You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
(above) Beiteddine Palace seen from a commanding position on the road to Emir Amin Palace; (below) Al-Midan (The Square) the first very large courtyard of the Palace
March 19th, 1812 - I rode through El Kammar without stopping and proceeded to the village of Beteddein where the Emir Beshir Chehab is building a new palace. (..) Beteddein which in Syriac means the two teats has received its name from the similarity of two neighbouring hills upon one of which the village is built. Almost all the villages in this neighbourhood have Syriac names. The Emir Beshir to whom I had letters of recommendation from Mr Barker at Aleppo received me very politely and insisted upon my living at his house.
Johann Ludwig Burckhardt - Travels in Syria and the Holy Land - 1822.
At the bottom of this immense valley the hill of Beiteddine, on which the emir's palace is erected, took root and arose like an enormous tower flanked with rocks covered with ivy and shoots of waving verdure hanging from their fissures and indentations. This hill rose to a level with the precipice on which we ourselves were suspended, a narrow and groaning abyss separated us from it. On its summit the Moorish palace of the emir stretched majestically over all the table land of Beiteddine with its square towers and battlements. (..) The large court which faced the palace was filled with a crowd of servants, courtiers, priests and soldiers in all the varied picturesque costumes which distinguish the populations of Lebanon.
Alphonse de Lamartine - Travels in the East - English edition by William and Robert Chambers - 1839.
In 1832, twenty years after Burckhardt, French poet Alphonse de Lamartine visited Emir Beshir at Beiteddine; the account of his stay there is fascinating, but it is more of a literary work imbued with the Orientalism which developed in France after the 1830 conquest of Algiers, than a fully reliable depiction of sites and events.
(left) Entrance to the palace; (right) relief with a lion tied with a chain, the heraldic symbol of the Chehab; the portal is very similar to that of Chehab Seray at Deir al-Qamar
His new palace is a very costly edifice but at the present rate of its progress five more years will be required to finish it. The Emir Beshir is at present master of the whole mountain from Belad Akkar (a district to the north of Tripoli) down to near Acre including the valley of Bekaa and part of the Anti Libanus or Djebel Essheikh. (..) The power of the Emir however is a mere shadow, the real government being in the hands of the Druse chief Sheikh Beshir Djonbelat. Burckhardt
When Burckhardt visited Beiteddine, Emir Beshir II Chehab (or Shihab) was in the process of completing a sort of royal palace on a hill opposite his usual residence at Deir al-Qamar. The decision to start this costly undertaking is somewhat surprising because the real power and the financial situation of the Emir were rather shaky.
Former stables and barracks along one side of Al-Midan
Five or six hundred Arab horses were attached by the feet and head to cords which stretched across the courts saddled, bridled and covered with shining cloths of all colours; several groups of camels were lying, standing or bent on the knee to receive or discharge their loads. Lamartine
The Emir keeps about fifty horses of which a dozen are of prime quality; his only amusement is sporting with the hawk and the pointer. (..) I shall here briefly explain the political state of the mountain. It is now about one hundred and twenty years since the government of the mountain has been always entrusted by the Pashas of Acre and Tripoli to an individual of the family of Shehab to which the Emir Beshir belongs. This family derives its origin from Mekka where its name is known in the history of Mohammed and the first Califes; they are Mussulmans and some of them pretend even to be Sherifs. About the time of the crusades for I have been unable to ascertain the exact period, the Shehabs left the Hedjaz and settled in a village of the Haouran to which they gave their family name; it is still known by the appellation of Shohba and is remarkable for its antiquities. (..) The family being noble or of Emir origin were considered proper persons to be governors of the mountain. (..) The Djonbelat draw their origin from the Druse mountain of Djebel Aala between Ladakie and Aleppo; they are an old and noble family and in the seventeenth century one of their ancestors was Pasha of Aleppo; it forms at present the richest and most numerous family and the strongest party in the mountain. (..) Their chief El Sheikh Beshir is the richest and the shrewdest man in the mountain; besides his personal property which is very considerable, no affair of consequence is concluded without his interest being courted and dearly paid for. Burckhardt
The Jumblatt are still the leading family of the Druzes. Beiteddine Palace was restored and refurbished by Walid Jumblatt in the 1980s and it houses a small museum of exhibits about Kamal Jumblatt, Walid's father and political leader of the Druzes, who was assassinated in 1977.
Passage to the main court
We proceeded to the (..) gate guarded by Arabs armed with muskets and long slight blades similar to the stalks of long reeds. Lamartine
The Emir Beshir can do nothing important without the consent of the Sheikh Beshir with whom he is obliged to share all the contributions which he extorts from the mountaineers. (..) The Druses form the richest portion of the population, but they supply little to the public contributions being protected by the Sheikh Beshir. It will be asked perhaps why the Sheikh does not set aside the Emir Beshir and take the ostensible power into his own hands. Many persons believe that he entertains some such design, while others better informed perhaps assert that the Sheikh will never make the attempt because he knows that the mountaineers would never submit to a Druse chief. The Druses are certainly in a better condition at present than they would be under the absolute sway of the Sheikh who would soon begin to oppress instead of protecting them as he now does; and the Christians who are a warlike people detest the name of Druse too much ever to yield quietly to a chief of that community. It is probably in the view of attaching the Christians more closely to him and to oppose them in some measure to the Druses that the Emir Beshir with his whole family has secretly embraced the christian religion. The Shehab as I have already mentioned were formerly members of the true Mussulman faith and they never have had among them any followers of the doctrines of the Druses. They still affect publicly to observe the Mohammedan rites; they profess to fast during the Ramadhan and the Pashas still treat them as Turks, but it is no longer matter of doubt that the greater part of the Shehab with the Emir Beshir at their head have really embraced Christianity. Burckhardt
Dar El Wousta (The Middle One), the main court
The building consists of a large quadrangle on one side of which are the Emir's apartments and his harem with a private courtyard; two other sides contain small apartments for his people. Burckhardt
Some parts of the palace are still being referred to as Lower or Upper Harem. Emir Beshir however did not have a proper harem.
The palace is said to have been designed by Italian architects, although no specific name is provided. Their hand can be noticed in the loggias of the two courtyards. The overall design however, and it could not have been otherwise, follows the pattern of Topkapi Sarayi, the palace of the Ottoman Sultan at Constantinople. Al-Midan corresponds to the first courtyard of Topkapi where the Janissaries had their barracks and Dar El Wousta to the second courtyard where the government offices and the entrance to the Sultan's private apartments were located.
Hall of the Fountain (left) and terrace overlooking the gardens
The fourth side is open towards the valley and Deir el Kammar commanding a distant view of the sea. In the neighbouring mountain is a spring the waters from which have been conducted into the quadrangle, but the Emir wishes to have a more abundant supply of water and intends to bring a branch of the Nahr el Kadhi (aka Damour River) thither; for this purpose the water must be diverted from the main stream at a distance of three hours and the expense of the canal is calculated at three thousand pounds sterling. Burckhardt
In order to achieve his objective and to reduce its cost Emir Beshir imposed days of forced labour on his subjects. With some exaggeration Beiteddine Palace is labelled Lebanon's Alhambra by some travel agencies, perhaps because Lamartine described it as a Moorish palace .
Hall of the Fountain
This hall is detached from the main building and it is unlikely it was used as a salamlik (reception hall) by Emir Beshir. It is said it was used as office and for receiving guests by Boutros Karami, Beshir's minister and friend. The palace was spoiled of almost all of its furniture during the War of the Mountain (September 1983-February 1984), a phase of the Lebanese Civil War.
Burckhardt visited Emir Beshir at Beiteddine because it was advisable for a foreigner to have the backing of the local rulers in addition to possessing a firman, a decree of the Ottoman authorities allowing him to travel. Burckhardt was also curious of learning more about the Druzes and their mysterious religion.
I shall now subjoin such few notes on the Druses as I was able to collect during my short stay in the mountain. I believe them to be authentic because I was very careful in selecting my authorities. With respect to the true religion of the Druses none but a learned Druse can satisfy the enquirer's curiosity. (..) Their religious opinions will remain for ever a secret unless revealed by a Druse. (..) It seems to be a maxim with them to adopt the religious practices of the country in which they reside and to profess the creed of the strongest. Hence they all profess Islamism in Syria and even those who have been baptised on account of their alliance with the Shehab family still practise the exterior forms of the Mohammedan faith. There is no truth in the assertion that the Druses go one day to the mosque and the next to the church. They all profess Islamism and whenever they mix with Mohammedans they perform the rites prescribed by their religion. In private however they break the fast of Ramadhan, curse Mohammed, indulge in wine and eat food forbidden by the Koran. (..) The best feature in the Druse character is that peculiar law of hospitality which forbids them ever to betray a guest. I made particular enquiries on this subject and I am satisfied that no consideration of interest or dread of power will induce a Druse to give up a person who has once placed himself under his protection. (..) Should the prince ever be tempted by large offers to consent to give up a refugee the whole country would rise to prevent such a stain upon their national reputation. The mighty Djezzar who had invested his own creatures with the government of the mountain never could force them to give up a single individual of all those who fled thither from his tyranny. Burckhardt
Hall of the Fountain: (left) the fountain; (right) detail of its decoration; the image used as background for this page shows a detail of the floor of this hall
The decoration of the hall shows that the traditional expertise in marquetry and marble inlays is still available in Lebanon to restore (or make) a beautiful and evocative setting.
Similar to Burckhardt, Lamartine enlightened his readers about the Druze religion.
The Druzes who with the Metualis (Lebanese Shi'a) and Maronites form the principal population of Lebanon have long passed for a European colony lost in the East by the Crusaders. Nothing is more absurd. Religion and language are the things which are longest preserved amongst a people. The Druzes are idolators and speak Arabic; they are therefore not descended from a Frank and Christian parentage. What is more probable is that they are like the Maronites an Arab tribe of the desert who having refused to adopt the religion of the Prophet and being persecuted by the new believers took refuge in the inaccessible solitudes of the high Lebanon in order to defend their gods and liberty. (..) The religion of the Druzes is a mystery which no traveller has been able to penetrate. I have known several Europeans living for a number of years amongst this people who have confessed to me their ignorance regarding it. (..) The only fact that is ascertained with certainty upon the subject is that they worship the calf. Lamartine
Druses, a sect who worship idols, calves, and other animals. It is impossible to see their profane rites, as not even the people who believe in them are admitted; the higher order of priests only being the intermediate agents of their worship.
William Turner - Journal of a Tour in the Levant - 1820.
You may wish to read Richard Pococke's more balanced assessment of the Druze religion. Bearing in mind my father's advice (Never talk about religion) I refrained from discussing the matter with the Druze taxi driver who accompanied me to Beiteddine and other locations in Lebanon.
Trees of the gardens
We went through the gardens of the palace. (..) We slept upon the cushions of the divan spread upon mats to the murmuring noise of the water spouting on all sides in the gardens, the courts and the saloons of this part of the palace. (..) Upon leaving the gate of the palace we began to descend by a road cut in the rock which wound round the peak of Beiteddine. On our right and left the plots of soil sustained by the artificial terraces were planted with mulberry trees and were carefully cultivated. The shade of trees and of vines everywhere covers the ground. (..) The gigantic shadow of the palace and terraces reaches over the whole of this scene and follows you to the foot of another mountain. Lamartine
The size of the gardens was much larger than it is today, because a modern road separates the palace from the rest of the sloping hill, which is no longer part of the estate.
A view of the gardens with ancient columns and a mosaic from an early Christian church
In January 1976 the coastal town of Jieh, ancient Porphyrion, not far from Beiteddine, was sieged by leftwing militia fighters and PLO forces. The mostly Christian population was either massacred or had to flee the town by using small fishing boats. Some fine floor mosaics from Byzantine churches of Jieh and other neighbouring locations were saved and restored at the initiative of Walid Jumblatt and they are on display in the gardens and in some former stables of the palace. You may wish to see them in another page.
We were conducted to the apartments which the hospitality of the emir offered us and the slaves led our suite and horses to another quarter of the palace. Our apartments consisted of a pretty court decorated with Arabic pilasters and with a spouting fountain in the centre falling into a large marble basin; round this court were three rooms and a divan that is to say a chamber larger than the others formed by an arcade which opened on the inner court and which had neither door nor shutters to close it. Lamartine
Today Beiteddine Palace is one of the official residences of the President of the Lebanese Republic.
(left) A room in the loggia; (right) detail of the cupboard
Our rooms even in this magnificent palace would have appeared ruinous to the poorest peasant of our huts; the windows had no glass, an unknown luxury in the east notwithstanding the rigour of winter in these mountains; no beds, tables or chairs, nothing but the naked walls mouldering and riddled with rat and lizard holes and as a floor the battered clay uneven and mixed with chopped straw. Slaves brought mats of rush which they stretched upon this floor and Damascus carpets with which they covered the mats. They afterwards brought a small table of Bethlehem made of wood encrusted with mother of pearl. These tables are not half a foot either in diameter or in height; they resemble the trunk of a broken column and are not capable of holding more than the tray on which the Mahomedans place the five or six dishes which compose their repasts. Lamartine
You may wish to see some traditional Ottoman houses and their furniture at Safranbolu.
Loggia: (left) fountain; (right) ceiling
Our dinner which was served on this table consisted of a pilau, of a dish of sour milk which is mixed with oil and some pieces of bashed mutton which they heap on boiled rice and garnish with certain gourds like our cucumbers. This is in fact the most desirable and savoury food which one can eat in the East; for drink pure water which they drink in earthen jugs with long spouts which are passed from hand to hand and from which they make the water fall into the opened mouth without the vase touching the lips. No knives, spoons or forks; they eat with the hands, but the repeated ablutions render this custom less revolting for the Mussulmans. Lamartine
Entrances to the main wing of the palace and details of their decoration including (right-above) a "tughra" the monogram of the Ottoman Sultan
A marble staircase decorated with balustrades sculptured in arabesque led from this portico to the door of the women's palace; this door inlaid with wood of various colours with frames of marble and surmounted with Arabic inscriptions was surrounded by black slaves magnificently attired, armed with silvermounted pistols and with Damascus sabres glittering with gold and chasings. Lamartine
(left) Vestibule of the "Salamlik"; (right) "Salamlik" with Bethlehem tables. You may wish to see the reception halls of the 1750 palace of As'ad al-Azem, Pacha of Damascus
We were introduced into a very beautiful saloon the pavement of which was marble and the ceilings and walls painted with lively colours and elegant arabesques by artists from Constantinople. Water spouts murmured in the corners of the apartment. (..) The half of the room was filled with secretaries in long robes each bearing a silver inkstand pushed like a poignard (dagger) into their belts. Arabs richly armed and clothed; negroes and mulattoes waiting the orders of their master and some Egyptian officers clad in European vests and having on their heads the Greek bonnet of red cloth with a long blue tuft hanging on the shoulders. The other part of the saloon was raised about a foot and a large sofa or divan of scarlet velvet ran round it. The emir was squatted at a corner of this divan. Lamartine
"Salamlik": (left) initial part of the hall; (right) detail of the ceiling
The Emir Beshir is said to be avaricious, but this may be a necessary consequence of the smallness of his income. (..) His favourite expenditure seems to be in building. (..) He is an amiable man and if any Levantine can be called the friend of an European nation he certainly is the friend of the English. He dwells on no topic with so much satisfaction as upon that of his alliance with Sir Sidney Smith during that officer's command upon this coast. Burckhardt
I have already mentioned that all the inhabitants of the mountains round had promised to give up their fastnesses to the French provided they took Acre. Sir S. Smith wrote constantly during the siege to Emir Beshyr, prince of the mountains to preserve the homage of the mountaineers toward the Turks assuring him that he need not fear for Acre. Turner
Coffee and long pipes were brought which were several times renewed and the conversation continued for nearly an hour. Lamartine
Halls of the Hammam
I arose after a long conversation to accompany him to his baths which he resolved upon showing us himself. These baths consisted of five or six rooms paved with marble slabs, the arched roofs and walls being stuccoed and painted in water colours with great taste and elegance by Damascus artists. Jets of hot tepid and cold water sprang from the pavement and spread their varied temperatures through the rooms. The last was a vapour bath where we could not remain a minute. Lamartine
Other details of the Hammam
Several handsome white slaves, with only a shawl of raw silk drawn over their limbs, held themselves in readiness in these rooms to exercise their functions as assistants in the bath. The prince proposed to us to take the bath with him, but we declined the honour and we left him in the hands of his slaves preparing to undress him. Lamartine
Wooden balconies known as "comandaloune": (left) in Dar El Wousta; (right) of the "Salamlik"
His secretary gave us the most interesting details touching the domestic life of the Emir of the Druzes. This prince although seventy-two years of age having recently lost his first wife to whom he was indebted for all his fortune had just married again. We regretted that we could not see his new wife; she was, they said, remarkably beautiful. She was only fifteen years old, a Circassian slave whom the emir sent to buy at Constantinople and whom he made a Christian before he espoused her, for the Prince Beschir is himself a Christian and even a Catholic or rather he is, as usual in all countries of toleration, of all the official creeds in his country, a Moslem for the Mussulmans, a Druze for the Druzes, a Christian for the Christians. Lamartine
Mir Amin Palace
A palace was built for each of the Emir's three sons, Qassim, Khalil and Amin. That of Amin, which enjoys a commanding view over Beiteddine Palace, was turned into a luxury hotel.
By opposing the Druse parties to each other and taking advantage of the Christian population a man of genius and energy of the Shehab family might perhaps succeed in making himself the independent master of the mountain. Such an event would render this the most important government in Syria and no military force the Turks could send would be able to overthrow it. Burckhardt
In 1840 Emir Beshir joined forces with Muhammad Ali Pacha, the de facto ruler of Egypt with the aim of acquiring full independence from Constantinople. British and Ottoman troops landed on Lebanon's coast and forced him to give up his post and to retire first to Malta and then to Constantinople where he died in 1850. In 1947 his ashes were brought back to Beiteddine and placed in the tomb of his first wife.