Beirut's last public beach has become a battleground in the city's fight for public space

The locals enjoy Ramlet al-Baida beach in 2007. Image: Getty.

Beirut's last public beach has become a battleground in the fight to expose Lebanon's disappearing public spaces, privilege and rampant development. Protesters have been taking to Ramlet al Baida beach to oppose construction of the private Eden Bay Resort, which describes itself as having, “A privileged sense of style”.

Lebanon's coastline is being swallowed up – and activists fear this project could be the death knell for Beirut's only remaining public beach.

“These spaces are being threatened by real estate developments, suffocating the city even more,” says urbanist Nadine Bekdache. Already, the city only has 0.8m2 of green space per person, when the minimum according to the World Health Organization, the minimum should be should be 9m2.

The Lebanese summer is hot, and electricity for air conditioning scarce: in Beirut's concrete jungle, life can become unbearable. So Ramlet al Baida is the only place for Beirut's many less-privileged families to escape and socialise. When the makeshift houses of fishing families were destroyed two years ago in Dalieh, not far from the beach, it was seen as the beginning of the takeover. 

This year the World Monuments Fund listed Dalieh in its annual watchlist. Two of the 50 global cultural heritage sites the fund says face “imminent threats” are in Beirut.

“Used as a public space for more than 7000 years, the Dalieh of Raouche may become the latest victim of a development frenzy that has destroyed or privatised many of Beirut’s open spaces,” the fund says.

In Lebanon, protecting open spaces means challenging the power of the elite to co-opt common land. The revolt against the Ramlet al Baida development is part of a new political flame sparked by last year's garbage crisis, during which trash rotted in the streets as ministers failed to address the city's lack of garbage dump. Many people from the “You Stink” movement the garbage crisis spawned have mobilised to protect the beach.

Whard Sleiman, a 24 year old architecture student who was injured during a recent confrontation with construction workers at the beach, is sick of the loopholes that enable political cronies to help each other out at citizens' expense. “When you're living in a city that has no public space, save for one park, and no public beach, save for one shore that's being polluted by sewage and garbage and plastic – the state of Ramlet al Baida is awful – you can't stay quiet,” Sleiman says.

Shore developments in Lebanon are always legally murky. Mona Fawaz, an associate urban studies and planning professor at the American University of Beirut, details at some length the “lack of transparency in public records and their numerous contradictions”.


“I found a 1925 law [144/S] which clearly states that all sandy beaches are public and inalienable,” Dr Fawaz wrote for The Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies. “Then I found a [1933] property record that supposedly inscribes Beirut’s large sandy beaches as the private property of a handful of individuals.”

There’s more: “...a 1954 regulatory framework that states as one of its basic principles that all zones between the seafront Corniche and the sea are unbuildable, then numerous changes, revisions, exceptions, exemptions, incentives, and modifications of this regulation that reverse protections, intensify exploitation, and encourage privatisation.”

All this makes it very difficult to work out what the law even is.

New kids on the political block, Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City), comprises a large number of urbanism professionals. The new party's programme is thoroughly focussed on improving the city's liveability – the second aim of its 10-point program is to increase green space.

Bekdache is part of their seafront taskforce, and argues that the city's social and cultural soul was suppressed when its public spaces were privatised. She says public spaces were deliberately neglected by authorities to dissuade people from using them, which excluded those who couldn't afford to pay for private facilities.

“[T]he right to enjoy free, dignified and open access to nature is an indicator of a healthy and dynamic urban life,” Bekdache said. “Every empty plot in Beirut is under threat of development.”

This problem is concentrated in, but not isolated to, Beirut. There are just a few patches of public beach in the southern cities of Sidon and Tyr, and in the northern city of Tripoli there is an ongoing battle over its seafront and an historic square that could fall prey to the pursuit of central car parking.

For Sleiman, the streets are the only place to go when your city is being robbed of its public space. “We have no public space, what do you want us to do, just sit down at home and take it?” he says.

“It's pathetic that we have nowhere to breathe. If I want to have a cup of coffee or sit down and breathe some air in the city, there is nowhere for me to do it. Literally nowhere.”

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The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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