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Palaces of Lebanon - The Lost Heritage - Extract from Book


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Palaces of Lebanon - The Lost Heritage - Extract from Book
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Introduction - Extracts from the book "Palaces of Lebanon - The Lost Heritage")

Hani Samaha has turned back the pages of time and opened doors on another great era in Lebanon's fascinating history of entrepreneurial wealth that has influenced the country's architectural trends and passion for the decorative arts. “Palaces of Lebanon: The lost Heritage” is the forgotten story of Lebanon's legendary residences. Changing over the centuries from austere fortresses to lavishly appointed palaces, by the 1800s they were a sophisticated blend of exotic Oriental influences and luxurious European lifestyle.

Samaha's unique story unfolds in a photographic narrative over twenty chapters, packed with details about the charismatic personalities that helped shape Lebanon's political landscape, leaving behind not only an independent nation but these architectural masterpieces of old world charm. It is a tale of Kings and presidents, royal engagements and imperial dynasties.

In his two-year search to find the forgotten palaces, Samaha toured the length and breadth of Lebanon. From the city and village of Tripoli and Kfar Akaa in the north to the quaint towns of Jezzine and Bramiyeh in the south; from the great snow-capped mountains of the Chouf region in the east to the aristocratic quarters of the capital in the west. Secluded behind ornamental gates and grand landscaped gardens, the palaces now emerge onto the pages of “Palaces of Lebanon: The Lost Heritage” like brilliant jewels; sparkling diadems of a nation's glorious past.

During their heyday however these palaces commanded the attention of every passerby, with horse drawn carriages thundering up to their gates and embroidered silk ball gowns ascending the marble staircases. Yet as “Palaces of Lebanon: The Lost Heritage” clearly demonstrates, their indelible aura remains. Steeped in tradition, the palaces display a grace and elegance in their exterior facades that is as captivating as the very day they were ceremoniously completed. Once inside the palaces, Hani Samaha unveils what only the very privileged have ever seen before. Parquet de Versailles floors on which Kaiser Wilhelm II has danced. Suites of Aubusson furniture and exquisite Persian carpets, that have hosted engagements between Princes and Princesses. Molded, painted and gilded ceilings under which the Shah of Iran and King Hussein of Jordan have been guests. Furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl, admired by King Saud Bin Abdul Aziz when he stayed with friends on an unofficial visit.

Many of the palaces feature the expert workmanship of Dimitri Tarazi, who founded a family business in 1862, manufacturing silk embroideries, carpets, copper and his famous oriental furniture. Later he became supplier to His Imperial Majesty the Sultan Ottoman and royal courts in Europe. Dimitri's sons, Alfred and Emile, expanded their father's company to include branches in Morocco and Syria alongside the branches in Jerusalem, Cairo and Alexandria. In 1940, King Mohammad V of Morocco commissioned the brothers to design and make a large number of important pieces for his palace. The brothers extended the company's artistic output, creating fabulous oriental ceilings, which became known the world over. The Byblos Hotel in St Tropez built in 1967 or the Theatre of Beirut built in 1960 are further examples of the brothers' skill. Dimitri's grandson, Michel Tarazi continued to build the company's world class reputation, with prestigious commissions for King Khaled, King Abdullah and King Fahd's palaces, as well as complicated restoration work in many international royal homes.

It is hard to give an exact date for when the culture of building fine palaces in Lebanon began. Some details have been lost in the mists of time, particularly when affluent citizens concealed their riches for fear of paying exorbitant taxes to the foreign governors in power. But it is true to say that when Fakhr El-Din II returned to Lebanon from exile in Tuscany in 1618 he brought back with him not only a love of Florentine architecture but the architects and builders themselves. The fashion for incorporating Italian renaissance ideas into the Lebanese vernacular quickly spread throughout the country. Only the extremely wealthy could afford to hire skilled foreign workmen to execute such grand ideas in stone, wood and frescoes or paint. Very soon, palaces emerged with ornate additions - such as elaborate Venetian windows - to complement the prevailing structural design of large interior spaces divided by slender pillars. This structural style originally emerged in Byzantine architecture and found its way into Lebanese homes; it traveled from Ottoman Constantinople to Italian Venice and came back to Lebanon, expanded, revitalized and more sophisticated. Decorative ceilings, which were already a prominent feature in Ottoman houses began to take inspiration from the European style of molded cornices and frescoed panels. In fact ceilings changed so dramatically over the course of the 1800s that “Palaces of Lebanon: The Lost Heritage” includes more than 50 illustrations of the finest examples, which vary considerably in their style of execution but not in their brilliance.

Who were these families creating such symbolic emblems of power and grandeur that they were able to consort with Kings and Heads of State up and down the country? Their names run like a historical essay on the country's economic, political and social development. They have created Lebanon's cultural phenomenon that attracted journeying intellectuals off the well-beaten track of The Grand Tour to the colorful tree lined streets and bustling medieval souks situated at the cross-roads between eastern and western civilizations; Joumblat, Sursock, Boustros, Daouk, Karame and Pharaon are but a few.

Passionate about their environment, the families acquired superb pieces of furniture and fine art, making Lebanon the epicenter of cultured living in the Middle East. Nowhere else in the region were there so many important articles held in private hands - a Francois Linke desk, a painting by Caravaggio, 17th century Flemish tapestries, a priceless 9th century copy of the Qur'an and delicate Roman mosaics. Preserving the palaces from the ravages of war has been an enormous challenge facing the descendants. A few invaluable works of art were transferred to outside institutions thus ensuring their safekeeping for generations to come. Renovation projects have brought back the historic palatial interiors to pristine condition. In one legendary example Michel Tarazi found himself restoring his grandfather's ornamental gates from 1917 at the Residence des Pins and the family's Oriental woodwork which adorned the palace's walls and ceilings. It was a proud moment indeed when Michel witnessed the French Ambassador's residence being re-opened by President Chirac in 1998.Two of the palaces have been bought by modern day Lebanese philanthropists. Saved from an ignominious end as skyscraper foundations, they have been transformed into celebrated private museums – the Audi Museum and the Mouawad Museum – housing such wonders as the world's second largest diamond, the Excelsior.

Turning the final page of “Palaces of Lebanon: The Lost Heritage” is like closing the final door on an historic era. Never again will palaces in Lebanon be built with such a wealth of artistic detail and magnificent finishes. Luckily Samaha's story records the country's outstanding heritage once and for all time.
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