The Living Museum

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The shops’ goods pave the broken road, soothing the wavy maze of the old souk. Covered in blemishes, riddled with secret treasures, the shadows live in contrast to the midday sun. Juxtaposition of modern day life and the beauty of a Mamluk era unfold amongst its tiny alleyways. Poised in the blameless blue sky, Tripoli’s old souk actively survives with its old quarter gracing this land with its stunning architecture as the Mediterranean breeze still beats as it did centuries ago across its limbs.

Twelve mosques from Mamluk and Ottoman times survive along with an equal number of madrassas or theological schools. Secular buildings include the “hammam” or the bathing-house, which followed the classical pattern of Roman-Byzantine baths, and the “khan” or caravansary.

Located near the Great Mosque are two madrassas. Opposite the mosque’s northern entrance is the Madrassa al-Nouriyat, which has distinctive black-and-white stonework and a beautiful inlaid mihrab, and is still in use today. Attached to the east side of the Grand Mosque is the Madrassa al-Qartawiyya, converted between 1316 and 1326 from the former St Mary’s church. Its elegant black-and-white facade and honeycomb-patterned half-dome above the portal are quiet a treat.

Hammam al Abed the last functioning hammam was built in the 17th century. There is a kind of stillness that settles in the air of the hammam as you walk in with its central fountain, traditional cushions, Mamluk domes, and its beautiful stone arches. It feels like a hideaway from time and the world outside. Hamman Al Jadid on the other hand is the largest and Tripoli’s best-preserved Hammam.

The souks, together with the “khans”, form an agglomeration of various trades where tailors, perfumers, tanners, and soap-makers work in surroundings that have changed very little over the last 500 years.

In Mamluk Tripoli, after securing the seat of government in the citadel, the first major projects undertaken was the construction of a central congregational mosque. Commissioned five years after the city’s capture and dedicated to Al-Mansur Qala’un during the brief reign of his son, it was this Great Mosque that first stamped the city with its new Islamic, Mamluk identity and offered a new hub for the religious and commercial life of the city. It rose on the site of the Crusader church of St. Mary, and it incorporated a relic gate and for a minaret, the church’s square-plan bell tower, both of which survive to the present day.

The Citadel casts a motherly eye on Tripoli and offers a great view of the city. It includes an old hammam, three prayer houses, a jail, a stable for horses, wells, graveyards, 20 m long towers and around 10 gates. Occupied by the Crusaders, the Mamluks and the Ottomans the citadel has survived and holds within its core tales that spun throughout the decades. (to read more about the history: )

Amongst its crowded and narrow alleys churches and mosques rub shoulders in a gesture of acceptance and neighborly love. Some streets in Muslim quarters have saints name, while others in Christian areas have Muslim names. The Great Mosque, Abu Baker Al Siddik Mosque, Al-Bertasi Mosque, the Taynal Mosque and The Cathedral of St George grace the landscape creating a religious map of the city’s religious hub. The oldest church in Tripoli is Saydet al Hara in Tabbaneh which dates back to the 13th century.

Beautiful hidden mosques lie quietly behind tiny doors not wider then a meter. Guarded by old wooden doors usually inscribed with words from the Kur’an, their interior is breathtaking and remarkably still withstanding with little care the damage of time. Al Muallaq Mosque, the Hanging Mosque, is set on top of an arched passageway and is only accessible by a flight of stairs. The Hanging Mosque was built by Mahmud ibn-Lutfi, Ottoman governor of Tripoli during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent.

In the neighborhood of the Ezzedin baths there are two fourteenth century Mamluk khans facing each other. The Tailor’ khan, khan el khayatin, which adjoins the baths on the north was built in 1341. Its street stalls and storehouses still house the dry goods merchants
and tailors of modern Tripoli. The Tailor’ khan is a long passageway with tall graceful arches on each side and ten transverse arches open to the sky. At the entrance an engaged Corinthian column is built in the brown sandstone wall and may be a Crusader Church pilaster with a re-used marble capital. There are other Roman granite column sections built into the walls in the vicinity.

Another beautiful structure uncovers itself in the old souk that of Khan al Saboun, a well known historical place. (posted before:

Situated in the Hadeed district midway between the Mallaha and Dabbaghah districts, the Haraj Souq is made up of two floors. This covered 14th century Mamlouk bazaar has a high vaulted ceiling, which is supported by granite columns that may have originally been part of a Roman or Byzantine structure. Sitting in the haraj café in it center one can’t help but feel transported in time into a mystical world of dreams where sounds and smells of a forgotten world still reside amongst its walls.

In this vibrant area of the city, you will still find an agglomeration of jewelers, perfumers, tanners, soap-makers, carpenters, and tailors within the narrow streets. This city known for its production of soap, copper and brass trays, engraved wooden boxes, furniture, and oriental sweets, surrounds itself by beauty.

In awe of such splendor and lost for words, with the magnificence, the graceful resplendence of it all, one’s eye wide in wonder finds itself lost gazing taking in this living museum.


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