Last week’s explosion in Beirut, the result of the improper storage of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate at the city’s port, laid waste to swaths of the once-beautiful city which was called “The Pearl of the Orient” during its glory days.
It wrecked the homes of hundreds of thousands of Beirut citizens, destroyed the port and all the grain stored there in elevators and damaged hospitals so heavily that they became unusable. But not only that — the priceless historic heritage of the city suffered as well.
The Sursok (or “Sursuq”) family, Greek-Orthodox citizens hailing from the city of Constantinople, moved to Beirut in 1714. At that time, like Constantinople, all of what is now Lebanon also belonged to the Ottoman Empire, and the Sursok family thrived in their new milieu, eventually becoming one of the “Seven Families of Beirut.”
Forging business connections to the wealthy and powerful of the day, they amassed such a fortune, and so much influence, that they eventually intermarried with the aristocracy of Russia, Germany, Egypt, France, Ireland and Italy.
The Sursoks became an integral part of the glittering society world which once thrived in the Mediterranean cities of Alexandria, Beirut, Cairo, Constantinople and Rome.
Their 160-year-old home, dubbed “Sursok Palace,” even survived the fall of the Ottoman Empire, two world wars, and the Lebanese Civil War which raged in decades past — only to become heavily damaged in last week’s deadly explosion.
By the current owner’s estimate, it took twenty years of restoration after the Civil War to restore the building to its previous glory.
As the Associated Press reports, windows which were blown out by the force of the blast are now laying shattered on the floors of the Palace. “In a split second, everything was destroyed again,” said Roderick Sursok, according to the AP. The scion of the family lives there with mother, his American wife and their 18-year-old daughter.
Sursok led interviewers around his family’s storied home on Monday, showing them collapsed ceilings, broken marble and the portraits of his ancestors — which now hang at odd angles on the walls of the Palace.
The ceilings on the top floor of the building are now nonexistent. According to Sursok, the damage last week amounted to ten times more than it had sustained during the fifteen years of the Lebanese civil War.
Located in the Christian quarter of Beirut and overlooking the port area of the once beautiful city, the Palace now has views of the complete devastation wreaked along the waterfront by the explosion. The edifice, much like the nearby Sursok Art Museum, contains Ottoman-era furniture and paintings from Italy which were collected by three generations of the family.
Its gardens have served as a wedding venue and the backdrop for countless cocktail parties and gala receptions over the centuries.
Sursok says that so far, he has had no luck in contacting the country’s Culture Ministry to see what should be done to renovate the structure. According to the AP, Sursock says that the needed repairs will be so extensive that it will be “as if rebuilding the house from scratch.”
However, he says with some anger, there is no point in rebuilding the house right now because the country must first address its many political problems and establish some form of order. He told the AP “We need a total change — the country is run by a gang of corrupt people.”
His mother, 98-year-old Lady Cochrane Sursok, had even stayed put in Beirut during all the years of the debilitating Civil War to defend the Palace and her family’s precious heritage.
Sursok has now moved his family into a pavilion on the Palace grounds after his wife was discharged from the hospital after having suffered lung problems from the blast. Despite being born in Ireland, the scion of the family, who has spent most of his life in Lebanon, vows to remain there.
However, he knows real change in the country may only come about after a painful process.
The AP quotes Sursok as saying “I hope there is going to be violence and revolution — because something needs to break, we need to move on, we cannot stay as we are.”