Most places have had a “Golden Age,” a period in time that evokes nostalgia and memories of better days. With the turmoil that has engulfed the Middle East in the last two decades, it’s easy to see why people reminisce about cities like Baghdad, Damascus, and Aleppo, some of which have become unrecognizable. Beirut, and Lebanon itself, were the first in the region to fall to the throes of war and destruction, so the good old days are now memories of another lifetime, especially for the youngest generation which has no recollection of the pre-war era.
Lebanon’s Golden Age started in the mid-1950s and lasted until 1975, the beginning of the civil war. During that time, Beirut was the center of banking, commerce, and tourism in the region. Companies operating in the eastern Mediterranean, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states set up their headquarters in Lebanon’s capital because it had superior infrastructure, communications, schools, universities, and a more western lifestyle. Besides being a center of commerce and banking, Lebanon was a Cold War listening post for the various spy agencies keeping taps on developments in the region. The country’s physical backdrop could not have been more spectacular with its snow-capped mountains, warm sunny beaches, and charming capital boasting a vibrant social life and a welcoming and entrepreneurial population eager to accommodate the influx of visitors from across the globe. Because of all this, Beirut became known as the Paris of the Middle East, a term that many Lebanese now find to be an aggravating cliché.
What is true though is that Lebanon was a postcard-perfect boutique country that offered stunning beauty and a decent life to most of its citizens. Many Lebanese who grew up during that period have fond memories of summer days at the beach and picnics in the countryside when the coastline was pristine and the hills around Beirut were dotted with few houses and vast expanses of green in between. Those images though have become blurry as Lebanon, two decades after the war ended, is still struggling to get back on its feet and preserve the little it has left of its natural landscape.
The following exhibition contains original Kodachrome and Ektachrome slides from the 1950s and 1960s and rare color postcards from the same period showing life in Lebanon. Zina Hemady wrote the text, Lebanon in Technicolor: Growing up in the Golden Age, which reflects on her childhood before the civil war.