The Illustrious Past of Tripoli’s “Frontline”

Pro-Syrian militiamen from Lebanese Arab Democratic Party fight 1 October 1985 in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, against the pro-Arafat Fundamentalist of al-Tawheed Islamic Unification Movement for the control of the city and its port. (Photo: AFP - Archive)

By: Abdel Kafi al-Samad

Published Saturday, June 23, 2012

The feuding Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen districts are filled with war-scarred architectural treasures.

Everyone who knows pre-civil war Tripoli or is familiar with its earlier 19th century history will tell you that the Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen districts used to be the city’s teeming heart. The buildings along Tripoli Street – one of Lebanon’s most famous post-civil war “frontlines” – date from Ottoman times, as shown by the star and crescent insignia still visible on their doorways despite the heavy damage they sustained in the recent fighting.

Syria Street, another well-known dividing line, was also a very important commercial center in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, says Khaled Tadmori, a university professor and member of the city municipality’s Antiquities and Heritage Committee. Goods used be brought there by rail via the “tramway” from the port of Beirut, and transported on to Homs and Hama along stone-paved roads, the first of the kind to be built in the region.

The district thus came to be known as the “gold market,” and was so prosperous that around 40 khans – travellers’ inns – were constructed to accommodate visiting merchants. Tripoli’s aristocratic and bourgeois families also built mansions there, some of which survive.

The area’s prosperity also attracted hundreds of middle-class Christian families, who settled there from Zgharta and the Metn, and whose stone houses can still be seen. The Christian presence in the area was so strong that the first Protestant evangelical school was established there – the so-called “American School” is now a listed historic building.

Residency patterns in Bab al-Tabbaneh began to change in the 1960s, when a flood in the Abu-Ali River destroyed many of the buildings located on its banks. Then came the civil war, and the relocation of Tripoli’s rich markets to the Zahiriyeh district. Residents moved out, and displaced people from other areas moved in. But the neighborhood’s impoverishment did not affect its architecture, and many of the houses still boast decorative windows and doorways matching those of the finest old houses in Beirut.

Muhajireen Street, on the Jabal Mohsen side of Syria Street, also consists entirely of Ottoman buildings. “Sultan Abd al-Hamid ordered it built, a total of 20 buildings, to house families that fled from Crete due to the Ottoman-Greek war,” explains Tadmori. These families are well known in Tripoli, though only one descended from the original Cretan refugees still lives there. The rest moved to other parts of the city during the civil war.

Tripoli’s largest khans, including the Adas, Shaaban and Batteekh khans, are also located in Bab al-Tabbaneh. The latter currently houses Lebanese army soldiers who police the dividing line with Jabal Mohsen.

Tadmori says plans were drawn up for the restoration of the khans and other Ottoman sites in Tripoli, and discussions were held with the Turkish government about possible funding. “But we did not achieve any results. The security situation doesn’t encourage anyone to go ahead with a project like this.”

Another site, the 19th century tomb of Sheikh Ali al-Omari, a revered local figure, was restored with the assistance of the Walid bin-Talal Foundation, and its dome rebuilt. The Foundation had also been planning to fund the restoration of the historic Qadi Omar mosque adjacent to the Wheat Market some three years ago, but was deterred by repeated outbreaks of fighting.

Tadmori notes that the mosque is used daily by around 150 worshippers, there being no other close to the market, and argues that the rehabilitation of this and other historic sites could do much to help improve life for the local community.

“If the mosque was restored and the water fountain in front of it rebuilt, people in this area would feel that they have historic buildings they could be proud of. Repairing and cleaning up the stairways that connect these neighborhoods could also turn them into a tourist attraction, showing how life in Tripoli developed over the last century,” he says.

“It could become a respectable historic site rather than a place of conflict, fighting and misery.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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