TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Tripoli’s downtown boasts architecture from as far back as the French mandate and Ottoman eras, but much of the historic district is facing possible demolition.
Recently, the Inja Theater was demolished after a long period of neglect and deterioration. The building’s owner, Tripoli MP Mohammad Kabbara, obtained a restoration license and the result was its complete destruction.
In its heyday, the theater, which now lies in rubble, played host to such great Arab singers as Mohammad Abdel-Wahab and Umm Kulthum. The adjacent Royale building, once a grand hotel, is also at risk of vanishing from Tripoli’s landscape.
Kabbara is seeking a similar restoration license for the Royale, and there are unconfirmed reports that a commercial center is planned for the land where it now stands. Obtaining a restoration license requires approval from the Culture Ministry, but Tripoli’s municipality has the final say.
The issue of Tripoli’s heritage is not tied only to these two buildings, but rather to a project currently on the agenda of Tripoli’s municipal council. Entitled “Raising the Investment Factor,” the plan will increase the permitted height of buildings in the downtown area, as well as their number.
The project has been postponed for around a month and a half, due to hesitation on the part of some municipal council members to issue a decision that could potentially destroy a wealth of invaluable historical sites. Proponents argue that it will bring much-needed investment to the city.
Municipal council member Khaled Tadmori believes the plan poses a real risk to the city. “We cannot allow infringement on Tripoli’s architectural wealth,” he said.
“The municipality is being put to a real test since the decision on ‘Raising the Investment Factor’ cannot be justified, so long as it only serves the interests of some influential people in the city such as MPs and businessmen seeking financial gain at the expense of Tripoli’s history and culture,” Tadmori added.
Tripoli’s Mayor Nader Ghazal declined to comment, saying that the plan was still a proposal on the agenda, and has not yet been discussed. Meanwhile, the Culture Ministry recently issued a decision stating it will not stand in the way of destroying the Royale.
The potential loss of the northern city’s historic buildings is causing noise among civil society activists, who are threatening to demonstrate outside the municipality.
Civil society activist Elias Khallat issued a statement against the Culture Ministry’s delisting of protected historic sites and buildings: “We warn against changing the investment factor in a geographic spot that is filled with places listed as heritage sites on the Ministry of Culture’s list.”
The statement said that “escalatory steps will be taken to end the massacre of destroying the Royale Building and the Inja Theater.”
“Many activists and residents are preparing to hold sit-ins and demonstrations across from the municipality or the Royale building in order to preserve Tripoli’s image and prevent a decision that would destroy the building under an unconvincing pretext,” it added.