Definition: Flight of spaced stairs permitting
ascent and decent. (Larousse dictionary)
Long before the appearance of Larousse or of electric
or other moving staircases of every description, whether
in wood, iron, or aluminum, the Lebanese had hewn
flights of steps on the rock face, on the walls of
their houses and in their surroundings. These flights
were adapted to the natural slopes, including those
of the mountains, hills, mountain sides, and the spaces
between the summits and the depths in the valleys.
These stairways keep their individual character, their
charm, and the inspiration of those masons who hewed
A number of towns and villages have very beautiful
stairs that are both picturesque and carefully planned
and are to be included among our archaeological treasures.
One may use them without effort and without feeling
tired. Sometimes these stairways cross each other
or run parallel to water courses which enliven one’s
walk and make travel a pleasure. These flights of
steps are short cuts between the settlements, and
have been consistently used not only by adults but
also by village children old and young as well as
by flocks of goats. They have been familiar to all,
even in the cities of Beirut and Byblos, in which
latter place they wind through the very middle of
the historic area.
In the Lebanese capital Beirut, particularly in its
Ashrafiyeh district which stands on a hill, there
are quite a few such stairways, more than fifteen
in fact. There was a time when they were very much
used, but with the coming of town planning, of high-powered
cars, of new ideas of building, elevators, and of
new roads spiraling in all directions, these flights
of steps have undergone a change in the way they are
They have seen a number of generations of young and
old going up them and down them, and meeting on them
by appointment and for lovers’ tryst. Now their function
has changed and they serve for other activities.
There is Darj el-Fann, The Arts Stairway, also known
as the Mar Ncoula, Saint Nicholas, Stairway, the scene
of important cultural displays and attractions such
as exhibitions of paintings and sculptures, musical
evenings, sing-songs, and folklore events.
The stairway Massad, Selwan or Mar Mikhayel (Saint
Michael) has been the theatre of several events following
a decision for a project that would have meant its
destruction and replacement by large buildings.
Worthy of mention too are the stairways Geara, Mukhtar
Gholam, Mar Mitri and Nasra, while other names may
be added to the list. Each of these had its particular
history, its memories, and its presence. Some go back
to the eighteenth century when they replaced steep
paths that joined certain nooks or quarters of Beirut
and have at times been repaired and rearranged. Various
associations have been formed to protect this heritage.
A sun of USD17,260 was collected for the maintenance
of the Nasra Stairs, which join Independence Boulevard
to Ashrafiyeh Street, thanks to the benefactions of
Lady Lili Sara and other generous donors, to the goodwill
of others along the coast, and to the green light
given by the City Council. The stairway was confided
to the association of the Green Services Program and
in only a few months it was restored to good condition
and inaugurated brand new with great pomp. It is now
permanently maintained and kept clean, with the trees
and flowers planted alongside being regularly watered.
These stairways remind us of Beirut of old, of our
traditions and customs, the gatherings, the meetings
of lovers, places where one could smoke a water pipe
“narguileh”, sip a coffee and enjoy some delicacies.
When running up one of these flights, we children
would count the number of steps that looked different,
for each step had its own shape and dimensions, as
inspiration in past times was not yet standardized.
I have known the stairs of Montmartre in Paris which
lead to the Sacred Heart basilica, but those of Beirut
lead to Paradise! They are not a simple ladder like
the one that Jacob saw joining heaven and earth with
angels going up and down.
How many artists have done paintings to show the very
soul of these stairways! How many poets have been
inspired to write verse, how many musicians, not least
among them the Rahbanis, have composed music to sing
of these flights of steps at whose end a beloved one
awaits to engage our heart. Their works evoke the
perspective of a stairway with its twists and turns,
its overhanging trees and deep shadows, its trysts
and its movement in every direction which makes us
feel alive. Some steps cut in the rock take us down
to the water’s edge and others take us up to the heights.
What a great idea it was of our ancestors to invent
and create this system as a means of communication,
a discovery by the people of old worthy to rank with
the discovery of the Americas.
Text: Joseph Matar - Translated from French: K.J.Mortimer
Stairs Saint Nicholas: >> View
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Movie << (2015-02-01)