With the Mediterranean lapping its shores, the island of Cyprus basking a couple of hundred kilometers further to the West, and flanked by Israel and Jordan to the South and Syria to the North, Beirut can be said to be a city right in the middle of the Middle East. A city of vital strategic and mercantile importance since before the time of the Romans, and one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the region, it is a place where European, Christian, Middle Eastern and Muslim cultures meet, mix and create something entirely unique.
By the nineteenth century, the country with which Lebanon was most closely associated was France, this influence having helped to create a sense of coastal cosmopolitan chic in this exotic Arab setting, and by the 1960s Beirut had earned the reputation of being the Paris of the Middle East. This ancient capital was renowned as the intellectual center of the region, boasted a sophisticated Riviera atmosphere, and with its continental style cafes and plush hotels, attracted the cream of the jet set year on year. This society idyll was broken by the Lebanese Civil War in 1976. One of the scenes of the fiercest fighting was the Souks of Beirut, a bustling ancient series of interconnected markets which had previously been one of city’s most exclusive shopping districts and was completely destroyed by the end of the war in 1990.
The Souks were seen as emblematic of everything Beirut had been - a unique and exquisite architectural tradition and a commercial heartland that attracted visitors from every corner of globe. Solidere, the private share-holding company set up by the Lebanese government in the early 1990s to rebuild the devastated city center, was given the task of bringing the Souks back to life. The result is both uniquely Beirut and simply unique - a high end retail center boasting some of the most exclusive brands and stores in the world set in a modern recreation of the Souks that faithfully follows the original Hellenistic street plan and retains the original names of the markets. Bustling open air areas and streets, Souk Ayyas, Gold Souk, Fakhry Bey, and Souk Sayyour, lead into and out of the covered arcades and walkways of Souk El Tawileh, Souk El Jamil and Souk Arwam, and are arrayed around the two beautifully finished Ajami and Intabli Squares.
This modern and ultra-chic bazaar has been exquisitely realized by an eclectic and brilliant group of Lebanese and global architects - Rafael Moneo, Samir Khairella, Kevin Dash, Rafic Khoury, Zaha Hadid, Valode et Pistre and Annabel Kassar - whose collaboration has produced an utterly unique space coordinated by retail space planner extraordinaire Olivier Vidal. This elite group has painted a modernist portrait of the organized chaos of the boutique street market atmosphere of the original Souks with unusual and luxury building materials, including what threatens to become the iconic herringbone motif that is written across the walls of the Souks in exquisite Spanish marble. Every step shoppers take is paved with the inscrutability of custom cut black basalt, and bronze has been rendered into stunning walkways, shop fronts and the louvers that glint in the Mediterranean sun. The walls in the Gold Souks are decked in French marble and the flooring is finished in imported cedar atop polished granite.
Solidere has also taken great care to preserve, restore and lovingly present recent architectural discoveries in the Souks, including the Mamluk Koranic madrassa of Ibn Al Dimashqi and the and the Byzantine mosaic, which tie the new Souks to the old.
So, with such a unique and lavish setting, the proof of the Souks’ rebirth was to be the brands, stores and boutiques that could be enticed to come and occupy this extraordinary space. While none doubted its unique quality, given its turbulent history, few would have predicted the three hundred high end global retailers that have flocked to the Beirut Souks, bringing back the throng for the first time in well over thirty years. Every marquee brand that you would expect has a presence here; top fashion designers including Dolce & Gabbana, Stella McCartney and Yves Saint Laurent, high end retail icons Jimmy Choo and Louis Vuitton, and high street trend setters H&M, Desigual, Mango and Converse.
The rebirth of the Souks and their city has sparked another equally vibrant and modern-influenced revival, a culinary one. The incredible influx of wealthy, refined, and often tired and hungry, shoppers and tourists has stimulated a demand for fine dining that was as absent from Beirut as the sense of serene cosmopolitanism. That Lebanese cuisine is a world famous fusion of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern traditions and ingredients has helped to draw some of the most prominent and up and coming chefs to Beirut. The Paris of the Middle East is reasserting itself, with one hundred of Solidere’s four hundred regeneration projects involving restaurants, many of which will focus on thrilling new interpretations of classic regional ingredients.
Joël Robuchon, the man behind worldwide eateries, has brought his super-chic aesthetic to Beirut Souks with La Cave de Joël Robuchon, while three Michelin starred chef Yannick Alléno from Paris’s Meurice, is in the process of opening STAY - an experimental and casual locale that will include a pastry library selling desserts by the measure. Food and hospitality entrepreneur Mourad Mazouz, the man behind Momo and Sketch in London, and Andy Wahloo in Paris, is planning an early 2011 launch of Momo at the Souks, which will feature Moroccan and French cooking, and also Lebanese meze. Other Michelin starred chefs coming soon to Beirut include Antoine Westermann, with Relais Froch, and Davide Bisetto. Food lovers can also expect an outpost of Zuma, a London based Japanese restaurant, and Coco and Cassia - a boutique café from London chocolatier Sophie Mitchell.
The Beirut Souks, one of the world’s most thriving mercantile districts for millennia, have been restored to their rightful place at the pinnacle of luxury retail and fine dining, and in turn Beirut has returned to the world stage as modern cosmopolitan center to rival cities across the world.
- Ben Stewart
Address: Beirut Souks
Tel: 961 1 980650