SIDON, Lebanon: The historic Al-Qishla caravanserai in Sidon that stands in ruins is getting a new lease of life thanks to funding from the Italian government. Standing in the old Sidon souks, the three-story stone building that dates back to the 17th century is lined with arched cells and stables.
With the Italian funding, the abandoned site will be transformed into a heritage center hosting workshops, exhibitions and shops to attract local youth to traditional crafts.
Located close to Sidon’s old port, the site has had many uses, including as a large chickpea store, earning it the nickname “Al-Hummus.”
The caravanserai, between Dabaneh Palace – one of the last remaining Ottoman palaces in Lebanon – and Al-Kandajieh souk, also served as a barracks during Ottoman rule, reportedly between 1831 and 1839, while its third floor was added the year the Ottoman Empire broke apart, in 1918.
Later, it was used as a police station during the French mandate (1923-1943), before undergoing two final transformations after Lebanon gained independence – serving as both a prison and a residence for the displaced during the 1975-1990 Civil War – until it was abandoned over fears the crumbling building would collapse.
The building’s large inner courtyard is surrounded by high sandstone walls, composed of porticos and lined with dozens of arches that have now begun to shake off decades of dust, cement and plaster applied during the many renovations to repurpose the building over hundreds of years.
The renovation project is being implemented by the Council for Development and Reconstruction and managed by architect Mohammad al-Saudi.
The project will use the donated funds to rebuild and rehabilitate the building, converting it into a center dedicated to developing local heritage and craftsmanship skills, specifically targeting the area’s youth.
According to the project’s blueprint, the building will include spaces for workshops, exhibitions, shops and dormitories.
It will also house a lecture hall, a public library, a cafeteria and offices, while the old flat roof is set to become an outdoor space for lectures and exhibitions.
According to an agreement signed in 2000 between the Interior Ministry and Sidon Municipality that grants the municipality investment rights to the premises for 99 years, the finished building was initially meant to be handed over to the municipality in June 2018.
The project was inaugurated in 2016 and repair works are now in full swing on all three stories of the building, according to the contractor. However, as work continues and the scale of the project becomes clear, the laborers say the June deadline is unlikely to be met if they want to properly preserve the building’s architectural heritage.
An issue further complicating the reconstruction procedure is the damage sustained in a mudslide after a 1956 earthquake.
Columns will be inserted to support the weight of the stacked stories, but the building’s original roof and wooden bridges will be preserved.
Remnants of iron bars dating back to when the building was used as a prison have been found in the course of the renovations and will be partially preserved as well.
The major cause of the delay, however, was the discovery of previously hidden structural details, such as ancient embrasures that weren’t evident when the renovation project was being planned. To avoid modifying the building’s original design, the contractor adjusted the renovation plans to accommodate the findings.
Construction workers found it particularly challenging to operate on one south-facing section of the building, due to the collapse of a wall of an adjacent building that was damaged during an Israeli invasion.
But for now, the air inside the building is filled with dust as workmen strive to restore it to public use.