What happened to this place that once stood tall? Served as a palace of intellectual growth, or perhaps a gateway from one place to another time, one world to another realm, connecting minds and hearts.
After realizing that Beirut, the city of culture and knowledge, lacked a national library or merely a place where intellectuals could read and research, viscount Philippe de Tarrazi submitted the idea of such an institution to the government.
Viscount Philip de Tarrazi (1865 – 1956), a bibliophile and a historian of the Arab press, established a library in his own residence with his own personal collection. This collection included, at the time, around twenty thousand printed documents and nearly three thousand manuscripts in several languages.
De Tarrazi struggled for recognition by the Lebanese authorities of this new institution. Finally The Viscount’s idea was approved, and he was commissioned to implement the project. Since then, he put all his efforts, time, and money at the service of this project. He thus instituted a library known as the “Great Library of Beirut” by firstly moving his private collection, which included valuable books – manuscripts and printed documents – and a large collection of magazines and newspapers, which formed the nucleus of the Library. He travelled to Europe at his own expense in the aim of developing the Library’s collection. There, he gathered thousands of books from literary institutes, cultural institutions and academies. He also brought antiques to decorate the Library, whose walls he adorned with portraits immortalizing the country’s famous intellectuals.
On December 8, 1921, the Lebanese state promoted the library to the rank of a National Library. As a state institution, it became attached to the Directorate General of Education. De Tarrazi was then appointed General Secretary and then curator of this new institution. He held this position until 1939.
In 1999, by decision of the Council of Ministers, the building of the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences of the Lebanese University, located in the district of Sanayeh, was allocated to the Lebanese National Library, whose temporary premises are currently located in the Free Zone of the Port of Beirut.
Located in the heart of Beirut at Ramlet al-Zarif, the Sanayeh (Crafts) building is part of a large complex that originally comprised a Hospital in the West (now the Ministry of Interior) and the School of Arts and Crafts in the East (future National Library), facing a large public garden (the Garden of Sanayeh).
This complex was built during the reign of Sultan Adulhamid II, hence the initial name of the buildings: Hamidian School and Hamidian Hospital. The first stone was laid in September 1905 and the construction was completed in 1907.
Ahmad Abbas al-Azhari was the initiator and director of the Arts and Crafts School whose primary mission was to provide practical lessons in arts and crafts to needy children who aspired to work in trade or industry.
Both buildings were officially launched on August 19, 1907, by the Wali Khalil Pacha, governor of Beirut, to mark the birthday of the Sultan Abdulhamid II, in the presence of foreign consuls and prominent citizens of the city. It was the largest urban development project at the time in the provincial capital of Beirut.
The National Library building is typical of the Ottoman architecture of the late 1880’s. The two-story U-shaped buildings are rather imposing, symmetrical in plan and height, with a brick-tiled roof. Inside, wide corridors lead to large halls. The lower floor of the Arts and Crafts School had fourteen classrooms and five halls.
The last signature in the visitors’ book of the old national library is dated 3 February, 1978. After that, there are only blank pages. Past tributes are penned in Arabic, English, French, and even Russian and Chinese. It is hard to identify the authors from their abbreviated signatures, but they came from all over the world. Fearing its contents would be destroyed or looted; the library closed its doors in 1979.
When the library came under threat during the Civil War, the collection was packed up and moved into storage, eventually making its way to the Port of Beirut where its remains until today awaiting transfer to the new facility.
The collection includes some 300,000 books, periodicals and old manuscripts, some of which date from before the library was closed, while others are more recent acquisitions. Like the National Museum, however, the contents of the National Library were never subjected to an inventory before the Civil War, making it impossible to know if any texts are missing.
Soon enough, Lebanon will have a real and likely virtual public library available to the public. For many people the word “library” conjures up images of books and not much more. Although books remain a core feature and are beneficial in many more ways than commonly understood, libraries have a much wider and more significant reach than books alone.
The mission of a national library is to protect national heritage preserved in the form of handwritten, printed, electronic, recorded sound and audiovisual documents. Its primary task is to acquire, store and permanently archive the intellectual output of Lebanese, whether the works of citizens living on Lebanese soil, the most important foreign works, or publications related to Lebanon and published abroad.
UNESCO emphasizes the importance of many of these activities by stating in its Public Library Manifesto:
“Freedom, Prosperity and the Development of society and individuals are fundamental human values. They will only be attained through the ability of well-informed citizens to exercise their democratic rights and to play an active role in society. Constructive participation and the development of democracy depend on satisfactory education as well as on free and unlimited access to knowledge, thought, culture and information. The public library, the local gateway to knowledge, provides a basic condition for lifelong learning, independent decision-making and cultural development of the individual and social groups.”
May we always remember our history, safeguard it, and treasure it. We are not much without it.