The Institut français du Proche-Orient (Ifpo) at the heart of the international response after Beirut port explosion

Already battered by the political and financial crisis and heavily affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Lebanon saw its situation worsen on 4 August 2020 with the terrible explosion of an ammonium phosphate warehouse in the port of Beirut. The blast devastated a large part of the city. The damage was considerable and there were many victims. Obviously, the worst-affected areas are those around the port, in the centre of the city, and therefore the oldest districts, where there are buildings from the Ottoman and French Mandate periods.

The Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) reacted very quickly to establish an inventory of the situation, drawn up by architects and heritage engineers who spontaneously and voluntarily offered their services. Nearly 80 professionals came together to form a collective they called Beirut Built Heritage Rescue (BBHR). They surveyed the devastated districts, enabling the DGA to publish a 53-pages report on 10 August presenting the Beirut Assist Cultural Heritage (BACH) programme, itemising the work to be done and the estimated cost.

Fig.1. In colour are the different levels of destruction of the Ottoman and Mandate period buildings in the areas bordering the port of Beirut. BACH project report presented by the General Directorate of Antiquities of Lebanon on August 10, 2020.

As with any disaster, this one triggered the rapid intervention of a large number of local associations and groups (and, more slowly, that of international organisations) that raised financial support. It would be futile to try to mention them all but, in this emergency phase, on the fringes of the services of a failing state, the roles of the National Heritage Foundation – created to support the National Museum – and of the Association for the Protection of Sites and Ancient Dwellings (APSAD), should be highlighted. So, too, should the very quick and effective intervention of the Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH), as well as that of associations such as Monumenta Orientalia, BlueShield, Biladi, and many others, some of which have grouped together to form a collective called Beirut Heritage Initiative (BHI). The associations of architects and urban planners, together with the country’s schools of architecture, collectively drafted and circulated the « Beirut Declaration » in October, setting out the issues and objectives for a plan to rehabilitate and revitalise the devastated districts (http://tousurbains.fr/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/De%CC%81claration-Urbaine-de- Beyrouth-FINAL-FR.pdf).

The Institut français du Proche-Orient (Ifpo / USR 3135) was involved in this initial rapid response effort.

Fig. 2. Traditional residential buildings with roofs blown off by the Beirut harbour explosion on 4 August 2020 (photo by Maroon Hoshaimeh)

In the days following the explosion, Mr Sarkis El-Khoury, Director of the DGA, asked Ifpo for financial and logistical support. This was a legitimate request from a partner that is very close to Ifpo. The two institutions share a common origin in the Directorate of Antiquities founded by the French authorities. The request was also motivated by the block on international aid to the Lebanese state services. Eager to support our partner and help to rebuild the devastated neighbourhoods, Ifpo obtained authorisation from its ministry to receive and manage funding for this activity, which is somewhat outside the scope of its research remit. The objective was to support those legitimate Lebanese institutions linked to the State that had a genuine will to be involved, but which did not have the resources to finance work in the field. At the same time, this provided an opportunity for reflection on the cityscape, on the social impact of the disaster, such as its effects on housing, as well as on traditional buildings, and an opportunity on training in their restoration.

With funding from the ALIPH foundation in partnership with the DGA, Ifpo was one of the first operators in the field to undertake emergency work on residential buildings of the Mandate and Ottoman periods, in conjunction with architects from the BBHR collective (three of whom were funded for several months by the Deutsches Archaeologisches Institut).

The most urgent task was to get the houses water-tight and stable before the winter rains came. Priority was given to houses whose owners were unable or unwilling to carry out roofing work. It should be noted that many traditional buildings were already partially abandoned, either because the too-numerous heirs could not agree on their maintenance, or because the original owners or the developers who had acquired them were waiting for them to become totally derelict in order to make very lucrative property deals. These are often very beautiful residences, sometimes decorated with interior paintings and elaborate door and window frames, or two- or three-storey apartment buildings with independent staircases. On each level, a triple bay window illuminates a central space surrounded by rooms that open onto balconies or terraces. A four-sided roof, covered in Marseille tiles, adds originality to this Levantine architecture.

Under the direction of Maroon Hoshaimeh, Ifpo made 11 of these buildings watertight between October 2020 and the start of 2021, either by completely re-roofing or by installing temporary covering, while consolidating the structural elements that were in danger of collapsing (ceilings, walls and stairs). Very often associations or collectives would work on the buildings at the same time, restoring window and door frames, and consolidating or even rebuilding various elements.

Emergency repair of the roof of a traditional building in November 2020. Project led by the Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities / Ifpo / ALIPH Foundation (photo Maroon Hoshaimeh).

During President E. Macron’s visit on 1 September 2020, a promise was made to support the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in the restoration of St. George’s Cathedral (in the city centre). With funding from ALIPH, Ifpo, in partnership with the École Supérieure des Affaires (ESA) which provided the accounting management, and under the supervision of Yasmine Makaroon, restored all the bays blown out by the explosion, the iconostasis and various interior elements. The adjacent Nourieh Chapel has also been repaired, and the restoration of the frescoes in the choir is currently underway.

Beirut’s Mar Mikhael railway station was also badly damaged. Built during the Mandate, it still houses the railway administration today… although no trains have run in Lebanon since the end of the1970s. Ifpo has completely re-roofed the building and repaired the window and door frames. This interesting building was recently the subject of an excellent article in a French magazine (Historail, N°56, 2021).

The Beirut Mar-Mikhael railway station being restored by the Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities / Ifpo / ALPHI Foundation (photo Maroon Hoshaimeh).

Finally, Beit Beirut, a memorial building built by the Barakat family on Damascus Street, which was the demarcation line throughout the civil war, is currently being restored by Ifpo in partnership with ICOMOS, with funding from the Mairie de Paris (which had already contributed to its restoration). Ifpo has been using this building to host its public events since 2017. It was only natural, therefore, that Ifpo should be involved in its restoration when the governor of Beirut requested the help of both the DGA and Valéry Freland, executive director of the ALIPH foundation, during his visit to Beirut in September 2020.

In parallel with this restoration work, at the end of the summer Ifpo set up a fortnightly webinar bringing together intellectuals, leaders of NGOs and associations, researchers and people working on the reconstruction sites to discuss the history of the port, the legal issues around heritage protection, governance and what is at stake, the protection of the neighbourhoods, and the urban planning of Beirut. A face-to-face meeting was organised in December 2020 in Beirut at the instigation of Ifpo, in partnership with the UrbanLab of the American University of Beirut (AUB) and with the support of the École Supérieure des Affaires (ESA) of Beirut. This meeting brought together mainly urban planners to discuss prospective urban planning and housing issues in the neighbourhoods affected by the explosion. The feedback from these exchanges highlighted the lack of coordination among the Lebanese authorities and the need for a medium-term urban plan to be implemented side by side with the restoration work in order to focus on the neighbourhoods within the city.

On 17 March 2021, an expanded meeting, The Urban Thinkers Campus, was organised as a video conference by ICOMOS / Ifpo / AUB / Metropolitan and Territorial Planning Agencies global network (MTPA). This brought together the main actors of the post-explosion reconstruction, including the governor of Beirut, the World Bank, UN Habitat, UNDP etc. One of the major objectives of the researchers was to convince the reconstruction promoters to create mechanisms that take into account the inhabitants and to keep rents at their previous level – a pre-requisite for social diversity ‒ and not to repeat the mistakes that were made as a result of property speculation in downtown Beirut after the civil war.

Ifpo has also supported several field surveys undertaken in collaboration with a group of Lebanese researchers and activists co-ordinated by economist Nizar Hariri of the University Saint Joseph. The results are gradually being made available online (https://www.ifporient.org/recherche/dec/rapport-consequences-socio-economiques-explosion-beyrouth/).

The crisis in Lebanon convinced the French Agence Nationale pour la Recherche (ANR) in association with the CNRS-Lebanon and the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), to launch « Action-Lebanon », a specific call for projects, to which Ifpo submitted two proposals. The first analyses social precariousness based on the outcomes of the discussions at the two meetings that were organised, but encompassing a broader area that takes into account the whole of Lebanon. The second is aimed more specifically at heritage, and plans support for the DGA in setting up its digital inventory of the built heritage of the Ottoman and Mandate periods, and a work on heritage laws.

Thus, Ifpo has been one of the main and most reactive players in the response to the heritage crisis caused by the explosion of 4 August 2021. The DGA / Ifpo / ALIPH partnership was set up in a very efficient manner, delivering concrete results in the field, and providing openings onto fields of research that have been widely taken up by researchers from Lebanese institutions. It should now be possible to move into a restoration phase with heritage training in collaboration with the Institut National du Patrimoine (INP) and the École de Chaillot.


Pour citer cet article : Michel Mouton, "The Institut français du Proche-Orient (Ifpo) at the heart of the international response after Beirut port explosion", Les carnets de l’Ifpo. La recherche en train de se faire à l’Institut français du Proche-Orient, https://ifpo.hypotheses.org/11369, le 27 septembre 2021. [En  ligne sur hypotheses.org]

Michel Mouton is archaeologist, senior researcher at CNRS and  directed Ifpo from 2017 to 2021.

This article has been first published in French, ref. : Mouton M. 2021, Explosion du port de Beyrouth : une UMIFRE au cœur de la réponse internationale, Lettre de l’InSHS n°71 : 36-38.


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