Beirut is a city rooted in history and even conflict. The city is riddled with marks of its bloody and not too distant past. At the same time, it is also showcasing traces of the good days. It holds the spirit of its people, the colors of its culture, and its role as one of the most relevant connecting bridges between Europe and the Middle East. The Sursock Palace is a perfect example of this pattern. However, its struggles do not go back solely to the civil war. It became more prominent in recent times due to the tragic 2020 explosion event that affected Beirut and its inhabitants. The blast happened at a time in which the country was already undergoing a fairly tough economic crisis. The local currency lost up to 90% of its value, and opportunities becoming slim for even the wealthiest people in the community.
Built in the 1860s, the building was a luxurious residence previously owned by Lady Cochrane Sursock, who was very passionate about the preservation of historical buildings and sites in the country. To this day, the palace is linked to its namesake’s family, which is one of the most iconic in Beirut. The property had fallen in disrepair to some degree, but in recent years, the residence was restored to most of its former glory, and it was reopened in 2010 as a rental for special events, weddings, exhibits, and conventions.
However, the road to recovery was quite long for Sursock Palace. The building had been existing in a state of disarray for about 20 years, especially on account of the Lebanese Civil War that affected Beirut significantly. The conflict was particularly hard on buildings across the city, which essentially became battlefields and strategic placements. The war claimed many historic buildings and newer constructions (such as many examples of the then-booming hotel scene in Beirut). It took quite some time for the Sursock Palace to be viable again, but sadly it recently went through another dark chapter due to the tragedy of the 2020 explosions that affected the city.
The Port of Beirut held a significant quantity of ammonium nitrate and other potentially dangerous chemicals, which were mismanaged by port officials and corrupted governmental bodies. As a result, the improperly managed chemicals caused a massive explosion, which caused billions in damages and a lot of loss. The Sursock Palace was heavily damaged by the explosion, including its vast collection of valuable Italian antiques, artworks, rare books, furniture, and interior. The once beautiful ceiling, decorated with fine stucco, was completely torn apart, and it is now replaced by a temporary metal roof in the hopes of preventing weathering from further damaging what survived. The country was sadly experiencing economic disarray even before the blast, but the situation makes it now very difficult for landowners to approach costly repair bills in the wake of the explosion. In addition to the obvious social and humanitarian struggles, another side effect is that cultural neighborhoods and historical areas might disappear simply because of the prohibitive expense that would be required to restore them. The Sursock Palace is one such building.
Lady Cochrane Sursock, who was 98 at the time of the blast, passed away due to injuries related to the horrific event. She was in the palace at the time of the blast but survived the ordeal, only to perish at the hospital sometime later. The surviving family is doing whatever it takes to restore the Palace, which is very important to their personal history. It has been reported that they are investing over 6 million euros in restoration efforts. Sadly, no amount of money is going to fully recover all of the lost art pieces, paintings, books, and china that have been lost to the explosion, but there is hope that the family is going to be able to at least return the building to its former shape, over a 6-years plan of reconstruction efforts. Since the building and its content were never insured, the government isn’t stepping in to help, but various international organizations, university students, and other parties have offered support, at least during the initial stages of preservation.
I would like to express a massive thank you to Roderick Cochrane for opening the doors to the palace for me and allowing me to photograph the palace that is so dear to him and his family. This visit would also not have been possible without the effort and support from Silat for culture, a local NGO that partnered with me during my project and journey through Lebanon for The Heritage Management Organization.
More photos of the Sursock Palace in Beirut can be found below: