Moussa Maamari: Building a Castle of Dreams

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Maamari made an important decision that changed the course of his life. He left school, the house, and the city without telling anyone. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Kamel Jaber

Published Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Driven by his love for a woman when he was a young man, Moussa Maamari built a castle in Lebanon’s Chouf region that became a national landmark and favorite tourist destination.

Moussa Maamari's ancestry goes back to the neighborhood of Haret al-Saraya, skirting the walls of the medieval citadel of Qalat al-Hosn in the Syrian governorate of Homs. His family had been builders for generations and their name took after their profession (maamari means mason in Arabic).

His father, Abd al-Karim, travelled widely, especially to various parts of Lebanon. As a result, his son was born in the village of al-Fakeha near Baalbek in 1930. But Moussa’s mother, Yumna Ayoub, took him back to Haret al-Saraya to obtain his birth certificate. They settled there and he began his education at a nearby school. Some years later, Yumna Ayoub and her son joined Abd al-Karim in the coastal city of Tartous, where Moussa enrolled at the al-Mutanabbi School. It was here that his life journey began.

The young Maamari fell in love with one of his classmates named Sayyeda. She came from an upper-class family. Her father was a district governor and owned a palace. The teenager did not think of the social differences that separated him from this girl when he confessed his love for her. She ridiculed him, telling him something that instigated him to pursue his dream. She said, "When you own a palace, you can talk to me."

Later, in an art class, the teacher asked his students to draw a bird on a tree. But Maamari did not do that. Instead, he drew the palace that he had promised Sayyeda.

"Mr. Anwar [the instructor] disapproved of what I did, and asked me if this imaginary palace belonged to my ancestors," Maamari recalls. "I answered that I saw this palace in a dream, and that he and the pretty girl will see it built."

But the teacher thought Maamari was mocking him. He beat him with a cane, tore up the drawing, and threw it on the floor. "I picked up the torn pieces and left, pledging to achieve the dream," he says.

Several days later, Maamari made an important decision that changed the course of his life. He left school, the house, and the city without telling anyone. He took the torn pieces of his palace drawing, a lock of Sayyeda's hair, and walked from Tartous to Sidon. "This was on 9 April 1945, one day after the defeat of Germany in World War II," he remembers. "And all I could think of during this journey was Sayyeda and the palace."

He arrived in Sidon after a long and exhausting journey. He was received by his uncle, Issa al-Maamari, who was working on renovating the coastal city's castle. His uncle allowed him to join the renovation team, where he worked for several years.

During this time, the young Maamari mastered the craft of renovating ancient structures, and was hired to do work at various museums and palaces. This income, plus a job at the electricity company, helped him save 15,000 Lebanese pounds. With this amount, he married Maria Eid, the daughter of the governor of the Chouf mountain town of Dayr al-Qamar, and bought an 8,000-square-meter plot of land. That left him with 5,000 pounds. "This amount was the capital I had to achieve my life dream," he recounts.

In 1962, Maamari began to put his plan into action. "I moved 6,540 huge rocks to the site,” some of them weighing up to 150 kilograms. “It gave me osteoporosis (thinning of the bones), which I still suffer from today," he says, adding that carving the stone “elongated my right arm by two centimeters."

After four years of hard work, with his wife's help, he began to receive visitors attracted by the carved stones and towers of what soon became a local landmark. "President Camille Chamoun and his wife were among the first visitors," Maamari recalls. Chamoun, who was interior minister at the time, was able to grant Maamari Lebanese citizenship, and also helped him obtain a long-term low-interest loan of 60,000 pounds from the Agricultural Credit Bank.

Other well-known visitors included Kamal Jumblatt, who also helped Maamari secure a 10,000-pound grant. These amounts, plus the proceeds from entrance fees to the site and the sale of handicrafts made by him and his wife allowed Maamari to make his dream come true. “Moussa Castle” was formally opened to visitors and tourists in 1967.

Thereafter, Maamari began making the sculptures and motorized devices that now fill the rooms of the three-story castle. The 75 sculptures include figures of members of his family and of all the local farmers who supported him while he was building the castle.

But he did not forget the event that pushed him to achieve his dream. He had been searching for Sayyeda since he laid the first foundation stone for the castle. "After many years of searching for her, I found her in Brooklyn in America," he says, adding, "I agreed with my cousin who lives there to invite her for a visit to Lebanon and to the castle, without telling her that this is the palace that I had promised her."

Sayyidah came to Lebanon in 2009, and a visit to Maamari Castle was on her itinerary. He recounts what happened that day excitedly, although he had not forgotten her mocking his poverty.

"I made sure that she would enter through the smallest door because I wanted her to kneel before me, just like I kneeled when the teacher hit me because I tried to kiss her," he says. When Sayyeda arrived and saw the old man standing near the palace, after 67 years of separation, she asked with tears in her eyes, "are you Moussa Maamari?"

On the 50-year golden anniversary of commencing to build castle this upcoming May 9, Maamari will open the final section of the building, and the second section of the war and heritage museum he inaugurated in 1997. The museum today possesses more than 32,000 weapons and other military items from different eras, as well as gemstones, bracelets, clothing, and other artifacts. Maamari spent all his revenues on setting it up.

Maamari repeats what he always tells his visitors – that his story would make a good movie or novel. But what upsets him today is that "the state has not given me the necessary attention. The closets of the ministries, especially the tourism ministry, do not include a single book that marks my castle on the tourism map."

He adds: "I will die, but the castle will stay. My children can benefit from it, but it will not be theirs. It will remain a Lebanese landmark, whether anyone likes it or not."

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


I feel great pride knowing my cousin Moussa built this castle!

i love 2aser moussa so much that i am making my project about it

العزيز موسى
هي رسالتي الأولى إليك ، آملاً أن تحظى ببعض اهتمامك ،
أولا : أنا جورج يوسف معماري أبن يوسف معماري الأخ الأصغر لعبد الكريم معماري واسحاق و(عبد اللطيف وأسعد ) المهاجرون لأمريكا منذ زمن بعيد وإملين وإيفيت (حواء )حيث إيملين هي أم سليم التوفيق زوج أختك
ثانيا : أبلغني أبو محمود ، عزيز معماري، أنك منذ زمنٍ وأنت تسعى لتوثيق عائلتنا ، أصولاً وفروعا ، لما اتفق على تسميته بشجرة العائلة ، ولا أعلم إن كنت قد وفّقتَ في هذا المسعى أم لا ، علما أنني سمعت أن لدى خليل الليون ، زوج نبيهة ابنة ايملين، شجرة للعائلة ، حيث أكد لي ابنها جورج أن لديهم هذه الشحرة لكنها موجودة الآن في خمص حيث أتت الأحداث على كل شيء ,
سؤالي : هل انتهى مسعاك لشيء ؟ أو هل كانت لديك فكرة أو صورة لتلك التي كانت لدى خليل الليون ؟
آمل الإجابة ، حيث أنا بالانتظار .
شكرا لك في كل الأحوال .
جورج يوسف معماري
دمشق24/ 6/ 2012

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