at about $32 billion or 171 percent of its gross domestic product, the highest such ratio in the world – restoration of the Bourj continues at a brisk pace. At times, it is as if new shops or restaurants open every week.

And Beirut’s famous nightlife, once limited to a few Christian areas and its surrounding suburbs, has also returned. The boom also has spread to nearby neighborhoods, including the formerly sleepy blocks of Gemaizeh, which has become a hot spot of restaurants and clubs. The Bourj is also the center of Lebanon’s tourism industry, which picked up after 9/11 as wealthy Gulf Arabs became more reluctant to travel to the West.

Yes, it is inarguable that many of the Bourj’s pleasures are available only to the wealthy – a tiny minority in Lebanon, where the per capita income is $5,000. Solidere’s planners admit as much. “Can everyone afford to live on the Champs-Élysées?” asked Mr. Rached.

But on weekends, families from all sections of Beirut – Christian, Druze and Muslim; rich and poor – can be found picnicking on the pristine lawns and gardens of the Bourj. The children play in the cobblestone streets, the only ones in the city that are reserved for pedestrians. The Bourj has emerged as a place where Lebanese can imagine a brighter future for their troubled country, which continues to undergo political turmoil.

“This city has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times,” said Mr. Rached. “Let’s hope this is the last time.”

After five years of reporting from Lebanon, Amal Bouhabib is now a research associate at the Brennan Center of Justice at NYU.

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