I still remember when I was very young holding my mother’s hand or her dress for fear of getting lost in the Martyrs’ Square, just in front of the Prefecture of Police, where stood the taxi-rank for Aley. And I remember the shouts of the taxi-drivers crying, “Aley, Aley, one more for Aley!.”
Having heard Aley mentioned so much, I imagined it a summer resort of great beauty, a place of luxury frequented by the upper classes. On the billboards I could read, “Superb Spectacle, the Singer...,” etc., all this long before the Baalbek Festival and the Casino of Maameltein. My idea of Aley? A place reserved for the society élite, the VIPs.
So it remained in my imagination until the day when I passed by Aley and later actually visited the place. It was all true: Aley was the administrative capital of the caza or district of the same name, a beautiful region up in the mountains with ten summits, the highest of which was Ras el-Jebel, the Mountain Head, the actual town being some twenty kilometres from Beirut and at an average altitude of 850m.
Its population stands at about 50,000 in winter, rising to 100,000 in summer.
Aley serves the whole district, standing as it does on the Beirut-Damascus highway. Originally it was no more than a small village, but as from the period 1892-1895 when the Beirut Damascus railway was constructed under the regime of the Mutassarifiyah, Aley grew into a town of importance.
It became a leading summer resort, the favourite residence of petroleum magnates, of emirs, of the very rich, and of the Lebanese multi-millionaires of the region and the cream of the bourgeoisie. The residences, villas, chalets, palaces, 3- to 5-star hotels, and municipal parks and gardens were to be seen everywhere.
Churches, mosques, monasteries, convents and schools, all these were to be found alongside restaurants, casinos, cafés, night-clubs, sports facilities and swimming-pools. At night, Aley blazed with light like the sun. In the main street and boulevard, there were richly decorated shop windows, hospitals and medical centres, commercial buildings, the district administrative offices, town hall and law-courts, all the infrastructure of a town of importance. What still characterizes Aley is the souk or market, where peasants, farmers, traders, buyers and sellers both men and women all mingle together in a picturesque crowd where one may pick out the local elders or sheiks by their typical costumes and turbans. There were important festivals held at Aley to which the great musical artists of the Arab World used to come, with ones such as Abdul Wahhab and Oum Kalthoum adding glamour to the evenings.
During the war years, Aley suffered extensive damage as did the other regions of Lebanon. Then, during the nineteen-nineties, Aley became one great building site, with restoration and construction and the laying out of parks, gardens and new zones. Much remains to be done, but Aley now presents a better face and a new mentality, thanks to its intellectuals and artists and above all its dynamic municipal president.
Aley has now taken on the character of an artistic and cultural centre. Symposiums of painting and sculpture have emerged. The works of hundreds of artists from all around the world are to be seen. The town council provides the artist with all the material and help he needs, blocks of stone, plaster, iron, wood, bronze and manpower.
Sculptures and monuments embellish the streets and squares of Aley. A public park full of sculptures and works of art, an open-air museum, a festival of art and of artists have all made their appearance, with exhibitions, recitals, orchestral performances, theatrical plays, conferences, gatherings and sporting events. Culture is contagious and spreads around. At present, many are the villages that have set themselves to follow the example of Aley. It is a bright town, with its flower- and greenery-laden balconies. Now, ornamented by its sculptors, like a phoenix Aley rises from its ashes.