Beit Eddine - Lebanon's Delightful Palace of Oriental Splendour
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“The Emir Bechir Palace in Beit Eddine! It’s the greatest Arab-style building in Lebanon. You must see it!” Amer, a taxi owner who I had hired to take me through the Chouf region of Lebanon, was excited. He continued, “And the countryside! It’s the most beautiful in the whole world! You’ll love it!”
Many years before i had travelled to that ‘Palace of Oriental Splendor’, but now this famous Lebanese landmark was only a faint memory. I had just wanted to explore the mountainous civil war Druze (an Islamic sect) fiefdom of the Joumblatts – a feudal family in the Chouf region. Now Amer’s words aroused my curiosity and I decided that we would spend some time in that town – made famous by the Ottoman Pasha, Emir Bechir el Chehabi, one of Lebanon’s best-known historical figures.
Leaving the outskirts of war-ravaged Beirut behind, we made our way upward through the village of Bchamoun, then driving in the shadows of the half destroyed towns of Souk el-Gharb and Shamlan, where some of the bitterest battles of Lebanon’s civil war were fought, we stopped awhile in ‘Abey. Amer wanted to visit in that town the tomb of Sayyid Abdallah, revered as a holy man. He is considered a great Islamic Druze scholar who had a hand in laying the foundation of the Druze religion.
Most of the villages through which we passed are today almost all inhabited by followers of the Druze religion. Before the civil war, there was a sprinkling of Christians who lived peacefully in these towns with their Druze neighbors. However, early in the war, after the Maronite Christians cleansed their fiefdom of all Muslim sects, bitter feelings were aroused among the Druze.
When the Israelis, after their occupation of the Chouf in 1982, brought their Lebanese Falangist Christian allies to this region, these feelings boiled over. After the Israelis withdrew, in the battles which followed, the Syrian-supported Druze defeated the Falangists and almost all the Christian inhabitants fled with the routed Christian militias. After peace was established, some filtered back, much wiser now on how they had been hoodwinked by the Israelis and their Falangist allies.
At Jisr al-Qadi, we stopped a while to survey the breathtaking green countryside, then drove onto Deir al-Qamar – one of the few Christian towns remaining in the Chouf. With its red-tiled roofs, this once capital of an Ottoman mountain Emirate appeared like a picture postcard of beauty. During the civil war when the Christian militias were defeated in the Chouf, Deir al-Qamar was spared after the Falangists and their sympathizers left.
Beit Eddine, with its historic palace, only 48 km 30 (Mi) from Beirut and 5 km (3 mi) from Deir Al-Qamar, looked impressive, as we drove toward it on a hilly road. Dominating a terraced hill and a rich valley, it appeared to be a commanding town, cuddled in a green-mountainous countryside.
Beit Eddine’s strategic position, perched on a rocky spur overlooking the picturesque valley below, influenced Emir Bechir el Chehabi II (1788- 1840) to choose it as the capital of his small Ottoman princedom. Leaving Deir al-Qamar behind, he moved his capital to the small town. Here, he commenced construction of an imaginative palace in the early 19th century as the headquarters of his Emirate. Employing artisans from Damascus to supervise unpaid drafted laborers from his princedom, he built a 19th century structure of oriental splendor. His palace, some 300 m (984 ft) long was to become, and still is, the most imposing edifice of Arab architecture in Lebanon.
Constructed in traditional Arab style, the palace’s external appearance looks like a simple citadel. Inside, the rooms with attractive arcades, galleries, vaultings, mosaic floors and walls covered with marble, and brightly carved paneled ceilings made it a model of eastern architecture. No one in Lebanon has, since his time, built a more handsome Arab style edifice.
From inside its walls Emir Bechir, for over 50 years, reigned over his princedom in peace, bringing prosperity to his people. Everyone was equal before the law – a rare thing in the Ottoman centuries. Even though his rule was severe, he became renowned for his justice. In the reception room where he held court, this inscription, carved in marble, gives a hint of his rule:
The homage of a governor towards God is to observe justice,
for an hour of justice is worth more than a thousand months of prayer.
Under his reign, roads and bridges were built or repaired and farming was encouraged. His greatest achievement was an aqueduct he ordered constructed from the spring of Naba’a as-Safa some 14 km (9 mi) away, ensuring a continuous water supply to his new capital.
Emir Bechir’s rule came to an end in 1840 when he was removed from power by the Ottoman Sultan and exiled to Constantinople where he died in 1850. His remains were brought back to Lebanon in 1943 and placed in the same sepulcher as that of his first wife, Sitt Shams, who had died in 1818 and was buried in one of the palace gardens.
After the demise of the Emir Bechir, his Palace was neglected and began to deteriorate. In 1930, it was declared a historic monument and since that time restoration work has been going on. From the first days of Lebanon’s freedom in 1943 until the early 1970s when the civil war began, the Palace housed a museum and was the summer residence of the country’s presidents.
During the civil war, Beit Eddine became part of the Joumblatt fiefdom, during which time the palace was further renovated. Walid Joumblatt, the present head of the clan, expanded and updated the museum which now includes a part relating to his family. In the other sections there are rooms where feudal weapons, Phoenician and Roman jewelry and relics, and Byzantine mosaics are attractively exhibited. The whole complex, which now includes a handicraft shop, has been well- restored and made attractive for the expected rush of visitors.
After spending a few hours touring the palace and examining its displays, we stopped a while at the nearby Mir Amin Palace, one of the most beautiful hotels in the world. Tearing ourselves away from this once former palace of Emir Amin, the youngest son of Emir Bechir, we drove to the top of the Barouk Mountains to walk in a forest of cedars – more impressive than those in northern Lebanon, called by the Lebanese ‘the Cedars of God’.
Downward, we made our way through colourful hills covered with pine trees to the summer resort of Ain Zhalta where we stopped for lunch at Naba’a as-Safa, surrounded by apple, cherry, and peach trees. From these orchards, the road passed through two of the most beautiful valleys in Lebanon to Mdeirej on the Damascus Beirut highway. In less than half an hour we were back in war-torn Beirut – the beautiful mountainous fiefdom of Emir Bechir and the Joumblatts, a fond memory.