The Sursocks of Beirut: A wasted fortune and a museum rebuilt from a deadly port blast

Inside the history of the Sursocks and their long-lost fortune, as told by members of one of the oldest families in Lebanon. Plus, the re-opening of the Sursock Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.

A restored portrait of Nicholas Sursock (1930) by Dutch-French painter Kees van Dong during the reopening of the Sursock Museum in Beirut on May 26, 2023.
A restored portrait of Nicholas Sursock (1930) by Dutch-French painter Kees van Dong during the reopening of the Sursock Museum in Beirut on May 26, 2023.

The Sursocks of Beirut: A wasted fortune and a museum rebuilt from a deadly port blast

Beirut: The Sursock Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, nearly destroyed in the Beirut port explosion of August 2020, has finally re-opened to mark the third anniversary of the deadly blast.

Located only 800 metres away from the port, the Sursock Museum, which first opened its doors more than six decades ago, is housed in a historic building on Achrafieh Hill, overlooking downtown Beirut. Formerly a private palace belonging to a Sursock family member, it was transformed into an extravagant and beloved museum in 1961. Since then, it's become known for its iconic architecture, characterised by Venetian and Ottoman styles.

But the port explosion “buried decades of work” and reportedly destroyed 70 per cent of the building, shattering its signature stained-glass windows across all three floors and damaging several art pieces in the process. A fireproof door was stuck inside the cracked basement ceiling for a year, like a kite caught in a tree.

Damaged gallery Sursock Museum

The ALEF Foundation developed an emergency plan to fund the reinforcement, protection, and restoration of Beirut's cultural heritage in the aftermath of the blast, encompassing the museum.

After a three-year closure, a glimmer of hope has emerged. Restoration and rehabilitation efforts have been completed, and the Sursock Museum re-opened its doors earlier this month on 4 August 2023.

Lessons in light and darkness

After its reopening, Al Majalla visited the cultural landmark, touring its numerous diverse halls and collections, including permanent art exhibitions and new installations. The most prominent was the audio-visual experience “Ejecta” by Zad Moultaqa.

Inspired by the port explosion itself, Moultaqa’s installation presents thousands of digital images of the museum’s artworks, flowing in different forms along screens lining the walls of the grand basement hall.

The images are accompanied by a musical composition inspired by the sound of the explosion – fragmented and muffled by echoes and frequencies, mimicking the slow scattering of shattered glass in the streets of Beirut, which followed the tremendous seismic boom of the explosion. Glowing, semi-volcanic light projectiles flow like water and lava on the large screens in the spacious, semi-dark hall.

After the museum's reopening, a new exhibition called "Ejecta" by Zad Moultaqa, features images accompanied by a musical composition, mimicking the slow scattering of shattered glass in the streets of Beirut, which followed the tremendous seismic boom of the explosion.

Moultaqa drew inspiration from two sources for the installation's soundtrack: The first is a piece of 17th-century Baroque music by French composer Antoine Charpentier, entitled 'Lessons of Darkness'. The second is his own 2017 composition, entitled 'Exercises on Lights'.

As part of "Ejecta", visitors may jot their thoughts down on the walls of the outer hall, turning the installation into a collective healing ritual.

Ignorance... and aristocracy

One of the museum's permanent exhibits is "Je suis inculte! (I am uncultivated!)"

According to the museum's website, it "revisits the legacy of the annual juried Salon d'Automne in Beirut from the Sursock Museum's inauguration in 1961 — the year the private villa of Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock became the first, and only, public museum of modern and contemporary art in Beirut — until the present day."

The "Salon d'Automne" in Beirut has played an influential role in shaping the Lebanese visual arts movement. The phrase "I'm uncultivated!" is inspired by an article written in 1964 by the late playwright Jalal Khoury (1933-2017); it embodies his vehement protest at the time against the museum's prejudice and elitism, foreseeing crises that would later afflict Lebanon.

One of the paintings in this exhibition is by visual artist Cici Sursock, entitled "A Blue Nude," which she exhibited in 1972. Cici's life story reflects the history of the museum itself, which bears her family name, while also giving a glimpse into the cosmopolitan Sursock family that, since the 19th century, boasted affluence, business acumen and global influence.

Born Justina "Cici" Tommaseo in Yugoslavia in 1923, Cici changed her name after her 1947 marriage to Lebanese man Habib Sursock. (Cici took painting classes in Belgrade before attending the School of Applied Arts in Ankara, where she trained in the studios of Turk Nurettin Ergüven and Turgut Ziam; she likely met Habib in Istanbul.)

After marriage, she moved to live with her husband in the Al-Jazeera Royal Palace owned by his family in Cairo, before they lost it to the nationalisation policies of the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime in Egypt.

As a result, she and her husband moved to Beirut in the early 1950s and remained there until the beginning of the Lebanese civil wars. The wars prompted her to return to her native country Yugoslavia in 1978, specifically to the Croatian city of Split.

She died in Croatia in 2015.

Myths...and truths

But what is the true story behind the Sursock family and their art museum in Beirut?

Gabriel Rayes (son of Eva Sursock, and an early innovator in the electric elevator industry) and his wife, who also belongs to the Sursock lineage, shared their insights on the well-to-do Orthodox family.

Gabriel traced the Sursocks' journey from the common class to high society back to the late 18th-century war between the Ottoman Empire and Tsarist Russia. Mitri Sursock had left his family home in Barbara, located on the border between Mount Lebanon and North Lebanon, for Beirut. There, he married a Beirut-born Orthodox woman from the Trad family, one of seven families in the city known for their influence, status, and wealth.

(The number seven is often associated with the founding families who inherited positions of power in ancient traditional cities. This number is widespread in myths of creation, origin and formation.)

Mitri's alliance with the Beirut-born woman from the influential Trad family took him from rural and common ranks to a city where he would achieve prominence and prestige. The couple had six children together; their eldest son, Lotfallah, immigrated to Britain and prospered there.

Meanwhile, like many Christian families at the time, his brothers dispersed to various countries: Egypt, Turkey, Palestine, and Lebanon. Lotfallah began sending goods from Britain to his brothers to trade in these countries during the wars of the Ottoman Empire and Tsarist Russia.

(This global undertaking is reminiscent of the old saying, "Lebanon is a bird with two wings, the resident and the expatriate," which underlines the strength of family ties, taking on a romantic and "national" character in folk culture.)

War, migration and marriage all played a part in the birth of the Sursock family legacy.

War, migration and marriage all played a part in the birth of the Sursock family legacy.

And while the legendary number seven has often been linked to stability (and the continuity of wealth) amongst a select few prestigious families in old societies, it was often limited to intermarriage.

In modern times, however, social mobility has been achieved through migration and commercial activities (which apparently came later for the Sursock family); education has also become a gateway to greater advancement.

Sursocks and the Rothschilds

The second turning point for the Sursock family came after the civil war between the Druze and the Maronite Christians in Mount Lebanon (1840-1860), the further decline of the Ottoman Empire, and the transformation of Beirut into the capital of an Ottoman province in 1888.

Beirut was prospering. There was also an influx of Christian immigrants from neighbouring Levant countries. Western missionaries and ambassadors from the great European powers were also making their presence known.

During these key moments in history, the Sursock Bank was established in Beirut.

When the Ottoman authorities forced the Druze to pay financial "reparations" for the massacres they committed against their Maronite opponents, Istanbul issued deferred "financial bonds" and granted them to the Maronites, with the understanding that the Druze would later pay for them.

But bondholders — doubting the possibility of recovering the value of these bonds from the treasury of a financially troubled Ottoman Empire, which they opposed — began selling these bonds to the Sursock Bank at significantly lower prices.

Due to the influence of the Sursock family in Istanbul, the bank was able to fully recover the value of the bonds. As a result, the family acquired large swathes of land in the Beqaa Valley, Palestine, Turkey and Egypt, while Lotfallah funded the treasury of Khedive Ismail in Cairo.

The six sons of Mitri Sursock were the founders of the vast family fortune, with Lotfallah at its head. Their presence in London, Cairo, Istanbul, Beirut and Palestine made them "worldwide" ambassadors of the family.

Each of the brothers had around ten children of their own. This prolific childbirth (which occurred in the late 19th to early 20th century) shows that, despite their wealth, these self-made founders held onto cultural traditions.

This was not limited to the Sursocks. For instance, Abu Ali Salim Salam (1868-1938) — a Sunni Muslim from Beirut, and the man behind the prominence, prestige, and fortune of the Salam family in Beirut — fathered more than ten children, including the late Lebanese Prime Minister Saeb Salam.

If we take Mitri as the father of the Sursock family's wealth, then we know that the second generation of the Sursock family, which helped build the foundation for its success, did not exceed six children. However, the third generation reached sixty, among whom the family fortune was divided.

Some family members expanded their presence to Italy and France, where they lived, worked, and married. But this didn't seem to matter. Because by then, the Sursock family bond began to disintegrate.

According to Rayes, the Sursock family was just as wealthy as one of the world's most notable European banking dynasties, the Rothschilds.

The Sursock family was just as wealthy as one of the world's most notable European banking dynasties, the Rothschilds.

The second generation built several palaces on the Achrafieh Hill in Beirut, which were then further propagated by the third generation.

One example of this was Musa Sursock, from the second generation of the family, who built his largest palace in Achrafieh in 1860. His son Alfred inherited it and married the Italian woman, Donna Maria.

Alfred built a palace named after her in Sofar in Mount Lebanon, an area considered to be a retreat for elite Arab vacationers from Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad, and Palestine. Nearby, Alfred constructed the Grand Sofar Hotel as an exclusive and extravagant getaway in the early 20th century.

The hotel continued to welcome guests until it was burned down by fires of Lebanese wars (1975-1990). But the Grand Sofar Hotel and the Donna Maria Palace still exist today as two crumbling structures.

The largest palace in Beirut's Sursock neighbourhood was inherited by Alfred's daughter, Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane, who married an Irish lord and carried his family name until she died in the palace, which was damaged by the Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020.

Host to kings and presidents

The wealth of the Sursock family was "international", said Rayes.

Rayes' wife lamented: "The third generation of the family turned away from work and multiplying the wealth towards extravagance, pleasure and abuse." Her husband added to the list: "Women, gambling, and farming."

What does farming have to do with extravagance, I wondered? He might have been referring to the family's inclination towards buying state lands during the Ottoman era. However, he clarified otherwise.

"Children... children," said Rayes, indicating that agriculture was merely a metaphor for procreation — the thing that would ultimately divide and disappear the family wealth.

It occurred to me that he used this metaphor because he regretted not having children to inherit his name and fortune. Perhaps he wanted to avoid repeating his mother and wife's family history, whose enormous wealth was squandered on sixty children.

But what will be the fate of the Rayes fortune, I wondered, so long as there is no one to inherit it? Could its fate be similar to that of Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock (from the third generation of the family), who died in 1952, without marriage or offspring and whose palace became the now famous Sursock Museum?

Sursock Museum exterior 2023

Nicolas died at 65 in this same grand, luxurious palace. He had begun building it in his mid-thirties, next to his father's old palace in the Sursock neighbourhood, on the eve of the First World War.

After a lavish and indulgent life, filled with extensive travels and devoid of work and marriage, Nicolas wrote in his will that he bequeathed his palace to Beirut. He stipulated that it should be transformed into a modern art museum, overseen by the mayor of the city, and administered free of charge by a committee of prominent Beirut figures.

After a lavish and indulgent life, filled with extensive travels and devoid of work and marriage, Nicolas (Sursock) wrote in his will that he bequeathed his palace to Beirut and that it should be transformed into a modern art museum.

After his death, the palace remained "closed" for five years until 1957. Throughout this time, it was used under a presidential decree, during the reign of President Camille Chamoun (1952-1958), to host kings and presidents on official visits to Lebanon. Among them were King Saud bin Abdul Aziz, the King of Greece, and many foreign diplomats.

However, Dr Lotfallah Milki (the museum curator after its second re-opening, following its 1975-1990 closure during the Lebanese wars) excluded the five years between 1952 and 1957 from the museum's history. He considered them as part of the palace's history instead.

Reopening of the Sursock Museum 2023.

The palace was used in those years "against the will of its owner who wanted it to be an art museum and not a palace for hosting politicians and diplomats."

In his lifetime, Nicolas had used his palace to generously accommodate the Lebanese elite, including politicians, diplomats, notables, and intellectuals.

Rayes added that Nicolas "made his palace a permanent guest house for his acquaintances and friends, such as Gebran Tueni (Ghassan Tueni's father) and the wandering journalist Iskandar Riachi and other bachelors like him. Therefore, the lunch and dinner tables in the palace were endless, and the number of guests invited to them was never less than ten each time."

According to Rayes, however, Nicolas wanted, after his death, to turn it into a public institution for the arts and the people.

In 1958, Beirut Mayor Amin Bey Beyhum established a committee to carry out Nicolas' will. Thus began the history of the Sursock Museum as we know it today. It hosted the first visual arts exhibition in the fall of 1961, more than a century after the Sursock family had attained immense wealth.

Luxury, paranoia and death

Nicolas led a life of "mood swings and eccentricities" — as stated by Rayes' wife.

In Aintoura School, where he spent his younger years, his desire to have fun and stand out led him to dye his hair blonde, which resulted in his expulsion.

Rayes added that Nicolas was "one of 60 members of the Sursock family who squandered the family's fortune. He was not as brilliant or exceptional as two of his contemporary relatives: Elias and Michel Sursock, who were members of the first Ottoman Parliament."

(Nicolas) one of 60 members of the Sursock family who squandered the family's fortune. He was not as brilliant or exceptional as two of his contemporary relatives: Elias and Michel.

Gabriel Rayes

Rayes said that once Nicolas built his palace and lived in it alone, he bought a Rolls-Royce, and often used it to visit the seaside and take a stroll. He would leave his chauffeur to drive slowly while he walked alone.

Nicolas was extremely cautious about his health, almost to the point of paranoia, calculating every detail. He was wary even of a gust of wind.

If he wanted to go to Sofar to spend some time at its grand hotel, owned by a relative, he would send his driver ahead with a thermometer, to take the temperature and check the weather conditions. Based on this reading, Nicolas would decide whether or not to make the trip.

As for food and drink, Nicolas followed an extremely strict and disciplined diet. So much so, that he would personally supervise the preparation of food by his private chef, who accompanied him on his journeys and travels.

"All this, however, did him no good. It didn't delay the inevitable moment of death when he reached 65," said Rayes' wife.

She glanced at her husband and asked, "What happened to his Rolls-Royce? Who took it, after being parked in front of his palace for so long, covered in dust?"

Without awaiting a response, she continued: "Can you imagine that the grandson of the founder of the old Orthodox School, Zahrat Al-Ihsan in Achrafieh, is working in a hotel in one of the Gulf capitals?"

By this, she meant that a member of the Sursock family was forced to work in a hotel due to the many twists of fate and the dynasty's declining wealth.

As for the late actress Yvette Sursock, said Rayes' wife: "Hardship forced her to work in theatre and television."

"Perhaps Nicolas did well by endowing and converting his palace into a museum, preserving his name and family (legacy)," she concluded.

A sense of calm; an enduring palace

Gabriel recounted the many factors that played a role in the Sursocks' ultimate fate.

"The Palestinian catastrophe deprived the family of their wealth in Palestine, and Nasser's nationalisation dispossessed their wealth in Egypt," he said.

"The Sursocks of Istanbul became Turkish; their ties were severed with extended family spread in the capitals of many countries. They either got married and never had more than one child, never had children, or stayed single."

In the 1990s, anyone passing through the streets of the Sursock neighbourhood in Achrafieh would have felt the palaces empty, save for a few residents living in silence, and, perhaps, loneliness.

When the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Palace was first inaugurated as an art museum in 1961, Lebanon was witnessing a new start in the Chehab era. A golden age in arts, journalism, tourism, and entertainment, it lasted until 1975.

During the civil wars, the Sursock Museum would temporarily close its doors whenever conflict escalated. Activity in the museum continued to dwindle and fade, halting entirely in the 1980s. The museum reopened again in the mid-1990s, only to suffer severe damage in the port explosion in 2020.

Today, with its sparse population and five semi-abandoned palaces, the Sursocks neighbourhood stands quiet along Sursock Street (which stretches 400 meters in Beirut). The notable exception to this stillness is the Sursock Museum, which has been brought back to life after its restoration.

Without the museum, the number of passers-by would have been negligible.

The tranquillity of the street can be attributed, perhaps, to an old and depleted family wealth and the dispersal of the remaining members of the Sursock family across the world. In Beirut, nothing remains of them or their wealth except the palaces.

Perhaps Nicolas' desire for immortality prompted him to bequeath his palace to Beirut, to be converted into a museum of modern art and perpetuate his family name.

With it, he could introduce Sursock Street into the city's cultural legacy without chaos or clamour.

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