Golden-age glitterati return on canvas to old Lebanon hotel

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Arab diplomats, French and British officers, but also Egyptian film stars all flocked to the Sofar Grand Hotel before the 1975-1990 conflict forced it to close down. (AFP)
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A visitor views a painting by 45-year-old British artist Tom Young during an exhibition at the Sofar Grand Hotel in the Lebanese village of Sofar. (AFP)
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A visitor views a painting of late Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, painted by 45-year-old British artist Tom Young, during an exhibition at the Sofar Grand Hotel in Sofar, Lebanon. (AFP)
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Built in 1892 under Ottoman rule by Lebanon’s wealthy Sursock family, the forgotten hotel today lies near a disused train station in the village of Sofar some 30 kilometers east of Beirut. (AFP)
Updated 27 September 2018
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Golden-age glitterati return on canvas to old Lebanon hotel

  • Arab diplomats, French and British officers, but also Egyptian film stars all flocked to the Sofar Grand Hotel before the 1975-1990 conflict forced it to close down
  • ‘Memories and cultural roots give you a sense of identity’
SOFAR, Lebanon: Inside an abandoned century-old hotel near Lebanon’s capital, paintings of the Arab world’s once powerful and famous hang around a worn poker table, testimony to its glamorous past before the civil war.
Arab diplomats, French and British officers, but also Egyptian film stars all flocked to the Sofar Grand Hotel before the 1975-1990 conflict forced it to close down.
This month, the hotel opened its doors to the public for the first time in decades to exhibit dozens of works celebrating the hotel’s past by British artist Tom Young.
“This place is just full of history,” says the 45-year-old painter, who researched the building’s past for the project.
“It was once one of the greatest hotels in the Middle East,” explains the blond artist, who has been living in Lebanon for 10 years.
“It was where kings and princesses and emirs and generals used to meet — also the most famous singers of the day.”
Built in 1892 under Ottoman rule by Lebanon’s wealthy Sursock family, the forgotten hotel today lies near a disused train station in the village of Sofar some 30 kilometers (20 miles) east of Beirut.
Despite the war, the Middle East’s first casino has maintained its impressive facade. Sunlight spills into the deserted galleries and halls on its ground floor.
On its peeling walls, Young’s paintings evoke a livelier, more cosmopolitan past when high society came to party and secret political meetings took place in the garden.
In the main hall, a painting in green and turquoise blue hues celebrates the stars of Egypt’s golden era, once patrons of the hotel.
Crooner Abdel Haleem Hafez serenades belly dancer Samia Gamal in the foreground, while singer Um Kulthum appears in her trademark cat-eye sunglasses seated at a table in the back.
In another painting, at the bottom of the hotel’s sweeping staircase, smartly dressed men lead their female partners in billowing long dresses around the ballroom floor.
The scene is inspired by the writings of Lebanese-American author Ameen Rihani, who described attending a party there during his travels to Lebanon from 1907.
“My friend and I stood in the big lobby and watched the male dancers, mostly in formal attire, and the female dancers dressed in the latest Parisian fashion. All dresses were low-neck ‘Decollete’,” he writes.
In another painting, late Egyptian actor Omar Sharif — who starred in “Doctor Zhivago” — appears to be absorbed in a card game.
His portrait hangs near an octagonal poker table, dimly lit by an overhead beige lampshade. Turned over playing cards and colorful poker chips lie on its faded green felt surface.
“We tried to curate the exhibition so that visitors enter and feel that nothing has changed,” says curator Noor Haydar.
“In the poker room, there are still cards on the table, the light is on in the kitchen and there are still cups inside,” she says.
“We tried to get people to imagine everything that used to happen in this hotel.”
But Young’s paintings also reflect the region’s political history.
In one, he portrays the leaders who attended an Arab League meeting in Sofar in 1947, including Lebanon’s first premier after independence Riad Al-Solh.
Inspired by an early AFP photograph, Young paints them in a hall, silhouetted against the outside light as they convene to discuss the Palestinian issue, the year before the founding of Israel.
Even the nearby Sofar train station, now defunct, features in Young’s work, in a scene of passengers crowded on a platform.
Lebanon’s first railway track was completed in the late 19th century to ferry people and goods between Beirut and Damascus.
The exhibition also includes an old train schedule, old posters and vintage postcards.
By re-opening the Sofar hotel to the public, the exhibition’s organizers are seeking to give new life to the historic building, turning it into a space for art and education.
The show, which runs to October 14, is also to include music and dance performances, as well as workshops for children and art students.
During his time in Lebanon, Young has worked on other similar projects.
In 2014, he exhibited work at the Rose House, an Ottoman-era mansion now surrounded by new apartment blocks, perched above the Beirut seafront.
In a tiny multi-confessional country where accounts of the 15-year war are still deeply divisive, Young’s work seeks to preserve collective memory.
“The people of Lebanon are cut off from their history,” he says, partly due to “rampant modern development and the unwillingness to perhaps face the past.”
Yet conserving the past is crucial, says Young, who was invited to become an artist-in-residence by one of the hotel’s owners, Roderick Sursock Cochrane.
“Memories and cultural roots give you a sense of identity,” he adds.


Looters plunder Albania’s sunken treasures

Amphoras from the 4th century BC and found underwater in Butrint are displayed at Albania's National Archeological Museum in Tirana on September 24, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 18 November 2018
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Looters plunder Albania’s sunken treasures

  • The market overall generates a global turnover of more than $4 billion (3.5 billion euros) a year, according to Auron Tare, who chairs UNESCO’s scientific and technical advisory body

VLORA, Albania: Albania’s long underexplored coastal waters have become a hotspot for treasure hunters scooping up ancient pottery, sunken ship parts and other shell-encrusted relics that have lain on the seabed for centuries.
The 450-kilometer (280-mile) coastline, which is lapped by the Adriatic and Ionian seas, was off-limits under the communist regime which ruled the Balkan state until 1990, with orders to shoot anyone caught diving without authorization.
But today its waters are open, luring archaeologists but also looters eager to plumb the new territory and sell their finds on the art and metals markets.
“Much of this wealth resting at the depth of 20-30 meters (66-99 feet) is easily accessible without any special equipment and has almost completely disappeared without a trace,” said Albanian archaeologist and art historian Neritan Ceka, among those calling for urgent measures to protect the underwater heritage.
While diving at the beginning of the 1980s — under communism, archaeologists and soldiers were permitted — he was one of the first to see for himself the seabed treasures, he said.
“I saw extraordinary richness, amphoras (terra-cotta jugs), pottery, archaeological objects which are no longer there today,” he added.
Teams of European and Albanian divers “have started to loot in a barbaric way,” he lamented.

Expeditions carried out since 2006 by the US-based RPM Nautical Foundation have found some 40 shipwrecks along Albania’s coastline, including vessels dating back to the 7th century BC and naval ships from World War I and II.
Hundreds of Roman-era amphoras — used to store wine, olive oil and other goods on trade vessels — are also clustered on the sea floor, covered in marine plants.
Experts say that without a full inventory, it is impossible to know how many of the artifacts have been plucked from the seabed and sold on the international art trafficking market.
The market overall generates a global turnover of more than $4 billion (3.5 billion euros) a year, according to Auron Tare, who chairs UNESCO’s scientific and technical advisory body on underwater cultural heritage.
“But what is certain: a treasure hunt below the seas can bring in big profits,” said Moikom Zeqo, an underwater archaeologist who helped discover a 2nd-century BC Roman ship carrying hundreds of amphoras.

The vases can be sold for up to 100 euros in Albania, where they are on display in some high-end restaurants, or auctioned for much greater sums in London and other art capitals.
Other prized discoveries have been ferried home by foreign divers and placed in various private museums around the world, such as the bell of an ill-fated Austro-Hungarian ship, the SS Linz, that sunk off Albania’s northwest coast with 1,000 passengers on board after striking a mine in March 1918.
“These objects (from the SS Linz), exhibited in a private museum in Austria, must be returned to Albania,” said Tare, who also heads the Albanian Center for Marine Research.
Divers are also going underwater to strip early 20th century warships for their high-quality steel.
Steel produced before any nuclear explosions happened in the world is especially lucrative, as it lacks any trace of radioactivity and can be used for sensitive medical devices and other scientific equipment.
“To skin the hull and remove it from the seabed, the looters use dynamite,” said Ilir Capuni, a researcher and professor at the University of New York Tirana.
He has seen the plunder firsthand.
Back in 2013, Capuni helped discover a Hungarian-Croat steamer, the Pozsony, that sunk off the coast of Durres in 1916 after striking a mine.
But four years later, “we found that there was almost nothing left of it,” said Capuni.
A similar fate has befallen the Italian medical ship Po, which was struck by a British torpedo in 1941 off the coast of southeastern Vlore. Benito Mussolini’s daughter Edda Ciano, who was aboard the ship as a nurse, survived.
Its algae-covered hull was miraculously intact when it was first discovered but has since been dismantled in places and emptied of valuable objects, such as the bell, compass, telegraph, lights and dishes.
Bought firsthand for 5,000 euros, some parts have been resold since to collectors for 20 times that amount, Capuni said.

In June, authorities passed a law classifying the shipwrecks as cultural monuments and requiring strict licensing for diving teams.
Police are also working with Interpol to trace and return stolen objects, said criminal police director Eduart Merkaj, although so far there have been no concrete results.
One dream shared by Albanian and foreign experts is to create an underwater museum, such as the one that exists in the Turkish city of Bodrum, that would protect the artifacts and draw tourists.
“The time has come to build an underwater museum, laboratories and a specialized center,” says Luan Perzhita, director of Albania’s Archaeological Institute.
But the high costs of such a project remain a barrier, with only 30,000 euros allotted in the state budget this year for archaeology.
“Albania has never had the luxury or awareness to understand the great importance that this wealth represents for the country’s history and for Mediterranean civilization,” said Tare.
Even though, he added, the waters still contain “more treasures that have not yet been discovered.”