Prominent Lebanese banker, Raymond Audi, has made cultural heritage a priority in the coastal-city of Sidon
For many, Raymond Audi is known as the financier and businessman who presides over Lebanon’s largest bank as chairman of Bank Audi. Originally a family business, the bank’s roots stretch back to 1830. So, it was perhaps always expected that Audi would join the family trade. In the atrium of the Bank Audi Plaza – the bank’s headquarters set inside an impressive glass-fronted building in Beirut’s Central District – breaking the spotless modernist interior is a large colorful sculpture, Jean Dubuffet’s Tour Dentellière. Contemporary artwork lines the walls of the entire interior with works by European artists such as Édouard Vuillard and Paul Delvaux and Lebanese notables Lamia Joreige and Chaouki Chamoun. It’s just part of the bank’s extensive art collection, revealing an alternate side to the Lebanese banker, as one of the country’s most prominent art collectors.
Audi sits in his pristine office on the top floor of the Bank Audi Plaza, surrounded by framed photos of his family. When he speaks, he’s warm and approachable and appears much younger than his 81 years. “[The collection] started when we re-located to Switzerland during the war and understood we could spare part of our income collecting European art pieces,” he says. “In the 1980s when we started seeing [the country] coming back to normal we wanted to help the Lebanese who had suffered a lot during the war and so thought why not collect Lebanese art pieces.”
Following Lebanon’s civil war, when the Audi family returned to their home in Sidon, they discovered a heritage building in a sad state of destruction. Seven families had moved into the basement and the upper residence had been turned into a public school. Not wanting to let the building go into disarray, Audi initiated the building’s restoration in the early ’80s. “I wanted to try to do something for our area, which I started discovering again,” he says. “It was a pleasure for me.”
The residence was built above an ancient soap factory dating back to the 17th Century, further extended at the end of the 19th Century. With a team of advisors – including local archeologist and director of the American University of Beirut’s Archeological Museum, Dr. Leila Badr – excavation began. “We discovered a lot of things inside,” Audi says. “It was [used as] a place to meet and smoke. We found around 300 pipes, very nicely designed and preserved.”
It was Badr who made the suggestion to Audi to document the building’s distant past and create a soap museum. And, after donating lands for the school to be relocated, work started to bring the house and soap factory back to its original state. “I had all the family against me. No-one wanted to help,” Audi says. “They thought that it wouldn’t work.” As everything was cleaned, Audi discovered the house of his past, where he once lived with his entire family until the age of eight. “It started to come back to me. I was very excited about it.”
The museum, which opened to the public in 2000, shows the significance of soap history in the region and has become something of a touristic pull in the southern city. Within its arched stone interior, the process of soap making is demonstrated, with soaps themselves forming brick-like walls around the museum. There’s also an impressive and extensive collection of Oriental pipes on display, found during excavation.
The former residence above is now the office of the Audi Foundation, committed to raising awareness on the importance of preserving Sidon’s cultural heritage. Audi has also led the renovation of numerous other residences and traditional shops within the area, now known as Haret Audi (Audi District). “Old Sidon was in bad shape. I tried to recondition the whole area,” Audi says.
The Audi Foundation’s focus on heritage preservation has acted as a kind of springboard for restoration projects all across the city, and has underlined the importance of preserving the wealth of architectural heritage that ancient Sidon has to offer. Currently a regional museum and a public archaeological site are in the works and with a donation of USD 25 million from Saudi Arabia, Saida could become one of Lebanon’s success stories for cultural heritage preservation.
Located on Achrafieh’s historic St Nicholas’ Street, Villa Audi was the bank’s head office during the days of the civil war, when Downtown Beirut was flattened. The heritage building was caught in the crossfires of war, but survived and though the bank’s headquarters relocated, Audi has pushed to preserve it. It’s been an occasional art gallery in the past, once highlighting the work of French modernist painter Georges Cyr, but a permanency will soon be secured with plans to transform it into a mosaic museum open to the public.
WHERE TO EAT
The ancient Saida Rest House
(07 722469, 07 751854), renovated with Ottoman features, has an impressive view of the sea and makes an atmospheric lunch stop. Every Saturday evening it pulls in the crowds who come for the open buffet and live entertainment.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Hidden within Saida’s Souk in the city’s old district Yacoub Hotel
(07 737733, 03 327034, LL75,000 single; LL84,000 double) is basic but charming.
WHAT TO SEE
Once full of Hammams only a few now remain in Sidon, but they are still the perfect place to while away the hours relaxingly, after an exploration of the bustling souk. The carefully restored Hammam el-Sheikh features an impressive high dome ceiling, while 18th Century Al Ward Hammam is Mediterranean in style. One of the finest examples of 13th Century architecture, Omari Mosque, set within Sidon’s Souk, is definitely worth a visit. And don’t miss Khan el Franj (Caravanserai of the French), an impressive 17th Century structure built by Emir Fakhreddine for French merchants.