Old Beirut's historic stairs connecting Mar Mikhael and Jeitawi
The old stairs of Mar Mikhael and Jeitawi have seen the city transform around them. They hold memories of the city’s past, but as Beirut becomes more urbanized, like the old communities that surround them, they face an uncertain future
Eight major stairs connect the two neighborhoods of Mar Mikhael and Jeitawi, and a few smaller ones are hidden between. Once, these semi-secret alleyways built haphazardly by locals, were the only connection between their houses and the train station below. Now they are the link to old Beirut, passing through communities that seem unchanged from the ‘50s; communal living in outdoor spaces, shared gardens and daily coffee and conversations.
The wide stairs named Geara are still full of life. Also known locally as the Vendome Stairs, even their name harks back to another era, a remnant to the cinema that once stood at its side, replacing the Olympic Cinema before it in 1979. Houses line the sides of the stairs, which are the only access to resident’s front doors; the public space has become their shared garden. Elderly residents still gather in a circle of chairs to drink coffee every morning; at the top of the stairs mural and graffiti-covered walls are lined with plants and trees, punctuated with religious icons, an urban garden enjoyed by all.
Diala Lteif, Responsible for Section Design at ALBA University, is behind a series of tours around the stairs of Mar Mikhael and Jeitawi and has led a research project on the area for her students. When Lteif discovered a research initiative on the stairs from ALBA urban observatory, Majal, she decided it would make an interesting topic for the course she leads in Section Design. The first public tour was launched in June 2013 as part of Beirut Design Week.
“Initially the stairs were informal alleyways made by residents to get to the train station in Mar Mikhael or to their jobs in the late 1800s,” she says. “They were almost secret; only used by local residents. Later the French colonialists formalized them. When the trains stopped and cars came to the city there were less pedestrians and so less use of the stairs. This was the first fall of them.”
Many of the local residents have very personal attachments to the stairs and there are hundreds of stories from donkeys going up and down carrying produce to their role during the civil war when they were used to carry weapons. “One couple got married on the stairs, another set of stairs next to [local bar] Bodo have a hole in the middle and residents have broken their legs on them. Residents have their own daily habits. They use the Vendome to go up since it has resting levels and the other steep stairs to go down,” Lteif says.
For local resident Tony Akoury, who has a barbershop opposite the Vendome stairs, they’re imprinted on his memories and stories. Once a projectionist at the La Vendome Cinema, he fondly remembers the first ever screening of “Wild Geese” in 1979. “I remember going down the stairs on my motocross bike during The Hundred Days War with Syria, avoiding the dropping bombs,” he laughs.
When many of the city’s old heritage houses have been pulled down and replaced with high rise flats, it’s perhaps a surprise that the stairs have managed to survive until now, but it’s actually down to their unusual legal status. Built on private land, many of the stairs cross several houses' plots. “Jeitawi and Mar Mikhael have become expensive areas, real estate agents buy adjacent plots and fuse them together so they can build higher. The future of these stairs is resting on a few residents refusing to sell,” says Lteif.
The sound of construction now dominates the sleepy neighborhood around the Vendome Stairs, threatened when a construction firm wanted to make an apartment tower’s parking entrance, saved when one resident refused to sell. The view from another set of stairs rests on Bernard Khoury’s Skyline Tower. It’s perhaps the perfect symbol to the changing urban fabric of the city – a stark contrast to the old neighborhood close by. “We’re trying to raise awareness. These stairs are a testimony of what the city was, our shared memory that’s at risk of being forgotten,” says Lteif.
A number of associations are working to raise awareness of the stairs, one of which is Paint Up!, an NGO that goes by the name the Dihzahyners. They started an initiative to paint and refurbish the stairs between Mar Mikhael and Jeitawi bringing color to grey urban areas. “We
aimed at making a real difference in the landscape of Lebanon, and really changing communities that people live in. We thought that we would start with stairs and have it grow into a real movement to reshape the way Beirut looks,” say "the Dihzahyners."
Founded by Lana Chukri and Jubran Elias, the NGO that started with just 12 members continues to grow and evolve. “We do feel we are making a change to the community. Neighbors in the areas we have painted have thanked us, joined us, and rejoiced in the color we spread in their streets,” say the Dihzahyners. “Beirut’s old stairs are everywhere, they connect neighborhoods together and at the same time it connects people houses together which means it connect people hearts together.”
Info on the next tour held in collaboration with Gaia Heritage at email@example.com Facebook: Dihzahyners dihzahyners.tumblr.com
Photo courtesy of Nadim Kamel
A: Gholam stairs connecting Salah Labaki and Armenia street. B: Stairs connecting Three Doctors and Salah Labaki street. C: Massaad (or Mar Mikhael) stairs connecting Al Khazinian and Armenia street. D: The stairs of Nassif Rayes street linking to Armenia street. E/F: Two parallel stairs linking to Armenia street. G: Stairs connecting Al Khazinian and Armenia street. H: Vendome stairs of Younes Gbaily street connecting Al Khazinian and Armenia street.