Just after Deir el Qamar and overlooking a terraced hill appears the palace of Beit Eddine. A delightful example of early 19th Century oriental architecture, the palace was built by Emir Bechir el Chehabi II (1788 -1840) who was for over fifty years not only the most independent and self-willed of sovereigns but whose reign was equally characterized by both justice and prosperity. Under his rule there was a boom in public works; roads were laid down or enlarged while new bridges were built and others repaired. His most spectacular achievement, however, remains the aqueduct of the Safa, a spring whose waters are regularly swollen by the melting snows. This 14-kilometer aqueduct was designed to ensure a water supply for the new capital, Beit Eddine, and for its construction Emir Bechir drafted his highlanders, each one being obliged to provide two day's unpaid labor. The resulting eighty thousand working days enabled the project to be completed in two years without putting undue strain on the Treasury.
From the Middle Ages on, the Lebanon was divided up into fiefs governed by Emirs or by hereditary Cheikhs. In the early years of the 17th Century, the Emir Fakhred-Dine II Maan (1572 - 1634) extended his power throughout these princedoms thus coming to rule an area corresponding to the present-day Lebanon. He transferred his capital from Baaqline to Deir El Qamar, but also had his seat of government in Sidon and Beirut, particularly after the Sultan extended his power from the north of Syria to central Palestine.
At the end of the 17th Century, the Maan dynasty died out and their lands were inherited by the Chehab family, Emirs of Waditaim. Following the usual customs which at the time served as the basis for government in the Lebanon, the feudal lords recognized the Chehabs and the Sultan accorded their investiture. Their palaces were situated around the central square of Deir el Qamar throughout the 18th Century.
At the end of the 18th Century, Emir Youssef found himself in difficulties with the Sultan's representatives, the neighboring pachas. He preferred to retire, and abdicated in favor of Emir Bechir II since his own children were not yet of age.
Due to family disagreements, the positioning of the palaces at Deir el Qamar, and the extension of his power, Emir Bechir II decided to construct his own palace at Beit Eddine some five kilometers from Deir el Qamar.
Ideally situated on a massive rocky spur overlooking picturesque valleys, the new palace was to extend over nearly three hundred meters in length in order to match the increasing power of the Emir and the glory of his reign.
Following the traditional style, its external appearance has the stark simplicity of a fortress and indeed it dominates the road that crosses the hills and the valley linking Deir el Qamar to Beit Eddine. Terrace gardens surrounded the palace while more gardens planted with cypress and other trees decorated the interior park and encircled the various buildings.
Begun at the end of the 18th Century, the completed palace remained the Emir's residence until the day of his exile in 1840.
After the suppression of the Emirate in 1842, the palace continued for some time to be the possession of his heirs until in 1861 it was purchased by the State to become the residence of the Mutasarrif government up until 1914.
The original access route for horses and pedestrians, being no longer suited as the means of locomotion available at the end of the 19th Century, the Mutasarrifs let it fall into disuse and built a new road following the hillside. As a result the palace lost something of the dominant position for which it had been designed, and henceforth the present access road winds round and round the palace to provide a truly panoramic view.
After the 1914 war, the palace was used for local administration but in 1930 it was declared a Historic Monument and the" Direction des Antiquités" energetically undertook the work of restoration. In 1943, Cheikh Bechara El Khoury, the President of the Republic, decided to make it his symbolic summer residence and brought back in pomp and ceremony from Constantinople the remains of the Emir Bechir who had died there in 1850.
The restoration work thereby received a new impulse, since it was continued by both the executive and parliamentary authorities.
After the restoration had been carried out, the palace once again took on its former rhythm of life in the three main sections:
Dar el Baranié
This part of the palace, composed of a vaulted zig-zag passage with rooms on both side for the entry guards, was open to all comers.
The passage opens out onto a 60-meter courtyard where the people would meet for various gatherings such as dancing, contests and other festivities. From here, too, the Emir would leave with his retinue in solemn procession either for war or for the hunting.
Along one side of this court rises a two-story building designed for receiving guests. It was then the custom in Lebanon that anyone of rank should keep his house open for any passer-by. The administrators of this lodging did not have the right to ask any visitor his identity or the purpose of his journey before the end of the third day of his stay.
The restored upper floor of this building has been transformed into a museum illustrating the daily life of the epoch, and particularly that of the palace.
Engravings, models, weapons, documents and jewels can be seen here, dating from the beginning of the 17th Century up until the First World War.
Other exhibition rooms are under preparation on the ground floor. The entry to this block is from the middle of the courtyard wing.
Dar el Wousta
This and the remaining part of the palace are built over vast rooms with handsome vaulting that give onto the courtyard called Dar el Kheil, the stables, which used to accommodate five hundred horses and their riders, and the six hundred foot-soldiers of the Emir's guard.
This middle lodging above the stables is reached by a huge double flight of stairs and an entrance decorated with multicolored marble and an inscription of welcome.
The entrance door gives onto a vaulted passage that opens out into a delightful courtyard whose sparkling fountains add their charm to the elegant arcades on the three sides of the court.
Following a tradition dear of Lebanese architecture, the fourth side of the court remains completely open in order to provide full enjoyment of the beauty of the countryside.
The apartments on either side of the entrance door and on one side of the court served as offices and reception rooms for the Emir's minister, his secretaries, and the members of his court.
Opposite the entrance are the private quarters, Dar el Harem.
Dar el Harem
The Dar el Harim apartments consist of a ground floor and a smaller first floor.
At one of the corners of the ground floor is the main reception room, with the other rooms on all four sides of a courtyard where the music of fountains adds a lively note.
An elegant arcade leads to a terrace with a view embracing the whole valley and reaching far down to the sea.
The harem was prolonged by a complex of rooms and arcades that must have been a hive of activity where the servants prepared the daily meals for more than five hundred people.
The food was taken from these kitchens to the reception and living rooms to be placed on trays set before the divans and sofas of the notables and their visitors.
Other important part of Dar el Harem are the numerous bathrooms, each under its small dome and lit by multicolored ventilation windows.
Following a tradition dating back to Roman times, the paving-stones of these baths were supported on brick pillars and vaults with heated air passing underneath, so that one could choose rooms with a temperature varying from cold through warm to very hot.
The main reception room was used - before or after the bath - as a place for conversation where one could discuss literature or politics or simply listen to the stories told.
When the winter was particularly hard in these mountain regions, it became impossible to live on the ground floor. For this reason, a complete first floor was built above the kitchens along the sides of an interior court covered by a finely-carved and brightly-colored paneled ceiling.
The Emir would smoke his long pipe or his narghile on a raised platform in one corner of this covered court, surrounded by his relatives and closest friends. Later generations believed that it was from here that he gave justice or ''Mahkamé'' on account of the height of the dais. In fact, the Emir being the first and last resort in matters of law, he meted out justice wherever he might be.
The Dar el Harem building overlooks the middle court. Its facade is the richest in the palace both for the beauty of its arcades, the delicacy of its sculptures, the harmony of its colors and the carving of its marble and alcoves.
A large and very richly decorated entry-door gives access to both the reception room and to Dar el Harim. In this highly-decorated reception room the Emir would hold court and carry out the business of his Emirate. This room is on two levels, the first having a fine mosaic floor and the walls covered with marble, sculptures and inscriptions. One of these inscriptions retains the attention by the wisdom it contains:
''The homage of a governor towards god is to observe justice, for an hour of justice is worth more than a thousand months of prayer."
And indeed , however severe he may have been, the Emir was renowned for his justice.
Usually the Emir would be seated at the end of one of the divans set along the series of windows, but for great events he would place himself in the great bay window opposite the main entrance, from which one can see the whole countryside. Thus the Emir would be separated from his court and his visitors without, however, being seated on a throne, in keeping with the spirit of democracy of the orient.
The Other Palaces
The Emir had three sons by his first wife Sitt Shams, who was also a Chehab but from the elder branch of the family. She died in 1818 and was buried in a domed sepulcher surrounded by cypress trees in a corner of the gardens. When the ashes of the Emir were brought back from Constantinople, they were placed in the same sepulcher.
Shortly after the death of Sitt Shams, Emir Bechir aimed to consolidate as much power as possible in his own hands and so wished to avoid giving importance to any other branch of his family by contracting a second marriage with one of his cousins. Consequently, he had four Circassian women sent from Constantinople and married one of them, who bore him two daughters. For this reason, there were three other palaces and a country residence called "El Maqsaf", in addition to the great palace of Beit Eddine.
The eldest son, Emir Qacem, who was responsible for the Bekaa, built himself a palace on a nearby promontory parallel to the great palace. All that remains of this palace are the stables, which will be restored when the Direction Generale des Antiquites has completed the purchase of neighboring properties in order to create an open-air museum.
The second palace was for the younger son, Emir Khalil, who was usually in charge of military operations. This was constructed on the side of the promontory on which the great palace stands. At the end of the 19th Century, the Mutasarrif eya government completed its demolition and transformed it into a public building now employed as the seat of regional government.
The third palace stands on the heights above the village of Beit Eddine. This belonged to the youngest son, Emir Amine, who was responsible for delicate political missions and who would replace his father during any of his absences. This palace was in rather poor condition when the National Council of Tourism first took an interest in it, with the aim of creating a first-class luxury hotel. The completed hotel has twenty-four rooms, seven with private lounges; most of the rooms are on the first floor and open onto private terraces and hanging garden. With the agreement and technical collaboration of the Direction des Antiquites, the National Council of Tourism undertook the restoration work and has thus given new life to a whole architectural complex that forms the finest and most elegant of all the palaces of Beit Eddine.
A stone throw from this palace is the arch bishopric that was formerly Emir Bechir's country house. There are still some remains of the original building, the most interesting being a beautiful stone doorway onto a roof shaped like a Chinese pagoda. This elegant doorway is reached by a high circular staircase whose steps make it stand out vividly from the surrounding countryside.
Lamartine, who was the Emir's guest, gave the following description of the palace:
" Magnificently dressed black slaves armed with silver-plated pistols and glittering finely-chased gold Damascus sabres stood on either side of a door carved in woods of various colors with marble all around and Arabic inscriptions above. The vast courtyards facing the palace swarmed with a host of servants, courtiers, priests and soldiers wearing all the variety of picturesque costumes characteristic of the five peoples of the Lebanon... Five or six hundred Arab steeds were ... saddled and bridled, covered in brilliant drapery of every hue..."
ON THE WAY BACK
To get the most out of this tour, you should return by the inland route that passes through Barouk and rejoins the main Beirut-Damascus road at Mdeirij just above the summer resort of Sofar.
After leaving Beit Eddine, you can admire the cedars of Barouk which form an ever-expanding forest with trees of all ages. The road then winds across colorful hills covered with pine trees to arrive at Ain Zhalta, a summer resort greatly appreciated by those in search of peace and tranquility. Further on, down the road, one can see the spring of Nab'es Safa, the stream that provides the water supply of Beit Eddine. All this region is famous for its fruit, particularly its apples, peaches and cherries.
Between Nab'es Safa and Mdeirij, the road passes through two of the most beautiful valleys in Lebanon. In Mdeirej you can either go left to return to Beirut, or turn right to reach the Bakaa valley, Baalbeck and Damascus.Lebanese Ministry of Tourism
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