Beirut residents determined to save heritage lost to blast

Cover Image
Photo credit A worker works inside a heritage house that was damaged by Aug. 4 explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, as part of it hold by scaffolding, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday Aug. 25, 2020. In the streets of Beirut historic neighborhoods, workers are erecting scaffolding to support buildings that have stood for more than a century - now at risk of collapse after the massive Aug. 4 explosion that tore through the capital. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT (AP) — For the past decade, art collector Nabil Debs has been working on turning his 19th century ancestral home in a historic neighborhood of Beirut to a hotel and art gallery. He planned to open it to the public in mid-August.

Within seconds, his lifelong dream came crashing down, along with the two-story building’s stone facade and front balcony as a massive explosion tore through Beirut, shearing off facades, blasting holes in buildings, doors, stones and shattering glass across the capital.

The Aug. 4 blast resulting from nearly 3,000 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrates igniting at the port of Beirut killed more than 180 people and wounded nearly 6,000. It also damaged thousands of buildings, including dozens of charming Ottoman and French mandate-era structures which had been among the few survivors of a years-old construction frenzy replacing traditional houses with modern buildings. They include old homes, restaurants, museums and churches.

In the streets of two Beirut historic neighborhoods, Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael, workers are erecting scaffolding to support buildings that have stood for more than a century - now at risk of collapse.

Among them is the house of Debs, who says he is more determined to go ahead with his project, called Arthaus, that consists of 25 rooms. Days after the explosion, after he’d recovered from the shock and workers started renovation works. Now he plans the inauguration for mid-September.

“We have been working on this project for the last 10 years. For us it is a labor of love,” said Debs, standing in a yard between his ancestral red-brick house, which was built in 1860, and another family home built in 1780. “We love the project, we love Beirut and we love Lebanon and that’s what we are.”

The day of the blast, Debs was at the house. He stepped outside into the backyard with a friend who wanted to smoke a cigarette. They were lucky. Had they gone to the front, the whole facade would have fallen on them. They miraculously escaped without a scratch.

“It was a horror story,” Debs said.

He estimates his losses to be at least $250,000 and could reach $1.5 million, as some art pieces including sculptures were damaged.

Naji Raji, an activist and spokesman for Save Beirut Heritage, said the blast damaged more than 600 historic buildings in Beirut, of which about 40 are at risk of collapse. He said out of the 40 buildings, work has begun to support 17 of them. Raji said some estimates put the cost of renovating old buildings at about $300 million.

The renovation work is being carried out by the Beirut Heritage Initiative, a coalition that includes among others the U.N. culture agency UNESCO, the French embassy and the architects syndicate, Raji said. The state is largely absent, apart from producing licenses for work.