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Tripoli - Twenty Halts in the Old City and Elsewhere - click here for even more places in Tripoli

Tripoli al-Fayha deserves its name. Stretching between the Mediterranean shore and the hill with its citadel dominating the Old City, and with the scent of the soap which is its specialty wafting across it, Tripoli is a fragrant as it is large.

As Tripoli is on the way to becoming a “must” for cultural tourism in Lebanon and the region, the Cultural Agenda is taking the form this spring of an invitation to travel. It provides an opportunity to behold with new eyes a city holding treasures of heritage, of craftsmanship and, yes! gastronomy for anyone who knows where to find them.

It was the Madinati Association and the enthusiastic members of this dynamic Tripoli group, notably Dr. Rawya Majzoub and Dr. Maha Kayal, who guided us through the streets penetrating a city which though only an hour from Beirut remains insufficiently known.

This special number would not have seen the light of day but for the support of the Ministry of Tourism and the announcers, and particularly the precious aid of Madinati; we thank them warmly for the time and energy they have put into this project and for the enthusiasm with which they have inspired us.

The Cultural Agenda -
L'Agenda Culturel

The Old City: twenty stops

To begin with, the very name bears witness to the veritable kaleidoscope of cultures that makes up Tripoli. If the Greeks called it Tripoli, the Three Cities, it was precisely because the town was founded by the three cities of Sidon, Tyre and Arwad. Its history is told in its stones. No less than 164 of Tripoli’s historical monuments, most of them dating from the 14th century, have been officially classed as Historic Monuments. Among these are as many mosques of the Mameluke and Ottoman periods built as Madrassa (schools).

A visit to the Old City therefore offers a formidable field of exploration for the lovers of architecture and the enthusiasts of history. Unlike Beirut, which has lost its traditional urban thread, Tripoli has preserved its casbar, its souqs or bazaars and its mosques, whose charm recalls for us the alleys of Damascus or Aleppo. One has only to raise one’s head to see above the stalls the musharabieh several centuries old, the Mameluke inscriptions chiseled in the stone or the sculptured decorations. The Old City is a labyrinth which one can easily imagine still haunted by ghosts of the past, while it is at the same time a place bustling with a lively and colorful commerce, from which it is hard to extricate oneself without having bought and tasted at least one of the local delights!

The very structure of Tripoli shows its particularity. The medieval town, still easily recognizable on account of its imposing citadel, is surrounded by the Ottoman quarter, itself surrounded by the modern districts.

Al-Mina, contiguous with Tripoli, is on the whole quite a modern town, with fine, wide avenues and also a downtown area near the actual port, which itself is as old and picturesque as the oriental bazaars of Tripoli.

Between the two urban areas stretches the International Fair, a masterpiece of the architect Niemeyer, and immense island of verdure which seeks its vocation but remains a treasure for the capital of the North.

Happy visit!

1- The Taynal Mosque

The first stop of our tour is at the Taynal Mosque, named after Prince Seif Ed-dine Taynal, once governor of Tripoli. It is recognizable thanks to its dark green domes, which from a distance seem covered with velvet. From the domes of the first hall of pure Islamic tradition to the monumental doorway which separates the two prayer halls, the architecture is as rich as it is complex. Its various facets bear witness to the layers of time; the Taynal Mosque was built in the 14th century on the site of a Crusader church, itself erected over the remains of a Roman temple, as is indicated by the columns of classical granite visible in the first area of prayer. The floor and the superstructure on the other hand were the work of the Mamelukes.

2- The Café Moussa

Go past the cemetery then turn left along the main axis of the bazaar, and you will find yourself crossing the little quarter of cafés known as Café Moussa. Only men can be seen on the terraces, which does not mean that women are forbidden to enter! During the month of Ramadan in particular the crowd is mixed.

Have no hesitation about venturing into the neighboring streets of the working district of Bab er-Ramel, through which runs the old road to Beirut and where one may seen craftsmen engaged in their art, blacksmiths working in frangi (European) or Arab style, sculptors of grave stones, bakers and so on. Any of them will take pleasure in explaining to you the working of their craft.

The blacksmith: The small workshop facing the cemetery is lighted by nothing other than the glare of the flames in the center. The blacksmith does all his work by hand. If he is alone at his task, it is because, of his two sons, one is a doctor and the other is an officer. His work is principally that of making tools used by the other craftsmen. He produces his tools by the “Arab” method, that is to say without soldering.

In a small alley at right angles is El-Ouzeh, the temple of ashta, as well as a bakery famous for its wood-burning oven a hundred years old. During the holy month of Ramadan, everyone comes here to buy kaak sprinkled with sesame seeds. Four traditional ovens are disseminated in the streets of Café Moussa, the latest of which is quite recent.

Now you have only to go along the main axis of the souq after Café Moussa and you will come to the third stage of our itinerary, and Al-Hammam al-Jadeed will be one hundred yards further on your left.

3- Al-Hammam al-Jadeed

Ten minutes’ walk from the Taynal Mosque is enough to take you to Al-Hammam al-Jadeed, of the 18th century. Its lofty vaults, its spacious halls and its Mameluke fountain are well worth a visit, even though the hammam is no longer used as a public bathhouse since its restoration early in the nineteen-seventies. Today in fact it belongs to the Al-‘Azm family from Syria. Do not forget to have a look at the part of its doorway where there is an ornamental chain, which one could swear is of metal, hewn in fact out of one block of stone. Do not hesitate to ask the guardian of the place to tell you the history of the subways dug out between the hammam and the citadel.

4- The Al-Moallaq Mosque

On leaving the hammam, glance upwards and you will see the mosque Al-Moallaq (the Suspended) rising above a row of shops. A singular feature is that it was built over a roofed passageway! Alongside is a garden in which one may see the tomb of its creator, Mahmoud Lutfi az-Zaïm.

Backing the bathhouse and perpendicular to the main axis of the souq, you will see before you the beginning of an alleyway. Follow it through the arc of a circle that it forms among the residential houses. The basements of these houses are older than the upper stories, sometimes pre-dating the 15th century. The children of the neighborhood will be delighted to welcome you!

5- Al-Kanqah

Tucked into one of the old buildings in the residential quarter bordering the commercial axis, this monument, unique in Lebanon, is today a lodging for widows and destitute women. Originally intended as a residence for sufis, Al-Kanqah was built during the second half of the 15th century. At present there are twelve families living there in the rooms surrounding a courtyard open to the sky with a central water basin.

6- The Tahham Mosque

Of Mameluke origin, the Tahham Mosque is built over shops and is distinguished by a richly sculptured minaret.

7- Al-Madrassa al-Saqraqiya and Al-Madrasaa al-Khatouniya

After the Tahham Mosque, turn left and carry straight on to Saf al-Blat Street, recently re-named Abdel-Kader Kabbarah. This road going from the cemetery to the Great Mosque used to be paved in order to facilitate the passage of funeral processions.

The entrance to the Khatouniya may be recognized by the two vertical marble panels on which a wakif, a religious decree, is engraved. As for the Saqraqiya, an inscription runs along its façade. Twenty meters further on is the Arghoun-Shah Mosque, characterized by its cylindrical ornamented minaret.

As everywhere in the old city of Tripoli, the small streets hide some useful addresses. The surroundings of these madrassa (schools) are a good haunt for gourmets, particularly that of Fadi al-Mabsout, specialist of the traditional pounded ice cream.

8- Dbebseh Street

Look out for Dbebseh Street, where you will be able to watch the cabinet-makers at work. Here also you may find the Azm and Saad Center, as well as a vocational trading school and its store founded by the association.

Here we may hear the purring of the circular saws. Legs for tables are piled up on the floor of the workshops. Different molds of wood are hung up on the walls which allow the craftsmen to execute a number of different patterns. One can well understand here how it is that Tripoli came to reputed as the capital of the furniture industry! Showing off the vitality of the furniture-makers of Tripoli, its artisans can execute any model submitted by a client. In particular you may place an order for a musharabiyeh made to measure. Now once again take the Saf al-Blat in the direction of the Great Mosque.

9- The Great Mosque

Something about its architecture holds your attention. Perhaps it is the minaret tower, former church belfry converted, whose Lombard style in the middle of a mosque may well cause surprise. Or the north portal, which also reminds one of a church doorway. It is in fact likely that the Great Mosque was built towards the end of the 13th century on top of the Crusaders’ Saint Mary of the Tower Cathedral. The madrassa surrounding the Great Mosque have themselves mostly become small mosques. Each one contains the tomb of its founder, with the exception of Al-Nasiriyat madrassa, whose founder was the Sultan himself, Al-Nasser Hassan ben-Qalauon. Historically speaking, the surrounding markets were only of the kind called “noble”, that is to say clean and noiseless, typically for gold, jewelry, perfumes and sweets, and this is still the case. Now go round the Mosque towards Al-Madrassat al-Qartawiyat.

10- Al-Madrassat al-Qartawiyat

In the main street, you will find the place of the madrassa with its four windows with inscriptions dating from Mameluke times with the mark of the governor. Just below, one may see under the glass the inscriptions of the diary of the governor, precious witnesses to the daily life of the Mameluke period. Alongside, you may see “Beit esh-Sheikh”, the house of the chief, with its fine 19th-century staircase, as well as one of the doors of the Great Mosque.

To find the main entrance to the madrassa, once again follow the main axis of the bazaar for fifty meters (yards) and then turn left facing the Ar-Rez confectioner’s.

This madrassa is one of the most ornamented monuments of Tripoli. In particular its entrance is decorated with the stalactite motif and panels of polychrome marble. There is a window which is the oldest in Tripoli, dating back to the 14th century. Something which is not to be missed, just opposite the Islamic bookshop, is the most ancient bakery oven in the city, still working, and turning out excellent bread, which should be eaten with sumac when still warm!

Turn back towards the Great Mosque and take the direction of the As-Siyaghine souq, which goes from the extreme right of the square along to the Al-Bazarken souq, which in turn ascends to the ‘Ezz ed-Dine Hammam square.

11- Hammam an-Nouri

Before entering this bazaar, you should visit the splendid Hammam an-Nouri, no longer being used and unfortunately in an advanced state of decay. Not easy to find straight away, it hides behind the back of a workshop just before the first jeweler in the street. If you ask the traders nearby, they will tell you which place to go to. The bathhouse is in fact invisible from outside and its entrance may be mistaken for the back of the shop.

Completed in 1333, this hammam is without doubt the most impressive in Tripoli. Its fountain, domes and multicolored slabs give the modern visitor an idea of its past splendor. Today its spacious rooms are completely abandoned, but fortunately there is in preparation a project for its restoration.

Let us go back to the bazaar As-Siyaghine. The souq of the jewelers is one of those bazaars in Tripoli the names of which correspond to the items on sale. Restored during the nineteen-nineties, the main artery of the bazaar is noteworthy for the fine wooden door canopies though one may well regret that the work involved meant exposing the stone without any covering layer, so it has begun to crumble.

Fifty meters from the beginning of the bazaar, at the end of a small cul-de-sac on the right, you may admire buildings dating from the Ottoman period, of which the basements are Mameluke. A little further along on the left you may pause at the Hammam al-Abed.

12- Hammam al-Abed

This hammam has two claims to distinction; it is the only bathhouse still in use in Tripoli today and it is the least elegant. The old central basin in the court has disappeared, following remodeling by the proprietors. However, the interior is quite comfortable, with cushions and traditional ornaments at one’s disposal, and it is easy to forget that one is in the heart of the souq! Only men have right of entry, every day between eight in the morning and ten in the evening.

On leaving the hammam, at the right of the entrance cast your eye on the magnificent semi-cylindrical musharabiyeh, which in Tripoli typically embellishes the façade of any old dwelling.

13- Khan As-Saboun

Situated at the end of Jewelers’ Bazaar, on the left, what is called “the Soap Caravansary” was in Ottoman times a military arsenal. So this courtyard surrounded by two-story buildings has never been devoted to the actual fabrication of soap, a specialty of Tripoli reputed in particular for colored soaps made with olive oil. But here is the sales outlet for soap Badr Hassoun.

After the Jewelers, turn right, and twenty yards further on you will find the main artery and here you turn left. You might take a turning for Souq as-Samak, the Fish Bazaar. Fish are no longer on sale here, but instead you will perceive the Al-Uwaysiya Mosque, easily recognizable on account of its large sand-colored dome. Facing its entrance, in a little sloping street, is the Nouh al-Haddad & Sons Confectionery, known for its haléwet Shmeisseh. The name comes from its creator, the Shmeissem family. You could not do better than tuck into these pastries of loukoum (Turkish delight) with cream filling. The confectioner’s closes at four in the afternoon.

Before turning to Souq as-Samak, you might also go towards Souq al-Attarine, the Perfume Bazaar, and stop at Dabboussi’s, where the best moghrabieh in Tripoli are prepared. You may eat on the premises or take away, for Dabboussi’s proposes an original formula, moghrabieh sandwiches without meat!

Before carrying on down Souq Bezerken into Hammam ‘Ezz ed-Dine Square, stop at the sellers of wooden molds for kaak and maamoul.

14- Hammam ‘Ezz ed-Dine

One of the most pretentious bathhouses in Tripoli and Lebanon, Hammam ‘Ezz ed-Dine has recently been restored, with a covering layer to ensure the preservation of the stone. Built on the remains of a Crusader hospice, as is shown by the Latin inscriptions over its doors, the hammam was offered to the city of Tripoli by the Mameluke governor ‘Ezz ed-Dine Aybak in the 14th century. It is intended to make of it a museum bathhouse.

On the right of the square outside is the Tailors’ Caravansary, Khan al-Khayateen.

15- Khan al-Khayateen

Easily recognizable by its high white glazed arches with wooden hoods, Khan al-Khayateen is different to the other caravansaries in the city. In point of fact it does not have an open yard, but is rather a long passage that reminds one of the arteries of the bazaar. Restored in 1974, the Tailors’ Caravansary is one of the most ancient in Tripoli, dating from the first half of the 14th century. It is still possible to find here abaya, the square-shouldered Arab cloak, Here also they make theatrical costumes, notably for the dance troupe Caracalla.

16- Khan al-Misriyeen

The Egyptians’ Caravansary is just opposite the previous one, the other side of the main axis. Built during the same period as Khan al-Khayateen, its structure is more traditional. Now this khan is composed of two-story buildings around a square court in the center of which is a fountain.

It is in this particular caravansary that you can visit one of the last traditional soap-makers of Tripoli, Mahmoud Sharkass. In the yard, go up the stairs to the first floor to see Sharkass deftly molding the balls of soap or polishing the tablets after they have been baked and cut up. Musk, amber, in the form of ball, tablet or rose, you have a wide choice! The kilo of soap (nearly two-and-a-half pounds) costs L.p. 10,000. The place is well worth the visit; hanging on the wall of the little factory, is the photo of the founder, the grandfather of Mahmoud, with the old-fashioned tools he used.

Sharkass will explain with enthusiasm the different techniques of his craft. But a certain nostalgia hangs over the place. The sector is in fact losing momentum, for there are now few buyers of the traditional soap. However, by taking advantage of the present tendency to demand natural “bio” products for the body, this skill may yet survive.

Another option we strongly recommend for anyone wishing to buy soap is the shop Almasbana, situated in the premises of the former soap factory, with its wide range going from the traditional jefti olive-oil soap to the vegetal soap perfumed with mint, rose, violet, amber or camomile, not forgetting the house specialty, its transparent glycerin soap. Other accessories for the bathroom are there, as authentic as they are refined. The shop is outside the old Mameluke city in the Zahrieh quarter. The owners of the soap works, the oldest (1880) and largest in Lebanon, the Awaida family, have in mind the transformation of the place into a soap museum.

Go across the Khan to the opposite side, leave behind you the main artery of the bazaar, you will find a cul-de-sac with the horse-boxes that once used to hold the horses of the traders coming to the caravansary, converted now into small cheese dairies. By going some twenty yards along the textile bazaar, you reach the Al-Attar Mosque on your right.

17- The Al-Attar Mosque

Easily recognizable by its monumental doorway decorated with in scriptions, ablaq, muqarna and muzarrar, the Mameluke Attar Mosque was built by Badr ed-Dine al-Attar. One may go round the mosque and see on its northern side its imposing minaret.

Backing on to the mosque, just opposite you, is a narrow street that will lead you to the cobblers’ bazaar. Go down on the left past the countless shoe-shops and at Berket al-Mallaha turn right along the alleyway leading to Souq Haraj

18- Souq al-Haraj

Souk Haraj is the commercial street, the only roofed souq in Tripoli and without doubt one of the most particular places in the Old City. Now occupied by dealers in mattresses, pillows and carpets, this bazaar has recently been restored. It is lined by two-story buildings held up by fourteen granite columns. Two of these columns stand in the middle of the street and one can easily find the two basins going back to different periods. For those who feel that they must buy a mattress made to meausure, here is the place for a modest outlay of $200, kindly note.

You can take advantage of the view of this street from the small terrace of the Café Haraj, one opportunity to take a rest in the calm of the Old City.

19- Al-Tawba Mosque

Follow the souq to the end of the street. There you will find the Tawba Mosque. Do not hesitate to go down the few steps into the interior court. There you will be charmed. Further on, to your left, starts Churches Street. While passing, take at look at Khan al-Askar, a khan with two courtyards, to which the eastern entrance is visible from the street. There is some question of converting it soon into a hotel.

20- Church Street

There are not many Christian monuments remaining in Tripoli. In fact most were destroyed in 1279 when the Mameluke sultan took the town from the Crusaders. However, there are some to be found, of course in the Street of the Churches. These were built in the 19th century. The oldest church in the street is St. Nicholas’s, Greek Orthodox, one of the most beautiful and imposing in Lebanon. Turned into a church early in the 19th century, it was built on the site of a soap works! St. George’s, also Greek Orthodox, was built in the second half of the 19th century. Further on is St. Michael’s Church, the oldest Maronite church in Tripoli, built in 1889. It faces a small Latin church, which today belongs to the Italian school of Tripoli.

But the oldest church in Tripoli, Saydet al-Hara, Our Lady of the Quarter, is in one of the parts of Tabbaneh and dates from the 13th century. It was recently restored after having been badly damaged during the civil war.

So now we have come to our journey’s end! If you want to get back to your starting-point, take one of the many Tripoli taxis and you will be back at the Taynal mosque in ten minutes.



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