Beirut’s Old Manara

Post 212/365

There was a time in Beirut when, what seemed like a mammoth structure, black and white stripes ascending up to the skies, played a major role in this city. Built on a little hill facing the Mediterranean Sea, the tallest one in the land, it stood still, proud, and useful. Now it stands there suffocating for air minisculed by the huge buildings around it. It stands there although still perceptible, yet useless in all its might.

The first Manara was built a few meters away from where the iconic black and white one stands on a hill above the water. In 1825, under the reign of the Ottoman Empire, the first lighthouse was built and stood around 25 meters tall, burning kerosene for light. It was very hard to manage, as the lighthouse keeper used to gather 2 or 3 gallons of Kerosene every day and carry it up the stairs in the dark to light the lamp. The Lighthouse, early 1900s, was shut during WW1 and was functional again in 1918.

This second lighthouse strategically constructed around the 1920s on a hill facing the coast was placed under the French control. It was built higher next to the first one. Once the construction was completed the first lighthouse was brought down. During the civil war from 1976 to 1990 the lighthouse was turned off. In 1990 at the end of the civil war President Hrawe ordered the renovation of the lighthouse, which was fully completed in 1993.

For more than 150 years, one family, from father to son, has been in charge of lighting the Manara (lighthouse) of Ras Beirut. The Cheblis have been bestowed the key of lighting up the city’s shore, guiding boats to this little city of ours.
(The following text is taken from the Daily star){Victor, who lives with his family in a house adjacent to the black and white Manara after inheriting the job from his farther, proudly tells the stories of the three different lighthouses Lebanon has had over the decades.

On Dec. 22, 1952, the French SS Champollion sank near Khaldeh, south of Beirut, as it headed to the capital. However it wasn’t the ship’s first trip to Lebanon and they were used to the lighthouse, Chebli says.

The French blamed Joseph Chebli, Victor’s father, for the incident. Protests were organized in France with citizens holding his picture as the criminal that killed their people. He was imprisoned for three months in Lebanon, until he was proven innocent: The lighthouse was shining at the time.

Some French people came down to the house offering money and a French passport to the family in return for Joseph saying he was guilty of the accident, Chebli says. However, Joseph refused, maintaining his innocence and insisting he was doing his job properly.
After further investigations, it turned out that the captain of the boat had mistaken the green light of the airport for the white light of the Manara. “It wasn’t a valid excuse,” Chebli says. “However, at least it was now clear that it wasn’t my father’s fault.”

Following the incident, the Lebanese authorities decided to build a new lighthouse, which is the black and white one that still stands today. In 1953 the project began. “We moved away for a few years until the Manara was ready,” Chebli says. “We came back in 1957, when it was first lit.”

Chebli explains the then-new Manara ran on electricity and was very innovative and technologically advanced at the time – “the best in the region.”

In 1973, Victor officially took over from his father and became the employee responsible for lighting the beam. However, in 1975, hardship began with the start of the Civil War. During the Israeli invasion of 1982, the Cheblis were asked to turn off the Manara to prevent the Israelis from using the light to land on the beaches of Beirut. Against his will, Victor was forced to turn it off. The lighthouse remained dark until 1990, when the Civil War came to an end.

But the years of the Civil War were hard for Victor and his family; they were bullied by militias in west Beirut. He was kidnapped three times and the lighthouse was bombed twice. Despite it all, he refused to leave. “This is where I was born and this is where I will die,” he says defiantly.

In 1991, a French mission came with the aim of fixing government-related infrastructure after the end of the Civil War.

When they reached the Manara, they were surprised to find that Chebli had already fixed the glass. “I used to light it up during the day,” he says, “I didn’t want the motors to get damaged from lack of use.”

Chebli and his son were later sent to France, at different times, to get a better understanding of the workings of a lighthouse. During that time the French replaced the components in the Manara, modernizing it.

A few years later, a businessman decided to build a residential skyscraper in front of the lighthouse, which was, of course, problematic.

Chebli said that it would block the light and he petitioned the government, but the businessman was powerful enough to get the approval for his building regardless. Then it was decided that a new lighthouse should be built right next to the sea. It is this latest one that currently guides ships by night.

However, it is still Chebli that lights it up every evening and turns it off every morning.

“The Lebanese Army is always guarding it now and it became a military emplacement because of the radars and surveillance tools,” Chebli explains.

In summer 2006, the Manara was again targeted by the Israeli troops and they bombed it, with Chebli and his son inside. “It became a dangerous (article written by Dana Abed, link below. I felt that I should include it as it was the stories of the Cheblis)

Decades may turn into centuries
 and our old lighthouse will still be the same, spreading its ghostly rays into the walls. At one point, it
 held the shade
of the ocean at sunset
in its 

I wonder how long ago
 were the days of lonely men
 waiting for the sun to sink
 so they could turn on their
 little beacons of hope,
their godly guiding light. But the only thing left now is the stones
of the lighthouse keeper and those he loved well. 
All ashes and all that is left are the bones. As long as the Cheblis survive and as long as their story is told from one generation to the other, the light of this manara will shine through carrying the secrets of its city. The Cheblis carry the torch that lights up the city shores, guardians in silence of this beautiful monochromatic monument left to eavesdrop to the meanderings of the sea’s breeze.

Dear Watchman, without thy gaze into the far,
without the warning danger,
without thought or care 
lost, would we be 
Lambs leaving our city monuments to be eaten up by wolves? Would we stay ones?

To My Beirut, overpopulated, suffocating for air, yet still shining through it all…

All pictures taken from the previous 2 links

5 thoughts on “Beirut’s Old Manara

  1. Last time i’ve been very close to AL MANARA tower,was ,if my memory serves me right when a friend of my cousin…in BMW took me there 1977….as visiting Bayhom’s living nearby/ But my real vision of it was in the Mid 1960…when we, a big group of people MALES/FEMALES…all attended BAIN MILITAIRE( Al Hammam al ASKARI) to swim ,as one of us had the MEMBERSHIP & access ..through good personal connections!! …while floating on the Mediterranean waters…my sight always fell on it & The PINK HOUSE next to it?? which as an18 y.old/ still ,that felt SPOOKY to me, …especially if one in his childhood read Adventures of TIN TIN myself ..DID !…If i return back to the 1956 or 57 I do clearly remember>> opposite Bain Militaire/ there was a vast space.. or a sandy playground, i remember seeing there infamous CIRQUE MEDRANO under a large TENT??also another time was a LUNA-PARK(Fairground) with cable-cars/games/merry-go-round’s….All seem to me it was just Yesterday & not many decades ago/Also never forget that AMAZING panoramic view from the MANARA’S black/white striped building ..of the land below and the whole sea shore of RASS- BEIRUT?! W..O..N..D..E..R..F..U..L!!…from Is-hak Barsoumian (or Mr. NostalgiA> in London since 1979).


    1. Thank you for this lovely message. It is always nice to hear about other people’s experiences and how they remember this city. To each of us a memory that holds so much more then just a lapse in time. My mom’s aunt used to live there called odette Khamar and next to her house was a beautiful magnolia tree and still to this day the smell of magnolias reminds me of her and her house and how she could see the Bain militaire from her balcony. Of course this building is now demolished


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