Anyone standing in front of the renovated Grand Serail recognizes that this monument has its roots in the past of this region. From a historical perspective, the complex has been the scene of many great events that took place during the periods preceding and following World War I. The history of the Grand Serail is replete with memories, events, and scenes that have followed each other in Syria and Beirut after the expulsion of the Egyptian army. That army was headed by Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Governor of Egypt, who controlled Syria and Beirut in 1831.
While the Egyptians were on this hill, the people customarily referred to it as the Al Thakanat (the barracks) because it was chosen by Ibrahim Pasha as a base for himself and his troops.
In 1840, the Ottoman Empire, with the support of the Prussian, Russian and British navies, was able to recover its authority over Syria. It was natural that the Ottoman military authority took interest in that hill and set up a building there. The building was first used as the headquarters of military and civilian departments; and then, after its expansion, it was turned into the headquarters of Ottoman governors. The Beirutis referred to it then as al'Qishlah, a Turkish word for 'the garrison' or 'soldiers quarters'.
During that period, the Qishlah was not only used to lodge the Turkish troops. In fact, when the Province of Beirut, extending from Latakia in the North to Nablus in the South, was declared in 1887, the Qishlah become also the headquarters of the Ottoman Governor. The first Governor was 'Ali Pasha, and the Qishlah became the Palace of the Province, which was gradually referred to as the Grand Serail (al-Saray al-Kabir), to distinguish it from the Petit Serail (al-Saray al-Saghir). The Little Palace was set up in the northern part of the Tower Square (Sahat al-Burj), later known as the Martyrs' Square (Sahat al Shuhada').
In 1897, a high tower with a large clock was built near the Grand Serail to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Sultan 'Abd al-Hamid II's ascension to the throne. This clock is one of three similar clocks set into high towers in Beirut, Tripoli and Haifa. The Clock Tower in Beirut was built by the decree of the Beirut municipality, which was headed then by Shaykh 'Abd al-Qabbani.
The end of the First World War involved the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. During the French Mandate, the Grand Serail was the official headquarters of all High Commissioners from Gouraud to Helleu, until April 1941 when the Lebanese government headed by Sami Al-Solh took over the administration of certain services, among which was the Grand Serail. The first President of the Republic of Lebanon who made the Grand Serail his presidential headquarters was Sheikh Bishara Al-Khuri, the first president after Lebanon's independence. Then he moved to the Qantari Palace which became the presidential headquarters. From then on, presidents took up residence there. The Grand Serail became the headquarters of the Prime Minister, Riad Al-Solh, and since then it has been used as the Prime Minister's headquarters. In 1976 and throughout the Lebanese War, the building was subjected to artillery bombardments, and a fire broke out in it. Most of its parts, save the ground floor and the exterior walls, were burnt. The situation forced the government to move to new headquarters in the Sana'i' area, and the Grand Serail was partially used by Ministry of Interior.
This Grand Serail, a full testimony to the historical developments before and after World War I, was been brought back to life in August 1998 by the efforts of President of the Council of Ministers Mr. Rafic Hariri. He wanted the Grand Serail to become again the symbol of pride and honor of historic Beirut and to be a witness to major events for years to come.
The execution of the reconstruction and renovation of the monument, which occupies 21,480 sq. meters of land and is ornamented with Lebanese and oriental designs and decorated with six hundred and three arches, took nine hundred workdays. Thirty-four Lebanese architects and one thousand one hundred and fifty technicians and workers renovated 39,700 sq. meters distributed into three floors, the basement, and the attic situated under the brick roof. The Grand Serail includes 430 rooms and chambers in addition to quarters for the maintenance and rooms for engines, services, and water tanks as well as bathrooms. The rooms are distributed in the following way: 85 rooms in the basement floor, 95 in the ground floor, 125 in the first floor and 125 in the second floor. The attic houses technical and mechanical services. The exterior and interior facades are decorated with two hundred and eighty two-lobed arches, one hundred and ninety-seven pointed arches, six rounded arches, eleven mandolin arches, and ninety-two pointed arcades. The facades have also huge gates and fifteen pointed lobed arches made of yellow limestone and have rectangular windows encased in white limestone. The gates are decorated with renovated and refurbished lamps.
Text: Cheikh 'Abdl Al-Bassit Al-Unsi, Cheikh Taha Al-Wali, Dr. Hassan Hallaq, Dr. Nazih Hariri.
- Beirut, The
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