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Heritage site in Tripoli under threat
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TRIPOLI, Lebanon: The architecture in Tripoli’s dense old city tells of its past: Mamluk and Ottoman structures sit next to each other, some on top of Roman ruins. And inside one of these buildings is a hidden, but no less significant historic gem: the now endangered Traveler’s Library.

Taking up some 1,000 square meters of a building that is likely from the Ottoman era, the Traveler’s Library holds tens of thousands of books and archives, meticulously collected by one man. Father Ibrahim Sarouj opened the library in 1972, and moved to his current location 10 years later. He is now the historic structure’s only tenant, and it seems that developers are attempting to evict him and take over the valuable space his collection occupies.

Sarouj, whose family once lived in Jerusalem but has been in Lebanon for generations, said that he has at least 80,000 titles, including rare tomes in languages such as Greek, Dutch, Turkish, Armenian and Aramaic. His is one of the city’s largest libraries, and it is meticulously organized.

The Traveler’s Library includes archives documenting Tripoli’s history, among its treasures are the inaugural issues of the first Tripoli-based magazine, “Trablous al-Sham,” (Tripoli of Syria).

To Sarouj, the importance of the library is in “a romantic idea of Tripoli as a city of knowledge, culture, books, newspapers and beautiful buildings ... today this idea is being destroyed by consumption and a loss of cultural identity, both the result of materialism.”

He called the Traveler’s Library “a rare case in the city and country ... that people need to preserve,” noting he “doesn’t make a penny” out of the place.

Although the building has been all but abandoned, it has no visible cracks. There are reports that the property’s owner has inked a deal with a real estate developer that would entail demolition, and Sarouj said he has rejected a demand by the owner that he leave.

As it is listed as a heritage site with the Culture Ministry, severe damage and desertion could help the case for eventually tearing it down. Neighbors told The Daily Star that they witnessed a group of workers enter the upper floors and begin on what they assumed was a construction project. Instead, they found that the men were deliberately damaging the building’s stone.

Tripoli’s mayor Nader Ghazal said that as part of old Tripoli, the building is under threat from general negligence and acts of vandalism. “We have informed Father Ibrahim Sarouj of the recent damage to the building, and that it was done to force the complete abandonment of the building to make way for its demolition,” he said.

Ghazal added that municipality has sent personnel to “carry out necessary maintenance work, and refuses to give up on the building.”

It has been reported that the building was once the city’s Serail, and that it sits on the site of an old American school. Clearly, it is valuable in itself.

For Sarouj and those who love the library, the knowledge kept inside the ground floor is equally important both for its cultural value and the information it can offer future generations. But if the sabotage continues, he may have no choice but to take his books elsewhere.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 19, 2012, on page 4.
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