Monday, August 11, 2014

Ghosts of Lebanese Summers Past

The Sursocks at Sofar and the Making of Modern Lebanon
guest contribution by Chris Gratien and Graham Pitts


[1] Donna Maria Sursock Residence, 1909. Sofar, Lebanon. Photo by Chris Gratien, 2014.

[2] Photograph of Sofar, c. 1900. To the left is the
Sofar railway station, and to the right the Sofar
Grand Hotel. Source: discoverlebanon.com
Among the verdant hills overlooking the sprawl of Beirut sits a breezy mountain retreat, the vestige of a brief and former efflorescence. [Fig 1] Sofar, now a small town of a few thousand inhabitants on the Beirut-Damascus road, was once the premier summer getaway for the region’s elite. The rail line between Beirut and Damascus made Sofar an accessible destination for summer tourists looking to beat the heat and humidity of the Mediterranean lowlands. [Fig 2] As it did in so many other places at the time, rail transport suddenly allowed well-to-do city folk the opportunity of leisurely excursions into the countryside. [Figs 3 & 4] The longstanding practice of seasonal migration in the Mediterranean littoral was becoming established in a modern, fin de siècle iteration. The Sofar Grand Hotel (built in 1890), fully equipped with one of Lebanon's first casinos, had once been a meeting place for aristocrats, diplomats, businessmen and the political elite of the Ottoman Levant. Today, the hotel as well as a nearby villa owned by its original proprietors, the Sursock family, lie dormant. The two buildings' Beaux-Arts facades stand as a testament to the rapid rise of a bourgeois social class during the late Ottoman period that continued unimpeded into the French Mandate and beyond, playing a critical role in the making of modern Lebanon. Yet, when the Civil War moved into Mount Lebanon during the 1970s, the hotel and villa became sites of military occupation, bearing witness to decades of violence that tore down much of what had been built by over a century of capitalist activity.


[3] Visitors arriving at Ain Sofar station, c. 1909. Source: Atatürk Kitaplığı, İstanbul.


[4] Muleteer with suitcases in Sofar, c. 1909. Source: Atatürk Kitaplığı, İstanbul.


[5] Entrance to Sofar villa.
Photo by Chris Gratien, 2014.
The Sursock villa in Sofar, constructed in the early twentieth century by Alfred Sursock for his wife Donna Maria Theresa Serra di Cassano, the daughter of an Italian duke, is no longer in use, although the grounds are available for weddings and formal occasions. [Fig 5] The archway leading to the grounds, however, still bears original foundation inscriptions that proclaim the wealth of these merchants turned aristocrats, who, through lucrative business ventures, savvy political maneuvering, and strategic marriages, embarked on what Leila Fawaz has called “the most spectacular social climb in the nineteenth century.” [Fig 6] The entrance inscription records the names of three brothers, Alfred, Musa, and Dimitri, the heirs of Musa Sursock, a wealthy landowner who held lands stretching along the Mediterranean coast form Palestine in the south to Mersin and the Çukurova plain in Southern Anatolia. Though this Greek Orthodox family of dragomans and foreign proteges often adopted the style and manners of French and European aristocracy, the Arabic inscription bears neither cross nor family seal but in fact a star and crescent, one of the few visible traces of an Ottoman lineage to be found in this peaceful mountain town. On the reverse side of the entrance, we find two lines of classical Arabic poetry attributed to Abu'l-fath, a statesman from a line of viziers to the Buyid dynasty, reading: “People inhabited this world before us / They departed from it and left it to us / And we descended upon it just as they had descended / And we leave it to a people after us”. 


[6] From right to left: Exterior inscription of villa entrance / detail of gate interior / interior poetic inscription. Photos by Chris Gratien, 2014.

The means by which this Ottoman family came into possession of such palatial real estate were multiple. As a long line of tax farmers, the Sursocks were able to  mobilize their finances and capital using connections to American, Russian, German and French consuls over the decades to achieve economic and political connections. As Fawaz notes, their financial successes in Egypt illustrate “how successful entrepreneurs secured the support of local rulers as well as European protection” in the Ottoman Mediterranean. The Sursocks are also known for having held vast stretches of property, which they acquired at bargain prices with generous tax exemptions from the Ottoman government on account of the land being considered “vacant” or mevat areas of lowland swamps. Some of these properties would eventually be sold to become sites of early Zionist settlement in Palestine.

[7] Rear corner of Sofar villa. 
Photo by Chris Gratien, 2014.
Alfred Sursock had married Donna Maria while serving as a secretary in the Ottoman Embassy in Paris during the early twentieth century. He built the villa near the Sofar Grand Hotel owned by his uncle Ibrahim as a summer palace for the family in 1909. Its structure reflects a nineteenth-century interpretation of neo-Classical styles. Built in emulation of Italian villas, its numerous arches and cast cement elements are designed to exhibit an acquaintance with aristocratic tastes of the period. [Fig 7] In a time as rising commerce, the new elite of Ottoman port cities such as Salonica, Izmir, Beirut, and Alexandria built many such country getaways. Tucked away from the road and surrounded by a perimeter wall, the back of the villa commands a complete view of the Hammana Valley. During the year’s hottest months, Sofar became a base of operations for the Sursocks. There, politicians and foreign diplomats joined in the emerging fashion of bourgeois summer repose.   The villa continued to be used by the family until 1975, when the fighting rendered Sofar no longer safe for Beirut aristocrats.

Decades before the Lebanese Civil War, however, Sofar had also played an important role in another conflict: the First World War. Its strategic position and favorable summer climate made Sofar an important position for Ottoman military commanders and administrators. Enver Pasha and Cemal Pasha, along with German and Austrian military attaches, had been hosted at a spectacular ceremony in Sofar by Ali Munif Bey—the first Muslim governor of Mount Lebanon since 1861. At times, Cemal Pasha used Sofar as a base of operation during the war and a site for storing critical wheat supplies. Sofar and the Sursocks were therefore far removed from the misery and starvation occurring elsewhere in the mountain, where the conditions of the conflict had sliced the once prosperous region’s connections to critical imports of grain. The Sursocks thus maintained their level of comfort, and in fact prospered through their close ties to Cemal Pasha, who tasked them with handling the wheat imports to Mount Lebanon and Beirut. During the height of the famine, the Sursocks were able to find money to construct Qasr es-Snobar—the Pine Residence—a handsome mansion in the Beirut forest. It was here that, after the colonial government had acquired the residence, the French Mandate of Lebanon was declared in September 1920. [Fig 8]


[8] Proclamation of the French Mandate at Qasr es-Snobar, Sep 1920. Source: wikipedia.

Today, the Sursock villa in Sofar still bears all the marks of damage and looting that occurred during the Civil War. Shattered tiles and faded murals are all that remain of the once glorious interior of Donna Maria’s summer home. [Fig 9] Some of the Sursock properties in Beirut have been restored or transformed into museums. Alfred and Donna Maria’s daughter Lady Cochrane still resides in one of these homes, and as living matriarch of the Sursock family presides over numerous properties in downtown Beirut, in addition to various philanthropic activities supporting the arts and the restoration of Lebanon’s architectural heritage. She has set her sights on the villa in Sofar for restoration; while the exterior has been evidently cleaned up, the war’s impacts remain readily visible on the inside of the building.




[9] From left to right: detail of interior arch / villa interior / broken tiles of villa floor (photographs by Chris Gratien)

Although the Sursocks have shaped Lebanon’s history from the late Ottoman period to present, their names have seldom featured prominently in the historiography of the region. The financial families that prevailed in one of the most commercialized regions of the Ottoman Empire have been lost among the names of Ottoman officials, prominent clergy, and Arab politicians. As Jens Hanssen has shown, the Sursocks and other prominent families of Beirut played a quiet but important role in shaping the emergence of the province by lobbying to foreign and Ottoman officials and serving on the local governing councils. Indeed, the choice of Beirut as a provincial capital was in no small part the result of their entreaties to the Porte. For these reasons, the family papers of the Sursocks, which have recently been deposited at an emerging research center at Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik (USEK) in Jounieh, may be as critical as any state archives for understanding Lebanon’s transition from Ottoman province to French colony to nation-state. (Click here to listen to an interview with the staff at USEK)



CHRIS GRATIEN and GRAHAM PITTS are both Ph.D. candidates at Georgetown University.

FAWAZ, Leila Terazi. Merchants and Migrants in Nineteenth-Century Beirut. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1983.
HANSSEN, Jens. Fin de Siècle Beirut: The Making of an Ottoman Provincial Capital. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005.

Citation: "Ghosts of Lebanese Summers Past," Chris Gratien and Graham Pitts, Stambouline (August 11, 2014). http://www.stambouline.com/2014/08/ghosts-of-lebanese-summers-past.html