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Ashrafieh Stairs (Adrages, the Stairways)

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 them out.

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 used.

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 Movie << (2015-02-01)
- Stairs Massaad: >> View Movie << (2015-02-01)

 

 


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