WWI French palace survives time and bombs

By turns refugee camp and school, a century-old building evokes nostalgia among Lebanese who want it renovated

When a French army general decided to build his headquarters in a tiny Lebanese hilltop village during World War I, he certainly did not anticipate it would be the target of several attacks nearly 80 years later.

The palace he built survived the first two world wars intact only to be partly damaged by military strikes launched successively over a period of many years by the Israeli, Syrian and Lebanese armies during and after Lebanon’s civil strife.

Ramapo Hall, named after its builder French General Ramapo, was constructed in 1909 in Mieh Mieh, a tiny Christian village that was later partly occupied by thousands of Palestinian refugees fleeing their homes in Palestine in 1948.

Until 1990, the palace survived time, weather conditions and the flood of scores of Palestinians who turned its massive rooms into accommodation.

But a series of military strikes by Israeli warplanes targeting Palestinian guerrillas in and around Mieh Mieh refugee camp during the nineties and first decade of the 21st century destroyed the upper part of the stone rock palace.

The building then became a target for Syrian troops during a brief confrontation with the Palestinian fighters eight years ago.

Two years later, the fighters clashed with the besieging Lebanese army and triggered a massive bombing of the palace, which was also targeted by the Lebanese Christian forces during their conflict with the Palestinians.

Although the two upper floors of the magnificent four-storey palace have been completely destroyed, the structure is still standing erect – albeit shabbily so – in the heart of Mieh Mieh camp, beleaguered by scores of Palestinian houses.

The yellowish white palace had in the past dwarfed Palestinian tents and mud houses before it was itself overshadowed by the construction of large houses by the Palestinians after they become better off and more entrenched in Lebanon.

But the damage has not wiped out its pomposity and greatness. The massive red brick roof that had covered the edifice has disappeared but its historical value is still pervading the whole village. Its walls have been eroded and windows have been wrestled out by bombs and storms but its name engraved on the front structure can still been seen as if to say “I am still here and I am alive.”

“This palace still represents a hallmark of Mieh Mieh despite its partial damage… it is really a strong palace because it has survived 100 years and continuous bombings,” said Fayez Kawash, a resident of Mieh Mieh Palestinian refugee camp, which lies above the southern Lebanese port of Sidon.

“It is not a mere palace. It has been a witness to numerous occasions and incidents, starting from World War I and II, through local clashes, Israeli aggressions, the civil war and other events. It has the credit of providing education to Palestinians here and that’s why I consider it more than a mere concrete structure. It is a museum or a grand store of history.”

Refugee kitchen

A few years after the Palestinians moved into the palace in 1948, the United Nations asked them to evict the building and provided them with tents as their homes. The palace then became the camp’s only school, accommodating more than 500 students in its nearly 20 class rooms. The palace’s underground levels were also turned into a free UN kitchen for the Palestinian students and into a centre for the distribution of monthly relief aid for the refugees.

The UN had financed the school until it moved to a smaller building 200 metres away during the 1990s because of the attacks on the palace.

“It looks very old and shabby but it also looks strong,” said Mohammed Hameed, another Mieh Mieh resident. “I studied in this palace when it was a school. I will never forget it because it evokes my childhood memories. Many of my teachers have died and many generations have passed but this palace is still here.”

Before it was partly damaged, the palace had four levels plus a pyramid-like apex structure. The fourth level included a few rooms for interrogation of prisoners while the third floor was dominated by a massive hall for meetings and concerts. On the second floor were rooms for officers while the first floor was occupied by soldiers. Underground levels were for prisons and massive bathrooms.

After the French colonists relinquished Lebanon in the fifties, Christian residents of Mieh Mieh village took control of the palace. A few years later, they agreed to leave the area which adjoins their village to allow for the housing of the Palestinian refugees who began pouring into Lebanon in 1948. More than 400,000 Palestinians now live in around 12 camps in the country.

Overlooking the Mediterranean, Mieh Mieh is one of the smallest refugee camps in Lebanon. It had a population of only around 1,500 in early 1990s but has now swelled to over 5,000 with the influx of Palestinians from other camps.
Spread on a hilltop of just three square kilometres, the camp has been strangled with the construction of more homes for the new refugees. A large number of trees have been uprooted and big grassy areas seized to accommodate those homes but the palace is left intact.

The rusting but strong structure is now standing in the heart of the more than 100 new houses built by the Palestinians over the past few years but has not been affected by this construction drive and the latest human influx.

“I pass by the palace every day on my way home. I remember that I taught at it when it was a school,” said Mohammed Issa, a former Palestinian teacher. “I feel really sad for it…I don’t know why such a great place is not renovated and rehabilitated. This palace is of great historical value and I believe any money spent on its renovation is worth it,” the 75-year-old Palestinian said.