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In Berytus, after their studies, Christian law school students used to gather at the nearby Anastasia church in the evenings. To get there, they just had to cross a square that roughly matches what is known today as Place de l’Etoile. Like many other cities in the Roman Empire, Berytus has also witnessed the martyrdom of Christians in circuses’ arenas. In the end, Christianity prevailed and succeeded in reshaping Roman law by infusing it with a more humane spirit, leading to the creation of the Justinian Code.

This city could not remain impervious to the Christian faith that was revolutionizing the Roman Empire. In fact, in a letter from the year 361 to Anatolius (the Consular of Phoenicia), Libanius referred to it as Berytus Nutrix Legum. The Greek sophist, Eunapius, described it as the “mother and cradle of laws,” and in his work Dionysiaques (5th century), the epic poet Nonnos of Panopolis proclaimed it as the city that “layed out the laws.”

The First Bishop

The prominent school of Berytus welcomed students from diverse backgrounds and was open to new ideas, mainly to the profound message of Christ. According to the Orthodox Church’s Synaxarium, the archdiocese of Berytus was established by Quartus, one of the Savior’s 70 disciples, as mentioned by Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Romans (Rom 16:23). The Synaxarium mentions that “Quartus became the bishop of Berytus. For the sake of his faith, he underwent many tough situations but succeeded in converting the majority of the pagans in his city” (Thessaloniki, 1987).

Numerous students from Berytus School chose to embrace their faith in Jesus. A significant number of its former students “took vows and chose paths as bishops, priests, or monks,” as documented by Nina Jidejian. Eusebius of Caesarea attested that this city served as the educational ground for the two brothers, Appian and Aedesius (natives of Lycia), and here they pursued their studies in rhetoric and philosophy. Later on, they embraced Christianity and embarked separately on their preaching missions in Cæsarea and in Alexandria where they ultimately perished as martyrs. Berytus’ circuses’ arenas, like many others throughout the Roman empire, bore witness to the appalling sight of entire families being thrown to wild animals.

St George’s Orthodox Cathedral, near Anastasis Church and Berytus Law School.

Judicial Synthesis

Christianity ultimately prevailed and underwent in the 6th century a religious syncretism with Roman law. A new trend emerged, led by renowned legal scholars known as ecumenical masters including Cyrillus who was famous for having integrated Christian components into Roman law, and contributed to its moderation. Berytus school reached its peak when Justinian (527-565) entrusted his legal experts with the comprehensive revision of the law. The Justinian Code incorporated the teachings of the Christian religion, enabling the emancipation of slaves and the recognition of women’s rights.

Furthermore, Berytus paid tribute to the Greek language, with which it had a closer affinity than the elitist-toned Latin language. As such, the supplementary decrees (Novellae leges) written predominantly in Greek, were incorporated into the new Roman code the Institutiones, drafted in 534 in Latin.


The Church allowed Berytus to ascend to the rank of a Metropolis, a status formerly reserved for Tyre in Phoenicia, Bishop Eustace of Berytus played a significant role in securing this privilege during the years 449-450. Additionally, historical records from the Syriac chronicles of Pseudo-Zachariah suggest that he was instrumental in the construction of the basilica, a structure that may potentially lie beneath the current Saint George Orthodox Cathedral.

Zacharias the Rhetorician mentions the cathedral of the Resurrection which was built by Eustace and known as Anastasis. Just like the law school, it was found near the existing Place de l’Etoile. This is where the Christian students would gather for their evening meetings, and Zacharias used to join in. He also mentions other sites that witnessed Beirut’s Christian heritage, such as the Mother of God (near the port) and Saint Jude’s Church.

Sursock Palace (right) and Bustros Palace (left) in Beirut.

The Earthquake

The illustrious history of Berytus extended until its complete destruction on July 9, 551, following a devastating earthquake and tsunami. The catastrophe ravaged the law school, basilica, forum, city, roads, and aqueducts. According to Agathias Scholasticus, on that fateful day, the magnificent Berytus, once the pride of Phoenicia, was totally damaged.

Beirut fell under the Arab invasion in 640, in a sporadic way: The Byzantines kept on taking over the cities of Tripoli, Batroun, Byblos, and Beirut. Their invasions varied in duration, ranging from brief to considerable, such as those led by Emperor Nikephoros Phokas in 957 and 968, and by the emperor of Armenian origin, John Tzimiskes, in 975. This situation persisted until the arrival of the Crusaders on May 9, 1099.

18th Century Russia

In 1697, Henry Maundrell provided an account of the revered icons in Beirut. He spoke of an age-old church that belonged to the Greek community (meaning the Orthodox Church). These icons appeared remarkably ancient and emphasized a society steeped in history, vibrant, and relatively prosperous. In 1773, Prince Youssef Shehab uncovered the abuses perpetrated by the Ottoman governor Ahmad Al-Djazzar in Beirut. In response, he forged an alliance with the Russians, who bombarded Beirut from the sea while the Lebanese enforced a land blockade. Following an intense bombardment, the Russians ousted the pasha and occupied the city.

From October 1773 to February 1774, the flag of Moscow -as noted by the French consul-, flew over Beirut, while the portrait of Empress Catherine adorned the city’s main gate. Every bystander had to bow before the portrait, and the knights had to get off their horses, as specified by François Charles-Roux (Geuthner 1928). The Greek Orthodox community viewed Tsarist Russia as the rightful heir to the Byzantine Empire.

19th Century Russia

A part of the heavy artillery that bombarded the city was displayed on the Grande Place, which henceforth took on the name Place des Canons. In August 1839, Russia relocated its consulate from Jaffa to Beirut, as the city started to enjoy the status of a prominent metropolis. Its prestige kept on growing due to the keen interest shown by France, Russia, and especially Sultan Abdel Hamid II, who initiated the expansion of its port as early as 1887.

In 1878, Lebanon’s first hospital was established in Beirut: The Orthodox St. George Hospital was built with funds allocated by Russia to help the victims of the 1860 massacres. The attention towards Moscow persisted, even after the Bolshevik Revolution, as in 1960, Patriarch Alexy of Russia played a pivotal role in the expansion and modernization of Saint George Hospital.

Saint Dimitri’s cemetery in the 19th century. The Roman necropolis is underneath the adjacent land. Today a supermarket has taken over the space.

The Revamping of Beirut

The city was adorned with lush gardens and new cathedrals, whereas old ones were expanded. Meanwhile, the streets and public squares were paved to enhance the urban landscape. Italian architects were hired to design parks and palaces following the Lebanese architecture with a hint of Tuscany in the neighborhood of Saint Nicolas. In the 1860s, John Lewis Farley praised these architectural designs, describing them as being of a high standard, saying that the refined taste of Paris and London is noticeable in the interior design. He also pointed out that some residences, including the ones belonging to the Sursock and Bustros families, would honor any European architect.

Unfortunately, the urban fabric of Beirut could not uphold its incredibly rich history. Throughout the city, the monuments of the past have been wiped out. The discovery of the Roman necropolis near Saint Dimitri’s cemetery -where a supermarket is currently located-, could have turned this spot into a prominent cultural and tourist destination. It could have grown into a green space and incarnated the city’s historical continuation. One that is typical of the Orthodox community which originated from this Phoenician coast, and was Hellenized before being Christianized. These historical sites that are being destroyed are the guardians of the city’s soul and identity.

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