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Beirut Forest - Horsh Beirut

A forest is nothing other than a wide space covered with trees. There are forests that have been planted by man and others where the trees have grown up without any human intervention, like the ancient forests that once covered all Lebanon. Sometimes dunes, moving sands, are planted and converted into forest, like the pine forest of Beirut. Here are coast-growing pines, also called Aleppo pines, with a tall trunk and branches spreading in the form of an umbrella.

On the southwestern side of Ashrafiyeh pointing to the south is a great stretch of sand a large part of which has been wooded since the 18th and 19th centuries, the time of the emirs of the house of Shehab, and more particularly since the time of the mutassarif governors. The latter were mostly Europeans and wished to develop, urbanize, build schools and hospitals and orphanages, lay down roads, plant, set up, irrigate, and so on.

In 1868, under the Mutassarif Franco Basha, a great campaign of re-forestation was launched in Lebanon, with trees planted along the sides of the roads. Some of the trees were fruit trees, while others were simply of the woodland kind. Forest wardens were installed to look after the forest, to prevent people cutting down trees and to prevent goatherds from allowing their flocks to graze in the parts where the seedlings were still young. Further, seeds of trees were distributed with encouragement for people to plant them.

In Beirut itself there is a wide stretch of land called The Sands, where there is a prison of that name. Another section, one planted with trees, is next to the Race Course and the Residence of the French Ambassador known as the Pines Palace. At present this forest is carefully looked after by the Ministry of Agriculture and by other authorities and here the planting of saplings goes on without interruption. During the recent troubles, many of the trees were damaged, burnt or even reduced to ashes by the fire. But now Beirut Forest has found again its former freshness, beauty and pleasant views.

Beirut Pines Forest is now a great public park drawing the crowds, a green space inside the capital, such as one may see in many of the great cities of the world. The pine, or the fir tree, is compared to the parish priest’s wife, for if one cuts off the head of a pine, the tree dies, and if the wife of the priest dies, the poor man is not allowed by canon law to marry again. Beirut Forest is surrounded by highways on all sides and so can be easily reached from anywhere. It is centrally situated so one can take walks there and feel oneself in the heart of nature. One may always see the horses of the Race Course trotting alongside the trees.

The Forest is run by the Beirut Municipality. At one time it stretched to Badaro on one side and bordered the sea on the other, at Ramlet el-Baida. It covered 1, 300,000 square meters but today one may see how in 1982 it was reduced to a mere 320,000 square meters during the sad violent disturbances and by the Israeli invasion, which destroyed some 90%, leaving the tree burnt, scorched and broken. In 1990 a competition was organized to carry out renewed planting.

It used to be believed that it was the seventeenth-century Emir Fakhreddine II who had created the forest, for there had been swamps there. But according to William of Tyre, in the twelfth century the Francs had used the wood for the beams of their siege machines, so it was called the wood quarry of Beirut (sapinoir). The Forest still protects the town against sands drifting in with the winds from the south-west. It is now called the Pine Forest.

Now it has been twinned with the Ile de France region, famous for its arrangement of natural sites, before concrete completely overwhelms the city. A time came when Mocadem wanted to take precautionary measures to protect the zone before it suffered any further disfigurement, with young seedlings torn up, the ground covered with rubbish, and footpaths needing repair – leaving the public free to wander over public land without any supervision can be very harmful to the forest.

For Lamartine, this was the place of his dreams. At present new kinds of forest trees other than pines are being planted, and an appropriate fauna introduced – hyena, wild boar, jackal, tortoise, and so on, while already there exists a great variety of birds. Now clumps of trees and stretches of grass are irrigated, so the Forest can now breathe and live in harmony with the town.

William MATAR - Translation from the French: Kenneth Mortimer

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