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Beirut's St. Georges Hotel, Still Trying to Slay Dragons

By June 26, 2011

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Worthy of Postcards: The Hotel St. Georges in Lebanon in its golden post-card days.

Growing up in Beirut, was had a few friends from Europe who'd visit Lebanon regularly, and either stay at our house (on what became the infamous Green Line dividing Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the civil war of 1975-1990) or they'd stay at the St. George Hotel, on the Mediterranean. Along with the Phoenicia, where Lyndon Johnson stopped over back in 1962, and then the Holiday Inn, which opened just before the war, those three hotels were the hub of Beirut luxury. 9The Holiday Inn was really a parvenu sort of hotel, more nouveau riche than authentic Beirut style poshness, but its height, making it the second or third highest building in Beirut at the time, gave it that extra lift.)

All three hotels turned to ruins during the early years of the war. One of the most bitter and famous battles of the civil war was, in fact, called the Battle of the Hotels: it has its own longish Wikipedia entry, and although enough militiamen participated, you'd think half the country's young men at the time are the battle's veterans today. It was a particularly bloody battle: on a single day (Oct. 26, 1975), 52 people were killed and 100 wounded, according to a Times dispatch the following day, including Philip Caputo, a Chicago Tribune correspondent, shot in the feet as he was leaving his office.

The St. Georges wasn't just a luxurious hotel. It was a beautiful work of architecture, a square of late-colonial angles and pink stone built in 1932, with a large terrace, its own private beach (long since gone), and tennis courts. They called it the St. Georges because it was built, according to Lebanese legend, on the site where the St. Georges of Revelation slew the dragon. Just before the war broke out, in 1974, its then-owner, Mirna al-Bustani, a wealthy Christian. was building a 200-room addition across the street to add to the St. Georges' own 154 rooms.

Lebanese flag
On Feb. 1, 1976, about a year into the civil war, The Times' James Markham wrote a Reporter's Notebook piece from Beirut and visited the blackened St. Georges. "Abed, a lifetime employee of the hotel, was asked if the place would be rebuilt," Markham wrote. "'Maybe,' he said without conviction. By the light of matches the American picked his way up the dark and rubble-covered stairwell to the third-floor room that had once been home for two months. The view over the Mediterranean was as fine as ever, but the room was burned and bullet-scarred, its floor warped by fire. Among the papers strewn on the floor was an embossed invitation from the Institut Italien Pour the Commerce Exterireur [the Italian Institute for Foreign Commerce] for a fashion show at the St. Georges of garments in what was described as Moda Itaiana.

"On the terrace chairs are in order around small tables as if awaiting guests for tea or an afternoon drink. The swimming pool is full, and the Middle East Airlines clock by its side is still telling the time. Everything else is destroyed."

To read these lines again is especially poignant. I was in Beirut when those lines were written, literally a short drive away from the St. Georges, although it felt like we were in another world. I was about 12, we'd been reading about the destruction in L'Orient-Le Jour, the daily French paper, seen it with our own eyes when lulls permitted trips to that side of town, heard about the battles first-hand from militiamen bragging about being part of it. We never imagined that it would be the end.

Markham asked that very question in 1976: "The Lebanese are famous for self-confidence--and there are plenty of people who say they will rebuild what they have pulled down on their own heads. But will they?"

Actually, yes and no: they certainly kept on destroying Beirut for many more years, along with the Syrians, the Palestinians and the Israelis, who did far more damage to the city than the Lebanese themselves ever could. But they have rebuilt, with a vengeance: Rafik Hariri, the late prime minister, before his assassination, was also the owner of Solidere, the development company that had a virtual monopoly on re-construction, and made Hariri a billionaire. There was something paradoxically destructive about the reconstruction, which took place with little heed to balance and open vistas. The St. Georges itself is now, while still a hulk, surrounded by a different kind of slick luxury, high rises, shopping centers, and a vast new amount of real estate, created when the destruction of Beirut was amassed and dumped into the sea, literally making new land out of the wreckage.

These days the St. Georges is owned by Fady al-Khouri, who has been involved in a struggle of his own against Solidere, which has prevented him from refurbishing his hotel all these years. Solidere wouldn't comment to AFP, the news agency, when asked about the matter.

"Depending on who you talk to in Lebanon, Solidere is described as a company that should be credited with rebuilding war-ravaged Beirut or wiping out its heritage and driving its original residents and merchants out," AFP writes. "The battle between Khoury and Solidere erupted after he challenged the company's bid to build a new marina, which he says infringed on the landmark hotel's historical and legal access to the water. The legal fight, Khoury says, has stalled his plans to reopen the hotel which he believes will lose its historic and commercial value if access to the water is restricted."

"What they did is apocalyptic," said Khoury, referring to Solidere. "When you stand in the marina they built you can't see the sun anymore, you are surrounded by enormous buildings and once they finish putting up all the other towers the sun won't reach the St Georges until very late in the day." The report goes on: "But as the legal battle drags on, some question whether anyone really has the hotel's interest at heart. 'Whether it be Solidere or the current owner of the hotel, neither give a damn about the St Georges, its history or the history of Beirut,' said Jacques Tabet, whose father Antoine designed the St Georges along with French architects."

In other words, it's the battle of the hotels by other means.

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June 29, 2011 at 12:14 pm
(1) nehad ismail says:

I don’t really know much about the history of the iconic St Geoerges, but I know it will continue regardless of the trials and tribulations that Beirut is going through. Lebanon as always is on a knife edge. It may be the most democratic country in the Middle East which makes it unique but very dangerous. The country is an arena occupied by proxies. Iran, Syria, France, USA, Saudi Arabia, Israel and even Turkey all have their agents/lackeys/spies/agent provacteurs/saboteurs/subsersive elements/sleeping cells/plotters/assassins and every odd and sod you can think of, each waiting for instructions to carry out the sordid deed and Lebanon is paying the heaviest price.

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