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Beirut explosion

The ongoing battle to save Lebanon’s heritage damaged by the 2020 Beirut Port blast

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The aftermath of the Beirut Port Blast in 2020 was nothing short of a nightmare. Many people lost their homes and businesses, but the biggest loss of all was their livelihoods.

On Thursday, Lebanon marks two years since the blast – the country’s worst-ever peacetime disaster – which killed 214 people and was equivalent to a 3.3 to 4.5 magnitude earthquake.

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It was one of the world’s biggest non-nuclear explosions to ever be recorded. Stored in a warehouse for six years, the large amounts of ammonium nitrate exploded and injured 6,500 people.

It left the Lebanese capital in shambles, with over 300,000 people homeless and 70,000 jobless. It also left 73,000 apartments, 9,200 buildings, 163 schools and education centers, 106 healthcare facilities damaged.

After the port explosion, the Beirut Heritage Initiative was set up by a group of architects who wanted to act quickly to ensure the city’s cultural heritage buildings were rehabilitated and treated to not sustain any further damage or collapse, one of the committee’s founding members Joy Kanaan told Al Arabiya English in an interview.

This was a huge undertaking, one that required a lot of planning and financial support.

Many rendered homeless in blast’s aftermath

Several Beirut neighborhoods sustained damage due to the blast, the most damaged were those closest to the port.

“Most of the damage happened in the main Medawar area, Mar Mikhael, Gemmayzeh, and even in Karantina,” said Kanaan, who is also an Architect by profession and a professor at the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University.

Medawar, Mar Mikhael, Gemmayzeh, and Karantina are Beirut neighborhoods that were directly affected by the disaster which saw several family units destroyed.

“Some of them were single family units, some of them were multifamily units. The damage was heavily concentrated there. Most of these structures were already inhabited by the social fabric that was, I think, very critical to preserve as I think it was a mirror of the Lebanese social structure, [it was] very diverse,” she said.

“A lot of these families were left homeless because of the blast. And the objective was to actually go back and try to rehabilitate these structures in order to rehouse these families as soon as possible. A lot of the units had their roofs blown out, they were completely not inhabitable at this point,” the architect added.

Maison Bleu damaged by the Beirut Port Blast. The Beirut Heritage Initiative worked to rehabilitate it. (Supplied)
Maison Bleu damaged by the Beirut Port Blast. The Beirut Heritage Initiative worked to rehabilitate it. (Supplied)

Further highlighting the lack of attention paid by the government, Kanaan said that these areas “always required a lot of attention,” mainly because these are areas “where the social fabric is mirrored in the architectural fabric – very diverse and traditional.”

“It’s not just about stones and structures. It was also about the actual social layer that was heavily affected. So, when we go back and rebuild a cluster or unit, it is basically with the intention to allow these families to return and stay there,” she added.

“The preservation of the social fabric there was a priority.”

Some of the buildings that sustained heavy damage were three stories or more, with many having been build in different time periods.

Kanaan said that the BHI worked to preserve whole clusters as most of these neighborhoods were composed of different families or a larger group of families that came from a single family and eventually moved into these different units within the vicinity.

Beirut Heritage Initiative rehabilitates Maison Bleu in Beirut, Lebanon. (Supplied)
Beirut Heritage Initiative rehabilitates Maison Bleu in Beirut, Lebanon. (Supplied)

“These were very often spaces and areas or stairs between units that were also appropriated by these buildings for social gatherings, for passages… they were very much part of the flavor of the area so this became our objective, which is to preserve not only building by building but to go ahead and preserve units gathered in a cluster around,” Kanaan said.

“So instead of doing the surgical rehabilitation, I think it was very important to go ahead and move into a more urban layer and areas and clusters.”

No government support

Although the BHI has done a great deal of work on these severely affected areas, it has not been able to fully achieve what it set out to do.

“Unfortunately, funding is key, and in the initial phases after the blast, we received some support from institutions and individuals for the emergency phase for propping and sheltering these buildings before the walls completely crumbled down,” Kanaan explained.

She added that as time went on, funding for these rehabilitation projects began to dwindle, an issue which she believes is being faced by most institutions, collectives, and NGOs.

“We were facing several challenges,” she said, adding that the Port Blast, along with the economic crisis made it more challenging to proceed with these projects and complete them.

The Beirut Port explosion not only caused the Lebanese capital’s port to go up in smoke, but it reverberated across the capital and surrounding areas, causing immense widespread physical, mental and economic damage.

Beirut Heritage Initiative rehabilitates the Golam Cluster in Beirut, Lebanon. (Supplied)
Beirut Heritage Initiative rehabilitates the Golam Cluster in Beirut, Lebanon. (Supplied)

It compounded multiple crises facing Lebanese society and came at a time when the country was struggling with a COVID-spurred economic meltdown, severe currency devaluation, layoffs, and mass migration, all while the government did nothing to support its people.

“There’s been zero support in terms of funding from the government. There’s also a lot of distrust. There’s been no funding, or financial support whatsoever.”

Prior to the blast, the country was already grappling with years of endemic corruption and national debt brought on by the ruling elite.

Kanaan added that the only form of cooperation BHI had with the Lebanese government was through the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA), an institution that comes under the umbrella of the country’s Ministry of Culture, which has assisted in providing the BHI with permits to proceed with their projects.

“We work with the DGA for all the support we need to get these permits to be able to proceed on these buildings, especially for those that are classified structures or heritage buildings. So, from that sense, we collaborate and work hand-in hand-with the DGA, and the OEA [Order of Engineers and Architects],” Kanaan explained.

“However, in terms of funding we very specifically received no help whatsoever,” she said, adding that other institutions have contributed to the collective’s efforts such as the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in conflict areas (ALIPH) and Fondation de France, which played an instrumental role in the initial phases which involved propping and sheltering.

“We received some help from the French government, we were able to produce a manual for reconstruction that includes techniques and guidelines for the proper rehabilitation of these heritage buildings,” Kanaan said.

Beirut Heritage Initiative rehabilitates the Golam Cluster in Beirut, Lebanon. (Supplied)
Beirut Heritage Initiative rehabilitates the Golam Cluster in Beirut, Lebanon. (Supplied)

“I think we were able to do as much as we can given the support we got and kept doing some surgical interventions just to keep going and I think this was a key in being successful and making an impact on the area after the blast because we kept building with whatever was available,” she explained.

“If we look back at what we’ve done, I think we’re very happy with what we’ve done in terms of preserving the structures themselves and doing very critical, very meticulous work and good work on these buildings.”

Lebanese heritage at risk

One of the biggest threats facing Lebanese cultural and architectural heritage is the lack of proper guidelines by the government, according to Kanaan, making it difficult to preserve and rehabilitate heritage sites.

“We need to move forward and classify some of the structures. I think the number of classified buildings relative to the number of existing buildings that need preservation is very low,” she said.

“There has to be proper listings and to place these buildings under specific monitoring, and to create these guidelines to go ahead. But not only architectural guidelines [because] I think the bigger problem is the actual rental laws and rites and laws of inheritance,” Kanaan continued.

“Some buildings have multiple owners, some of the owners are literally in cahoots with other owners and they have different ways of wanting to deal with their buildings. So there’s no proper support from the government for these buildings to go ahead and aid the owners in preserving or rehabilitating them.”

She added that “all sorts of issues” are being experienced between tenants and owners, due to the rental laws being so difficult on both parties.

“This translates into the kind of crumbling of the structure or leaving these structures to pretty much suffer the effects of time.”

The lack of attention to the matter is putting cultural heritage at risk, a risk which is growing by the day.

“This has to come from laws that the government has to apply, and they need to be specific guidelines for preservations that need to be created in order to place these buildings under the spotlight for constant rehabilitation, constant care and preservation.”

Lebanon is home to several natural, cultural, architectural, modern, and industrial heritage sites that are still not officially recognized by the government.

“There are many sites that actually require and deserve this attention. We are now focused on these areas in the epicenter, the explosion, and hopefully, our hope is that something happens there eventually and then it trickles down to the rest of the country.”

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