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Qasr es-Snowbar, Palace of the Pines

In a Fairyland, in legends, in gilded dreams, in a wonderland, the forest of pines shelters a palace. In this Paradise, where branches thick with pine needles embrace the angels and cherubim, the roots of the pines spreading deep in the earth give the trees the appearance of magical living beings. In fact our Land of the Cedars is covered with many such stretches of coniferous woodland.

I have seen many palaces during my travels and I have read about many more spread over four continents. I give as examples Palaces of Congress, Sports Palaces, the Farnese Palace, the Borghese Palace, the Medici Palace, the Palace of the Doges of Venice, palaces of the Popes, the Palace of Luxembourg, the Palace of Versailles, the Palavio de Oriente, and the Elysée Palace. In Lebanon one calls to mind Sursock Palace, Shehab Palace, Tueni Palace, Pharaon Palace, Beiteddine, Mukhtara and Deir el-Qamar. They are named after distinguished families or after sites or regions. In bookshops one may find several volumes about the palaces of Lebanon.

In this case the name is both pastoral and poetic. Did it fall from the sky? Did it come as a revelation, or as the inspiration of a celestial name with earthly resonance?

On the south side of Beirut between the city and the international airport there stretches a forest of Mediterranean pines, shaped like sunshades and also called maritime pines and pines of Aleppo. The Crusaders once called it the “sapinoie”. The extensive woodland is said to have been replanted by the great Fakhreddine II (1585-1635) in order to prevent the south-westerly winds smothering the region with sand from the coastal dunes. This picturesque forest for a longtime provided the people of Beirut with their favorite promenade and was marked out by a popular race course and made even more famous by the imposing residence of the ambassador of France, Qasr es-Snowbar, le Palais des Pins, the Pinewood Palace. One may add that this Palace has had an eventful history.

First built as a casino club by the powerful Sursock family in 1916 under the direction of the architect Bahjat Abdenour, it was occupied by the French in 1918 and it was there that on September 1st, 1920 General Gouraud proclaimed the independence of Greater Lebanon.

Subsequently, this residence constantly rearranged and redecorated was the seat of the High Commissioners of the Mandatory Power until 1943 (date of total Lebanese independence) and then of the Ambassadors of France, the latter being the case even now. During the regrettable war in Lebanon lasting between 1975 and 1990, armed militiamen occupied and ravaged the building, going so far as to kill Ambassador Delmar. However, on May 30th, 1998 President Chirac of France came to reopen these prestigious premises, which had been completely renovated.

As I possess double nationality, during these times I was often a guest, one among thousands who crowded in, and it was easy to meet the high officials who were passing through Lebanon - presidents, senators, ministers, and members of parliament, all of whom were struck by the beauty of the area including the Embassy, the race course, and the trees, with the opportunity to meet compatriots and friends at receptions where there was always a cordial atmosphere.

While having been several times restored, the Palace retains its Ottoman style of great beauty, with a façade of sober oriental arches. The Residence blends harmoniously with the surrounding forest of centuries-old trees. The region is still known as Horsch Beirut, Beirut Forest. Here is a summary of the key events marking the history of the Residence:

- On 5th December 1915 Alfred Sursock took out a forty-year lease on 600,000 square meters of pine woodland known as Horsch Beirut that went back to the days of the Phoenicians, his aim being to set up a casino.

- The architect Bahjat Abdelnour started construction, but because of the 1914-1918 war the casino was made to serve as a hospital and then as a military camp.

- With the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon came under French mandate.

- The casino of the “Azmy Bey” circle was renamed as Résidence des pins.

- On the steps of the Residency, Greater Lebanon was proclaimed on September 1st, 1920.

- On September 28th, 1921 the Sursock family handed over all rights to the French State for a sum of Ff 1, 850,000.

- There was a succession of High Commissioners and a wooden fence was put up between the Residence and the race course.

- Charles de Gaulle put up at the Residence of the Pines in July 1941 and August 1942.

- Meanwhile, the building took on a different aspect, with a concert hall, a lengthened façade, renovated rooms, a ground floor, a large reception room, a dining hall, and an atrium.

- After the independence of Lebanon, the High Commissioners were followed by a succession of ambassadors.

- In 1964 the lease expired and negotiations led to a new agreement signed on 7th October, 1972.

- War came with displacement of the ambassadors, destruction, occupation by militiamen, fighting and looting.

- When peace returned, the damaged building was reoccupied and security enforced by French gendarmerie.

- The Residence was made habitable again and its reopening was presided by President Chirac of France on Saturday, 30th May, 1998.

Text: Joseph Matar - Translated from French: K.J.Mortimer

- Palace of the Pines: >> View Movie << (2013-07-14)
- Palace of the Pines - Interior: >> View Movie << (2016-09-18)



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