Lebanon’s abandoned Ottoman-era mansions

Lebanon abandoned house, James Kerwin

Abandoned house in an olive grove, James Kerwin

It’s not unusual for an intrepid foreign explorer to uncover hidden gems in Lebanon. Like Honduras artist Adrian Pepe who explores the design and craft in ancient textile making in Beirut. Now James Kerwin, an Englishman in Lebanon, shows us the scale and beauty of abandoned palaces, mansions, and houses in his photography series called Lebanon Falling. 

I’ve always experienced great joy slipping under a rusting gate in the Levante. Mansions and family homes stay standing, attesting to a more opulent time when conflict and Ikea were unknown to the region. When there was a train between Tel Aviv and Beirut and people’s homes were adorned with handmade crafts and designs from hand-poured cement tiles to hand-painted ceilings with ornate balconies and sheltered gardens.

Kerwin gives us a peek into this past as Lebanon’s traditional architecture lays abandoned and neglected calling out for a younger generation to repair the gaps. Unlike the Disney-like abandoned castles in Turkey, these homes are calling out for repair.

Kerwin says, “There is something about the Lebanese mansion. They are impossible to miss as the first thing which draws you in is the romantic exterior. Once I discovered a disused or abandoned house, it always filled me with excitement, as I never quite knew what was going to be inside. These homes were colorful, fascinating, and historic.”

He elaborates:

“The traditional house in the ottoman style could be hidden anywhere, and in many towns throughout Lebanon. this house typology first flourished in the 19th-century ottoman era and has a special relationship with nature — usually set in and around picturesque landscapes or towns.

“At first glance, such heritage buildings may look alike, but their individual personalities and unique traits can be discerned if one takes a closer look. 

Similar Ottoman era homes can be found in Israel in cities like Jaffa, Haifa and Lod. They were built in the early 19th century when Europeans were settling around the Middle East area. The Europeans settled in the eastern Mediterranean region for trade. This community was known as “Levantine,” which means “eastern Mediterranean” in French.

If you love abandoned buildings and you are in Lebanon some buildings worth checking out include an abandoned Holiday Inn. James Kerwin tells Green Prophet that entry is allowed with an army escort but that compared to the abandoned Ottoman palaces, there isn’t much to see. 

From Ottoman-era time in Lebanon 

While the Ottoman-era buildings leave a lot to the imagination it wasn’t an easy period for many people in Lebanon, especially if you didn’t conform or practiced the right religion.

Our friend, environmental artist, Pablo Solomon writes: 

“Seeing the Ottoman mansions in Lebanon was interesting. As you know my father’s family fled the Ottoman oppression and went to Mexico, only to have to flee the Revolutionaries and come to Texas.

“For my father and most of his family the first language was Arabic. On my mother’s side they had fled Germany in the 1850s due to religious oppression. They lived in close knit religious communities in Central Texas and only spoke German basically until the 1940s.

“One of the things my parents had in common was a love of freedom.”

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