Statues, some standing bold, others crumbling and forgotten, mark many of Beirut’s corners. Though many remain unknown, they reveal the vibrant history and iconic figures of Lebanon
Beirut is certainly a unique city, with many flaws, yet also many hidden gems. Its pockmarked streets still hold reference to the past, while colliding with the present. This constant contrast between different eras is part of the city’s charm. Despite a deeply entangled and complex history, Lebanon’s political leaders have always honored the figures of the past, constructing statues to remember the great individuals who left their mark on the country’s image, from politicians and journalists to poets and freedom fighters.
For a first-timer to Beirut, or even locals who pass the city’s silent icons without noticing, taking a tour around the city’s historical statues is a perfect way to discover the country’s history.
Messages of peace
Any tour of Beirut’s statues has to include the city’s most iconic, the Martyrs’ Square statue. Located in Martyrs’ Square, in the heart of Beirut’s Central District cornered by the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, the Martyr’s Square statue stands in the center of a concrete wasteland of endless parking lots. It was first erected in 1960, to commemorate the hanging of six Lebanese nationalists by Ottoman occupiers in 1916 and it features four figures cast in bronze. A woman holding a torch represents freedom, and she holds a fellow man by the waist while two wounded men lie on the floor looking upwards, symbolic as a message of hope and liberty. During the war, it was badly damaged, and several bullet holes and missing limbs are still visible, despite the statue’s restoration. Issam Khairallah, artist and head of the Restoration Department at the Beaux Arts Faculty at the Université du Saint Esprit Kaslik (USEK), who oversaw its restoration, purposefully left the scars of war, in hope that “its memory would prevent repetition.”
Close by, in front of the iconic An Nahar newspaper headquarters, is a statue of the writer and journalist Samir Kassir seemingly sitting comfortably in the shade of a small garden. After studying in Paris, Kassir returned to Lebanon and became a notable journalist, contributing to newspapers such as the French political review, Le Monde Diplomatique and London-based pan-Arab daily, Al-Hayat. He also built a reputation for his popular weekly column in An Nahar, hence the statues proximity with the newspaper’s headquarters. He dedicated his life to defending Lebanese independence, the Palestinian cause and Syrian democracy. His statue is a testimony for the ongoing fight for peace and equality.
Politicians, poets, martyrs and the common man
The tour continues on towards Riad Al Solh Square, where a statue of the man the square was named after is evident. Al Solh was the country’s first prime minister who, with Lebanon’s first post-independence president Bechara el Khoury, implemented the National Pact, which went on to form Lebanon’s constitutional structure still in effect today. The document acts as an agreement that each of the three main religious communities in Lebanon has political power. Because of this, Riad al Solh is still considered one of the most important Lebanese politicians since Lebanon’s independence, even though he only was in office from 1943 to 1951, over the course of two terms. Bechara el Khoury has his own statue in the square also named after him in Ras El-Nabeh. He stands boldly, looking out over what has become a transport hub, where pedestrians wait for buses to Hamra or Dahieh.
Just a few dozen meters away, located on a leveled grass installation next to the Grand Serail, stands the statue of another prominent politician, Rafic Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. His name is synonymous with the recovery of Beirut after the war, after he helped with the restoration process in the flattened Downtown district once the civil war was over.
But politicians and journalist are not the only ones remembered through statues in Beirut. Heading west, near the highway that links Achrafieh and Hamra, facing the UN House, is a garden, which is home to the statue of Gibran Khalil Gibran. This world-renowned Lebanese poet and painter is often compared to William Blake. His most-famous work, the collection of poetic essays “The Prophet,” became one of the best sellers of the 20th Century in the United States. In this garden, the delicate beauty of his words seems to resonate with the blossoming trees and the kids playing, oblivious to the noisy city that surrounds them.
Going back towards Achrafieh, two unique statues can be found in the small Saint Nicolas Garden, facing the Greek Orthodox Saint Nicolas cathedral. Both date back to Phoenician times, and represent two political rulers who were beheaded for their actions… and their statues were accordingly “modified”. Despite this grim history, the garden is a perfect place to escape the stress of the city. There is even an ancient sundial, made of stone, though lacking its metal stick to shadow the hour.
Heading east towards the Armenian-populated Bourj Hammoud, a monumental statue commemorating the Armenian genocide dominates the Armenian roundabout. Continuing on to the port of Beirut, is the prominent bronze statue of a Lebanese emigrant, acknowledging the Lebanese Diaspora, who left their home country to settle all around the world. Its back faces the city, as it points towards Mexico in reference to the thousands who left for the distant country over the last 100 years. Mexico City itself has its own version of the Lebanese emigrant. Lebanese-Mexican artist Ramis Barquet designed the statue in 1979, to commemorate the first Lebanese emigrant from the mid 1800s.
Though the city is already dotted with numerous statues, as time passes many more icons are commemorated and more statues appear every year. Lebanon’s politicians, artists, victims of unrest and the everyday man don’t fade into the past, but continue to be immortalized into statues. And, although it is easy to pass by these statues without a second thought, sometimes it is worth pausing and taking the time to appreciate Beirut’s unique atmosphere – a mix of past and future, evolving at its own pace.
Paul du Verdié