In Tripoli’s public garden and old spice souk, biodiversity conservationist and Tripoli native Elsa Sattout finds home
Discovering places that have preserved identity in Lebanon offers a sense of belonging. On an early Sunday morning while coming across the quote “the faithful heart does not like to ramble about without a homestead. It needs a fixed spot to return to, it wants its square house,” (“The concept of dwelling: On the way to figurative architecture,” Norberg-Shultz, 1985, pg. 12) in my personal notes, I wondered where this “square-house” might be located in the transformed mega-cities we live in today. It could be a living space beyond the home, it might be at a crossroads along the daily walk to work, or it could be at the corner of a road where you briefly sip on coffee from a disposable cup while waiting for the red light to turn green. It could be a space where you have a few minutes to rest in the early morning to read a newspaper, a ‘one-stop coffee shop,’ before catching a taxi or continuing the day of commitments.
For many Tripolitans their “square house” is the public garden located in the heart of the city. Tripoli, Lebanon’s northern city, encompasses stories of many civilizations, conquests and religions and its diverse history has made this large coastal town an enriching place to reflect on cultural diversity, human connections and roots to the past and present.
A scented path from Tripoli’s public garden that crosses the old souk to reach the market of aromatic herbs and the courtyard selling traditional soaps can have a strong impact on a Sunday morning. The garden, known as Minshiet or Jnainet el Tanabel. extends over a large surface area of around 8,850m2, which when the city’s population was only 50,000 was a huge expanse. In the early 1920s, the land was presented to the municipality as a gift from a Tripolitan (Attadamon newspaper, 19 February, 2014). The garden features five axes leading to a central water pond. At that time, the garden hosted tree species that thrived in the city such as fig, pittosporum, stone pine, date palms and fan palms. It was a platform where a large number of city dwellers and foreigners once assembled to celebrate and honor the kings, princes and historical and political figures (Dabliz, n.d,) while listening to their speeches. During the French colonization, it was here that celebrations were organized for the commemoration of Dawlet Loubnan el Kabir (State of Greater Lebanon) on 1 September and Bastille Day on 14 July during the French mandate period (Attadamon newspaper, 19 February, 2014).
“A fig tree broken during a stormy winter night in the ‘90s was a resting spot for reflection for citizens from all generations.”
A few old trees still stand in the garden, having survived the civil war. A fig tree broken during a stormy winter night in the ‘90s was a resting spot for reflection for citizens from all generations. The meaning of the common name, Shajaret el Tanabel, given to this tree relates to the laziness of some dwellers who would spend their days under its canopy, surrounded by natural elements such as plants and trees including palms, cypress, acacia, silk tree (Albizia), araucaria, oranges and lemons, cranesbill and other aromatic and creeping plants. The spirit of the garden has given a sense of attachment to many of its visitors, embraced by the sun and the historic realm that left its imprint on the walls of the old buildings that surround it.
After leaving the garden and crossing Tall Square, a small entrance leads to Souk el Atarine where the scent of a mixture of wild roses, rosemary, oregano, thyme, cranesbill, fennel, sumac, dill and mint spreads through the air. A stronger scent of essential oils of sage, cedar, lemon, almond, and other aromatic herbs will capture all your senses and lead you to “Khan el Saboune,” the Courtyard of Soap.
These scents took away the breath of many citizens, pilgrims, orientalists, and travelers and drew some of them back again. They atomized the paths and remained nebulized in the city throughout history, drawing in diaspora from all over the world, looking for the traces of their ancestors.
WHERE TO EAT
The northern city is known for its sweets, so don’t leave the city without sampling them. Abdul Rahman Hallab (06 444445, Riad El Solh Street, hallab.com.lb) has been around since 1881 and you can eat inside their atmospheric setting; two others popular among locals include the bustling Al Elmawi, located in the middle of the Old Souk and Al Thoum (Zahrieh.) If you’re hungry, head for Dannoun Restaurant (06 433987, Azmi Street) for falafel, foul and hommos.
WHERE TO SLEEP
The family-owned Pension Al Koura (70 211503, pensionalkoura.com, Tall Street, LL97,500 single or twin) is simple but comfortable and right around the corner from St. Gilles Crusader Castle. Another budget option is Snooze Residence (03 334819, 06 933145, Alhat.) There is also the beautiful Beit al Nessim guesthouse (03 308156, beitelnessim.com, Labban Street, El Mina), a historic landmark restored between 2007-12.
WHAT TO SEE
For a city steeped in history there’s plenty to see including the ancient St. Gilles Crusader Castle in Nahr Abou Ali, the Turkish bath and the atmospheric old souk. Afterwards take a tour of the city’s historic mosques and churches including Al Mansouri Great Mosque (Souk el Sagha, Nouri District), Abou Bakr Al-Siddik (Between Bahssas and Al Nour Square), Tinal Mosque (Bab El Ramel), Muallak Mosque (Souk Al Samak,) Latin church, St Paul and Peter; Orthodox churches, St Georges and St Nicholas (Orthodox) in Haret Al Nassara; Maronite church, St Michael (Maronite.)