Saving heritage in ruins after the Beirut Blast

Saving heritage in ruins after the Beirut Blast

The devastating explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital on 4th August 2020 changed Beirut’s port and historic centre within seconds from a bustling hub of businesses, cafés, shopping malls and homes into a wasteland of tangled metal, shattered roofs and walls, blown out windows and twisted door frames.  With more than 200 people dead and thousands injured, the city reeled.  It was not only the terrible toll of human lives that left people shocked and dazed, it was the blast’s terrifying suddenness, coming as it did without warning in the quiet of a summer evening.

“I thought we were all going to die,” said one expatriate humanitarian worker who had recently arrived in Lebanon.

It was not only lives and livelihoods that were destroyed by the blast – the city’s cultural heritage was also devastated.  Hundreds of 18th and 19th century historic buildings and palaces, as well as museums, libraries, art galleries, and people’s homes were damaged instantly.

Blue Shield International (BSI)’s then president, Karl von Habsburg, went straight to Beirut to discuss BSI’s support with the authorities, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). He met with local and international organisations, and with Lebanese Blue Shield National Committee (LBSNC)’s staff and volunteers. From the very first day the volunteers had been taking part in the rescue effort, helping to clear streets of rubble and broken glass, sweeping up debris and sorting out material that could be salvaged and used during the eventual restoration of historic buildings.

The Blue Shield volunteers, who included architects, archaeologists, restorers and engineers were trained by BSI and local NGO Biladi in the use of a digital platform for making assessment reports that BSI created together with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative. This system proved invaluable during the weeks that followed the blast as the teams fanned out across devastated areas assessing what materials and other resources would be needed for the recovery effort and talking with owners and residents of damaged buildings. Listening to families’ heart-breaking stories of loss and survival was almost the hardest part of the work for some of the volunteers, but knowing they were doing something positive helped to keep them going.

With buildings housing museum collections, libraries and archives exposed to the elements, time was of the essence in order to cover gaping holes, secure unstable walls, and clean, wrap and store books and artefacts until such time as sites could be rehabilitated and the items returned.

Row of men and women in blue hats, blue vests, and masks
Blue Shield Lebanon volunteers working to help secure the museums and libraries in Beirut, after the catastrophic explosion on 4 August 2020 © Blue Shield Lebanon

The work was supported by and carried out in collaboration with Blue Shield Lebanon, Blue Shield International, Directorate-General Of Antiquities of Libanon, IFLA, ICOM-Lebanon, ICOMOS-Lebanon, Lebanese Library Association, UNESCO Beirut Office, ICOM – University Museums and Collections, Bilad, and UNIFIL.

Meanwhile, BSI coordinated the securing of funds from the Prince Claus FundALIPH FoundationGerda Henkel Stiftung and the British Council for a three-month emergency safeguarding programme for damaged historic buildings.

Within days, a Provisional Assessment Report (PAR) photo report CULTURAL HERITAGE DAMAGE ASSESSMENT OF BEIRUT BLAST. PRELIMINARY REPORT IN PHOTOS of the damage was available (in our Mission Report Library).

Since then more detailed damage assessments have taken place, and they have been working to secure all the affected buildings.

BSI’s has been working with LAF and UNIFIL since 2013. This prior experience on cultural property protection came to the fore in the weeks following the explosion. Working in cooperation with the government’s Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA), the two military forces teamed up with BSI and the Lebanese Blue Shield to shore up the walls and roof of a palace housing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which were in danger of collapse, making the building safe with a temporary roof covering.

Following the explosion , volunteers from Blue Shield Lebanon have worked tirelessly with UNIFIL and the Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) to secure buildings such as the registered historic Ministry of Foreign Affairs Building, shown here in this DGA video.

For Peter Stone, Karl Habsburg’s successor as president of BSI it was a remarkable achievement:

“It was an astonishing three way partnership, or four way partnership, because of course the DGA were there as well. They simply didn’t have the personnel or the capability that LAF and UNIFIL had got with engineers on site and everything working with our architects and the DGA architects to secure and preserve that building.”

BSI was honoured to receive a gift and letter of thanks from the Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) for our support to LAF for the protection of damaged historic buildings following the Beirut explosion last August. The gift, an inscribed plaque, was presented to BSI by General Sami Houyek, Head of the Beirut Forward Emergency Response, and given to Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly, of the Lebanese National Committee of the Blue Shield, standing in for BSI President, Professor Peter Stone.

BSI also formalised the work with UNIFIL in a Memorandum of Understanding on Tuesday 27 October 2020 to continue to cooperate on the protection of Lebanese heritage in armed conflicts and disaster, and we continue to work with LNCBS, the DGA, and LAF to support them in their work.

For the LAF and UNFIL soldiers who took part in the operation it was a new experience, far removed from their regular duties.  For one them

“It was an exceptional experience because it was just a military mission at the beginning then slowly we started understanding that everything in the building is of big value. And saving it was very rewarding.”

The 2021 BSI training of LAF was covered on Lebanon’s MTV News (in Arabic).

Today, ten months on, emergency efforts to protect Beirut’s cultural heritage from the effects of the explosion are over, but the rehabilitation of the city’s historic palaces and residential dwellings, and the safeguarding of museum collections, books and archives will continue for years. For the bereaved families, though, restoring Lebanon’s cultural heritage cannot bring back those who died, or revive generations of memories erased on that August day, and for thousands of people who lost loved ones or saw their homes and treasures destroyed in the blast, it will remain a tragedy for ever.

The final report on the damage and the work to protect it is available in our Mission Report Library.

BSI News – The Beirut Explosion, One Year On
BSI News – Blue Shield Emergency Response in Beirut
BSI News – BSI signs MoU with UNIFIL Deployment
BSI News – LAF thanks BSI for its support in Beirut

Read more about UNIFIL’s work to protect heritage in Beirut following the explosion on their website and their work with BSI
Visit the website of the NGO Biladi, a crucial partner

Visit the websites of our national committees around the globe

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