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Spring 2006 Vol. IV, No. 3

Exploring Tripoli

“It’s a dump! It’s ruined!” So spoke a leading expert on Tripoli when asked about that city’s historic legacy. I listened to these words as I paged through the speaker’s 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 city’s 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 fair’s website had presented in glossy photo format. This was, to quote an expert, “a dump.”

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, empty space.

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 history.

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.

Modern day Tripolitans’ use of historic space is not a new phenomenon, but rather a legacy inherited from the city’s diverse cultural past where yesterday’s structures are converted to fit the demands of today. The thick walls of the Crusader castle are characteristically reinforced with granite columns purloined from the classical architecture that had graced the first settlements of Tripoli a millennium before. The minaret of the Grand Mosque that summons Muslim worshippers to prayer started life as the bell tower of St. Mary’s of the Tower. Entering the mosque of Emir Saif al-Din Taynal, adorned on the outside with a large fountain for ablutions and topped with colorful, glazed domes, is a journey back into the Crusader era. The thick carpets and the black and white mihrab are the only features that suggest time has passed since the groin-vaulted ceilings were the latest fashion in interior design.

It is many hours of exploring the city, bargaining with shopkeepers, tasting Tripoli’s famous sweets, and getting lost in the meandering alleys, before I remember the question I had intended to investigate: Is Tripoli’s bloom gone? The answer was simple. The city was still blooming and potentially even booming.

Tripoli’s Old City is certainly not a haven from the forces of modernization and the historic neighborhoods show obvious signs of these influences. One problem is that the demands of commerce and the necessities of life have changed since the 14th century. Though picturesque, few merchants find the narrow streets of Tripoli’s Old City charming when confronted with the physical impossibility of delivery trucks gaining access to their warehouses and stores. Living in and keeping alive yesterday’s neighborhoods puts a strain on Tripoli– possibly impeding its progress as a modern city. The fact that the soap khan is still in use means that a number of Tripolitans are dependent on a market that has very little chance of expanding economically or even physically. The light craft markets that have been important to the city’s industry for centuries find little support in today’s increasingly global market. Most businesses in Tripoli employ an average of less than ten workers. The more lucrative industries, compatible with big business and mass marketing, are centered in Beirut.

Modern life is encroaching on the old architecture and the contemporary inhabitants on all sides. Large apartment buildings abut the Mamluk structures and, though obviously sturdy enough to stand the tests of time, many of the historic buildings still in use today are in desperate need of repair. One proposed remedy for economic stagnation and the need for growth and renewal is the stimulation of Tripoli’s tourism industry. In April 2003, the World Bank granted $31.5 million to be used to restore five historic cities in Lebanon, including Tripoli. The money was specifically allotted for use in restoring the façades and public spaces of the Old City to improve the quality of life for locals and to jumpstart tourism. These projects have resulted in some improvements, but have also uncovered some complications. Many Old City dwellers are understandably frustrated when they see money being spent to give facelifts to houses that have inadequate plumbing and electric facilities. Tripolitans do what they can to reconstruct and renovate their own homes, shops, and schools but these makeshift attempts have been censured by organizations like UNESCO since they often damage and diminish the landmark legacy of the old architecture. UNESCO put a stop to an initiative that began in the 1940s to widen the streets of the old sector to allow for car traffic.

The World Bank conservation project, too, has recognized these complications and has proved flexible. The efforts of this project, known as the Cultural Heritage Urban Development (CHUD) program, have shifted from focusing on architecture to targeting an even more vital resource: the people of Tripoli themselves. Lebanese University Professor of Urban Planning Mousbah Rajab is one of the consultants involved with this project and explains that current CHUD initiatives aim to relocate a number of Old City dwellers living in substandard living conditions to housing blocks on the outskirts of the historic area. These new buildings will provide more modern facilities and a higher quality of life. The renovations within the Old City continue as well, Rajab says, in hopes of “making the streets more dynamic and encouraging inhabitants to take pride in their neighborhood.”

AUB has taken an active interest in Tripoli’s delicate situation for a number of years. Seeing in Tripoli a real need for new ideas in urban planning and design and an excellent teaching opportunity, architecture Associate Professor Howayda al-Harithy organized a studio devoted to the revitalization of Tripoli. She explains the many complications she, her students, and all other developers face in this endeavor: “The built heritage in this case is far removed from the condition of a single monument or archaeological ruin.” Furthermore, she says “the city is an evolving, dynamic entity, fully inhabited and densely populated. Its functioning monuments are evolving social spaces whose rehabilitation would force the rehabilitation of a whole city across multiple layers: economic, social, political, and physical.” “Tripoli 2020,” the culmination of the project Harithy and her students produced, is a vast portfolio outlining ideas for new uses of many strategic areas, informed by substantial research on all of these levels. Architect and AUB Urban Planning lecturer Habib Debs has contributed significantly as well, working as the main consultant with the CHUD efforts.

It is tempting to dismiss the modernizing forces acting on Tripoli today as destructive of the city’s rich, historic past. However, Tripoli’s past is itself a product of modern influences invading and corrupting the legacies left by previous societies. Tripoli would not be Tripoli if its buildings and streets had been left as they were first constructed and not incorporated into contemporary use. While areas of the Old City are indeed dump-like, the only area in Tripoli that really inspires regret is the empty, abandoned International Fairgrounds. Here, the legacy of Tripoli is forgotten; the space has not been made useful and profitable to the city’s inhabitants. With the massive ongoing efforts, there is hope that the great challenges facing the city today can be overcome without losing the dynamic relationship between past and present civilizations that has for so long defined the unique character of a city whose bloom is both faded and bright.

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