The souks have historically been at the commercial heart of Beirut. They sustained irreparable damage during the Lebanese civil war and were rebuilt by Solidere according to the ancient Greek street grid, maintaining the landmarks and original street names.
Souq al-Tawileh and Souq al-Jamil were a favorite shopping destination before the civil war and were frequented by Lebanese and Europeans alike since they housed fashionable boutiques and haute-couture houses, while Souk al-Franj functioned as Lebanon’s biggest fruit, vegetable and flower market.
During the Lebanese civil war, Beirut was the scene of fierce battles between warring factions; after a few months of fighting, the brief cease-fire in September 1975 allowed the business owners of Beirut's central district to evacuate their shops' assets before fighting resumed turning downtown Beirut, including its souks into a sniper patrolled no man's land. In October 1975, fighting extended to the souks, gunmen blew up shops and set others on fire. The destruction of the souks affected Christian and Muslim merchants alike. The battle of the souks lasted for 2 and half months until December 1975 before extending to the residential area of Ras Beirut During the spring of 1983, the Antoun Bey Khan, a historic caravanserail and a landmark of the souks was demolished to clear the view towards the sea.
Reconstruction of Beirut's central district began as soon as the guns fell silent in 1991. Dar Al-Handasah was commissioned by the Lebanese Council for Development and Reconstruction to prepare a master-plan for the rebuilding of the dilapidated central district. Henri Eddeh, a senior architect planner at Dar al-Handasah proposed a complete demolition of the historical city center which was to be replaced by modern buildings and infrastructure. The notion of bulldozing the entire cityscape stirred a heated polemic within the intellectual circles and widespread opposition to the master-plan led to the adoption of an alternate strategy aiming at preserving and renovating what could be salvaged of Beirut's historic buildings. The new master-plan drawn by Lebanese architect Jad Tabet was approved by the Lebanese parliament and its implementation started in September 1994; a private share-holding company (Solidere) was created by the Lebanese government to manage the entire process of reconstruction and rehabilitation of Beirut's central district. The souks were not among the preserved historic landmarks as its medieval buildings were too damaged to be saved. The razing of the souks left a gap in Beirut's identity, Solidere sought to bring back the souks historic commercial function at the heart of Beirut and appeal to the mercantile community that had fled to the periphery during the 16 year civil war. Solidere launched an international design competition to rebuild the souks while in keeping with the original Hellenistic street grid that
characterized the old souks and the area's historical landmarks. The contest was won by José Rafael Moneo Vallés who designed the southern souk and British architect Kevin Dash who designed the Gold souks. The construction of the souks were entrusted to Lebanese firm Hourie. The master plan for the Beirut Souks was approved by ministerial decrees which preceded the launch of the reconstruction project. Costs of reconstruction were estimated at about 100 million dollars and work duration between 18 months and 2 years. The souks was set to open in 2000 but inauguration was postponed due to licensing delays related to political issues; meanwhile the construction of the underground parking was underway. In 2004 Solidere received the license and work on the souks began to be withheld in the aftermath of summer of 2006 war and the subsequent political instability.
The Beirut Souks were opened to the public on October 2, 2009 after a 10 year delay due to political instability. The Gold Souks' opening was also delayed due to financial disagreements between the syndicate of Expert Goldsmiths and Jewelers in Lebanon and Solidere. Visitors on the opening day wandered through the few opened shops while construction works were still underway.
The Beirut Souks are located in Beirut Central District, they are delimited by Mir Majid Arslan Avenue to the North, Rue Weygand street to the south, Patriarch Howayek to the west and Allenby street to the east.
Architecture and description
The new souks are a low rise complex of two components: the south souks and the north souks. The souks were designed in five different commissions by international and Lebanese architects. They offer 163,010 square metres (1,754,600 sq ft) of floor space and 17,307 square metres (186,290 sq ft) of pedestrian areas that follow the ancient Greek street grid.
The South souks were designed by Rafael Moneo in collaboration with Samir Khairallah while the Gold souks were designed by Kevin Dash and his Lebanese counterpart Rafic Khoury. The souks were designed as interconnected open spaces with many access points; they are 200 shops located along long vaulted shopping alleys and arcades with 49 of these shops located in the Gold Souks. The new souks have reatained their Hellenistic street grid layout as well as their historical names; these are: Souk al Tawila (the long souk), Souk Arwam, Souk Jamil, Souk Ayyass, Souk Sayyour, Souk Bustros and Souk Arwad.
Solidere's plan preserved the heritage left by the different civilizations marking the Beirut Souks' historic location from the Phoenician era until the French mandate. The archeological findings recovered in the Souks _which have been restored_ include the ancient Phoenician commercial quarter, the Medieval moat, the Mameluk Koranic madrassa of Ibn Iraq Al Dimashqi and the Byzantine mosaics excavated on site.
Beirut Souks has over 200 shops including:
The Beirut Souks received in 2009 the Capital Issues Award under the category of Architectural excellence. The award was collected on behalf of Solidere by Angus Gavin on December 22, 2009.
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