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The Story of the Sursock Palace

Sursock Palace is a grand residence in the city of Beirut in Lebanon. The 160-year-old palace withstood two world wars, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the French mandate and Lebanese independence. However, the terrible double explosion of August 4th 2020, heavily impacted this historical landmark. Here is a brief history of Sursock Palace.

Mixing Venetian and Ottoman styles

Completed in 1860 by Moussa Sursock, the palace is one of the country’s largest residences of the Ottoman era. It lies in Sursock Street, where many grand Sursock villas and palaces were built since the beginning of the 19th century. A century after its construction, the building was listed by the Lebanese Ministry of Culture as a building of historical importance on February 10th 1966 (decree no. 60), thanks to the efforts of the late Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane.

The three-story palace features four towers and triple arcade windows and is surrounded by spacious gardens. It reflects the image of the family who all contributed to the art collections that can be found there. French and Italian 17th-century furniture and tapestries, 18th-century Persian rugs, priceless paintings by Gentileschi and Byzantine glassware found while digging the palace’s foundations are small examples of the collection’s wealth. Mixing Venetian and Ottoman styles, the building is concentrated on one hectare and gathers almost all the Mediterranean flora. This house is a symbol of the rich history of the Sursock family.

2 seconds to undo 2 decades of work

After Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, the late Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane spent twenty years carefully restoring the palace to its former glory. The double explosion of August 4th 2020 destroyed the 19th-century Ottoman wonder, blowing off the terracotta-tiled roof and sending thousands of glass shards from shattered windows slicing through centuries-old artworks. Priceless marble statues crumbled.

Everything in the house has been very badly damaged. Nothing has been left untouched,” Owner Roderick Sursock Cochrane told Al Arabiya English. “Some is salvageable, but many things have been irretrievably damaged.

We need to secure the walls and foundations, realign the stones that have been displaced and put tiles on the roof. It’s a lot of work,” he added. “The most difficult part will be the ceilings, I think, as they’re very intricate.”

The explosion undid two decades of work in seconds, causing more damage than 15 years of war.

Sursock Palace Library before (left) and after (after) August 4th 2020 double explosion.

Injured during the blast, Lady Yvonne, 98, passed away shortly after. She was a beloved advocate for art and heritage, serving as president of Sursock Museum and founder of the Association for the Protection of the Natural Sites and Ancient Buildings (APSAD) in 1960.

”God only knows what will become of this property, surrounded more and more by ignoble towers (…) It is still the only green space in the neighbourhood (…) But it will remain in the memory of those who knew it, the image of an era when civilisation and the art of living were part of everyday life.“

Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane (in Palais Sursock Beirut, Preface to Yvonne Sursock Lady, by Dominique Fernandez, 2010)
Sursock Palace ground floor before (left) and after (right) August 4th 2020 double explosion.

In a letter dated October 2020 to the Lebanese Minister of Culture, the current owners declared their wish to undertake the restoration of the palace and its collections in order to transform the private residence into a museum open to the public. RestART Beirut is providing technical expertise for the entire project and fundraising for its implementation.

The Sursock family

The Sursock family, originally merchants, had acquired land and businesses once they moved to Beirut in the eighteenth century and rose in social circles to the extent that they married into the aristocracy of many European countries. Its headquarters, referred to as Sursock Palace, had served as a reminder of Beirut’s glory days. Housing an impressive collection of Ottoman furniture and European paintings is a treasury of Beirut’s history. The Sursocks are noted for their philanthropy, donating thousands of pieces of artwork to the state as part of the Sursock Museum.

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