Beirut, now the capital of Lebanon, occupies an especially important position on the Mediterranean’s eastern coast: a major seaport and commercial centre in antiquity, it combined its access to the sea with its good connections with the inland area. In fact, the ancient road network provided it with quick access to the Syrian region, through the Beka’a Valley, as well as an easy connection to the area’s major coastal cities from southern Turkey to Egypt.
The Roman colonization of the “Syrian” coast immediately followed the battle of Actium and the conflict from which the Roman Empire was born. Strategically important for controlling an area of the Mediterranean characterized by a great historical and commercial tradition, the establishment of Roman colonies in the main coastal and inland centres of Syria also provided an outlet for the army’s excessive density by rewarding troops loyal to the emperor with land in recently occupied regions.
Although still controversial, the foundation of the Colonia Iulia Augusta Felix Berytus should date back to Rome’s first imperial period. From 22 to 19 B.C., Octavian Augustus travelled through the eastern provinces, establishing Vespasian Agrippa in Beirut as governor. It is believed that Agrippa stationed two legions to Beirut, assigning them part of the territory of the Beka’a Valley. Thanks to Augustus, the city enjoyed Roman rights and important privileges such as the ius Italicum (ca. 15 B.C.), which exempted citizens from paying taxes.
During the second half of the 19th century Beirut underwent major transformations, especially thanks to the development of commerce and to the strengthening of its ties with Europe, and soon became one of the most important centres of the Ottoman Empire.
Under the rule of Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909), in 1888 Beirut rose to the rank of district capital: for the first time since the Roman Empire, the city once again became the main seaport of the eastern Mediterranean, enjoying the reputation of “showcase” of the Ottoman Empire, certainly not undeserved if Kaiser Wilhelm II, visiting in 1898, defined it the “crown jewel of the Padishah”.
The position assumed by the city of Beirut thus resulted in a programme of architectural and infrastructural renewal: government buildings, public hospitals, development of the communications network (railway stations, seaport infrastructures and postal service), monuments celebrating the Sultan’s glory, public schools, irrigation and drinking water canals and the introduction of gas lighting and the tram line all contributed to the modernisation of Beirut.
The urbanistic works also entailed the construction of a network of roads connecting the city centre to the harbour. Over the course of just a decade (from 1894 to 1903), an intense modernisation of the urban and extra-urban road network took place (the inauguration of the Beirut-Damascus railway line dates back to August 3, 1895). In addition to the creation of new roads and the regularization of old ones, existing roads were rebuilt, paved and maintained, attesting to the Ottoman administration’s firm commitment to modernization.
The last, decisive urbanistic transformation, dating back to the French mandate and which radically redefined the appearance of the city’s historical quarters, imposing a western layout that, although possessing a charm of its own, radically altered the spirit of the eastern metropolis, thus took place in the context of a carefully planned urban fabric.