Saturday, October 24, 2009

Robert Fisk’s World: Beirut's history can't be reduced to a mere 'heritage trail'

The Romans were here. The Crusaders were here, and then the Muslims came

By Robert Fisk

And, of course, you can find Crusader stones in the Ottoman fortification, just as you can find Roman columns embedded for support within the Crusader remains and – can we be surprised? – the 19th-century Brits, when they arrived in Beirut to defend the Druze from the Maronites (the French had already arrived to defend the Christians), built their own barracks on top of other defences. In other words, each new military force, Roman, Omayad, Turkish, British, the Lebanese themselves, physically used their predecessor's history. Walking through the ruins with Hans, you can, far below the level of the forthcoming "trail" – outside the dry moat of the lost castle – see the relics of a Canaanite wall. In other words, the old city of Beirut is a giant historical club sandwich, the lower slice of stone "bread" being about 5,000 years old.

Like archive photographs, therefore, ancient cities are about memory – not so much about loss, but about witness. The Romans were here. The Crusaders were here, and then the Muslims came. Indeed, one of the most beautiful mosques in Beirut, less than half a mile away, was a Crusader church, and when you go inside, it clearly was a Christian place of worship, complete with medieval arched windows and apse. And when the French mandate authorities built their own shopping streets, they often used real Roman marble columns on either side of their doors to prettify their buildings. Then came the 1975-90 civil war to wreck the lot. Most of mandate Beirut – though not the Ottoman bit, which was also trashed – has been restored. But the French street names have remained. So the titans of my Dad's First World War – Foch, Clemenceau, Allenby, Weygand – still grace the walls......"

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