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La transformation urbaine de la ville de Beyrouth

Narrating Beirut Public Spaces Westernization

An urban perspective from the late 19th century
Discours d’occidentalisation des espaces publics de Beyrouth. Une perspective urbaine de la fin du 19e siècle
Nadine Hindi


Towards the late 19th century, Beirut is at the crossroad of two main political powers, the Ottoman Empire and the French Mandate. Dissociated from the province of Damascus in 1888, Beirut was elevated to the rank of provincial capital of Wilâya, the geographical borders of which spanned the equivalent of four actual countries. Preceding the French regime, the Ottomans envisioned westernizing some of the Empire cities to the image of the European urban example. Alternately, the French were very prone to modernize Beirut, a city considered as their prime image in the Levant. At this moment of its history, Beirut’s urban fate was at the intersection of two visions of Westernization, the late Ottoman and the early French mandate rules. This paper taps into Beirut’s urban identity through the lens of its public spaces, in the broader geographical and political context. By framing the intersection of the Late Ottoman and French visions of Westernization, the studied intramuros and extramuros public spaces reveal the transformations of the urban fabric. Whilst tackling the public spaces spatial transformation, the paper discusses as well the urban implications of Westernization on the city as a whole, highlighting the major shift of the urban model from a medieval city with a port into a major port-city.

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  • 1 After World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations as defined in the 1916 (...)

1Towards the late 19th century and the First World War (WWI) aftermath, Beirut presents an important case along the Eastern Mediterranean at the intersection of two main political rules, the Ottoman Empire and the French Mandate1 . Back then, the recourse of both ruling powers to westernize the cities under their political control, deeply left traces on the urban landscape of Beirut. Preceding the French mandate, the Ottoman Empire envisioned westernizing their prime cities to the image of the European urban model. The glory of the urban achievements didn’t last long as the Empire was fragmented and divided following the WWI geopolitical aftermath. Under the advent of the French Mandate, Beirut administrative role underwent a major shift, from being the provincial capital of a Wilaya part of the Ottoman Empire territories, to being Capital of a Republic country with newly defined borders in 1920. Two modes of westernizing the city are framed from the different perspectives of the Late Ottoman and French periods rule, in the broader historical and geo-political contexts. The urban transformations are highlighted by narrating the changes in the public spaces, at this particular moment of the city’s urban history. The production and the transformation of public and open spaces are unfolded in the framework of the city as a dynamic model, connected to a larger complex territorial network. While the text draws primarily on the urban physical dimension, this does not imply by any means that the economic and socio-communal aspects are of a lesser importance.

1 - Contextualizing Beirut

  • 2 On another hand Beirut benefited as well from the shipping revolution and introduction of steamship (...)

2As a geopolitical result of the Ottoman and Western empires intersection, port-cities like Algiers, Tunis, Alexandria and along the Eastern Mediterranean like Beirut gained increasing importance. The development of maritime trade routes and increasing social diversity due to persecuted communal minorities seeking refuge (Ilbert, 1991: 17), further reinforced their importance as port cities. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 revitalized the trade routes via the East of the Mediterranean and played a major role in the emergence of ‘Mediterranean’ port-cities models like Beirut and Haifa2. Across the Empire, railway roads, carriage ways and the seaport enlargement further connected the Mediterranean to the Red Sea by means of the Hijaz railway (Hanssen, 2005) and (Çelik, 2008).

3Towards the end of the 19th century, Beirut gained an importance by being a node between terrestrial and maritime trade routes (Battegay et al., 1996) and underwent major transformations of its urban fabric and city model. At a geopolitical crossroad, it assumed different administrative roles, from a city under Ibrahim Pasha rule to being annexed to the province of Damascus, rising in 1888 to capital of Wilaya (which total area was 30,500 km2), then official capital of Greater Lebanon (10,450 km2) in 1920. While Beirut’s administrative role was gradually rising, it was still part of the Bilad al Sham territories till the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It was not until the French announced the state of Greater Lebanon that Beirut became capital of a democratic country within defined boundaries.

2 - Methodological framework

  • 3 Way prior to the end of WWI and following a sectarian war in Mount-Lebanon between Christians and D (...)

4Though historically the French mandate followed the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the French troops effectively entered Beirut in 1860 following a sectarian war in Mount-Lebanon3. Consequently, the French influence over the Ottomans during the intersection of their presence is traced and highlighted, in the framework of defining the two perspectives of Westernization. Whilst Hanssen (2005) and Ghorayeb (2014) books constitute key contributions for understanding the specificities of Beirut urban history respectively during late Ottoman period and the French mandate, the scholarly work of Çelik (2008) reveals an understanding of Beirut compared to other Ottoman provinces within the broader territorial context of the Empire. The literary contributions and the original mapping of Davie (1996) and Davie (1999) constituted herein the basis for locating the public spaces on the maps of Bayrout al-Qadima (meaning old city) complemented by the literary contribution of Fakhoury (2003) who described the different aspects of the old city. In addition to the French reports documenting the urban condition of Beirut and the Arabic cities, the trans-disciplinary book of Neep (2012) sheds light on the effects of urban sanitation in colonial cities. Based on the different literary works, the adopted methodology draws on a combined dual reading of the public spaces at a macro and a micro scale, in co-relation with tracing their spatial evolution through maps and diagrams developed by myself. The French travelogue manuscripts and original reports and documents written in French constitute basic literary works for framing the French perspective on the Westernization of Beirut. The main limitation remains the scarcity of the translated documents from Turkish into English, which limits the access to the primary Ottoman sources.

5This paper timeframe covers the period from 1860 to 1927, coinciding with the entrance of the French troops to Beirut, when the French administration was mostly interested in managing the urban implementations initiated by the Ottomans, and undertaking partial improvement works. This urban study of Beirut’s public spaces and open spaces is framed by an overview of Westernization from the late Ottoman and French mandate lenses. Both perspectives relate differently to the larger geopolitical context, from the extent of the Ottoman Empire to the confinement of the French rule within state borders. Consequently, it reveals their transformation in their dual relation to the city fabric and the wider territorial network, thus allowing a specific understanding of the intra-muros versus the extra-muros public spaces. The changes of the urban landscape from the lens of the public spaces are unfolded in relation to the administrative and political broader context of the Tanzimat regulations and Sultan Abdül Hamid II jubilee, then the French interest for their cultural and economic role in the Levantine city. While these are the tangible factors that framed broadly the Westernization process, the awareness for urban hygiene steered by French specialists in the Levant played a role as well by directly influencing the urban implementations of the Ottomans in Beirut. Some documents and reports (Ministre de l’agriculture et du commerce 1879; Chevallier 2010; Boyer 1897) reveal that the French concern for the urban sanitation and public hygiene preceded their concern for the culture manifested in the Foire-Exposition event in 1921.

3 Westernization through two lenses

3.1- Westernizing the wilaya

6Westernization and Modernization are slippery terms in a Middle Eastern context. The first step to approach these two visions of the same concept is to set the spatio-temporal framework for the needs of Westernization in the first place for both ruling powers. Consequently we can understand the guidelines and tools that had their spatial effect on the transformation of Bayrout al-Qadima. Towards the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire, founded basically on the Islamic religion and the Koranic civil code since the Middle Ages (Engelhard, 1882) was at the peak of its fall down. The Empire was seeking to regenerate its exposure and openness with the West, towards which it had a long history of adversary politics and military confrontations. The Tanzimat reforms constituted the political guidance for the openness of the Empire in several aspects and at different levels, a turning point in the history of the Ottoman Empire. The Tanzimat –the word meaning literally organization or reorganization in Arabic- represented an urge to ‘imitate’ Europe as per the words of admiral Khalil Pasha back in 1830 (Engelhard, 1882). When Beirut was dissociated from the province of Damascus and elevated to the rank of provincial capital of a Wilâya in 1888, it became eligible to benefit from the Tanzimat reforms which applied to Istanbul and all provinces of the empire alike. The Tanzimat decree orders and regulations reforms spanning between 1839 and 1876, focus on the regulations related to city and construction. These were initiated with the 1848 Building Regulations (Ebniye Nizamnamesi), the 1856 Istimlak Nizamnamesi (Regulation for Expropriation), 1859 Sokaklara Dair Nizamname (Regulation on Streets), Turuk ve Ebniye Nizamnamesi in 1863 (Street and Building Code). They provided the legal framework for reorganizing limits of public-private domains that were untouchable during a previously Islamic state such as land expropriations for the general public welfare.

7Modernization and Westernization process took another turn with the ascension to power in 1876 of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. He envisioned modernizing some of the Ottoman Empire cities to the image of the European model for the celebration of his silver Jubilee on the 1st of September 1900. This thrive to modernization after the Tanzimat went beyond the production of monumental effects and landmarks across the different provincial cities, to achieve networking through communication and transportation. The modernity of this approach at that time was reordering state control by connecting the fragmented territories of the Ottoman Empire. Railways and telegraph covered the Empire Arab provinces (Çelik, 2008), and brought physical and symbolic cohesion to the Ottoman Empire territory (Hanssen 2005). The inauguration of the railway linking Beirut to Damascus, placed it along the larger Muslim pilgrimage Al-Hijaz railroad network of the Muslim pilgrimage, to be completely constructed by 1909. Back then, possibly the best description of Beirut’s Ottoman modernity of that period is ‘the jewel in the crown of the Padishah’ as German emperor Kaiser Wilhem II labeled it during his historic visit to the Middle East in 1898. In the framework of the Tanzimat urban reforms, the city developed administrative bodies that controlled urban life and hygiene. Alternately, French medical bodies in Beirut pressured the Ottomans to tighten their control on public hygiene. The limits are ambiguous between French and Ottomans in their urban claims to open up the old souq for the improvement of insalubrious urban conditions (Neep, 2012: 163). In the second half of the nineteenth century, urban hygiene was considered a pillar for modernity, adopted by the French as a tool for modernizing Paris (Chevallier, 2010). Back then, Beirut port received the Muslims wishing to embark on the pilgrimage trip to Medina across Damascus even before the inauguration of the train connection to Damascus. Starting 1879, the compilation of letters by French authorities reports the medical condition by observing the spread of cholera epidemic across the Empire, in particular Medina and Constantinople. They expressed worries about the lenient measures on ships drawing near the port of Beirut regarding medical sanitation inspection (Ministère de l’Agriculture et du Commerce, 1879). The French pressure on the Ottoman authorities is clear leading to recommendations on the ‘règlements sanitaires’, and quarantining measures on docking ships from Constantinople (Ministre de l’Agriculture et du Commerce, 1879). Whilst these measures were applied on the port and the public sanitary service (l'office sanitaire de Beyrouth), Boyer report on the Syrian cities raised the pressure for the necessity to apply urban hygiene measures.

3.2 Westernizing the capital

  • 4 As documented in the conferences related to the decision to set the exhibition in, Haut-Commissaria (...)
  • 5 Ibid. iv, p. 2-4:
    The idea is underlined as a celebration of sacrifices and a compensation for the s (...)

8The modernity of the French approach was different from the Ottoman one. French authorities had to rule in the Levant over a divided fragment of the Empire and they were very eager to modernize Beirut, their prime image in the Levant ‘Vitrine de la France au Levant’ and ‘Centre de rayonnement de la culture française’ (Khalaf, 2006). The French understood the commercial nature of the Syrians and Lebanese whose cities were historically located along the caravan trade roads (Wetterlé, 1924) and traditionally based on trade. Inasmuch, they were aware of their interest in the French culture and tradition through their openness to their language. In a first act of modernity, ‘avec des vues libérales et modernes’ (Haut‑Commissariat, 1921), the French resorted to economy combined with culture for tightening the ties with their Levant mandate (Wetterlé, 1924) and (Haut‑Commissariat, 1921). The projected Foire-Exposition event that took place in Beirut, aimed at bridging between the Orient and France (Haut-Commissariat, 1921)4. The idea behind the exhibition was to affirm political goodwill for the newly established Greater Lebanon, and trust between France and Lebanon5.

4 - Public hygiene and intra-muros public spaces

9It is in the framework of the Tanzimat regulations that the Ottomans took a series of decisions that led to changing the intra-muros city during the late Ottoman period. The latter regulations paved the way to the increasingly changing urban character from Arabic to Western as they drew the legal framework for land expropriation for the public welfare, for street widening and alignment of buildings, starting 1848 with the Ebniye Nizamnamesi. But it is as well the criminal law dated in 1857 ‘article 254-264: contraventions aux règlements concernant la santé et la propreté publiques et aux règlements et mesures de Police (28 Zilhidze 1274)’ (Législation ottomane, 1874) for the protection of public spaces including railways, squares, parks, promenades or other spaces considered as public utility that started setting the legal guidance for the protection of the public realm. Whilst the Tanzimat provided the tools that allowed and regulated the means for urban interventions, what to implement and where to intervene were strongly influenced by the French concern for urban hygiene, whose presence infiltrated to Beirut since 1860. In an increasing awareness to the public realm, Tanzimat regulations encompassed a series of articles that regulated their social use, like banning the blocking of public roads alleyways (Législation ottomane, 1874), care for public safety during public works and protection of public property from vandalism (Législation ottomane, 1874).

10Back then until the 1890s, the urban landscape of Bayrout al-Qadima was that of an Arabic city (De Nerval, 1851), consisting of tortuous narrow streets all interlinked with the Souq. The Souq structure constituted the vibrant heart of the old city (De Nerval, 1851). De Nerval describes poetically the atmosphere as follows: ‘Il y avait encore aux diverses places où se croisent les allées, des vendeurs de glaces et de sorbets, composant à mesure ces breuvages avec la neige recueillie au sommet du Sannin’, where the different Souq alleways intersected at small Sahat, meaning public spaces in Arabic (De Nerval1851) and (Davie1999). As a common feature, most of these Sahat were organized around a sabil, nafourat or birkat (fountain) and a Qahwa (Arabian coffeehouse for coffee, beverages, ice cream and the like). Such toponyms referred to the trade activity like Sahat al-Qamh (wheat square), Sahat al-Khoubz (bread square), Sahat al-Samak (fish square) (Davie, 1999). More Sahat were described by Fakhoury (2003), namely Sahat al-Houboub (grain square), Sahat al-Zebib (raisins square) and Sahat al-Dallalin (auctioneers square) (Fakhoury, 2003). The Sahat formed a coherent network within the Souq system, displaying no spatial hierarchy between one Sahat and another (Davie, 1999). They were unplanned spaces, of undefined geometry and morphology and hardly recognizable on the cadastral map (fig. 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1

Intra muros Sahat in 1840

Superposition on the original map done by author N. Hindi - based on the Royal Engineers map of Beirut, 1841 (partial)

11The same enchanting Arabic landscape depicted romantically by French travelogues like Nerval, constituted the material for the French intolerance to Oriental hygiene, as per Benoit Boyer’s report. The dark street passage partially covered by vaults and the closeness of the houses were accused of lacking proper ventilation, adequate sewage system and other components necessary for urban hygiene. Consequently, using the insalubrious and non-hygienic condition as an alibi, the decision of demolishing parts of the Souq has effectively been taken since 1915 by Jemal Pasha (Ghorayeb 2014). The initiated piercings in the Souq aimed at ventilating the congested old city tortuous fabric and ensuring a better connection to the extra-muros world. In a parallel mode, a decision banning the passage of sheep, goats and other animals (Khalaf, 2006) inside the city was taken. One piercing aimed at linking extramural Sahat al-Burj to Bab Idriss, connecting the East and West sides of the city. The second piercing in the direction of the sea aimed at linking extramural Sahat al-Sur to the port, ending by effectively destroying Souk al-Fashkha, Souk al-Tawileh and Souk al-Jamil (Hanssen 1998) and replacing them by two new rectilinear wide streets.

12The effects on the urban fabric became visible beyond the appearance of rectilinear streets, which are characteristic of Western cities. Considering the consequences on the urban fabric, the urban interventions improved circulation from the two extramural Sahat to the developing port area across the city center benefiting from the erosion and disappearance of the medieval walls. Last and not least, it could be concluded that the Sahat which constituted an integral part of the Souq network system diminished gradually until their total disappearance. Their importance did not lie in the form nor in the geometry, but rather in embodying spaces of intense social exchange at the intersection of the economic souq exchange (Davie, 1999). The gradual destruction of Sahat that followed the same gradual rhythm of Souq destruction led to the total disintegration of a social practice that lied at the heart of the Souq-Sahat system. This punctuated the urban transformation of Bayrout al-Qadima and the end of a social character. By the time the French officially ruled over Beirut following WWI, the city center was already shifting from an Arabic city towards an increasingly westernized character. The early part of the French rule was characterized by more continuity than rupture in the urban management. They had to deal with the rubble caused by the partial souq destruction and the administrative aftermath of financial claims that followed land appropriations initiated by the Ottomans. They used the rubble generated from the demolition of parts of the old souq to backfill the new coastal promenade to become known as Avenue des Français. This new landfill promenade became the first waterfront public promenade within the confinements of the city center. From 1921 until 1927, the French authorities were concerned in improving the roads system, even the partial ones. However, these works remained partial, not related to the master plan studies (Danger, 1932). It was not until the year 1929 that the first French master plans were introduced in the context of Beirut.

5 - The western production of extra-muros spaces

13Westernization under Sultan Abdülhamid II took a different turn across the Empire leading to the fast transformation of the late Ottoman city landscapes. Whilst the will for urban transformations was both a tribute for the image of Sultan Abdülhamid II, Arab provinces and cities of the Eastern Mediterranean had a special attention in the broader scheme for recentralizing Ottoman territories (Kayali, 1997). The political agenda consisted of centralization by connecting the fragmented territories of the Empire, reinforcing the army presence in Bilad el-Sham, control over the contested port cities of the Eastern Mediterranean which grew in importance after the opening of the Canal Suez in 1869. Hence, the construction of imposing military structures and the construction of the Grand Sérail on Beirut hilltop was completed in 1884, in the year that followed the Petit Sérail on Place des Canons and the urbanization of main squares. On the same hill, a remarkable 25 meters high Ottoman clock‑tower became the highest point in the city and unified physically and symbolically Beirut to the other provincial capitals. The Hamidian combination of Westernization and Ottomanization went beyond the production of monumental effects and landmarks in the urban space, to achieve networking through communication and transportation. Transportation and telecommunication by means of telegraph covered the Empire Arab provinces and brought cohesion to the Ottoman Empire lands (Çelik, 2008). Starting the 1860s, as Bayrout Al-Qadima was peeling off its medieval character and getting out of its eroded walls, the Ottomans urbanized and appropriated politically the two main squares located at its walls with the inauguration of networks of tramways. Those public spaces located at the thresholds of the old city walls were mostly vague ground a maydan (Khalaf, 2006), or Sahl or Sahla which all had specific names. The maydan space, known as Sahl Burj-el-Kashef or even Place des Canons refers to a stretch of land of no geometric definition with loose boundaries, of common use, which could be used as a military training camp or a big space for display and parades. The word Sahla or Sahl has its origin in Arabic language and means an open field, a plain or open landscape. Sahla or Sahl have a similar nature of maydan in terms of the flatness of the landscape with a less nomadic character. Ottoman urbanization succeeded in controlling the life of both extramural Sahl by transforming them into urban squares, namely the large sandy plains of Sahl al-Sour and Sahl Burj-el-Kashef (or Place des Canons). The will for planning it was both a tribute for the Hamidian image of Sultan Abdülhamid II and a display of late Ottoman westernization. As early as 1883, the construction of the seat of the Wilayet, Le Petit Sérail at the end Sahl Burj-el-Kashef was a first act of political appropriation of the square by the Turkish authorities. Transforming the square into a garden known as Menchiyeh or Muntazah (meaning garden in Arabic), was also on top of the municipality’s priorities, based on private funds by Beirutis elites. Including a music kiosk, a nice fountain in the middle of an oval-shaped landscaped garden, it became an elite destination for the notables of the city (Hanssen, 2005). Not quite public though, this garden was shortly renamed after the name of actual reigning Sultan Abdul Hamid II, as Sahat al-Hamidiyeh, inaugurated in 1884 in preparation of his silver jubilee. Showpiece of the late Ottoman period, this square served as the point of departure for the historic visit of German emperor Wilhem II to the Orient in 1898. A parallel attempt to urbanize the other extra-muros space lying between Bab Yaacoub and Bab-al Dirkeh, where the first telegraph building was constructed. The Sahl al-Sour was transformed into a public park back in 1869, when the municipality decided to tear them down popular shops coffee places, targeting basically the working class. In the following couple of decades, the governor carried on with the idea of a public park and decided in 1892 to build a public building surrounded by a leisure park. The building was never completed, to be torn down completely ending the series of attempts of turning Sahl al-Sour into a public park (fig. 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2

Superposition on the original map extracted from the carte du Service de l’Armée, 1919

By author N. Hindi - based on the 1919 map Service de l’Armée (partial)

14Another tribute for the Hamidian image culminated all the previous failed attempts by setting the 8-meter ornamental marble Hamidian Fountain in its middle. In commemoration of the Hamidian jubilee, the centrality of the other Sahat al-Hamidiyeh was further reinforced by the inauguration of the five tramway lines in 1907.

15Whilst the French were confined in the state of Greater Lebanon borders, they boosted their image through internationalizing Beirut as their prime mandate city of the Levant. It is this same square that showcased the Ottoman westernization and Hamidian image that emphasized the cultural image of the French presence. The idea of the event exhibition is a confirmation of political goodwill for the newly established Greater Lebanon, and trust between France and Lebanon, the French being aware as well, that the region is traditionally based on trade. The 1921 ‘Foire-Exposition’ event represented the importance of Beirut by the construction of the Pavillon de l’État de Damas in the Place des Canons (previously Sahat al-Hamidiyeh) and gave it a more ‘cosmopolitan’ character (fig. 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3

Fairground Map: showing the ‘Foire-Exposition’, its location and indicating the transportation, roads, esplanades and even hotels (hotel Royal)

Source: Haut-commissariat et la République française en Syrie et au Liban. La Syrie et le Liban en 1921. La Foire-exposition de Beyrouth.1922.

6 - Intersecting urban approaches

16The late Ottoman and French urban concerns converged in their common interest of improving the accessibility from the old city center to the port and the connection of the port to the Place des Canons (Sahat al-Burj). Under the double alibi of hygiene and accessibility (Berger 1895), the opening of the major arteries inside the city replacing the souq-sahat network, led to the total disintegration of internal Sahat that were linked to the souq tortuous network (fig. 4). The French interest in improving infrastructural connection to the port was economical, while the Ottoman one was religiously driven. That further clarifies that the completion of the macadamized Beirut‐Damascus carriage road in 1863 was a French achievement (Berger 1895), while the Ottomans were interested in the El-Hijiaz railway as a Muslim pilgrimage road that would tie the whole empire.

Figure 4

Figure 4

The fragmentation of intra-muros Sahat and urbanization of extra-muros Sahl

Diagrammatic maps by author N. Hindi

17The transformation of the public spaces landscape from loose boundaries and vague territories into urbanized public spaces has a larger significance at the scale of the transformation of the city as a model. Beirut transformed from a medieval port into a city-port. It was the completion Beirut‐Damascus carriage road which bypassed the tortuous intra-muros roads to reach the seaport by replacing the previous road from Sahat al-Burj through Bab al-Saraya and Bab el-Dabagha that shifting the importance to the Western tip of the city and changed its urban configuration (fig. 5).

Figure 5

Figure 5

Change in the city model from medieval port to port-city

Hindi, N., PhD dissertation, 2015

18At the pace of Ottoman Tanzimat, French concern for hygiene constituted a major premise for the transformation of the Arabic city of Beirut al-Qadima. While the Tanzimat provided the tools for the execution of urban piercings for the achievements of the urban conditions of proper ventilation and sewage system, it brought to execution the French concern for urban hygiene in Beirut. Latour description of France’s late nineteenth-century hygiene movement as a ‘program of reforms’ for ‘the reconstitution, the reorganization of human life’ (Chevallier, 2010), reveals an interesting Western perspective, where human causes are placed at the heart of the Westernization. Late Ottoman Westernization consisted of promoting an ideology or an Ottoman identity based on regenerating the territory.

19Beirut Ottomanized model, the ‘the jewel in the crown of the Padishah’ as German emperor Wilhem II called it, became the ‘Vitrine du Levant’ as the French envisioned it, at the heart of their ‘mission civilisatrice’ in the Levant. While the late Ottoman rule showed a concern for embellishment and monumentality as a tribute to the Hamidian rule in the first place, the French worked on further promoting Beirut as the primary French mandate city of the Levant, reflecting the cultural image of their presence in the region. After the visit of the German emperor to Beirut in 1898, the ‘Foire Exposition’ event of 1921 organized by the French, the event marked the importance of Beirut in the hierarchy of the colonial cities. Ottomans territorialized and symbolically appropriated extra-muros open spaces by connecting them to the larger network of the Empire, alternately, the French disregarded the souq-sahat nature of the city with their concern for circulation and urban hygiene. The French promoted the image of Beirut as a city of culture on the international scene inasmuch as the Ottomans used the cities to honor the image of the Sultan and the Empire.


20The premise that it takes powerful moments of history to bring deep changes to the city (Madanipour, 2006), lies at the heart of the deep formal and structural changes of Beirut’s fabric. This moment of deep urban transformations at the end of the 19th century coincided with several catalysts such as the opening of Suez Canal, the administrative upgrade of Beirut to Wilaya and the Ottoman will to bring urban order following the Tanzimat reforms. However the most important feature was the transformation of the city as a model, and not only as an urban fabric. Even though the production of westernized urban spaces converged at some early moments of their overlapped influence, the late Ottoman Empire and the French mandate rules diverged ideologically in their approach. The primary Ottoman incentive at that time was reordering state control by connecting the Empire fragmented territories and creating an unprecedented infrastructural network among Arab provinces leading to the holy cities of Al-Hijaz (Mecca and Medina). This concern for bringing cohesion to the territory was followed by the economic one. The modernity of this approach diverged from the French Mandate concern for boosting a cultural image of civilization. Though this paper doesn’t cover all the necessary aspects for an urban comparative between both ruling powers, it may serve as a starting-point for further understanding the transformation of Mediterranean cities.

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Neep, D. 2012. Occupying Syria under French Mandate: insurgency, space and state. New-York: Cambridge University Press.

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Wetterle, E. 1924. En Syrie avec le général Gouraud. Paris : Ernest Flammarion.

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1 After World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations as defined in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, mandated the five provinces that make up present-day Lebanon to France. Formalized from 1922, the French mandate over Syria and Lebanon prepared them legally and administratively for self-government. Two independent countries emerged from the mandate period, Syria and Greater Lebanon, the latter became an independent country in its actual boundaries in 1943.

2 On another hand Beirut benefited as well from the shipping revolution and introduction of steamships to improve the port.

3 Way prior to the end of WWI and following a sectarian war in Mount-Lebanon between Christians and Druze in 1860, the Ottoman Empire agreed on 3 August 1860 to the dispatch of up to 12,000 European soldiers to reestablish order. France dispatched its troops to Beirut, supplying half the number of the European expedition.

4 As documented in the conferences related to the decision to set the exhibition in, Haut-Commissariat et la République française en Syrie et au Liban, La Syrie et le Liban en 1921. La Foire-Exposition de Beyrouth. Conférences. Liste des récompenses. (Paris: Émile Larose Libraire-Éditeur, 1922), 2:
C'était, enfin, exécuter avec des vues libérales et modernes notre mandat que d'entraîner les initiatives par l'exemple et par l'association et de donner une formule économique, inspirée par le grand principe démocratique d'égalité.

5 Ibid. iv, p. 2-4:
The idea is underlined as a celebration of sacrifices and a compensation for the support to General Gouraud, put forth in the following terms:
Pour saisir ainsi le sens et la portée de cette publication, il faut évoquer la Foire-Exposition de Beyrouth qui apparaîtra désormais à tous ceux, Syriens, Libanais ou Français, qui ont travaillé aux côtés du général Gouraud dans les heures militantes de 1919, 1920 et 1921, comme une consécration de la Paix gagnée après tant de sacrifices.
La Foire-Exposition de Beyrouth 1921 n'a été qu'un prologue, car dans tous les domaines des actes s'accomplissent qui s'imposent. Mais le général Gouraud l'avait aperçu dès septembre 1920, elle a été plus, elle a donné confiance.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1
Caption Intra muros Sahat in 1840
Credits Superposition on the original map done by author N. Hindi - based on the Royal Engineers map of Beirut, 1841 (partial)
File image/jpeg, 1.1M
Title Figure 2
Caption Superposition on the original map extracted from the carte du Service de l’Armée, 1919
File image/jpeg, 928k
Title Figure 3
Caption Fairground Map: showing the ‘Foire-Exposition’, its location and indicating the transportation, roads, esplanades and even hotels (hotel Royal)
File image/jpeg, 437k
Title Figure 4
Caption The fragmentation of intra-muros Sahat and urbanization of extra-muros Sahl
Credits Diagrammatic maps by author N. Hindi
File image/png, 1.9M
Title Figure 5
Caption Change in the city model from medieval port to port-city
Credits Hindi, N., PhD dissertation, 2015
File image/jpeg, 941k
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Electronic reference

Nadine Hindi, Narrating Beirut Public Spaces WesternizationMéditerranée [Online], 131 | 2020, Online since 15 February 2021, connection on 29 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Nadine Hindi

PhD, Department of Architecture, FAAD – Notre Dame University, NDU - Lebanon.

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The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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