Strangely enough, I posted the last entry, in a mood of nostalgia for Istanbul while in Beirut, without noticing that one of the subjects of Hamam – lawless property speculators – was being referred to in large neon letters on a derelict building, the Saint-George Hotel, right opposite my hotel.
People remember Beirut before 1975 as they used to remember Tangier and Alexandria before 1956, Saigon before 1954, Berlin before 1939, Shanghai before 1937, Smyrna before 1922, Salonika before 1917 perhaps: a place of lost sensory pleasures. I don’t think Beirut had a reputation for loucheness or decadence, but people speak of the douceur de vivre of those days. “You should have known the city then.”
The Saint-George opened in 1932, under the French. Abdallah El Khoury acquired it in 1958. Khoury is an exclusively Christian name. I assume he was Maronite. It has remained in his family’s possession ever since. When the civil war started, Phalangists occupied it in the Battle of the Hotels. Later, Syrian troops, attempting to pacify the warring Lebanese factions, occupied the burned-out shell.
After the war, the Syrians left the building. An abortive renovation began in 1996. But the rebuilding of Beirut had been charged to a new company called Solidere. “By agreement with the government, Solidere enjoys special powers of eminent domain as well as a limited regulatory authority codified in law, making the company a unique form of public-private partnership.” (Wikipedia)
The Saint-George threatened Solidere’s control of St George Bay. Solidere’s plans were backed by the government of Rafik Hariri, whose family and friends were Solidere’s main shareholders. The government blocked the reconstruction.
On February 14 2005, a car bomb exploded as Hariri drove past. He and twenty-one others, including five Saint-George staff, were killed.
I don’t think that, even in this land of conspiracy theories, the Khoury family have been blamed for the assassination. The road in front of the Saint-George was closed for nearly three years. The electricity and water supply and telephone network cut by the explosion were not repaired. Municipal officers blocked improvements to the Saint-George Yacht Club. Police evicted yachts from its waterfront marina.
A Guardian piece about Solidere by Oliver Wainwright, January 22 2015, might fill you with cold rage, but it must also be said that some of Solidere’s planning (perhaps the earlier stages) was good. Some streets and buildings are very pleasant. The substitution of calm pastiche for a gritty, vibrant, older urban landscape has happened in other places.
Other city centres, too, are organised for the rich. Other cities have destroyed fine old buildings during the peace that followed a destructive war. It isn’t only Beirut that has empty shopping malls. For criminality among developers, I doubt whether Beirut compares with Moscow.
Part of the problem is that there is now no Gulf money coming in. Gulf Arabs are no longer comfortable in a country half-pledged to their enemies.
Two Diocletianic soldier-martyrs, St Sebastian and St George, have been irresistible to artists, but St George has the wider and more varied and extravagant cult: paintings, legends, intercessions, veneration, dedications, chivalric orders, romances, shrines, feast days, hagiographies, patronages, flags, remains.
It extended from Palestine and Lebanon through the rest of the East Roman Empire. It appeared early in Georgia. It reached Aragon, Genoa, Venice, Hungary, the Holy Roman Empire, England (Britannia’s trident is like George’s spear upended), Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Malta. It was not confined to western Christianity, but touched, and still touches, the Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox (Miaphysite), Nestorian (East Syrian) and Uniate worlds. And Islam. And it was in St George Bay that George killed the dragon.
The story of the slaying was Eastern in origin, brought back with the Crusaders and retold in the literature of Romance. Beirut says that it happened there, but some accounts say Libya.
The usual depictions of Sebastian and George are complementary, passive and active. Sebastian pierced, George piercing. Arrows and Ascalon. Both were known to Diocletian, if you believe the stories.
George was tortured and decapitated. Sebastian was not killed by the arrows. He recovered and taunted the emperor again, at which point he was beaten to death. He is called twice-martyred.
St Sebastian was born c 256 in the south of France and was appointed a captain of the Praetorian Guard under Diocletian and Maximian, who were unaware that he was a Christian. He was martyred in Rome c 288 before the official persecution got underway. The trigger was his role in the story of the twin brothers Marcus and Marcellian.
We aren’t told much about Sebastian’s background, but George was born c 280 in Palestine to a Greek Christian noble family. His father was an important soldier, known to Diocletian. George presented himself to Diocletian in Nicomedia, the eastern capital under the Tetrarchy. By his late twenties, he had been promoted to the rank of tribune and stationed as an imperial (not Praetorian) guard there. He was executed in Nicomedia (some say at Lydda in Palestine) in 303 at the start of the persecution.
SAINT GEORGE WILL PREVAIL. Taken today. But why will the dragon be slain specifically in 2019?
Other Solidere pieces: here, here, here. On the cult of St George: Helen Gibson, St George the Ubiquitous, Aramco World, November/December 1971.
Sebastião! Protetor do Brasil
The Grand Hotel in Yokohama.