‘Beirut 1840-1918 Photographs & Maps Exhibition’ by Nabu Museum at Beit Beirut

St George’s Bay and Mina al-Hosn; the house in the middle on the left became the Continental Hotel in Zaytouni, later replaced by the Normandy Hotel (Louis Vignes, August 1860).

The exhibition, originally organised at Nabu and now hosted at Beit Beirut, offers a captivating fusion of photographs and text, providing visitors with a rare glimpse into Beirut’s historical journey that had nearly faded into obscurity. It unfolds the narrative of a humble village’s transformation into a prominent modern city, rising resiliently from the ashes of numerous adversities.

“Beirut 1840-1918, Photographs & Maps” serves as both a complement and a testimony to the seldom-seen photographic treasures that resurrect the forgotten facets of Beirut. These include traditional houses, walls, alleys, streets, and towers within the old city walls (known as “sour”). The exhibition unveils views that eluded the lenses of professional photographers, captured instead by amateur enthusiasts who took advantage of advancements in photographic techniques, particularly the accessibility of photography. These unwitting historians helped bridge the gaps in Beirut’s transformation, with Max von Oppenheim standing out among them. Among the showcased photographs, some are being displayed for the very first time, with several acquired by the Nabu Museum last year in a concerted effort to safeguard Beirut’s visual heritage—a testament to its status as a cultural and commercial hub in the eastern Mediterranean.

A young bread seller (anonymous, 1904).

The exhibition commences with two remarkable watercolors by Benjamin Mary, depicting the Burj al-Shalfoun, a structure later replaced by the Convent of the Lazarist Sisters, and subsequently, in 1955, by the well-known al-Azariya building. It also features panoramic photographs capturing farming regions, neighborhoods, modest dwellings, khans, schools, hospitals, palaces, consular posts, and the residences of dignitaries. These images provide insights into both internal and external architectural aspects, including the Grand Serail and the facilities of the Quarantine compound, whose name now designates a neighborhood in present-day Beirut, Quarantine or Karantina. The coastal scenes, boats moored offshore, and the gradual expansion of the Port, along with harbor activities, convey the city’s rich maritime history. These photographs not only depict light and shadows but also offer glimpses of dockworkers and receptions for foreign dignitaries like the German Emperor William II and Empress.

Beirut, initially a launching point for pilgrims bound for Holy Lands in Palestine and al-Hijaz, swiftly transformed into a cosmopolitan city. It expanded beyond its fortifications, received water from the Nahr al-Kalb river, established a railway system, and erected prestigious universities that attracted students from across the Arab world. The city gained renown for its education, and the exhibition portrays the social fabric comprised of Beiruti families, captured in individual and group photos donning traditional attire reflective of their customs and religious backgrounds.

As the Japanese proverb goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Therefore, it is the images within Nabu’s exhibition that illuminate the untold story of a city unfamiliar to many—a tale of an old Beirut replaced by a new, architecturally unidentifiable city built with reinforced concrete.

This exhibition coincides with the release of a two-volume book authored by Badr El-Hage and Samir Moubarak, titled “Beirut 1840-1914: A Visual and Descriptive Portrait.” The book delves into Beirut’s history through meticulous research, offering insights into the city’s evolution. Volume I encompasses six chapters on the history of photography in Beirut from 1840 to 1918, followed by eleven chapters detailing various facets of the city, including the port, coastline, architecture (religious and residential), streets, professions, and significant events such as famines and foreign bombardments. Accompanying the text are vintage photographs that breathe life into the city’s history. Volume II is dedicated solely to photographs, categorised by subjects such as the port, coastline, interior design, architecture, famine, professions, streets, and more. Together, the exhibition and the book illuminate Beirut’s captivating history, painting a vivid picture of its transformation over the years.

A panoramic view of the so-called Egyptian harbour, probably taken from the roof of the Khan Antun Bey, from right to left: the Jabbour Coffee shop near the customs house, the two minarets of the Badawi and Dabbagha Mosques separated by the Suq al-Baytara, the northern entrance to the citadel with the Ottoman harbour administrative facilities. The narrow iron bridge was erected by the Egyptian troops when they occupied Beirut in 1832 (Jean-Baptiste Charlier, ca. 1880s).

About Nabu Museum

Nabu Museum, nestled on the Mediterranean coast in El-Heri, Ras Al Shaqa’, Northern Lebanon, bears the name of the Mesopotamian deity of literacy. This institution houses a permanent collection of Bronze and Iron Age artifacts encompassing Roman, Greek, Byzantine, Phoenician, Mesopotamian, and contemporary Lebanese cultures. It boasts rare manuscripts, ethnographic materials, and modern and contemporary Lebanese art, featuring renowned artists like Shafic Abboud, Khalil Gibran, and Paul Guiragossian. The museum is known by its unique cuneiform tablet collection dating from 2330 to 540 B.C.E., shedding new light on Sumerian and Babylonian history.

Designed collaboratively by Mahmoud Obaidi and Dia Azzawi, the museum’s exterior showcases monumental scripted relief in weathering steel. Inside, a versatile open space allows for changing exhibitions, complemented by an extensive library covering art, archaeology, history, and geography, as well as rare manuscripts.

Beyond its historical offerings, Nabu Museum serves as a creative haven for artists in a region marked by turmoil. It fosters artistic dialogue, community, and a nurturing environment for regional artists, connecting traditions and influences in their works. In an environment often plagued by instability, the museum stands as an oasis of tranquility, dedicated to preserving and promoting Lebanese culture. Through educational initiatives, tours, lectures, and exhibitions, it extends its cultural reach to local and global communities.

Location: Beit Beirut, Sodeco

Dates: September 5 – October 8, 2023



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