Story behind the Imagery: Lebanon, A Paradise Lost
THE TRAVEL PLAN
So, wow, I have been working silently on this content for some time. I am actually writing this blog in July 2019 as I try to launch the video, the photography and blog series from our four week long trip that we undertook back in April.
Just before leaving Cape Town in South Africa, I spotted a cheap deal to a destination that I had been researching for over a year, Beirut in Lebanon. So, I booked the flights, super excited for the complete change in scenery, we were to land on the 27th March 2019 on a one-way ticket.
I calculated we had roughly 3 weeks spare to tour the country and discover what it had to offer, and I was going to worry about getting from Lebanon to Georgia (our location from late April till November) later in the month.
Once I had booked the flights, which were to change in Istanbul I had three weeks to step up my research and conjure up an action plan and build a map of both hidden and derelict architecture as well as some of the nicest landscape spots across the country.
Three weeks flew by, especially as we were om a safari road trip during it across Southern South Africa. I got us back to Cape Town for the 26th March, and the next day our new adventure would begin.
LEBANON - THE TROUBLED TIMES
Squeezed hard up against the Mediterranean Sea by the infamous lands of Syria to the North and to the East and by the countries nemesis, in recent times Israel in the South, Lebanon is a country with a rich and interesting history which can be a long and complicated read at times.
To cut a long story shorter, Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943, but The Allies occupied the region until the very end of World War II. Lebanon's history since this independence has been marked by alternating periods of political stability and turmoil and prosperity built on Beirut's position as a regional centre for finance, business and trade.
However, throughout Lebanon’s history there has been this turmoil that I mentioned, and it was not long after the Second World War that another war broke out, this time with Israel - just two years later to be exact in 1947.
The Palestine war (or the War of Independence) still shows its scars across the country today as an estimated 100,000 Palestinians fled to Lebanon because of the war with Israel not permitting their return after the cease-fire in 1949. As of 2019 there is still between an estimated 174,000 and 450,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon with about half of that amount in refugee camps (although these are often tens of years old and resemble neighbourhoods these days).
PARIS OF THE MIDDLE EAST
During the 1960s Lebanon was relatively calm and the “Glitz & Glamour” of the region had more than returned, during this time Beirut had even earned the Nickname “Paris of the Middle East” mainly due to the cities French architectural influence and vibrant cultural life - the tourists flocked in and the city became very cosmopolitan, but this would soon change.
Roll forward to the 13th April 1975 and a huge civil war was to begin that would make scars across the country, most likely forever. The war lasted until October 1990, some fifteen and a half years later and resulted in an estimated 120,000 fatalities. As of 2018, approximately 70,000 people remain displaced within Lebanon and there was also an exodus of around one million people from the country as a result of the war.
The war was long and complicated and I am no expert, but if you are interested you can read much more across the internet about it - but it is thought that the strike of fishermen in the Southern city of Sidon in February 1975 was the first important episode that helped set off the outbreak of hostilities, a frightening thought. The war also contained many phases, including The Hundred Days War and the 1982 Lebanon War.
During the Lebanese Civil war, there was an area in Beirut that was a de-militarized zone, a “no man’s land”, that not only separated Beirut’s west and east but also split it into two different religions. It was dubbed the green line after a short time due to the area becoming over-grown, a fascinating visual. It separated the mainly Muslim factions in West Beirut from the mostly Christian East, which was controlled by the Lebanese Front.
Officially this war ended in 1990 but five years before this, a second side conflict had erupted in the South of the country. It was between the South Lebanese Army (Lebanese Christian militias) with military and logistic support from the Israel Defence Forces they were fighting against the Lebanese Muslim guerrillas who were led by the Iranian-backed and now infamous, Hezbollah.
This second war never actually ended until the year 2000 with a Hezbollah victory and for the first time since 1974 the sound of mortar and gunfire had officially stopped country wide.
Unfortunately for Beirut, this would only last for six years until 2006 when it would become subject to another blow. This new conflict started on 12 July 2006 and continued until a United Nations-brokered ceasefire that went into effect in the morning of the 14 August 2006, thankfully a conflict that only lasted 34 days but one that had devastating effects recovering capital, including on its architecture.
Israel laid siege to Lebanon bombing places such as Beirut airport, blockading seaports and by declaring its northern neighbours airspace closed to everything but its jets which were launching waves of attacks country-wide. This included severing the main road between Beirut and the Syrian capital, Damascus.
It is also rumoured that Israeli officials dropped leaflets warning the residents of a Beirut suburb where Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrullah lived, to evacuate their homes.
Of course, there are two sides to war, right? But in this blog we are focusing on photography and travel to Lebanon, so I am just giving you the background from the Lebanese side - prior to my reasons for visiting.
As mentioned, Beirut's architecture was heavily influenced by Paris and France and there are still amazing examples of this both in use and derelict across the city to this very day - but many examples of the derelict architecture are of as a direct result of this 2006 conflict, a conflict that had hit an already recovering Capital.
SO, WHY LEBANON?
Back in 2016 I came across an article on Time.com - marking the ten year anniversary of the end of this short war. In the article they ask eighteen of their then photographers of the time to reflect on the images they took, the result was brilliant and touching - 100% worth a look. This was the first time Lebanon had popped into my mind.
By late 2017 I was searching for more countries that had more “ruins” with a story than just derelict buildings that I could urbex or trespass and again Lebanon popped up. So, this time I added it to my list.
I make a list of countries in on a word document on Google Drive that I can pull up from my phone or laptop at any time and extract that early data prior to “stepping up” the research. You know, collect information on the basic travel information. I also found out that Lebanon is also a small country and you can see most of it in a relatively short period of time.
This research I collected in early 2018, collecting information on the pros and cons. With Lebanon one of the many positives that seemed to be mentioned time and time again was the fact the country spoke great English, especially in the major cities and the food, apparently the place has some of the best cuisine in the world.
These are one of the first things I look at when I begin researching a country along with visa requirements and if hire cars are readily available. I add this information (with links) to my document and leave them there for “a rainy day”.
10 years is a long time for a place to recover, things change but also, I need to be visiting countries before they change and before the influx of photographers or even tourists arrive - this is important when you have a smaller following.
I see myself as a little behind in this respect, playing catch up I also am aware photography is selling less and less every day and to create sales and interest in your work, I feel that you need interesting subjects and a story. Lebanon is certainly interesting and it has many stories to tell, and many of these stories are present in its architecture.
I wanted to add a brief line about safety, yes Lebanon is safe to travel to now and although there are some areas to avoid these tend to line Syria and you would not go close to these areas for photography purposes anyhow. The BBC have actually run a show, titled “Exploring Lebanon” in it they talk to Lebanon Traveller about this subject, but it is clear places move on and with a growing arts, music and cafe/bar scene Lebanon has certainly done that.
The ancient Lebanese architecture dates back over 7,000 years, to the Phoenician period. Phoenicia was an ancient civilization (Romans) whom built several major cities on the coastline of the Mediterranean. If you are interested in this period you can read more about it over on TimeMaps.
Many of these ancient ruins still exist in modern day Lebanon and are fine examples of this style of architecture. Structures are all over Lebanon from Baalbek in the North East to Tyre on the coast in the south.
However, as Lebanon is a mix of architecture styles, I was targeting the places built in and around the 19th century. The “Lebanese house” was invented and built during this period and they were a world of sunshine and light and of colour, both subtle and vivid.
The Lebanese house always though has a relationship with nature, as they are usually sat in and around stunning landscapes. So, this was incorporated into the designs around this period, designs embracing the landscape. So, may I introduce to you…
The Lebanese Triple Arcade
These houses generally have at least three things in common: the red roof tiles, very high ceilings and interior arcades with three pointed arches in a street-facing wall which sits within a large central room.
High ceilings were born from the need for cool rooms during Lebanon’s hot summers, as they allowed a breeze to swing through and the central hall was convenient for extended families living together in the same large house.
The three central large arched windows evolved to take advantage of the sweeping views of Lebanon’s hilly coastline and impressive mountainscapes.
The triple arch usually has a central door with a window on each side and a small balcony outside it and the high ceilings and the placement of doors & windows ensured some cross ventilation, creating a comfortable and cool environment. The orientation of this main central room was usually towards the valley and hence the breeze.
Back to that red tiled roof that I mentioned earlier, it appeared in the nineteenth century possibly an Italian import. The roof never has windows, nor any chimneystacks and it is known locally as the Tarboush or fez of the house. This red roof was a source of pride for owners up and down Lebanon. Note the word, “was”.
Back to those wars, people fled to escape the bombings and they were displaced right through until 2016. And in recent times, they fled to escape the drama in neighbouring Syria. However, there was more drama in this region that I am yet to mention…
Between 1976 (yes during that complicated Lebanese Civil War) and 2005, the Syrian Army occupied Lebanon. This continued until an uprising, following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.
After speaking to a local photographer during my visit, I discovered that during this twenty-nine year period the Syrian Army took over some key buildings of importance as outposts, such as hotels on route to Damascus, (the Syrian Capital), and large homes or palaces high up in the mountains over-looking Beirut.
Many of these were now vacant as people fled from the conflicts although they were originally locked up and full of belongings, as some still are to this very day but due to their high positions, they were ideal locations for artillery posts. Such as the Villa Paradiso, where a militia camped out on the ground floor during Lebanon's civil war.
The Syrian Army started to strip the buildings that they were occupying, but in addition stripped some nearby homes. Many stunning buildings were ruined in this way, as the soldiers stripped tiles, stone, marble and even occasionally “the triple arch” from these homes. By 2005 many of these grand buildings were destroyed, and one great example of this that we visited, was The Grand Hotel Kassouf.
Grand Hotel Kassouf was a fortress-like structure near the end of the single winding road (built by the French), along the spine of two mountains. It was 5,000 feet up and slightly to the north of the capital, Beirut which is viewable to the East. This road interestingly is full of those massive red-roofed houses, a former place of wealth partly down to that 1960’s era and the oil boom that occurred during that exact period.
But it was not just in this hotel, big hotels and houses of Aley, Bhamdoun and Bikfaiya were demolished in this relentless fighting, with their empty interiors turned into barracks or arms depots. So far as I heard no side refrained from this pointless vandalism - a period that ruined some stunning architecture for sure.
During my four weeks in this fascinating country, I of course came across many of these triple arcade homes, many of which were abandoned.
But thankfully, some stunning examples still exist and many are being redeveloped like this stunning example in the town of Jubayl. Which is one of a few initiatives to save some of the crumbling buildings scattered across Lebanon.
I found each architecture example unique, which is strange as you would think that they would all look the same, right? But from the teals, to the whites and from soft orange hues to yellow tones these homes homes were both colourful, fascinating and historic.
My new photography series shot across the entire country, is based on the differing styles of architecture that I encountered. Entitled “Lebanon; A Paradise Lost” this is my take and a showcase of just some of the architecture that we uncovered during our stay. From derelict and the hidden to the totally bizarre, this is my journey through this Middle Eastern mystery.
I found Lebanon to be a photographic delight, a place full of photography opposites and opportunity, so much so that I have also decided that this would make a fantastic location for a “retreat style” workshop location and I shall be running two 10-day workshops in the country during 2020. If you want to find out more, head on over to my experiences page for more information.
These are the some of the images that I took in Lebanon, that feature the Lebanese Triple Arcade. Some of these are included in my new photography series:
Thank you for taking the time out of your day to read this blog, I really hope that you enjoyed reading it. Next time, we look at the lost railway infrastructure of Lebanon.