Sleeping beauties: Artist revives Lebanon’s abandoned historic buildings

Visitors look at Tom Young’s painting inside the Grand Sofar Hotel, Sawfar, Lebanon, on Sept. 30. (Thomson Reuters)
Updated 24 October 2018
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Sleeping beauties: Artist revives Lebanon’s abandoned historic buildings

  • British artist Tom Young studies the history of abandoned buildings in Lebanon
  • Young's exhibitions, held in the abandoned buildings, are free of charge and include community events to help stir public interest in their history

SAWFAR, Lebanon: Dotted with bullet holes and scarred by war, a once iconic hotel in Lebanon abandoned for more than 40 years is coming back to life through the paintings of an artist on a mission to revive the memories of its glorious past.

British artist Tom Young studies the history of abandoned buildings in Lebanon, many of them a reminder of the country’s civil war, and creates paintings based on old photographs, stories, architecture and their surrounding environment.

His exhibitions, held in the abandoned buildings, are free of charge and include community events to help stir public interest in their history.

“These great places ... are just sleeping and in many ways with my art I am hoping to perhaps wake them up and make them relevant for the present day and the future,” said Young, who has been living in Lebanon for the past nine years.

Lebanon has no law to protect historic buildings and many have been demolished to make way for modern apartment buildings and offices.

In the capital Beirut the number of historic buildings has dropped to about 250, down from 4,200 in the 1990s, according to campaign group Save Beirut Heritage.

Young’s latest project is the Grand Sofar, a 75-room hotel built in 1892 under Ottoman rule that was bustling with famous people from Egyptian actor Omar Sharif to diplomats and generals who shaped the history of the country and region.

The hotel, about 30 km away from Beirut, became a casualty of the country’s 15-year-long civil war, which began in 1975, the year the hotel closed its doors.

One of the owners, Roderick Sursock Cochrane, whose family built the hotel, wanted to bring its history back to life through Young’s “out of the ordinary” exhibition.

“Every painting which you see here depicts an event which happened in the hotel. And that is very, very important I find, because people just don’t come and see regular paintings but they also come and learn what has happened in this place,” he said.

One of Young’s paintings is based on a photo he found of 80-year-old Samira Sayegh on her wedding day standing with her husband on one of two grand staircases at the entrance of the hotel.

“It was so emotional because I went 52 years back (to) the day of my wedding,” Sayegh said with a smile, remembering when she first saw Young’s painting.

“The young generation, they don’t know what is the Grand hotel. Since 1975 it (has been) hidden — now it’s coming back.”

Cochrane plans to use the old hotel as a wedding venue and cultural center for local artists, and he hopes to encourage young people to appreciate historic buildings.

“Old does not mean necessarily that it has to be destroyed for something new to come instead of it,” said Cochrane, sitting outside the hotel.

Naji Raji, founder of Save Beirut Heritage, a local organization fighting to save architectural heritage in the capital, said buildings like the Grand Sofar are under threat.

“There is no law protecting heritage buildings in Lebanon. The dangers of removing these historic buildings means losing identity and common memory,” said Raji.

In 2013, Young found an abandoned 19th century mansion in central Beirut that was left in ruins. He brought it back to life with his paintings and through partial renovation.

But what mattered most to the 45-year-old is that his exhibition led to the building to be used as a public cultural center for three years before becoming the residence of the head of the European Union delegation to Lebanon.

“Really our memories, our history is what gives us our identity, and in Lebanon that identity is under threat because of this destruction of both architecture and human memory,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the Grand Sofar hotel.

In several of his exhibitions, including in the Grand Sofar, he teaches art classes to refugee children and orphans to show how art can be used to revive memories and history in derelict buildings.

Learning about history through art helps young people to connect to their identity, a different experience then through history books, said Young.

He hopes his next exhibition will be in Beirut’s Holiday Inn, a hotel that once exemplified the city’s glamour and became an icon of the civil war only a few weeks after it opened.

It was the military headquarters of whichever militant faction was winning the war over the next 15 years, and it is still not open to the public.

“I hope that a transcendent public art event can help all those involved and transform a place of unresolved trauma into a site of culture and creativity,” said Young.


Former Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir laid to rest

Updated 16 May 2019
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Former Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir laid to rest

  • Lebanese flags were lowered at the Presidential Palace and government institutions in mourning and respect for the late Patriarch
  • he Muslim-majority northern city of Tripoli raised pictures of Sfeir in its streets

BEIRUT: Lebanon bid farewell to the former Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir on Thursday, who died at the age of 99.

“He loved Lebanon and did all he could for his war-torn country. He wanted peace and reconciliation to prevail, not just for Christians but Muslims as well. He prayed for Lebanon to remain a country of dialogue and convergence, as Pope Francis said,” noted Papal envoy Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, head of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.

Lebanese flags were lowered at the Presidential Palace and government institutions in mourning and respect for the late Patriarch. The ancient fortress of Baalbek closed its doors in compliance with a memorandum issued by the Minister of Culture Mohammad Daoud.

Thousands of people from all over Lebanon came to Bkerki, where Sfeir’s body lay since Wednesday, to see him for the last time.

The Muslim-majority northern city of Tripoli raised pictures of Sfeir in its streets. A large Druze delegation also came to Bkerki at the request of the president of the Progressive Socialist Party, Walid Jumblatt, to pay tribute to Sfeir and his role in patronizing the Jabal reconciliation after a bloody war between the Druze and Christians in the 1980s.

While Hezbollah was absent from the funeral, Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, attended with a large delegation from the Amal Movement. The Lebanese Forces also participated in the funeral of the man they consider “the first resistant against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.”

Sfeir was elected as the 76th Patriarch of the Maronite Church in 1986 and resigned in 2011 to be succeeded by Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi. Born in 1920, he witnessed the birth of Lebanon and countless historical events. He provided the Christian cover to the Taif Agreement, which ended the Lebanese civil war despite the objections of President Michel Aoun, the leader of an opposition movement at the time. 

Sfeir was known for resisting all the temptations and pressures exerted to force him to visit Syria.

The Future Movement called for a broad participation in paying tribute to the person who “devoted his life to protect the people’s rights, freedoms and dignity.” 

Equally, the Free Patriotic Movement described Sfeir as “a great spiritual leader that marked an important period of the country’s history.”

As well as the president, prime minister, countless Lebanese politicians, and representatives from Jordan, Qatar, the Vatican and Cyprus, the French minister for Europe and foreign affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, also attended on behalf of President Emmanuel Macron.

The French Embassy, in a statement, described the late patriarch as “one of the great peace and reconciliation makers in Lebanon. He was a friend of France and a great patriot, who passionately defended Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty.”

The US State Department said: “Sfeir was a courageous leader in the face of tyranny and oppression. He was a champion of Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty. The US will continue to stand by Lebanon to support such role models that Cardinal Sfeir embodied.”

The Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Waleed Al-Bukhari also participated in the funeral. He conveyed the condolences of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Al-Rahi, saying: “Sfeir was one of the pillars of peace and coexistence in Lebanon and the World.”

The funeral was accompanied by strict security measures. 

The Lebanese Army had banned “the flying of remote-controlled planes above the area where the funeral is taking place until the end of the burial.”