Less than one hundred years ago the area southwest
of Beirut was almost a desert, sandy and practically
uninhabited. There was just one quarter surrounded
on the north side by Bliss Street and the American
University, on the south by the Sanayeh (Arts and
Crafts), and on the west by the Lighthouse and the
sea. The Hamra district commences to the east a hundred
yards from the Murr Tower and Kantari Street.
Did this area get its name from the reddish sand?
Or from the dunes which advanced from Ouzai eastwards
and which under the regime of the administrators known
as the Mutassarefs were largely planted with pine
trees to prevent the sand drifting into East Beirut?
After all, places often receive names indicating colors,
for example Hamra, Sawda, Safra, and so on. There
is Deir al-Ahmar (The Red Monastery), Red Square,
Kornet as-Sawda (the Black Summit), and Kornet al-Hamra.
There is a fictional relation or twinning with Al-Hambra
in Granada in Spain, that luxurious palace out of
the Arabian Nights with fairyland gardens. Does the
color red act as an incitement to splendor, to riches,
to the fierceness of fire, or to Byzantine opulence?
Hamra Street or Rue Hamra as it is given officially
on the Survey is marked as street 31. In the years
between 1960 and 1975 it became the great pole of
attraction for both commercial and cultural activities,
the meeting-place for intellectuals and artists, and
the publishing center for the offices of the important
newspapers and reviews of Lebanon as well as for the
I got to know this area in the early nineteen-fifties,
when it was beginning as a hive of activity. There
was the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, the religious
house and school of the Capuchin Fathers, and nearby
the Residence of President Emile Eddeh adjoining the
Sanayeh hospital and the School of Arts and Crafts.
The alarm was sounded and the miracle was produced:
a new Beirut rose upon the two sides of the roadway
I well remember how we used to walk in sand from Hamra
to where the Ministry of Education and UNESCO Palace
were being built. There were just a very few old houses
here and there, a shop, and some trees – fig trees,
olive trees, wild orange trees, and above all some
cacti. There was little water, no irrigation and no
Then from one day to the next there was a new first
morn of creation. Hamra Street became famous and was
the focal point of Lebanon’s capital Beirut. Its development
was rapid, with the appearance of commercial, sports,
cultural and tourist centers. Outstanding were the
theaters and Beirut’s largest cinemas, with the offices
of major companies, banks including the Central Bank,
restaurants, open-air cafés, night clubs, large
hotels, press and other media agencies, newspapers,
bookshops, ministries, studios, art galleries, luxurious
medical facilities, hospitals, department stores and,
nearby, universities, schools, and faculties.
Hamra Street became a landmark and a meeting-place,
full of life both day and night, with neon lighting
and flashing advertising. It was compared to the Champs
Elysées and the great squares of the European
Then in the nineteen-seventies came the tragic events
that tore Lebanon asunder. Hamra was transformed and
lost its dominant position. Rue Verdun replaced it
on the Western Side while Kaslik, Monot, Gemayzeh,
Badaro and Ashrafieh became the centers on the Eastern
Side. Hamra had lived its Golden Age between 1960
and 1975, but its glory had been ephemeral.
It is now a comparatively small area that can be crossed
on foot to reach the American University, the American
Hospital, and the Ministries of Information and Tourism,
all within a few minutes of each other. In it all
the religious communities are to be found whereas
once it was a zone exclusively Christian.
The region is slowly returning to the role nature
intended for it. Activity is reviving, shows are put
on, and people return to meet. Exhibitions are being
organized again. There are many visitors and sightseers
and festivals are coming back organized by the ministries
and companies in order to restore life and breath
to this street.
Each year the Autumn Festival is patronized by the
Prime Minister to show the cultural and artistic diversity
of Lebanon. It comprises many different activities
with many participants, including a large number of
musicians, a carnival parade, flower floats, dances,
the different orchestras of Beirut, the Fire Brigade,
the Red Cross, tankers, beasts of burden, and vehicles
with various vegetables.
Concerts are given by professional gigs, with Rock,
Blues, jazz, Rap, electro, and oriental music. Stands
put on show various arts and crafts featuring jewelry,
printed T-shirts and handwork.
There are photographers, painters, ceramists, film-makers
with their works both short and long, shown competitively
to reveal the very best. Go to Hamra on foot on days
when it is reserved for pedestrians.
Neither street nor alley ever dies in Lebanon, particularly
when it is a matter of such an important avenue as
Hamra. It will always be there, full of life, a center
to welcome the young and the avant-garde.
Text: Joseph Matar - Translated from French: K.J.Mortimer