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The History of Tripoli
  • A City with heritage
    The Phoenicians are generally attributed with the founding of the coastal city of Tripoli in the eighth century BC.

    The city was a centre of the confederation of Phoenician city-states, together with cities like Byblos (Jbeil), Sidon (Saida) and Tyre (Sour) to the south and Aradus (Arwad) and Ugarit to the north. (NB: Antioch was not a Phoenician city). Ancient Tripoli was comprised of three distinct districts hence its name, which means "triple city" in Greek.

    Located in northern Lebanon, 85 km from Beirut, the city grew rich on maritime trade.

    Its port, today in the Al-Mina neighbourhood, was a conduit for trade between the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe as well as a loading point for caravans bound for northern Syria and the hinterlands.

    Following the city’s conquest by Alexander the Great, the port of Tripoli became the shipbuilding centre of his imperial army.

    The city fell under Roman control in 64BC. For Rome, Tripoli was of strategic importance thanks to its position midway along the Imperial coastal road that ran from Antioch to Acre. During this period, the city retained the same administrative configuration it had under the Phoenicians, comprised of three independent districts.

    Acceleration of Tripoli's Economic Dynamism:
    Tripoli was destroyed by an earthquake in 450AD. After the Arab defeat of the Byzantines at the Battle of Yarmuk in 636AD, the coastal cities of Lebanon fell under the authority of the Umayyad caliphate. Tripoli prospered, culturally as well as economically.

    Following the capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in 1099AD, much of Lebanon found itself annexed to the Frankish states of the East. In 1109AD, following a ten-year siege, Tripoli was taken by the Crusader Raymond de Saint Gilles, Count of Toulouse. The conquest resulted in a great deal of destruction, including that of the city’s famous library, the Dar Al 'Ilm and its thousands of books. The Franks built a number of structures, including a fortress on a hill overlooking the Abu Ali River, known as the Château de Saint-Gilles (Qal'at Sanjil) and the Tower of the Lions (Borj el-Sba'), a massive fortified tower by the harbour.

    The Medina, or Old City of Tripoli, which extends beneath the citadel, began to develop in 1289AD, following the eviction of the Crusaders by the Mamluk forces. A tight tangle of alleyways and dead-ends, the medina was specifically designed to thwart military invasion. From here on, the Old City was to develop separately from the port area of Al-Mina.

    Until the nineteenth century, life in Tripoli revolved around the Great Mosque. The Ottomans, who defeated the Mamluks in 1516AD, exerted their control over the city by reinforcing the citadel. The souks were left untouched and continued to play their traditional role, even though little was done to renovate their architecture or infrastructure.
  • The modern city - the turn of the 19th century
    In 1881, Tripoli counted about 20,000 inhabitants. In 1909, a road link was built for the first time between Beirut and Tripoli, followed in 1911 by a rail link between Tripoli and Aleppo. In 1941, the French Mandate authorities completed this axis with the opening of a new section linking the three cities together.

    Beirut began to supplant Tripoli in 1860, following the arrival of an expeditionary force of mostly French soldiers, who came to intervene in a series of bloody peasant revolts. Afterwards, Ottoman authorities were persuaded to grant the Mount Lebanon region almost complete administrative and fiscal autonomy.

    This new system, known as the Mutasarrifiyya, provided financial incentives that encouraged European investment in Mount Lebanon, mostly in the region’s silk industry.

    This administrative and economic reconfiguration placed much greater importance on Beirut, which found itself increasingly expected to emerge as the new political centre of the region. Decades later, the decision by 20th Century French Mandate authorities to make Beirut the capital of the new country, further endorsed the erosion of Tripoli’s position.

    Mandate Decisions
    In Tripoli, the Mandate administration chose to established its headquarters on the Place du Tell - the face of the new, modern city - rather than in souks of the Old City, which was now deemed obsolete.

    Wealthy families abandoned the Old City to settle in new airy neighbourhoods full of large, comfortable homes. They were replaced by Tripoli’s poorest, mostly peasants fleeing rural poverty, who moved into the Old City and settled the district of Bab Tebbané. Within a few years, Tripoli doubled in size, growing from 41,474 inhabitants in 1932 to some 80,000 by 1943.

    In 1929, Tripoli began to receive electricity from the hydroelectric power plant in Qadisha. In 1932, the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) opened a terminal in Beddawi and in 1949, relocated its headquarters from Haifa to Tripoli shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel.

    In 1954, a quay was added to the port in Al-Mina and a deepwater access channel was completed in 1961. But the development of Tripoli’s port of is hampered by the emergence in Syria of the ports of Lattakia and Baniyas, built to meet the demands of Damascus after the establishment of customs barriers between the new states of Lebanon and Syria.

    On December 17, 1955, the Abu Ali River overflows wreaking havoc across the city. Over 2000 people are left homeless and 160 Tripolitans are killed. The disaster further accelerated the flight of the Middle classes from the historic city centre to new neighbourhoods further from the river. This is how neighbourhoods like Azmi, which was built in the 1960’s and 70’s, extending from west of the Place du Tell towards the port, come into existence. Favouring luxury housing, Azmi soon develops into an alternative commercial area.

    Stripped of both inhabitants and purpose, the historic centre falls further out of favour. It becomes increasingly disadvantaged and deprived. During the 1960’s, it is rocked by demonstrations. One social protest movement in particular becomes prominent The Dawlat al-Matlubin (The Protesters’ State), led by Ali Akawi, repeatedly denounces the city’s rising poverty from its base in Bab Tébbané.
  • Tripoli seeks its future
    The de-industrialization of the city can be traced back to the 1970’s, when factories in the Bahsas district began to close. Other local industries, such as the railways and the oil refinery - which was bombed in 1983 - are forced to a halt by the Civil War.

    But war is not the only factor involved. Decisions taken by the country’s authorities often prove counterproductive. Thus, the Rashid Karameh International Fair, designed in the 1960's by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, has only ever functioned sporadically. Its construction was meant to redynamise Tripoli by providing the city with a means for development commensurate to its socio-political problems, which had been thrown into stark relief during Lebanon’s brief bout of civil unrest in 1958 when Tripoli overwhelmingly sided with the pro-Nasser insurgency. In the minds of its founders, the 700,000 m2 International Fair would allow Tripoli to compete with and perhaps even replace the two major regional fairs that then existed in the region; Damascus and Baghdad. But the dream of an international fair did not last long and before long, the Lebanese state stopped pursuing the project.

    The War Accentuates Divisions:
    Lebanon’s war intensified the cleavages between the various political forces in Tripoli and the rest of the country, whether this was over the Palestinian cause, Arab Nationalism, Islamism or Syrian meddling in the country.

    The neighbourhoods of Tebbané and Baal (or Jabal) Mohsen become visible symbols of the city’s pain. Originally, they had been one neighbourhood, known for being an attractive trading centre, popular with both tradespeople and small-scale workers.

    The civil war split the neighbourhood along sectarian lines. On one side there was Bab Tebbané with its Sunni population and on the other, Baal Mohsen, which was predominantly Alawite. In 1986, clashes lead to a massacre. Tensions simmer and in 2008, further clashes leave dozens more dead. Bab Tebbané looses a third of its inhabitants and becomes a neighbourhood closed in upon itself.

    Meanwhile, the Islamic Unification Movement (Tawhid), an Islamist organization founded in the early 1980’s by Sheikh Said Shaban, is growing in strength. From 1981 to 1986, the movement expanded its influence across the city from Abu Samra to Bab Qobbé and Bab Tebbané. Heavy fighting between the movement and opposing pro-Syrian forces, lead to the Syrian occupation of the city in 1986.

    The clashes had a dramatic impact on the social and multi-sectarian make-up of the city. Where different communities had once been content to live along side one another, now each sought its own space: Maronite Christians flee the city and take refuge in Zgharta, Orthodox Christians hole up in Al-Mina and Zahriet and the Alawite minority turn Jabal Mohsen into their bastion.

    The scars of civil war have not healed in Tripoli and today’s socio-economic situation only serves to further aggravate them. Despite this, the city remains appealing and its population is growing at a rapid pace. The region is still the exit point for many manufacturing exports and is known for its cadre of craftsmen, whether soap-makers or copper-workers. Today, the coastal city of Tripoli is home to around 320,000 inhabitants. The Municipal Federation of al-Fahyaa, which groups the three neighbouring municipalities of Tripoli, Al-Mina and Al-Bedawwi - and to which we should also add the town of Qalamoun - accounts for nearly two-thirds of the population of Northern Lebanon, or about 364 000 inhabitants as of 2010.