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Mon 24 Aug 2020 07:10 PM

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UNESCO leads fight to safeguard Beirut's heritage after port blast

Preliminary damage assessment found that at least 8,000 buildings, many concentrated in the old districts of Gemmayzeh and Mar-Mikhael, were affected including 640 historic buildings

UNESCO leads fight to safeguard Beirut's heritage after port blast

An old building damaged in Gemmayzeh, Beirut. (Photographer : Ramzi El Hajj)

UNESCO is drafting an action plan for Beirut to safeguard the city’s historic urban fabric and heritage sites damaged by the port explosion on August 4.

The International Action Plan for Culture was outlined by Hamed Alhamami, director, UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in the Arab States in an interview with Arabian Business.

Following the devastating twin explosions in Beirut, UNESCO mobilised leading cultural organisations and experts from Lebanon and abroad in an online meeting on August 10.

The preliminary damage assessment found that at least 8,000 buildings, many concentrated in the old districts of Gemmayzeh and Mar-Mikhaël, were affected. Among them are some 640 historic buildings, approximately 60 of which are at risk of collapse. Participants in the meeting also highlighted the impact of the explosion on major museums, such as the National Museum of Beirut, the Sursock Museum and the Archaeological Museum of the American University of Beirut, as well as cultural spaces, galleries and religious sites.

Alhamami said: "The coordination meeting marked the first step in UNESCO’s ongoing commitment to ensuring that Beirut’s rich cultural life and heritage can continue to serve as a source of strength and resilience for the Lebanese people.”

“UNESCO will lead the international mobilisation for the recovery and reconstruction of Beirut’s culture and heritage, based on Lebanon’s technical needs assessment, and develop an International Action Plan for Culture in Beirut with all its partners in Lebanon and abroad," he added.

Alhamami told Arabian Business that the action plan includes immediate, operational interventions to stabilise and safeguard Beirut’s historic urban fabric and heritage sites and also focuses on support for cultural professionals, artists and communities, to assist the recovery of Beirut’s cultural life and creative economy. It also includes medium and longer-term initiatives to support sustainable urban development in Beirut through culture.

“The cost of the reconstruction of all damaged buildings in the affected neighbourhoods is around $300 million. However this does not include yet the cost related to the recovery of the rich cultural life of Beirut, which was already severely affected by the ongoing social and economic crisis and COVID-19, and then by the recent devastating explosions," said Alhamami.

In the wake of the explosion, concern has been growing about how to safeguard what remains of Beirut’s architectural heritage after decades of internal and external wars. Many fear that structural damage done by the explosion may be used as an excuse to destroy the few that remain.

There have been concerns for years in Lebanon about historic buildings being sold then demolished to be replaced by high rises to take advantage of the land, generate more money, more profit.

Middlemen have been contacting owners of damaged historic buildings and offering high prices to buy their property, some owners said the prices reached $8,000 per square metre.

To alleviate these concerns, caretaker Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni issued a decree preventing the sale of any historic building without getting permission form the Ministry of Culture. The Finance Ministry said in a statement that the move aims to prevent any “exploitation”.

The Sursock palace, built in 1860, is the most famous among old buildings in Beirut, and was built on a hill overlooking the now-obliterated port. After the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, it took 20 years of restoration for the Sursock family to return the palace back to its former glory.

Everything was destroyed again by the explosion, the ceilings of the top floor are all gone, and some of the walls have collapsed.

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