As one of Beirut’s biggest antique districts, Basta offers a world of stories – from its old crumbling heritage buildings to the narratives of its shop owners. This bustling neighborhood seems stuck in another time, and yet remains full of life .
Basta, located in Bachoura, is one of Beirut’s most historic neighborhoods. Located in the heart of Beirut, just a stone’s throw from Downtown, the district once housed cultural centers and public libraries. Old heritage homes still stand as they once did; mostly un-renovated and part crumbling, but nonetheless charming.
Between a dominating road bridge that marks one end of the area and an ancient cemetery, Basta is characterized by antique shops with a long history; many shop owners now sit in the shops once belonging to their fathers or grandfathers before them. The shops offer a gateway into other eras, where the history and memories of Lebanon is told through its objects. Everything is sold from ancient carpets from Iran, to intricate chandeliers, mother-of-pearl inlay furniture, retro ‘50s lamps and little pieces of Lebanese heritage such as black and white photographs of former politicians or the old signs of shops that once punctuated the city. Prices vary from a few dollars to thousands. Added into the mix are shops selling narguileh pipes, vintage second hand clothes and even old-look new items. It’s easy to spend an afternoon getting lost in the treasures to be found in Basta’s dusty corners and unraveling the owner’s colorful stories.
Old Story, close to the entrance of Basta, is hard to miss – its tables and chairs tumble out the front of its two adjacent shops, as vans regularly pass by to drop off more pieces, found in the old homes of Beirut. “This job is in my blood,” says its owner Nasser Ammar from an organized wooden desk amongst the chaos. He inherited the trade from his family, first working with his uncle and grandfather 20 years ago, returning to the family tradition in Basta after years in Australia. “It’s just because I love this job that I stay in it. Otherwise I would be buying my ticket and running away. It’s very hard to live here, but I want my kids to grow up here. We have to survive after all,” he says. His store is full to the brim; ‘50s armchairs with delicate pencil legs and sofas sit on a shelf above, lamps and chandeliers hang from the ceiling, there are half-a-century old slot and pinball machines and a collection of old black and white photos showing nameless Beiruti families.
At the top of the street, under the bridge is the small unassuming shop Ajaj. A simple half-darkened room is full of beautiful old rugs, mostly from Iran. Moussa Ajaj works alongside his father in the family business. “I love my job. I was only four-years-old when my father opened the shop, so it’s my life,” he says. With a history that goes back to 1975, and their home above the shop, the family is every bit a part of the neighborhood – and often gather outside drinking coffee.
Hassan Hijazi has one of the oldest shops in Basta. Opening 60 years ago, he’s certainly an expert when it comes to antiques. He sits behind his grand wooden desk with old Ottoman handguns lining the wall on his left, and colorful glass pieces behind him. “It’s all old, nothing new,” he says proudly. In the front of his shop, old carpets are piled on top of each other, each pattern more intricate than the next; elegant chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Arriving to Beirut from the south in 1948, he came to the area and started an antique shop. “I started with three other guys next to me. We started this antique souk but all of them have died except me,” he says. “There is always work even if it’s slow. Even during war business was good.” Over the years he’s brought antiques from all over the world; from France, Syria and London. “I don’t have something specific in mind. I like to see what I’m buying, even if I have to go to Damascus to see it. If I like it, I’ll take it,” he says matter-of-factly.
It’s a tight neighborhood in Basta, and one that is full of character. “I know everybody here. Ammar says. It’s a nice community.” Where other commercial neighborhoods have come and gone through difficult times, here the antique shops continue to thrive, maintaining an almost century-old heritage.
Where to shop
Here you can find everything from old vinyl records of Egyptian President Abdel Nasser’s speeches and ‘80s pop to an oversized model of a ferry (no joke!)
Best for: ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s furniture – from slender-legged tables to colorful pod armchairs.
71 223855, Madina Center, Bachoura
Ali Azzim is not a purest when it comes to age. His dusty store is full of everything from 10-50 years old.
Best for: Random items – from his unusual doll collection to glass trinkets and clocks.
Specializing in antique books, Livres Anciens is a library to the past. Add to that a collection of old ouds hanging from the ceiling and somber-looking paintings and you’re good to go. Adjacent is the shop Ink and Paper, which has a huge selection of vinyl records from old Oriental classics to reggae and soul.
Best for: Ancient Arabic books covering every topic.
76 871995, Bachoura
The shop of father and son, Abou Akram and Moussa Ajaj, if you’re looking for a special rug or tapestry wall hanging, Ajaj is the place to go.
Best for: Persian rugs.
70 868203, Istiklal Street
Hassan Hijazi & Sons
Pass by here for its heritage alone; as one of the oldest shops in the neighborhood. It also houses one of the most precise and organized collections covering carpets, glass items and furniture.
Best for: Mother-of-pearl inlay furniture.
01 650943, Kharsa Street