THE SHINING STAR OF THE MIDDLE EAST: BEIRUT

It is not easy to move on after a war. Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, is among the rare cities that have been born out of their ashes. The city that used to be known as the “Paris of the Middle East” before the civil war is busy chasing this old fame today. It may sound fair hearing that for the most, the city is identified with the long running war and destruction: war-ravaged buildings, patched bullet and howitzer holes on shutters and walls. However, the people of Lebanon are determined to erase this impression. Today’s Beirut defeats many of the prejudices. Downtown, which was destroyed during the war, is the proof of that. This place is ambitious to become the political, cultural, and commercial center of the city once again with its new buildings. It is a cosmopolite dynamic city with its designer shops, gourmet restaurants, and lively night life. It doesn’t comprise on its spirit, which is a synthesis of Eastern and Western cultures, as its wounds heal in time. Beirut with over five thousand years old history that harmonizes many cultures and religions looks forward to the future persistently.

It is the Corniche time in the mornings
Start walking down Corniche in the morning for the first meeting with Beirut. You can feel this cosmopolite city there the best. One activity in the city, which is reflected in the city’s daily culture, is a walk at Corniche, the Mediterranean coastline of the city. What Kordonboyu is to İzmir is what Corniche is to Lebanon. This 4.8 km long concourse that was built during the years when the city was under the French mandate is impressive not only with the people that crowd it while fishing, jogging, running, bicycling, or roller blading but also with its nature scenes. Both the waves of the Mediterranean and the summits of Lebanon Mountain have made this location one of the most commodious areas in the city. Even if you don’t have time to do much of anything here, just enjoy the Mediterranean view accompanied by a cup of coffee or tea. You have one other reason to stop by this place and it is the view at sunset.

The spirit of the neighborhoods
Strolling around the neighborhoods of Beirut is a total discovery. Hamra Street is among the important shopping spots of the city. Many restaurants, cafes, and hotels are located along this street, as well as fashion stores. Night life is also very colorful. Rue Abdel Al Ras and Bliss Streets are also worth to take a walk. Known with its quiet, shady, and lush gardens and landscapes, American University of Beirut is among the most prestigious and expensive universities in the region. Established in 1866, the university that spreads over a seafront campus is as an oasis in the city. The Museum of Archeology and the library that were opened within the campus in 1868 are open for visitors. The museum with an extensive collection from the Stone Age to the Islamic era is one of the oldest museums of the Middle East. One other museum in the city that should not be missed is the National Museum of Beirut. Although badly damaged during the war, the museum that is located on the Green Line that divided the West and East sides of the city during the civil war opened its doors once again in 1999. The documentary that can be watched at the museum explains how the collections were rescued by the curators during the civil war, having the museum to embrace its former glory. Saifi Village, where the original architecture was kept, resembling a European city; Achrafieh, the Christian town which is among the old neighborhoods of Beirut; cool Gemmayzeh, the recreational part of the town; Mar Mikhael, where mostly the cafes and bars are located; Bourj Hammoud, the little Armenia, where the traditional handicrafts shops are located are the significant destinations to understand the cultural richness of the Beirut neighborhoods. An Ottoman era structure The Grand Palace is located at the downtown.

The heart of the city
Beirut architecture bares the marks of Ottoman, Greek, French, Mameluke, and Lebanese. The downtown, which has been destroyed during the civil war where Ottoman and French architecture become prominent, was reanimated by means of the largest development projects. Place d’Etoile (Nejme Square) and its surrounding streets create the heart of this area. Nejme means star in Arabic. The square looks like a star from above. The Lebanese Parliament, Beirut Municipality, two cathedrals, cafes, and restaurants are located here. The square is recognized as the symbol of the city with its Art Deco architecture and the clock tower that had been built in the WW1 and survived without damage. Martyrs’ Square is another location that is worth seeing. However, what were left behind of this square are only the cinema-opera house, which is a big shopping mall today, and the bronze Martyrs’ Statue.

From war to resurrection
Another symbol which is near the Martyrs’ Square is the Mosque of Mohammed Al-Amin. This amber color impressive mosque with a blue dome has been opened in 2008. It is also where Refik Hariri, former prime minister of Lebanon who was assassinated, is buried. The main prayer room has the capacity of 3700. Only one tower had been built within the scope of the “Beirut City Center” project that was designed as a series of buildings by Joseph Philippe Karam (1923-1976), Lebanese architect, during the civil war, which began in 1975. The complex had been destroyed almost completely between the years of 1975 and 2006. What were left of it were the cultural center and office spaces known as “The Egg” or “The Dome” by the locals. The Egg, which looks like a concrete jungle in the shade of the Mosque of Mohammad Al-Amin, the symbol of the city’s survival, is in fact a structure that is adored by the residents of Beirut and a subject of many campaigns to save it.

An underground wonder of the Middle East
The colorful life in Beirut whether it is day or night is true with no doubt; however, it would be useful not to skip mentioning the natural wonders around the city. Discovered in 1836 and opened for visitors in 1969, the caves that are known as Jeita Grotto are among the most impressive natural formations of the Middle East. 18 km to Beirut and about 300 meters in altitude, the caves have been formed by rain and underground waters eroding the karstic limestone for millions of years. The system consists of two tiers that are connected to each other and stretch towards the mountains for about 9 kilometers. The top cave, which presents beautiful landscapes with its tunnels, trails, stalactites and stalagmites, can be reached by a lift. The bottom cave has actually been in use since the prehistoric ages. Providing drinking water for over 1 million Lebanese, the channels in this section, which can be seen by boats, is closed for visitors when the water rises. The place had also been used as an armory during the civil war.

A farewell to the city
Climb the Harissa Hill to see the panoramic view of Beirut, which is 20 km in distance. The lift is going to take you to one of the hills that the city leans on its back. Tourists that go there usually pray at the church or watch the view from the front yard where a Statue of Virgin Mary is located. It is necessary to climb up the steps to reach the upper part of the statue. The magnificent Maruni Church is located right across the statue. This point would make a nice farewell point to take a one last look at the city before leaving. Another farewell point would be Raouché District on Corniche. The limestone Pigeons’ Rocks that take place offshore are among the symbols of the city, as well as being a subject of post cards around the world. Try to be here at sunset and wait for the night lights. If you listen to the songs of the legendary diva of Lebanon Fairuz in the background, you might have really hard time saying goodbye to this city.

DO NOT MISS
The ancient harbor city of Byblos, 40 km to Beirut, and the ruins of Baalbek, under the protection of UNESCO and 86 km to Beirut are worth to see.

TASTE STOP
Do not miss hummus, taboleh, and the famous salad of the Lebanese cuisine fettus.

DID YOU KNOW?
The largest ski center of the Middle East is located at the Mzaar Kfardeban Mountains, which is 50 km away from Beirut.