Lady Sursock, Matriarch of Beirut Family, Dies of Blast Injuries

Sursock Palace in Beirut, the headquarters of the aristocratic family the Sursocks, who came originally from Constantinople. Credit: Wikipedia

Yet another victim of the senseless explosion in Beirut caused by the improper storage of seized ammonium nitrate, Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane passed away on Monday from injuries sustained in the blast.

The oldest living member of the aristocratic Sursock family, who came originally to Beirut from Istanbul in the early 1700s, Lady Sursock had sustained injuries to her lungs as a result of the explosion. The 98-year-old had been at home at the Palace, one of Beirut’s most spectacular properties, at the time.

The August 4 blast tossed her her several meters (yards) from the Palace’s terrace, where she had been enjoying afternoon tea with her friends.

The Greek Orthodox matriarch of one of Beirut’s most glittering families which belonged to the international set that once flourished in the Mediterranean cities of Beirut, Constantinople, and Alexandria, she was the embodiment of a way of life that has, to a great degree, disappeared from that part of the world.

The Sursock family, originally merchants, had acquired land and businesses once they moved to Beirut in the eighteenth century and rose in social circles to the extent that they married into the aristocracy of many European countries.

The family’s headquarters, referred to as Sursock Palace, had served as a reminder of Beirut’s glory days. Housing an impressive collection of Ottoman furniture and European paintings, it is a treasury of Beirut’s history.

The Sursock family is noted for their philanthropy, donating thousands of pieces of artwork to the state as part of the Sursock Museum in Beirut.

The Palace itself had been seriously damaged during the country’s civil war, which raged from 1975-1990, but the family had undertaken twenty years’ worth of repairs to restore it back to its original glory. All those repairs came to nought, however, when the blast shattered the windows, blowing them inward, damaging the plaster on the walls and blowing the roof partly off the building.

The explosion, the result of the improper storage of thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate which had been seized years before at the port of Beirut, killed 190 individuals and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

Lady Cochrane, who was born on May 18, 1922, married Sir Desmond Cochrane in 1946. Known especially for her interest in architectural preservation, she created Lebanon’s Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in an effort to preserve the country’s rich historical heritage.

She often had harsh words for Lebanon’s razing of old buildings in order to make way for the new.

In a 2008 interview with Monocle, she was quoted as saying “Beirut lives by the wind that comes from the sea,” a reference to her distaste over the city’s penchant for building giant skyscrapers along its historic waterfront.

In what was once called “The Paris of the Middle East,” she decried what had become of her beloved homeland, as it descended into political chaos and mismanagement. The brain drain which occurred in the country also disturbed her, as she once commented that Lebanon would soon be “left with the bottom of the barrel.”

Chris Rampling, Great Britain’s Ambassador to Lebanon, praised her life on Tuesday, calling her “a queen of Beirut.”

According to a report by Agence France Presse, Lady Sursock called the Lebanese capital’s pell-mell modernization of its architecture after the civil war as an “archaeological massacre”, adding “Beirut, once a joy of the Mediterranean, has been turned into a junkyard.”

However, always the optimist, the matriarch of Beirut society had vowed to rebuild Sursock Palace and expressed confidence that the Lebanese capital city, once called “the pearl of the Mediterranean,” would return to its former glory one day and become “the garden of the Middle East.”