We here at Beirut.com have been fascinated with our long-lost tramway system for some time -- and we’re certainly not alone! In fact, the plain shock of realising that it ever even existed was one of the first points made by Lawen Ray7in?, the transit advocacy campaign launched in 2012.


(Photo via Facebook)

But how much do you really know about the old trams of Beirut? Here are our top ten favorite factoids!

10. The tramway made the city -- and the region -- much more interconnected.

This map shows the extent of the tramway electrique network in 1912:


(Photo via lib.utexas.edu)

The network was composed of five lines that connected Horsh Beirut, Nahr Beirut, the Lighthouse and the Port, with Sahet al Burj as their central hub. There was also a link to the train station in Mar Mikhael, which meant that, by the time that map was drawn, Beirutis were infrastructurally well-connected to cities like Tripoli, Sidon and even Damascus.

9. So it was kind of a big deal at the time...

The tramway was inaugurated on January 9, 1907, which just so happened to be the Ottoman Sultan’s birthday. Here’s the the birthday boy himself, as he (sort of) looked that year:


(Photo via commons.wikimedia.org)

Abdulhamid II wasn’t actually at the inauguration, of course, since pretty much everything the Ottomans unveiled that year was in his honor. In fact, almost everything they ever built in Beirut was meant to show off the might of their Empire -- even drinking fountains!

8. Though the Ottomans took the credit, it was the Belgians who actually did it!

(Photo via blaalv.com)

Yes, the nation that gave us Tintin and the Smurfs was also behind the trams. The Franco-Belgian company that constructed the tramway system had also installed Beirut’s first gas-powered street lamps in 1889, which is why the tram operator was called La Société des Tramways et de l'Éclairage. This is also the reason why, after a long history of policy changes in the electricity and public transport sectors, the old tram depot is now the site of the Électricité du Liban’s headquarters.

7. Ottoman, Belgian.. Who cares? The tramway was 3anjad à la Libanaise.

(Photo via razanalsalah.com)

Even though the name “Tramway Libanais” refers to a different section of Lebanon’s old rail network, it was the tramway of Beirut that was truly à la Libanaise. One urban history book describes how, just like in today’s bostas and vans, “the system of timetables and stops was undermined by passengers who stopped the carriages midway and forced them to wait for them to embark and disembark” (p. 55).

In another history book, Samir Kassir quotes a French observer who described another familiar practice: “Rather than have a ticket punched, one claims to be a subscriber [and] presents to the conductor, who understands at once, a case of visited cards with a one-pound note inside” (p. 302).

6. ...but it wasn’t all rainbows and puppy dogs...

(Photo via skyscrapercity.com)

As much as it was a killer app, the tramway was also what we’d call today: a disruptive innovation. Some people just didn’t like it, calling it douleb el shaytan, or Satan’s wheel. The drivers of horse-led carriages also hated it, for obvious reasons. They were going out of business! Protests against the trams were at times so violent that the company had to employ abadayet, or local tough guys, to protect its assets.

There were also incidents of pickpocketing and sexual harassment on the trams, and even some hijackings. The tramway was also accelerating life a bit too rapidly for some people, as Jens Hanssen writes in Fin de Siecle Beirut: “Families who happened to live on the tramway line suddenly found themselves exposed to journeying crowds. As a passive form of protest...they moved out of their houses towards infrastructurally more remote areas of the city” (p. 104).

5. The trams were even boycotted -- twice!

These boycotts happened in 1909 and 1931, under both the Ottomans and the French. In both instances, people’s anger was sparked by a price hike. Beirutis were so angry the second time that they boycotted the trams for three months!

4. ...and this helped popularize the service taxi.

(Photo via YouTube)

By the 1930s, the service, or shared taxi, was already popular for inter-city travel, but the tramway boycott helped bring this now iconic mode of transport into the heart of Beirut. And it hasn’t left since!

3. The very last tram ran in 1965.

(Photo via skyscrapercity.com)

So why was the tramway dismantled? I think Jumana Nabti said it best: the tramway “began to be perceived as obstructions to traffic flow...rather than the traffic itself.” (p. 21).


(Photo via english.al-akhbar.com)

Where’s the undo button on this thing??

2. In the end, some carriages were turned into a restaurant.

(Photo via ddc.aub.edu.lb)

But alas, even that didn’t survive... And today, we only have our imagination to feed our nostalgia.

1. BUT IT’S OK DON’T BE DEPRESSED - THERE’S STILL ONE MORE AMAZING THING:



Wael Amir’s ballad turns the tramway into something much grander than just transport: it’s a metaphor of life!

“They got rid of you because you’re straightforward… oh Tramway of Beirut.”

Now that’s a legacy.

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