BEIRUT: For several decades at the beginning of the 20th century, the railway station at Tripoli was the terminus of the famed Orient Express line. Now, the station sits derelict and abandoned. Several rusting locomotives from the late 19th century recall a bygone era. The station was built in 1911, during the death throes of the Ottoman Empire. It functioned through the birth of the Lebanese Republic, connecting to Beirut and, from there, Damascus until the network was destroyed during the Lebanese Civil War. Since then it has lain dormant.
While the majority of the network is abandoned and steadily falling into disrepair, the station at Tripoli looks set to be granted a new lease on life, thanks to a protocol signed last week by the Lebanese Railways and Transport Authority – part of the Public Works and Transport Ministry – and the Turkish Tourism Ministry’s Cultural Heritage and Museums department. The agreement would see the Turkish body fund and oversee a one-year project to renovate the station.
“When we forget our history we have no future,” said Elias Maalouf, co-founder of Lebanese NGO Train Train, which advocates for the rehabilitation of the country’s now-defunct rail network and the preservation of its heritage. “A lot of people don’t remember that we had a railway. ... If we had this in the past, why can’t we have this in the future?”
Ayse Kormaz, second secretary at the Turkish Embassy in Lebanon, said that the project was “just a beginning” for Turkey’s potential future investment in Lebanon’s cultural heritage. A possible restoration of Tripoli’s Ottoman-era al-Moallaq Mosque has also been touted.
Kormaz said that Turkey was undertaking 5,000 similar projects around the world that share a “common cultural heritage” with Turkey.
She dismissed any suggestions that Turkey was seeking to assert cultural ownership over the projects, saying instead that they focused on a heritage that was “owned by humanity.”
Neither Kormaz nor Ziad Nasr, head of the Railways and Transportation Authority, ruled out the idea that the station could once again be used as part of a revitalized rail network, although Kormaz emphasized that plans were initially focusing on turning the space into a museum or cultural center.
“Hopefully soon we will rehabilitate the line itself, but now we are restoring the building,” said Nasr, who said that there was a lack of public funding for comprehensive preservation of the various buildings and artifacts – such as locomotives – that made up the old network. He noted that the onus for funding such upkeep largely fell on the Culture Ministry.
“We have some projects to rehabilitate the railway sector,” he said.
“Until then we have some buildings in some places that have a certain significance or importance. It’s our priority to preserve them and restore them.”
Maalouf welcomed the Turkish Tourism Ministry’s spearheading of the Tripoli project, saying it “gives us an advantage as an NGO not to keep fighting with the railway [authority]. ... Let’s hope [Turkey] will continue guiding the railway authority.”
He noted disagreements with previous projects carried out on the railway network in the past. “I have this concern: are they restoring this railway to preserve it in an intelligent and cultural way, or are they restoring this building to use it for their project, to make money in a fast and corrupt way?” Maalouf said.
Maalouf criticized the usage of the Beirut train station as a bar. “If this renovation ends up like Beirut, with pubs and wedding venues [that are] ruining the heritage, of course we are against [it]. But if this [renovation] ends up having a train station that brings back the memory of a railway and could maybe become the catalyst for a future railway, of course, I’m for [it],” he said.
Nasr rejected accusations of wrongdoing by the railway authority, noting that no third party had put forward an initiative restore the Beirut station. “What we allow on our property is according to our bylaws,” he said. “We are an investing institution; we have the full right to allow certain usage of our property to generate some income.”