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
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
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
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
- 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
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