Two phares, not far. The story of Beirut’s lighthouses
02/09/2020 by Elie Saad
From the dawn of time and up until our modern civilization, the night sky has always fascinated mankind. This grimdark sheet, punctuated by tiny light rays beaming hundreds of thousands of light-years away, nurtured our dreams of discovery for centuries. Its shiny stars guided us through our most advanced and important discoveries. Light by itself had always guided us and served as a beacon both physically and spiritually. Therefore, naturally, we tried to spread it, using it in our rooms, neighborhoods, and cities. We tamed light, focusing it, reflecting it and re-directing it as we pleased to enlighten our steps. We built structures, positioned them on our coast, and even called them « lighthouse(s) » in order to guide us in our nocturnal maritime journeys. Journeys well known to our Phoenician ancestors who established our cities on the coastal strip.
The City of Beirut currently has two lighthouses and an old light port. The old lighthouse (B) is located in “Ras Beirut” area, 73m above sea level, and surrounded by residential buildings. An older lighthouse (A) stood at the same location and was dismantled in 1953 after the SS Champollion naval accident.. The new (current) lighthouse (C) is located almost 400m away, directly on Beirut’s corniche and used by the Lebanese military as a radio and radar station. Lastly and old portlight still stands today in the Beirut port area, specifically in the Naval military base, and unknown to most Lebanese.
- also note that the term “Manara” is the Arabic word of “lighthouse”, it will be used extensively in this article
The Oldest Manara
Built-in 1825 during the Ottoman rule with a height around 25m (1), the oldest lighthouse was built during the era in which Beirut grew rapidly and became a city. The lighthouse was made of stone, as seen in the pictures, with a cylindric plan and built near the current “Old lighthouse”, it used kerosene to power its light. The Chebli’s family had the responsibility of running the lighthouse, a job that the grandchildren of the family still occupy some 150 years after. Little is known about this lighthouse except for a few pictures and the history that led to its dismantlement.On the dawn of the 22nd of December 1952, the French cruise ship “Le Champollion” abrupted the rocky beach of Khaldeh, South of Beirut. The ship was stuck and cut in half, the waves were powerful, and the bad weather prevented all rescue efforts at the time.
The ship had trouble launching its lifeboats due to its steep inclination, even supplies were becoming scarcer onboard. The British cruiser “Kenya” and the French steamer “Syrie” approached the scene but couldn’t help neither, some report also suggests that the Israeli navy offered its support two times but it was refused by the Lebanese government to be accepted on the third (2). Two passengers managed to swim to shore while twenty others died trying, at the end the three Lebanese brothers, Salah, Radwan, and Mahmoud Balpajy, managed to approach the ship with their boat and evacuate the passengers and crew members (3). The shipwreck was later sold to the” Société Libanaise National Engineering and Trading Co” for scrapping (4). After the incident, Joseph Chebli was accused of not turning on the lighthouse causing the “Champollion” to crash. After being jailed for three months, he was proven innocent with evidence showcasing that the lighthouse was indeed on that night. According to Victor Chebli, Joseph’s son, several people tried bribing his father and forcing him to acknowledge his fault in return of the French citizenship. In the end, the cause of the accident was declared as crew mistake due to their failure of identifying the newly built airport. After that incident, a decision was taken to dismantle the old lighthouse and build a new one more advanced, which we will refer to as the Old Manara (lighthouse) in this article due to chronological reasons (5).
The Old Manara
Built-in 1957, this lighthouse will be known as the “Old Manara” to the few Lebanese who know of its actual existence. At the time it was technologically advanced and ran on electricity, its plan was octagonal and built with concrete. It was painted in black and white with a rectangular extension serving as the Chebli’s house. Nearby also lies the “Maison Rose” a famous and one of the last standing traditional Beirut Houses. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 restrictions we were unable to enter or interview the family, therefore Victor Chebli’s interview with the daily stars ( 6) was used as a reference. During the civil war, 1975 – 1990 the lighthouse was turned off for security reasons, for it was bombed twice, and it remained inactive till 1990. After the reconstruction period, the lighthouse remained active till 2003, when a Lebanese businessman, Rabih Ammash (7) started building a high-rise residential tower, Manara Tower next to it. The tower was 19 stories high and completely blocked the lighthouse, Rabih donated for the construction of a new Manara further down the coast, known today as the manara of Beirut.
The New Manara
As specified previously, this newcomer was built in 2003 as a compensation for the obstruction of the old manara, The new lighthouse is the highest of its three precedents with an approximate height of 50m, built with concrete in a cylindrical plan, it kept its gray till 2018 when it was painted in white and red stripes. The lighthouse is used today as an army radio and a radar base with visits and pictures restricted. During the 2006 war its antenna was hit by an Israeli airstrike, and in 2020 new radar equipment can be observed on it. This Manara still uses the same light signal as the old one, creating a light spot every 10 seconds. The entire area is known as the Manara with some coffee shops and restaurants nearby using the “Manara” in their denominations.
Although not technically a lighthouse, and greatly unknown to most Lebanese and even specialists, this small portlight is only a few meters tall. Its base is rectangular with a concrete tower surrounded by 4 rectangular ribs. With no accurate data, one can only assume that it was built before 1911 because it is identified in a 1911 Ottoman map of Beirut. Currently occupied by the army, but most probably not used, it is part of the Beirut Naval base. It is almost impossible to access it and the nearest distance that one can get to is 50m. Incredibly, recent photos from the explosion area shows that the portlight is still standing, no closeup image could be taken but some damage is expected of course due to its proximity to the center of the blast.
With the current state of the old lighthouse, the militarization of the new one and the light port in addition to the highly unlikely new port project suggested several years ago to transform the port into a touristic hub. One can only ask and question about the future of these structures that guided our maritime expansionism throughout the years. Structures that might give us some insights, ideas and hope for a better future yet to come.
To go beyong :
(4) Highly recommended to read the full story, in French, available at: http://www.messageries-maritimes.org/champ2.htm
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