UNESCO rallies international community to safeguard Beirut’s cultural life and heritage

A Lebanese couple check out the damage to their house in an area overlooking the destroyed Beirut port. AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Following the devastating twin explosions in Beirut, Lebanon, on 4 August, UNESCO mobilized leading cultural organizations and experts from Lebanon and abroad in an online meeting on 10 August to coordinate emergency and longer-term measures to safeguard the city’s severely damaged cultural heritage and rehabilitate its cultural life.
Beirut after the blast

The explosions at the port of Beirut did not only claim hundreds of lives and leave thousands injured, they also inflicted severe damage to some of Beirut’s most historic neighbourhoods, major museums, galleries and religious sites and came at a time when Lebanon was already reeling from a series of other crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A Lebanese couple check out the damage to their house in an area overlooking the destroyed Beirut port. AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

UNESCO, responding to the Directorate-General of Antiquities of Lebanon’s call for support, will lead the international mobilization for the recovery and reconstruction of Beirut’s culture and heritage, based on the Directorate-General’s technical needs assessment and the International Action Plan for Culture in Beirut, which UNESCO is currently developing with all its partners in Lebanon and abroad. 

A damaged house in Beirut’s Ashrafieh neighborhood after the blast.

Dr Sarkis Khoury, Director-General of Antiquities at the Ministry of Culture of Lebanon, shared an initial assessment of damage to cultural institutions and heritage sites in the city. He noted that at least 8,000 buildings, many concentrated in the old districts of Gemmayzeh and Mar-Mikhaël, were affected. Among them are some 640 historic buildings, approximately 60 of which are at risk of collapse. He also spoke of the impact of the explosion on major museums, such as the National Museum of Beirut, the Sursock Museum and the Archaeological Museum of the American University of Beirut, as well as cultural spaces, galleries and religious sites. 

A Lebanese woman walks over the rubble in her apartment in the Gemmayze neighborhood on Wednesday.  AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Dr Sarkis Khoury stressed the need for urgent structural consolidation and waterproofing interventions to prevent further damage from approaching autumn rains. Emergency measures were also invoked to safeguard Beirut’s cultural life through the mobilization of artists, cultural professionals, artisans and custodians of traditional knowledge. 

Beirut blast destroys Sursock Palace. The palace which was completed in 1860 , is a symbol of the Sursock family’s rich history. It is located on the historic Sursock Street in the Achrafieh district of Beirut which was devastated by the blast . The Sursock House is surrounded by gardens that have been used for special events, such as weddings .Getty

Key partners attending the meeting included the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas – ALIPH, the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage (ARC-WH), Blue Shield, the International Centre for the Study and Preservation of Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), the International Council of Museums (ICOM), and the International Council on Museums and Sites (ICOMOS). Ambassador Sahar Baassiri, Permanent Delegate of Lebanon to UNESCO, also took part. 

The coordination meeting marked the first step in UNESCO’s ongoing commitment to ensuring that Beirut’s rich cultural life and heritage can continue to serve as a source of strength and resilience for the Lebanese people. 

“The international community has sent a strong signal of support to Lebanon following this tragedy,” said Ernesto Ottone R., Assistant UNESCO Director-General for Culture. “UNESCO is committed to leading the response in the field of culture, which must form a key part of wider reconstruction and recovery efforts.”