Generations of students have passed beneath its arch, never thinking twice about its aging yellow sandstone or its black iron doors.
It has stood strong for 113 years, silently watching over Bliss Street and College Hall, through times of war and times of peace, through times of warmth and times of cold. Bonds were built between once-strangers as they huddled beneath its stones during sudden downpours of rain. Since its construction in 1902, Main Gate continues to safeguard generations of scholars and thinkers’ secrets.
The original plan for this building was for it to serve as a majestic entryway; a grand entrance that would also function as an administrative building. Reports to the Board of Managers of the Syrian Protestant College, now known as the American University of Beirut, show a genuine administrative concern in medical students being distracted by the attractions of Medhat Pasha Street ( now Bliss Street), further stressing the need for a gate to wall off campus.
The administration saw the need to dissociate from Medhat Pasha Street, a narrow dirt road that could not pay tribute to the beauty of the striking College and Assembly Halls.
Main Gate, then, was both a way for faculty members to monitor students’ movements in and out of campus and a statement: the American University of Beirut is a sacred space for a select number of students to study and reflect in.
Originally designed by New York architect Edward Pearce Casey; who also worked on Washington’s Library of Congress, Main Gate has kept its initial building plans, despite recently being cleaned and restored as the first of the 150th anniversary celebrations.
A lot of time, money and effort were put into building the gate and making it a reflection of the university’s statement. Its position, as well, was delicately chosen at a vantage point; one that would emphasize the vastness of the Syrian Protestant College without outshining the other erected buildings.
A committee headed by Professor (and later on Dean) Robert West commissioned architect Casey; who had been a fan of Saracen Architecture. His admiration for Islamic designs explains Main Gate’s horseshoe arch and the Arabesque ironworks wrought out in it. A 1901 letter from Reverend David Stuart Dodge – president of the board of trustees of the Syrian Protestant College and great uncle of President Bayard Dodge – to President Howard Bliss discussed the economic interest and efficiency of buying the Sidon sandstone of which Main Gate is made up of. The black iron door and rosette of Main Gate were worked by local master blacksmith, Elias Bekhazi, the grandfather of the current Mukhtar of Ras Beirut, Michel Bekhazi.
The entryway stairs weren’t around back then, instead, a ramp allowed the passage of horses and carriages through the gate and down the hill towards College Hall. The elevated pedestrian sidewalks were always there.
Interestingly, Dodge had his own idea of what he wanted the gate to look like, and promised to pay for its construction from his own pocket, which he estimated would go beyond $3,500.
Main Gate, as its name does not suggest, once housed the President’s Office in its upper quarters, giving President Bliss a lovely view of all entering and exiting students. The construction was also home to the Office of the Treasurer, as well as a reception and business room for the friends and families of the 511 students the College taught at the time. Currently, the upper floor houses AUB’s Workers’ Syndicate, while the basement is the Visitors’ Bureau.
To the confusion of historians, the basement contains, to this day, a set of stone stairs that are cut off by a thick wall, which could indicate the existence of an older, severed structure.
Aside from watching over a century of graduating students pass through its gates, Main Gate witnessed the Olympic Torch pass by it while heading to Tokyo in 1964, was a stop for the tramway from 1909 to the 1960s, and lived through waves of student demonstrations starting from the 1940s.
Main Gate has become Beirut’s major landmark. The words inscribed into it, “That they may have life and have it more abundantly,” are a reminder that we are stepping on the same stones that giants of thought have walked on, following the path of world leaders into the Arab World’s home of liberal thought.