For the most part, history only comes to a few, chosen places: a handful of unlucky cities, a legendary street or two, but most of all, a small number of public squares.
So whenever history passes through Lebanon it descends on this square in central Beirut, unfurling its immutable decrees. Cannon Square, as it was known when the Ottomans planned modern Beirut, soon changed its name to Tower Square. After its transformation into the site for executions of the first Lebanese nationalists at the end of the Ottoman period, it was ever after known as Martyrs Square in their memory.
The story of Martyrs Square from the 1920s to the 1970s is the story of Lebanon itself, and her political, social and economic experiment. It was the very center of the city, the structural and geographical heart of the state over which Lebanon’s various factions struggled.
When Lebanon’s social fabric tore apart in 1975, dividing into scattered, warring factions, this center became a front line, a gaping wound, a lifeless waste, a no-man’s land. As it had done before it symbolized Lebanese life and the geographical reality of the country’s past and present.
When the endless wars finally ended, it reverted to being the center of the country, as obscure and compromised as the peace itself. Once again, the square will translate Lebanon’s reality into intense symbolic truth. Under the banner of ‘reconstruction’—a euphemism for our need to forget—the bulldozers will move in to erase the symbols of an earlier age. Crumbling and pockmarked with the bullets and bombs of war they will be painfully dismantled and the square will be transformed into a lone and level wasteland.
Despite rampant enthusiasm for the reconstruction and renaissance of central Beirut as the foundation for a ‘new Lebanon’ and the architectural manifestation of the nation’s rebirth, the square remains a place of confusion and uncertainty. It is, in fact, the visible manifestation of the confusion that surrounds the plurality of Lebanese life, the country’s independence and the new status quo created by the Taif Agreement. The square’s emptiness symbolizes the vacuum at the core of the state and the confusion of a society whose various factions are not yet fully reconciled.
Those responsible for the reconstruction have had no trouble draping most of downtown Beirut in the trappings of luxury (you could call it a work of art)… except the square. It remains level and set apart, terrifying in its emptiness, cut off from the busy restoration going on all around it. It has been a potent symbol of the abscesses eating away at Lebanese politics and society.
The unspoken debate over what to do with the square is indicative over the profound inability of architecture and construction work—even politics itself—to create an identity for our capital city, or to set out a creed for our country.
Take the monument to the martyrs, which first witnessed bitter disputes over whether it was worth restoring it at all, and then had to suffer a prolonged waiting period while they debated whether to rebuild it completely. Some held that it would it be better to remove it altogether, whilst others thought it should be rebuilt from scratch in another part of the square. In the end, thank goodness, it was decided to restore it, leaving the scars of war on its side to bear witness to the past, and to place it in its original position in the center of the square.
Once that obstacle was crossed, there was the question of when and how to restore it to its original setting. The bitter but silent dispute between President Emile Lahoud and the late Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri over who would preside over the statue’s return was public knowledge. Each knew the symbolic and political power that such a role would have: he who unveiled the statue would wear the crown.
This dispute over Martyrs Square and its monument was yet another symptom of the imbalances and weaknesses afflicting the Second Republic.
You might say that the man behind the reconstruction and downtown Beirut’s new ‘spiritual father’ had the moral and political right to preside over its restoration. Yet at the dead of night when no one was looking the statue was taken hostage, allowing the President to assume control of proceedings.
Thus the square and its symbols became a symbolic witness of the state of the country: held hostage, imprisoned and forced to endure unbearable procrastination and delay.
It seems history will insist on playing its bitter game, compelling us to make our way to the square once more to satisfy its perverse love of ironies. The place that only yesterday stood bare, bewildering in its sterility, is once more brimming with symbolic force, charged with meaning and insinuation.
And why? The bestial assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri.
Immediately afterwards, and for the first time since the start of the civil war, the Lebanese descended on Martyrs Square united in their grief for the latest martyr to independence. They streamed in from all over the city, from Al-Ashraqiya, Al-Dura, Burj Hamoud, Al-Seify, Al-Jamiza, Al-Bashoura, Al-Basata, Al-Mazraa and Ras Beirut. They came from every street and quarter, from every corner of the country: a republic of citizens.
They stood together, a jumble of classes, incomes, tastes and allegiances. Their lack of sameness, their clear distinctiveness from each other was the very opposite of the uniform beliefs and appearances that characterize the organized demonstrations and pre-planned marches we are used to seeing.
The crowd in Martyrs Square had the sense of emergency that hangs over any gathering of ordinary citizens. People felt it as they greeted each other. How unusual it was to see them all together: doctors, factory workers, traders, small entrepreneurs, craftsmen, government clerks, company executives, housewives, students, politicians and intellectuals. A spontaneous yet unified coming together, walking together in an orderly manner despite the grief and anger that hung over them all.
With breathtaking speed, Martyrs Square had reclaimed its forgotten role: a place of meeting, continuity and community. It a single moment it had shrugged off its emptiness and separateness, becoming a place of new symbols in harmony with the symbols of the past and the rebirths of history.
Take the mosque. When it was being built it seemed large and uncouth, out of place with its architectural surroundings, and a departure from the style of other mosques in the commercial district, which tend to be more modest and traditional in appearance. Suddenly, the mosque seemed to belong; not just a place for worshippers and believers but for those of all faiths. In addition to its function as a mosque it had become one of the square’s symbols, a place of meeting and continuity.
The tombs of Rafiq Al-Hariri and his companions became a place of pilgrimage for all Lebanese, a place of sadness and rage, and a place for political expression.
This most recent place of pilgrimage gave Martyrs Square further legitimacy. They were new martyrs to a new independence in the process of being won. The rituals that accompany a visit to the tombs—singing national anthems, flying the Lebanese flag, lighting candles, placing flowers and writing on the walls—made the square wider somehow, pulsing with emotion, echoing to the slogans and chants of Lebanese political discourse. This is yet another of the square’s historical functions: binding country and capital together.
At first we found the recently restored statue to be less impressive than our memories of it before the war, less powerful than it seems in souvenir photos. Its reincarnation seemed enervated, fleeting, devoid of its inspirational force.
It was confusing. It looked suffocated and obscured sitting on a new plinth in a new setting. To a passer-by, the brightly lit and impressive Christmas tree dwarfed it.
On the day of the demonstration and those that followed the statue seemed to blossom. It became a focal point for demonstrators, those holding signs and public speakers who clustered around it and climbed onto the plinth. The monument was adorned with Lebanese flags, black banners and graffiti. Suddenly expressive it became invested with political and cultural power of all the statues and monuments that had stood there in the past.
The monument to the martyrs finally deserved its name, binding its past and present, and the square itself, the site of so much of Lebanon’s 20th century history, ushered in the 21st.