It is time for action to safeguard Beirut’s cultural heritage

640. That’s the number of cultural heritage buildings that were damaged by the Beirut Port double explosion on 4 August 2020, mainly in Gemmayzeh, Rmeil and Mar Michael. The secret is out; the owners of these buildings received considerable offers to sell their properties only a few days after the tragedy. Offers that would certainly distort the traditional character of these neighborhoods.

The endorsement of Law 194, in October 2020, did freeze real estate transactions for two years, pending the implementation of a specific plan by the Ministry of Culture for the reconstruction and sustainable protection of historic buildings and districts. This time frame gives the Directorate General of Antiquities a very narrow window of opportunity to maneuver.  The question that arises is, “where do we stand after one year”, for we can expect real estate developers to renew their interest in these historic areas. Our heritage is at risk. We all know that. It is our collective responsibility to safeguard this treasure, which calls for a preliminary damage assessment, then, for the reconstruction of private housing and public buildings. However, as important as it is to allow the inhabitants of Beirut to return to their homes by rebuilding houses – of which many have only been temporarily stabilized to help residents survive the winters, it is more than imperative to put in place a legal context to ensure the perennity of the city's urban heritage.

Architecture, be it ancient or contemporary, is at the heart of UNESCO projects. And it is precisely because of the incredible power that lies within architecture and heritage that UNESCO launched its flagship initiative Li Beirut on 27August 2020. As part of this initiative, UNESCO has advocated and continues to advocate for human-centered urban recovery through culture, heritage and education. Today, it is essential to implement an integrated and comprehensive approach for the conservation and management of the city's urban heritage, following the historic urban landscape approach and using UNESCO's expertise in this field. The Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape adopted by UNESCO’s General Conference in 2011 states that urban heritage, with all of its tangible and intangible qualities, is essential to improve the livability of urban areas, and promotes economic development and social cohesion in a constantly changing global environment. This holistic, human-centered approach takes into account the links between the physical forms of the urban environment, spatial organization, natural features and parameters, and their social, cultural and economic values.

It is this approach that should lay the foundations of the "masterplan" that must be designed for the city of Beirut. By protecting the urban fabric, it is impossible to denigrate other heritage elements, be they intangible elements, or places that are part of collective memory, such as shops, creative industries and historical landmarks, ranging from the stairs of Gemmayzeh stairs to the art collections of Sursock Palace. As we write these lines, researchers from the American University of Beirut are working with UNESCO to define, identify and map all cultural heritage attributes in the blast-damaged areas of Beirut. This study should necessarily be taken into account in order to allow rehabilitation and sustainable management according to international standards. UNESCO is also supporting the Directorate General of Antiquities in its diligent work to develop a plan for the protection of built heritage in the destroyed neighborhoods, while remaining sensitive to supporting creative industries. For the record, 800 cultural and artistic businesses were located in the neighborhoods that were directly impacted by the explosion. The tragedy of the port, along with the multiple crises ravaging Lebanon, forced 50% of these businesses to close their doors. Without assistance to rehabilitate their workplaces and improve their economic conditions, many of them do not consider resuming their activities. The identity of these neighborhoods as a creative hub could unfortunately be lost forever.

Our heritage is our identity. It is essential that everyone can identify with their heritage, and see themselves in history, as well as in places, arts and traditions. Knowing one's own history means being open to meet that of others. Being deprived of one's history is to be vulnerable to communal fantasized narratives and deep aspirations essentially based on immobility and withdrawal. This is why, for young people in particular, heritage policy is not only a policy of conservation, but also a policy of meaning when heritage is alive, shared lived and experienced.

Thus, getting the Lebanese Parliament’s endorsement of the law on the protection of the country's heritage and archaeological sites is urgent, as is reconciling the different points of view among residents, promoters and activists for the protection of cultural heritage. In fact, the applicable legislation, which dates back to 1933, unfortunately only protects the buildings constructed prior to the 17th century. Beirut is – obviously – much more than that. Located at the crossroads of civilizations, the city is a symbol of diverse influences. For thousands of years, multiple cultures, cuisines, and languages have come together in Lebanon, and have given life to a diverse heritage, both cultural and natural, tangible and intangible. On the Mediterranean, cradle of myths, ideas and aesthetics, this heritage sends a very strong message to the world and depicts Beirut’s resilience.

Heritage evolves, adapts and reinvents itself. It has to be invested over generations. It is not only a treasure from the past, but also a source of sustainable development for the present and the future, a source of creation, innovation and employment. Let us protect Beirut’s heritage, for countries that safeguard and value their authentic heritage gain formidable advantages for their economic development. At a time when Lebanon is engulfed in a multi-faceted crisis, much like a dark, grim show with many twists and turns, it is wise to remember that cultural heritage also has a fundamental role to play for peace, societies, and overcoming crises. UNESCO's experience around the world reveals a truth: it is through heritage that we can show humanity in all its diversity, uniqueness and universality. It is also through heritage that we can provide youth with new horizons and bring peoples and generations closer together, by enabling them to form a common society.

Today, Beirut’s physical recovery, along with the reconstruction of its infrastructure and public services, is an absolute priority. Healing the wounds means rebuilding the city and its historic fabric. However, on the long run, this will not be enough to build peace… nor to restore people’s trust... nor to reweave the links in a fractured society… nor to allow people to regain a sense of dignity within their city, if the city does not unite them through its values. Let us live together today, tomorrow and the days after that. Without common values, our futures will be fragmented and divided.

Najat Rochdi, UN deputy special coordinator for Lebanon

Costanza Farina, Director, UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in the Arab States - Beirut