I came to know this village during the nineteen-fifties, when I was in senior high school and had some pupils to whom I was giving private lessons. These spent their summer vacation in the Sursock Grand Hotel, where I would often pass and sometimes sleep. Now fifty years later I still have pleasant memories of this unique holiday center which recalls the unrivalled sites in the French Maritime Alps.
Souk el-Ghareb stands to the south of Aley on a plateau some eight hundred meters above sea level and fifteen kilometers from Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon. Woods and groves including pine trees, oak trees and olive trees, some of them centuries old, cover the region and moderate the mild climate, a fact which explains the great number of visitors to be found all the year round. This renowned historic summer resort attracts Arabs and Europeans as well as Lebanese from all sides. The word souk is often found as part of a name in the East, and in Lebanon and the Levant often indicates the site of a former khan, a building in which traveling merchants, their beasts of burden and their wares could pass the night and which often served as a market.
Souk or Khan el-Franj (Market of the Franks) is still to be found in Beirut at Souk el-Ahad (the Sunday Market) and one finds Souk Oukaz in Arabia, Souk Hamadieh in Damascus and many other places where the word souk enters into the names of towns, villages or streets. Souk el-Ghareb dates back well over a hundred years, with its hotels, residences, villas and quarters that started to grow up at the dawn of the twentieth century.
The main artery of the town continues from Aley and abounds in shops, show cases, snack bars, restaurants, clubs and street cafés of every description. Crowds of townsfolk and visitors alike stroll through the streets in the evening. A particular feature is the exceptional cleanliness of the streets and the smooth running of the organization, due to the dynamic president of the town council. As for its administration, Souk el-Ghareb comes under the district or caza of Aley.
The many old hotels, the most elegant in the East, are notable for their fine architecture. Above them, Ras el-Jabal, the Summit of the Mountain, is crowned by pine trees that raise their arms towards the sky.
It is the dream of the girls of the village to celebrate their wedding in one of the luxurious hotels overlooking Beirut and the sea. On Ras el-Jabal one has the feeling of being poised above the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
There is no lack of lively social and cultural activity with so many schools, clinics, doctors’ consulting rooms, architects’ offices, sports clubs, showrooms and markets. Souk el-Ghareb Secondary School was founded in 1860, the year when Ernest Renan came to the East, and it stands comparison with any of its rivals.
The Town Hall, from where Souk el-Ghareb is administered, is where the Town Council holds its meetings.
St. George’s Convent goes back to the Crusades and was once used as a hospital.
Worthy of note are the streets adorned with flowers, the red-tiled roofs of the villas and the general air of modernity. During the recent sad events, Souk el-Ghareb was on the front line and suffered extensive damage while being defended by the valiant soldiers of the heroic army of the nation.
There have been remarkable families in the town, among them the Saleeby, who gave to the world eminent doctors, artists, poets and members of religious orders. In general, the people of Souk el-Ghareb practice the liberal professions or are merchants or government officials.
There are many projects under study by the municipal council with a view to further improvement of the town. These provide for such things as a public library, an Internet and computer center, a hall for conferences, exhibitions and congresses, a center for young people and for university seminars, exchanges and twinning with other towns, urban development and infrastructure, and protection of the environment. In a word, at the dawn of the twenty-first century with its globalization, Souk el-Ghareb is fully open to the world.
Joseph Matar Translation from the French: K.J. Mortimer
- The Village of Souk El Ghareb: >> View Movie << (2006-01-01)