Reconstruction of the Sursock Palace in Beirut
“We are going to restore the palace as it was before, we must,” says Roderick Sursock Cochrane in the guesthouse located on the grounds of the Sursock Palace, his family home in Beirut.
He has lived there with his wife, Mary, and daughter, Ariana, since the devastating explosion at the port in August 2020.
In addition to razing parts of eastern Beirut, the force of the explosion shattered almost all the windows and doors of the three-story palace. Delicate plasters were torn from the ceilings and statues lost their heads. When the roof was blown off, the old books in the library were left on display.
Sursock Cochrane’s mother, Lady Yvonne Cochrane, 98, who had fought for a long time to preserve Beirut’s heritage, was in the palace on the day of the explosion and was seriously injured. She died a month later, one of more than 200 victims who lost their lives.
The Lebanese aristocrat had been married to Desmond Cochrane, an Anglo-Irish baron who inherited the Woodbrook estate in Wicklow and died in 1979. Lady Cochrane however lived in Sursock Palace all her life, including during the Civil War which raged in Lebanon from 1975. -1990.
“It’s amazing how dedicated she was to safeguarding Lebanon’s heritage,” says Nabil Saidi, a friend of the Sursock family.
“Whenever I saw her, she was always campaigning and talking about houses to save.”
After acquiring a house on North Great George’s Street in Dublin, Saidi became a member of the Irish Georgian Society and organized a trip to Lebanon and Syria for the society in 1999 (before the war in Syria made such a thing impossible).
While the tour was in Lebanon, Lady Cochrane gave a talk on the preservation of heritage houses in Lebanon and hosted a dinner for the group of visitors on the palace terrace which included Lebanese politicians and prominent figures from society, including Dory Chamoun, son of Lebanese President Camille. Chamoun.
Chamoun’s younger brother, Dany, had been assassinated a few years earlier at the end of the civil war and Saïdi recalls a touching moment at the dinner where one of the Irish visitors sang Danny Boy. Chamoun, then a prominent politician in Lebanon himself, invited the group to visit his family’s residence in the Chouf mountains.
The Sursocks were originally traders from the Ottoman Empire. Their influence is evoked by the frequent appearance of their name on the buildings around Ashrafieh, the wealthy district occupied by the palace. The address is indeed rue Sursock.
Sursock Cochrane’s great-grandparents, Anastasia and Moussa Sursock, built the residence in 1860 with the help of the Balyans, a family of Turkish-Armenian architects who worked for the Ottoman sultans.
A large landscaped garden surrounds the palace – a rarity in a part of Beirut where any open space is vulnerable to the construction of a building.
The first and second floors of the building have central lounges surrounded by marble arches. The lower salon was more protected from the force of the harbor blast than the upper salon, requiring extensive restoration of the ceiling and supporting structures.
Several living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms and a library were divided into various apartments when the palace housed more Sursocks.
“Moussa had a lot of kids,” says Mary Sursock Cochrane, “and everyone wanted their own bedroom and living room.
When Lady Cochrane was younger and the house was full of various aunts, they had an open table for lunch.
“Every diplomat or anyone of any importance visiting Beirut would come to visit my great-aunts, my grandmother or my mother’s first cousin, Linda Sursock,” explains Richard Sursock Cochrane.
Despite the many children of her grandfather, Lady Cochrane became the sole heir to the palace.
“My aunt Isabelle has decided to buy back all her siblings and give her share [of the palace] to my mother, so she inherited everything, ”he says.
Lady Cochrane’s father Alfred was an art collector with a strong taste for 16th and 17th century Italian paintings and making a statement. In 1915, he commissioned a new door for the palace from Gebran Dimitri Tarazi, a member of a family of craftsmen from Beirut who furnished the homes of elites in the Middle East.
Inspired by French archaeologist Émile Prisse d’Avennes and his research on ancient Egypt, Gebran designed a unique double-leaf brass door for the palace that mixed Egyptian, Damascene, Islamic and Turkish styles.
One side of the door was richly decorated with floral motifs and Arabic calligraphy proverbs, while the other side was left unadorned.
“The decorative side faced the outside but was reversed during the [civil] war to protect it, ”says Sursock Cochrane.
When Gebran’s great-grandnephew Camille Tarazi visited the palace after the port explosion, he discovered that the door leaves, each weighing 150 kg, had been broken into many pieces by force. of the explosion. Thanks to funding from a group in France and Maizon Tarazi, the family business Tarazi, the door was repaired and reinstalled before the summer.
The damage to the palace’s furniture collection was assessed by a representative from Mobilier National, the French Furniture Institute, who visited Beirut earlier this year. Of particular historical importance are the Flemish tapestries from the 15th and 16th centuries collected by Alfred, as well as several French armchairs from Aubusson.
Two priceless works of art by Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few female artists of the Baroque period, were partly torn apart by the explosion and are being restored in Italy.
In the aftermath of the port explosion, “everyone came to us,” says Mary Sursock Cochrane, “every embassy, every NGO”. So far, only a few organizations have committed to funding the significant conservation work required.
“In a way, it was like we had peepers coming just to take a look. There was probably an intention to help but no funds, ”she says.
The year before the port explosion had already put considerable pressure on the resources available to maintain the palace and its contents.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, hyperinflation and a banking sector on the brink of collapse were already ravaging the Lebanese economy. The pandemic has resulted in the cancellation of private events normally held at the palace, while the economic crisis has reduced income from the family’s rental properties in Beirut.
Since the restoration project will cost millions, the family decided to convert the palace into a private museum. It will remain a family home but will also serve as a cultural center, hosting exhibitions and group visits.
RestArt Beirut is helping transform the palace into a private museum and a classical concert was held at the palace earlier this year to raise funds.
“The palace is very prestigious but there are a lot of responsibilities attached to it,” says Sursock Cochrane. “I feel like the keeper of the family or the curator maybe.”