Every great city has its iconic hotels, but it’s not often that a Holiday Inn achieves that kind of status. The exception is in Beirut, Lebanon; when the Holiday Inn opened in the central downtown area of Beirut just off the Corniche in 1974 it was one of a cluster of hotels which included the seafront St. Georges and the Phoenicia. With a cinema and a revolving rooftop restaurant, the 24-storey property brought a new level of luxury to a city which had become the playground of oil-rich Arab investors.
A little over a year later in October 1975, the hotel was overrun by Christian Phalange militiamen who took advantage of its commanding height to fight for control of the surrounding area as the Lebanese civil war split Beirut into a Muslim west and Christian east. The opulent hotel district lay close to the “green line” which divided the city and was untouched during the first few months of conflict. However, when one Muslim militia group took over the nearby high-rise Burj Al Murr and used it to launch rocket attacks on the Christian neighborhoods below, the Phalange response was to seek out a similar vantage point and return fire. Fortunately for the 200+ guests of the Holiday Inn at the time, the Lebanese Prime Minister was able to negotiate a temporary ceasefire to allow their evacuation before the battle resumed.
From October through December, control of the Phoenicia and St Georges hotels often changed hands, but the Phalange maintained their grip on the Holiday Inn. By January 1976, the various Muslim groups had taken most of the district with the exception of the Holiday Inn, and in March launched a final push to force any remaining Phalangists back into eastern Beirut. For this they had the help of the Palestinians in the shape of the PLO, who were eventually able to dislodge the Phalange from the hotel. Incredibly this success was reversed overnight as the celebrating Muslim militias failed to notice the daybreak Phalange counter-attack: the PLO were thus obliged to complete the job for a second time to finally bring this phase of the civil war – the so-called Battle of the Hotels – to its conclusion.
What remained of the hotel’s interior and fittings were then sold off on the streets, although the civil war itself was by no means over. The empty shell of the Holiday Inn was to see more action as Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 in its attempt to expel the PLO from Lebanese soil, but when the 1989 Taif Agreement brought the fighting to a close, and the civil war “officially” ended in 1990, downtown Beirut was left with a huge monument to a conflict which had left more than 120,000 dead, and a very uncertain future for the country.
Today, some 28 years later, Beirut is undergoing a remarkable makeover but the process is by no means complete. At the city’s airport, huge photographs lining the terminal walls present contrasting views comparing identical Beirut locations both during and after its civil war. A walk around the downtown still lets you take in your own during-and-after sights as you’ll come across a number of bullet-riddled buildings standing adjacent to the latest developments.
The redevelopment itself is impressive, appealing, and controversial. Much of the work was undertaken by Solidere – a private company formed under the government’s Council of Development and Reconstruction in 1994 and tasked with the regeneration of the city center. If you stand today next to the empty St. Georges Hotel and the yachts at the new Zaitunay Bay marina, looking inland towards the delightfully renovated Phoenicia Hotel, the Beirut Souks urban regeneration project, and the snowy mountains which stand behind the city, modern Beirut could even pass for Vancouver. Critics argue that this part of town lacks the authenticity of the more organic parts of the city, but from the aesthetic perspective the work has been a success.
The controversy lies partly in the inevitable inability of the government and Solidere to gain the full support of each and every stakeholder within the central part of the city, and partly in suggestions that the necessary expropriation of land and buildings was carried out without providing appropriate recompense to original owners.
Remarkably, however, in the midst of this dazzling new Beirut, the Holiday Inn, no longer with its sign and logo, still stands. Its future remains undecided, with the Lebanese and Kuwaiti owners unable to reach agreement on whether to redevelop the property or demolish it and start afresh. Its past is the story of Beirut as long this writer has been alive: Paris of the Middle East – Byword for Destruction – Waiting for Better Times. And its present? The Holiday Inn has been called iconic, and since one definition of iconic is to be uniquely representative of a particular period of time, that is the last remaining role it plays today.