Spring 2006 Vol. IV, No. 3
Its a dump! Its ruined! So spoke a leading
expert on Tripoli when asked about that citys historic legacy. I
listened to these words as I paged through the speakers own publication,
a handsomely illustrated book on the history of what appeared to be a
beautiful city. A city that, even the table of contents indicated, had
been vibrant and vital throughout many centuries and conquests.
I embarked on my own tour of Tripoli with these conflicting impressions
in my mind, hoping to better understand where the citys bloom had
gone. The first item on my agenda was a visit to the most famous modern
monument, the Rachid Karami Fairgrounds, a vast complex of innovative
architecture built in the 1960s by Brazilian architect Oscar Nieyman.
It took nearly fifteen minutes to find the entrance to its deserted parking
lot, cordoned off with yellow caution tape. This was not the bustling,
well-lit and well populated cultural center the fairs website had
presented in glossy photo format. This was, to quote an expert, a
As I explored the abandoned grounds, I began to see something else. There
was obvious ingenuity and beauty in the buildings and their arrangement
among sparse, modern gardens with sculptured trees and bushes. Tucked
to one side of the park stands the Dome Theater, once illuminated nightly
with incredible light shows. In broad daylight, it reveals itself as nothing
more than a concrete shell. The interior is just barely visible through
the blinding patches of sunlight that stream through the open doorways,
and yet the theater does indeed put on a show. The smallest movement within
the dome creates an explosion of echoes that bounce around the cavernous
interior, arresting you and encouraging you to move further into the vast,
Upon entering the city proper, the isolation of the fairgrounds is completely
forgotten in the noise and bustle of busy city streets. The activity of
modern Tripoli continues into the Old City. Though filled with incredible
testaments to Mamluk, Ottoman, and Crusader architecture, there is nothing
to indicate that you have entered the streets of a past civilization.
Remarkably, there are no barriers between the modern city and its ancient
This bustling district began life as a smattering of Crusader buildings
in the twelfth century. The Castle of Saint-Gilles, an imposing structure
that served as the citadel for the city, still sits in its commanding
position on the hilltop and many of the sturdy churches of this era remain
with their typical vaulted ceilings and arches. More impressive even than
these buildings, and indeed what distinguishes Tripoli from similar historic
sites in the area, is the number and variety of buildings erected by the
Mamluks, who took control after the Crusaders in 1289. A total of 195
Mamluk buildings survive today, ranging from religious to civic to secular;
there are mosques, madrassas (schools), khans (markets), and hammams (baths).
But because of the number and variety, it is not just the buildings that
impress you, but also the still apparent organization of a past civilization.
The modern city blocks blend into the ancient neighborhoods seamlessly,
giving the impression that the whole of Tripoli is greater than the sum
of its parts.
This pocket of preserved history full of ancient buildings is today also
full of real people, real shops, and real homes. Fourteenth-century mosques
call twenty-first-century Muslims to prayer five times a day; the soap
market is still the site of soap production and sale, and the tailors
khan still houses tailor shops and fabric stores.