Beirut The Protected Yesterday and Today

Beirut The Protected Yesterday and Today

Drawings: Amin Elbacha**

The city of Beirut lies on the east Mediterranean coast. It is bounded west by the sea, south by its suburbs and Khalda area up to Sidon and its environs, east by Lebanon Mountain and north by the sea and northern suburbs. The area where Beirut is situated has a mild climate and a beautiful landscape. According to some sources, its name is derived from Birit , meaning wells; Ottoman Beirut houses had wells. Other sources say Bruta means cypress or pine. Most Beirut houses were built of red brick which gave them a pleasant outlook. The city has for thousands of years been characterized by its woodland, which was a popular destination, particularly on Eid-Al-Fitr and Eid-Al-Adha and other occasions.

The Beirut Wall

During the Ottoman era, Beirut was surrounded by a wall, and parts of the city today were suburbs then: Albasta, Almusaitiba, Abu Haidar Tower, Albalat Alley, Alqintary, Albashuraa, Alnoweiri, Acharafieh, Cape Beirut, etc. The city had many farms and trees, especially mulberry for making silk. That s why the area was known as the farms of Alhamra, Alqintary, Alarab, etc. Alburj Square was outside the wall, so was the Ottoman Bank (Lebanese Police Department later).

As a matter of fact, Beirut expanded beyond the wall to meet urban, social and economic developments and population growth. Until 1746, it was a small city controlled by a Turkish officer, but soon afterwards security in the city and at its port brought about economic prosperity. In addition, Muslims tolerance and fairness attracted many foreign, Lebanese, and Syrian merchants, especially from Damascus. The city fell into some decline under governor Ahmad Pasha Aljazzar (1776-1804), but recovered under governor Sulaiman Pasha (1804-1819). Beirut s economic development made European countries aware of its importance, and France, e.g., opened a consulate there in the 17th century to monitor the activities of its traders and nationals and the city s products and goods. Beirut witnessed the opening of all foreign embassies in the 20th century.

Beirut s gates

Like other Arab and Muslim cities, Beirut was a walled city. The wall was renovated in the Middle Ages by the Viceroy, then improved by governor Ahmad Pasha Aljazzar in the late 18th century who sought independence from the rule of Amir Yusuf Alshihabi. The wall had seven gates and some towers. The wall stretched from the now-called Riad Alsolh Square, parallel to Capitol Cinema, then east to Muhammad Alamin Mosque and the Maronite St. Jirjis Church, then north to Abulnasr market reaching Daabul building by Amir Assaf Mosque and Beirut port. Then it stretched west to reach Alsamtia cemetery outside the wall, then south to Idris gate and Alkabouchieh Church outside the wall, then Shaikh Abdul Basit Alansi school and upholesterers market. It finally stretched to join its beginning. In his treatise entitled Beirut s Old Strongholds and Fortifications Conte Dumnille Dubuison wrote, The city stretched only 570m from its old port to the old Darka gate. From its eastern (Palace) gate to its western (Idris) gate it stretched only 370m. In their centres and at their gates, the markets were bustling with life by day and were quiet at night when the gates were closed and their keys handed to the governor. The wall was approx. 5m high, 4m thick.

Reinforced with iron, Beirut s gates were closed at sunset except for the Palace gate which was closed at evening prayer time. Those were the gates of: Yaaqub, Darka, Abulnasr, Palace, Dabagha, Silsila, Alsamtia, Idris, some of which are still known today, like those in the Idris area.


Old Beirut s wall had some watchtowers, mainly those of: Amir Jamal (built in 1617), Alfanar, Alsilsila, Albaalabakia, Alkashaf, in addition to Alghalghoul tower (later called Alshalfoun, after the family who built it in the early 18th century). The towers built outside old Beirut included Alhamr a tower (probably built during the Crusades era) at Cape Beirut on the top of which fire was lit to warn Damascus of imminent danger at the port. Other watchtowers included Albashuraa (also known as Alaris), which stretched through a cave to Alarab farm south. The new tower at Albalat alley was built in AH 1259 (AD 1842) near what is now the Development Council. Among the other towers were those of : Dandan, on the Damascus road, Almusaitaba, Abu Haidar, in addition to other towers outside Beirut, such as Albarajna at southern Beirut, which defended ports against invaders, and Homud at eastern Beirut, built by the Moroccan prince who defended the Syrian ports.


As a result of old Beirut s development and population growth many merchandise, craftsmen and industrial markets opened. These included: Abulnasr, shoemakers, Amir Yunus, Albalad, Yaaqub gate, farriers, smiths, vegetable, Altaw mosque, Square, bread, Sursock, gold, small, spice, braid weavers, upper, silk, cotton, coffee, church, meat, upholstererers, carpenters (upper and lower) markets, in addition to markets in central Beirut. These included: Armenians, Europeans, Iyas, merchants, Aljamil, turners, tailors, brokers, Alraseef, Soyour, Alsarami and Alqatayif markets.

What follows is an outline of the exact locations of some of these markets during the Ottoman era :

Shoemakers market: It was located near the Grand Omari Mosque near the carpenters market. It housed a café.

Smiths market: It was located on the road to the port at the end of which there was a flour mill. The market was near the eastern gate of the Mosque and extended to the meat market at the entrance to the Greek Orthodox St. Jirjis Cathedral. A narrow path separted it from Sursock market. The market included some houses such as those of Shaikh Farah, Qabbani, Mahfouz and Yassin families and Hussein Pasha s garden nearby.

Spice dealers markets: to the west of the Mosque. It had a special covered part built by Amir Abdul Salam Alemad. Sheikh Shahin s covered market was nearby. There was a well-known pond there. The southern edge of the market was next to the Maronite endowment building, south-east the Parliament building.

Cotton market: it stretched from the current Beirut port police station to the new Municipolity building. It had three side paths: the first at the entrance to Aldabagha gate mosque, the second ran east and the third ran west joining the market with the farriers market. The market housed a small mosque built by Alaris family as well as a bakery and a press and a Christian quarter. A wholesale market, it was the most important old Beirut market.

Carpenters market: it was located opposite the Palace mosque (near Sursock market). It had several branches, including an upper and a lower one. The market had a press and a pond, and the shoemakers market was nearby. Every market had its chief. According to Religious Court records (AH 182 1284), Hajj Ahmad Bin Muhammad Alhoury was braid weavers chief and Abdul Latif Bin Abbas Alsiblini was carpenters, chief, etc. The AH 1259/AD 1842 record shows that Hajj Ahmad Bakri Alaris was marchants chief and other members of the Beryeer and Itani families were also merchants chief.


To meet the demands of population growth, the number of bakeries went up in central Beirut in the 19th century. These included: Altuwaini, Muhammad, Hasbini, Alhashash, upper, Alhout, Alzainia, cotton market, old and other new bakeries such as Alshami and Ghaddar.

Orchards, gardens and farms

There were many houses surrounded by orchards and gardens in Beirut and its suburbs. There was also a lot of farmland, part of which is still at Cape Beirut, Alhamra, Achrafia and elsewhere, especially near old houses. Orchards were usually named after their owners; farms after the areas. What follows is an outline of some of Beirut s orchards, gardens and farms in the 19th and 20th centuries:

Albahbah, Albashnati, Albalha, Hajj Bakri Albawab, Hajj Hassan, Tanus Alhaddad, Haidar Agha, Khalil Hattab, Rizqallah, Zaazou, Mustafa Saada, Hajj Yahya Shatila, Sheikh Yusuf Abdul Malik, Alghalghoul, Alghalayini, Alghoul, Farajallah, Hajj Mustafa Alqabbani, Alqintari, Almaghrabi, Munaimana, Almurani and Alnaoura orchards; Alantouch, Aljame, Alhaddah, Hussein Pasha, Aldana, Shamasia and Muhammad Yassin gardens; Muhammad Talhuq, Mustafa Jabr, Darwish, Dibo, Alramal, Slim, Aladami, Almadwar and Almakuk mulberry, fruit and olive; gardens; Alarab, Achharafieh, Cape Beirut, Alsifi, Quraitim, Alqintari and Almusaitib farms.

Ponds and public fountains

There were a number of ponds in central Berut. These included the Alkaweek, Alzainia (near the upper bath), souq (near carpenters market), spice dealers, carpenters, archbishop and Iyas and Alnoubra mosque (Amir Munzir Altanukhi) ponds. Like other Islamic cities, Beireut had a number of public fountains, mainly Alhamidi fountain built by Beirut Municipality in 1900 in what is now Riad Alsolh square. The fountain was moved to Sanaie garden in 1956 and was replaced with a statue of Riad Alsolh.

Military barracks and headquarters

Barracks were built on a hillock above uphalstereres market (banks street now) in West Beirut. It was the governor s headquarters in the late 19th century, then the French High Commissioner s during the French mandate. It was also the Lebanese government s office from 1943 to 1981 before it moved to its new location, then moved back to the Grand Palace. Aliqbal Calendar gave an outline of the Ottoman barracks. It was located in the best place in West Beirut. It had a number of military and civilian officials and imams in the 18th century: Commander Ali Pasha; Commander s Secretary: Lieutenant Abdul Wahhab. Other officers included, Col. Shukri Effendi, Zakaria Effendi, Othman Raif Effendi and Ahmad Hamadi Effendi. The imam was Kamal Effendi. To the north of the barracks there was a mid-19th century Ottoman military hospital, which was different from the one built in the mid-18th near Yaaqub gate. The newer hospital was used as Lebanese courts of law before it moved to its new location near the National Museum. It is now occupied by Development Council.

Mosques, prayer rooms, churches and religious landmarks

Many mosques and prayer rooms were built in the city, beyond the wall and the suburbs during successive Muslim ages, which gave Beirut an Islamic character. Many small mosques/prayer rooms were pulled down during the French mandate period, and only two survived; Imam Alawzaie at Altawila market and Ibn Iraq. Beirut s mosques included: Grand Omari, New Mosque (Shamsuddin), Dabbagha (Abu Bakr Alsiddiq), Palace (Amir Mansur Assaf), Almajidia, Alnoufra (Amir Munzir), Albalat alley, Upper and Lower Basta, Haraj (Alhalbouni and Alhouri), Spring, Saidani, Abu Haidar, Almustaitiba, Alzaidania, Alharma Quraitim, Almarisa Spring, Aldaouq, Alqintari) Quarantine (Khalid Ibn Alwalid), Alkhudr and Alawzaie. Other mosques were built after the Ottoman era: Imam Ali, Alhassanein, Achrafieh, Alsaidani, Aisha Bakar, Alqassar, Khalil Shihab, Shatila, Muhammad Alamin (built by Rafiq Alhariri), Martyrs, and Albirjani. Other mosques have been built in recent years. These include: Alhouri (Arab Univeristy of Beirut), Khashuqji, Aldana, Jamal Abdul Nasser, Amash, Alamlia, Tabara, Alfahl, Abu Ghazala, Alsalam, Bobas, Muhammad the Conqueror, Shihab, Omar Ibn Abdul Aziz, Othman Ibn Affan mosques.

The main small mosques/prayer rooms in Beirut included those of Imam Alawzaie, Altawba, Farriers, Omari, Sheikh Hassan Alraie, Martyrs, Sheikh Muhammad Khidr Aliraqi, Cotton, Sheikh Almajzoub, Moroccans, Alhamra, Albadawi, Ibn Iraq and Alqassar.

As for the Christian landmarks, these included Armenian Baderi, Azari and St. Mitr (Achrafieh) monasteries, St. Ilias Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches, Maronite, St. Michael and Russian churches. A synagogue near Idris gate still exists.

Alleys, Streets, quarters and paths

Alleys, streets, quarters and paths were named after the families or communities who lived there or a leader or prince. Alleys included those of: Alshanati family, Hajj Muhammad Aldah, Darwish, Alraseef, Sharnaq, Shwirbat, Alaqqad, Abdul Qader Qorunful, Almasabni and Jews. Quarters included: Alrimal, Alsawifi, Arabs, Alghalghoul, Albashoura spring, Zeitoun, Almusaitiba, Almidan, Fakhruddin, Alkhanah, Alzarif, Alzuidanaie, Almadwar, Christins, Idris gate, Sursock market and Iyas market quarters. Paths included the Banu Saada, Banu Omran, Albawab, Aldahan, Alrashidi, Saba, carpenters market, Sheikh Al Islam, Shaikh Raslan, Sheikh Mustafa Sharnaqi, Sheikh Nasser, Altamlis, Alajjan, Alrawi, Almajzoub, Hajj Yusuf Almakari, Alnaqib, Wakid and Jews paths. In addition, there were well-known avenues in Beirut, e.g. Altawila (named after Altawila family who had a market there).

Baths and carvanseraies

To ensure purity and cleanliness, and in line with Islamic beliefs, Islamic cities, including Beirut, witnessed the building of many baths, especially in cities centres and near mosques and prayer rooms. Beirut s baths included the Amir Fakhruddin, Big, Awazaie, Palace (in central Beirut, near Palace mosque), Public, and Lower baths. In a book about his journey to Lebanon in the 17th century, Shaikh Abdul Ghani Alnabulsi wrote, (Beirut) has four baths: Fakhruddin Bin Maan, Alqishani, Alawzaie and an old, nameless one. Except for the first, these baths are deserted. The cost of operating the Palace bath in the 19th century was extremely high, as shown in Beirut s Religious Court records. A recent addition is Albasta bath, which is still in operation at Albalat alley area. Moreover, there are swimming pools on the sea, such as the military swimming pool at the lighthouse area and Normandi swimming pool.

For economic and social considerations, Beirut witnessed the opening of a number of caravanseraies: inns for the sleeping accommodation of incoming merchants and their animals. These included the caravanseraies of: Aton Bey, Albeed, Alhareer, Hamza Senu and Salum, Aldarka, Said Agha, Gold, Old, Almallaha and Alwohush. Some of these caravanseraies were turned into cinemas, like Cinema Empire, during the French mandate period, and the site of Cinema Opera was Amir Fakhruddin s stables. Other caravanseraies were turned into warehouses or demolished and replaced with commercial facilities. Merchants coming to Beirut sepnt one or more nights for a certain charge as well as for the accommodation and feeding of their animals. Some luxurious inns were designated for foreign merchants.

Squares, palaces and banks

Ottoman Beirut was characterized by large and small squares, some of which were used as market squares or parks for delivery vans and trucks. These squares, some of which still exist, included: Bab Almusalla, Trad House, Bread, Azariya Monastery, Alzabib, Fish, Wall, Martyrs, Wheat, Najma, Yaqub Gate and Alblasha (horse racing grounds now), which was used for horse riding and other pastime activities.

The most important palace was that of Amir Assaf, built by Amir Fakhruddin, governor of Lebanon Mountain and Beirut. It was the government s office in Beirut, opposite which still stands the Palace (Amir Mansur Assaf) Mosque, while the palace itself was demolished. As previously mentioned, the other palaces were originally military barracks or hospitals, then turned into government offices.

A number of foreign, Jewish and Ottoman banks used to operate in Beirut. The most important was the Ottoman Bank, with the huge building and distinctive style of its head office at the port area.

Covered markets

Similar to the (still existing) Hamidiya market in Damascus, covered markets in Beirut were built in the context of building merchandise, craftsmen and other markets to protect merchants and customers from heat, the sun and rain. These included the Amir Sulaiman Abu Allama, Shaikh Amir Shahin Talhuq, Amir Salman Alshahabi, Amir Mansur Alshihabi, Gold, Spice and Amir Abdul Salam Alimad covered markets. Amir Mansur Alshihabi s was located at Albazarkan market in central Beirut, near the Gold market and included Arab tailors shops. Amir Abdul Salam s and Amir Shahin s were next to each other between Albazarkan market and the Grand Omari Mosque. The former was known as Spice Dealers , and the area is still known as the Albazarkan market.

Schools, presses, cafès and ports

Beirut had many schools, mainly Islamic Charitable Maqasid Society s schools, Imam Alawzaie, Azharite, Modern Islamic, Shaikh Abdul Basit Alunsi, Alrashidia, Martyrs Corner, Sanaie and Majzoub schools, in addition to some missionary schools in Beirut, its suburbs and the Mountain area. There were also French English, Italian, German and other foreign schools. Two universities were established: Syrian Evengelical College (the American University) and the Jesuit University.

Beirut had a number of olive, sesame and other farm product presses, including Banu Dandan, Banu Alsiblini, Alhamra, Alsaqaan and Saif Aldahan presses. Banu Ghandour and Banu Jabr presses were opened later. A flour and grain mill stood at the end of the smiths market in central Beirut on the road to Beirut port.

Beirut s cafés were places where Beirut s residents and visitors gathered to listen to stories of Arab and Muslim heroes and discuss current affairs. Pictures of Beirut s prominent figures and thugs were hung on the walls of he cafés (the last such café was that of Hajj Said Hamad at Upper Basta). Beirut s cafés included those of: Market, Shoemakers Market, Amir Ali Alshihabi, Martyrs, Alasas, Almualaqa and Alnoufra. Hajj Dawood café, immensely popular with Beirut s residents, Lebanese, Arabs and non-Arabs, continued until just before the 1975 events. Other cafés continued from the Ottoman era to 1975: Abu Afif Albarhumi café and restaurant, Alqazzar café, La Ronde (at Martyrs Square), Sunrise, at the lighthouse, Horseshoe, at Alhamra, Alrawda (Shatila), at the lighthouse, City café, Sadat Street, Almoka, at Alhamra and Aljimiza cafés.

Beirut s economic importance required developing its port which was divided into smaller ports for unloading specific goods each, such as: rice, wood, wheat, watermelon, onion and Shamiya ports. In addition, and old port known as Alhisn port existed to the west of Beirut port, and the area still carries the same name.

It is worth noting that central Beirut, compared with higher adjacent areas, was like a large valley in general. These areas included the barracks, Albalat alley, Albasta, Almusaitiba, Abu Haidar tower, Cape Spring and Achrafieh, from which water flowed, especially from Cape Spring, through Aldarka canal. Land in central Beirut was not even. That s why there were many stairways connecting streets and markets, such as Albaid inn, Sheikh Alsarba. Coppersmiths and Spice Dealers markets stairways. Even small valleys, such as Alsiblini, were found in Beirut, and a whole area beyond the wall was known as Abu Jamil valley, in addition to the so-called canyon area.

The above review of Beirut s urban, economic, social and military conditions during the Ottoman era only covered the main features of course, and Beirut s development over the ages removed some of these features which were replaced with modern urban ones.

Further investigation of Religious Court records will reveal more of the features that disappeared and shed more light on old social, urban, economic and administration facts.

This study, and the accompanying documents, photos and maps, are designed to tell readers about Beirut the Protected, past and present.

(Translated by Dr Shaaban Afifi)


* a historian/university professor

** a Lebanese artist


Hassan Hallaq*


Empire Cinema

The Lebanese flag over the Parliament building

An old house by the sea

Alshuhadaa (Martyrs) Square

Almarisa spring

The Europeans’ Market + idris Gate

The Garden Gate


Almodka Café

A Beirut street

Sursock Market

City Café

Alshuhadaa (Martyrs) square

The port

Horseshoe Café


Alshuhada (Burj) Square and Almarisa spring

Almaarad Street

The Gold Market

Sursock Palace Garden

The Europeans’ Market + Idris Gate


An area in Cape Beirut

Ibn Iraq prayer room

Glass Café, Alshuhadaa (Martyrs) square

Hajj Dawood Café and Restaurant

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