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Travel to Beirut


Beirut’s Golden Icon

1 November 2017

The first thing you notice as you enter the Phoenicia is the staircase. Wide and elegant, it is a grand statement of intent.

Of all Beirut’s hotels, it is the Phoenicia that looms largest in the imagination. It epitomises the Beirut of the 1960s and early ’70s – that poignantly short period of time when Minet-el-Hosn and downtown Beirut thrived as a cloistered multinational society. It was opulent, brash and seductive. A playground for the international jet set and the Lebanese wealthy enough to afford it.

The singer Fairuz performed there in 1962, and the Egyptian dancer Nadia Gamal in December the same year. Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale were guests, as were Omar Sharif and a legion of Hollywood stars.

The journalist Samir Kassir once wrote that the hotel was an “iconic symbol of Lebanese wealth”, with the Phoenicia at long last giving Beirut its own internationally recognisable building. It was all delicately perforated façades and shimmering blue and turquoise tiles, with the whiteness of the hotel contrasting with the deep blue of the Mediterranean Sea.

The American architect Edward Durell Stone had designed it with Joseph Salerno, combining elements of high modernism with Mughal and Muslim architecture. Even Neal Prince, the man chiefly responsible for the hotel’s interior, applied a philosophy of design tied to location, utilising arabesques and Arabic script for wall coverings, and lattice screens that cast intricate shadows.

The end result was – and is – a Beirut landmark. Originally opened in 1961, then abandoned and partially destroyed during the civil war, it is an architectural gem and a rare renovation success story in a country unused to preserving its past.

On balconies overlooking Rue de Phénicie you are able to get a sense of the Phoenicia’s current place in space and time. To the left is Zaitunay Bay and the edge of the Mediterranean; to the right, the staggered floors and layered balconies of Herzog & de Meuron’s Beirut Terraces. Beyond is the rejuvenated downtown, with its sandblasted stone and sanitised version of Beirut. Much of the rest of the city clings to the sides of mountains that roll down towards the sea.

From the Mosaic and Amethyste restaurants you can see the old St Georges Hotel, designed in the 1930s by Parisian architect Auguste Perret and now little more than a shell. There’s a giant ‘Stop Solidere’ sign attached to its façade and a functioning pool at its base, around which weddings occasionally unfold.

“Wadih El Safi sang here in 2001,” says Nazmi Al-Rashed, indicating the pool beside Amethyste. He has been preparing sheesha and coffee – “not Turkish coffee, but Arabic coffee with cardamom” – at the Phoenicia since it reopened 17 years ago.

“Najwa Karam, Walid Toufic, Ragheb Alama and Melhem Zein, they’ve all sung here,” he adds. “They would close off the entire area and host evenings by the pool.”

The Phoenicia’s pool (left) has always been a focal point, although its current incarnation, set against a backdrop of cascading waterfalls, is more politically correct than its oval-shaped 1960s predecessor. Back then a subterranean bar called Sous la Mer offered underwater views of all who swam in it.

The bar and pool even feature in movies of the time. There’s footage of a fashion shoot, too, captured on 8mm film from the roof of the pool’s colonnade in 1963, and photographs of Georgina Rizk, the Lebanese model and beauty queen, taken in 1971.

While the Phoenicia is effectively all that remains of that “Lebanese narrative of a golden age synonymous with the pleasures of life”, as Kassir wrote in Beirut, it’s also living in the present. And while the St Georges is little more than a ghostly relic, the Excelsior – once home to the famous Les Caves Du Roy nightclub – is overgrown and abandoned, and the Holiday Inn just a bombed out concrete carcass, the Phoenicia is enjoying a second moment in the sun.

Words: Iain Akerman