The port, and surrounding neighbourhoods devastated by the explosion, are at the heart of Beirut.
First published in August 2020.
At 6pm on Tuesday 4 August, an explosion with the force of a 3.5 magnitude earthquake at the Port of Beirut caused extreme damage to a substantial area within municipal boundaries. This resulted so far in about 200 deaths, thousands of wounded, and more than 100 people missing (as of Monday).
Since then, there have been widespread anti-government protests in the city, the cabinet has resigned, and an international donor conference led by Emmanuel Macron has pledged cash to rebuild the city, once more.
The blast is believed to have been fuelled by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely and inexplicably in Hangar 12, opening great controversy about the Lebanese government’s sovereignty over the port, and raising questions over Lebanon’s maritime power dynamics.
From the sea
We would fail to gain a comprehensive view of Beirut’s urban and political geography if we only looked at what happens on land. Beirut gained prominence and grew into a capital city thanks to its port and maritime connections. Even before the proclamation of Greater Lebanon under French mandate in 1920, the Port of Beirut had become the main port of call for diplomats, expeditionary corps, and missionaries from the powers of Europe who, since at least the 1840s, were on the ground to stabilise (and affirm their economic interests in) the hinterland region of Mount Lebanon which was undergoing periodic bouts of communal violence and administrative changes.
Economically, Mount Lebanon had been turned from a silk manufacturer for the Ottoman markets, into an exporter of raw silk to the factories in Europe. It is via the Port of Beirut, and the constellation of merchants, dragomans and middlemen between European representatives and local elites, that we can trace present Lebanon’s earliest colonial relations with Europe.
Further on after national independence, Beirut became a key modern seaport serving the oil trade and related passenger and cargo movements in the Levant and the Gulf, especially after numerous operations shifted away from the port of Haifa in 1948.
By 1960, the iconic white silo with a 120,000 tons capacity – whose presence contributed to shield the western side of the port from even more damage – was designed by Danish company Kampsax in partnership with Lebanese architect Rodolphe Elias. Elias also partook in designing the Hotel Phoenicia, another built emblem of the so-called ‘golden age’ of Beirut, despite all the inequalities and political tensions already present.
The years of partition
From 1975 until 1990, Lebanon endured a prolonged civil war. Beirut became the site where sectarian tensions and regional geopolitics resulted in profound changes in the geography of the city. The port was an asset to the militias fighting for urban territory, and its position was amidst the lines of confrontations (Khutut at-tamas) between the rival militias of the National Movement and Lebanese Front. These confrontation zones would then be consolidated in what we know as the “Green Line” which split Beirut into an eastern and western sector for two decades.
At one point, in 1976, the port and the bridges over the river Beirut on the northeast side of the port became part of the attempt by the National Movement to isolate the neighbourhood of Achrafieh from the Christian areas to the north. For the rest of the war, the port of Beirut became engulfed in Beirut’s no man’s land, and secondary ports serving different communities were developed both north and south of the capital.
In the post-war era and with the reconstruction, the port of Beirut has expanded into a major regional hub seaport. It recently called for tenders for an international bid to manage a container terminal, to the East of where the explosion took place, and has experienced a significant increase in its vessel capacity.
Development and protest
Crucially, the port of Beirut stands adjacent to the most expensive real estate in town: the Beirut Central District (BCD) also known as Solidere, from the name of the company that owns the site – and whose major shareholder is the late former PM Rafiq al Hariri. Already in the early 1980s, while the war was still ongoing, the area to the west of the port was pinpointed for redevelopment, and at the end of the civil war, it was the target of one of the biggest investment operations in Lebanese history. The redevelopment was considered controversial due to concerns about lack of sustainability, inequality with the rest of the city, high property prices, lack of public spaces and costly services.
In 2015 and 2019, Solidere became the fulcrum of public anti-government protests. Until the interruption of the coronavirus pandemic, protesters took over several buildings and squares in the city centre. Triggered by deadly wildfires that the government failed to tackle, and by the imposition of new taxes on communication, the 2019 protests called for state accountability amid crumbling infrastructure and services, loss of public space, environmental decline, and corrupt sectarianism.
The port of Beirut also stands close to the dense residential areas of Gemmayzeh, Mar Mikhail and Geitawi and the upmarket urban pocket of Sursock. These neighbourhoods are separated from the docks by the Charles Helou motorway. This cluster of neighbourhoods hosts many of Lebanon’s state and private services, including the electricity provider (EDL), the bus terminal and several hospitals.
Directly adjacent to the East of the port, is instead the extreme poverty of Karantina – the former Ottoman quarantine station which marked the point of arrival and settlement for successive waves of refugees, including from Armenia in the 1920s and Palestine from the 1940s. Here, the damage is widespread – including to the public hospital and to the depot of the health ministry storing much of the country’s medicines. The neighbourhood has been sidelined by aid and clean-up efforts after the blast.
The popular quarters around the port and the reconstructed city centre present two sides of Beirut’s postwar reconstruction. Top-down regeneration with a master plan has taken place in the Beirut Central District to the west of the port, while slow-burning gentrification characterises the more socio-economically mixed and architecturally relatively well-preserved neighbourhoods to the east. Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael, along Armenia Street, in particular, have undergone a process of gentrification in the last fifteen years, which saw them turning from working-class and artisan neighbourhoods into nightlife hotspots urban cultural hotspots with art galleries, independent cafés and bookshops and an enviable indie music scene – partly born out of collaborations with Syrian artists fleeing the war in Syria.
Phoenix no more?
It has been reported that operations will shift from Beirut’s devastated port to Lebanon’s other seaport with container capacity in Tripoli, around 80km along the coast to the north. Tripoli’s port, however, stands no comparison. The port of Beirut has 70% of the country’s import/export value – Tripoli has 7%.
While Lebanon’s economy, infrastructure and basic services are already on their knees due to unprecedented economic crisis, widespread public protest and the COVID-19 pandemic, another portion of Lebanon’s crucial national infrastructure now is in ruins. The well-rehearsed metaphor of Beirut as a phoenix rising from its ashes, turning setbacks into opportunities, has already started to be questioned as the past year has lethally bled the city of its livelihoods.
After the port explosion, the phoenix narrative has even less traction. How resilient can a city be, before that resilience becomes an excuse for those in power to destroy it repeatedly, either by will or by negligence?
Before thinking of how to reconstruct Beirut, the conundrum of events that led to how the conflagration ought to be forensically unravelled. Who decided to unload thousands of tons of explosive dual-use material – ammonium nitrate – inside a port between two urban hubs? Who are the power actors composing the chain of command – if there is one – that resulted in exposing the population to daily hazard for six years?
It is the avoidance of this vulnerability and exposure of the urban population to toxic danger due to government mismanagement of resources – explosive materials, and earlier solid waste during the garbage crisis – that needs to be at the basis of any reconstruction effort.🔷