The Port of Beirut – the site of the disastrous explosions that shattered Beirut on Tuesday – came to prominence as a Mediterranean trading hub facilitating commercial activity for Lebanon.
But 200 years ago, during a time of political uncertainty in which Lebanon was occupied by an Egyptian dynasty, the port was developed as a way to quell epidemics. At the time, cholera was the primary concern, but today, Lebanon – and the rest of the world – must again grapple with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic while it clears out the rubble left from the blasts.
Two days after the blasts, Lebanon recorded its highest single-day coronavirus infection tally, with 255 new cases.
While parts of Beirut lie in ruin, citizens have picked up brooms and taken to the streets. Meanwhile, the government seems absent from the scene, although security forces made an appearance Thursday night to blast protesters with tear gas after they gathered to protest the government negligence that led to the explosions.
While the port’s history stretches back to the 15th century, the city's rulers paid particular attention to the development of the port in the 19th century as the city expanded, wrote the late Samir Kassir in his book Beirut.
It was luck and a concern for public hygiene that subsequently saw the port’s commercial activity expand, according to the well-known Lebanese journalist and professor Kassir. Ibrahim Pasha, the Egyptian leader in charge of Lebanon at the time, sought to establish a network of quarantine centers throughout the Levant to slow the spread of epidemics.
While religious figures in Damascus and Tripoli protested, a lazaretto – a quarantine station for maritime travelers – was installed near Beriut at Cape Khodr along Saint George Bay – an area that would later be incorporated into municipal Beirut.
It would keep the name Qarantina.
Situated in a northern suburb of Beirut, before the blasts that shook Beirut to its core, the Qarantina of 21st century Beirut was a quiet neighborhood separated from the busier Mar Mikhael by a highway that hosted the city’s famed nightclubs in old industrial buildings that once attracted Lebanese and tourists alike before they shut for what was supposed to be temporary amount of time to quell the modern pandemic.
Back in 1834, arrivals in Qarantina were required to quarantine for 12 days – two days less than the recommended self-isolation period for the novel coronavirus today. At the time, cholera was the major concern as two epidemics hit from the 1830s to 1860s.
“In principle it was obligatory for all visitors, but difficulties were not slow in emerging,” wrote Kassir.
French consul Henri Guys was charged with devising a system of sanitary regulations, and consuls from Austria, Denmark, Spain and Greece were part of a supervisory committee.
“However limited the effectiveness of the quarantine may have been from a medical point of view, it undeniably benefited the economic development of Beirut, which from now on was an obligatory port of call for ships in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Kassir wrote.
While the Egyptians quit Beirut, and the city fell back under Ottoman control, warehouses were built and wharves were enlarged to handle the increased traffic to the port, and port and customs procedures were regularized, which helped Beirut attract a larger share of trade with Europe.
By the 20th century, Beirut had become a major regional seaport, serving the oil trade and passenger and cargo traffic in the Levant and the Gulf, Australian-based outlet The Conversation reported.
“The port has played a key role in Beirut’s history and stands at the centre of the city, surrounded by some of its most important neighbourhoods,” Sara Fregonese wrote in The Conversation.
Up until Tuesday, the Beirut port had been responsible for 60 percent of Lebanon’s imports, as well as the storage of its food and medical reserves. Lebanon imports between 80 and 85 percent of its food.
As nationwide protests kicked off against government corruption and neglect in October during an ongoing currency and economic crisis, reports of medical shortages began to surface as importers could no longer secure dollars needed to pay for goods. The dollar shortage has also spurred inflation, and food costs have skyrocketed. Even bread, a subsidized good, has been subject to minor price increases.
The blasts at the port – which were also the subject of gross government negligence – took out a wheat silo that was capable of holding 120,000 tonnes of grain. At the time of the blast, it held only around 15,000 tonnes, but the country’s Minister of Economy Raoul Nehme said the country only had enough supplies for less than a month.
An official investigation is yet to determine the cause of the blast, but initial reports suggest that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the port caught fire and caused the explosion that destroyed Beirut neighborhoods, left 137 dead, 5,000 injured, and some 300,000 homeless.
Sidon, Beirut, Tripoli ports
After Tuesday’s devastating blast, it seems like the country’s main commercial hub will become Tripoli in the north, though the port in Lebanon’s second largest city does not have the capacity of Beirut.
Public Works Minister Michel Najjar told local TV that Tripoli’s port may be backed up by Sidon and Tyre in the south.
In the 1820s, Sidon was bypassed for Beirut as a hub for trade, as the south was in decline, and the Egyptians viewed Beirut as a rising international city with the first foreign consuls and diplomats arriving in the city. French merchants began to favor Beirut over Sidon at this time as well, and Beirut became seen as the gateway to Europe – a title it still holds today, despite coming under immense strain.
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