Despite its modest size, Lebanon is a country rich in historical landmarks. One of the main attractions of the cedar state, besides the columns of Baalbek and Byblos Port, is the magnificent Beiteddine Palace, from which the Ottoman Empire ruled over Mount Lebanon.
These days, travelling from Beirut to Beiteddine only takes about an hour by car, but in the early 19th century, when the palace was constructed, it took two days to make the steep and arduous journey from the coast to the Chouf Mountains. Emir Bashir Shihab II contracted Armenian craftsmen from Aleppo, the very best of their trade at the time, for the construction of the gigantic palace, which lasted for thirty years. Its architecture unites Ottoman, Lebanese and Western elements. To this day, Beiteddine Palace is still unrivalled in all of Lebanon in terms of its size and splendour.
Crossing the large courtyard with an impressive water fountain at its centre, visitors have access to a number of meeting and reception rooms, a spacious hammam and a harem. There, in the rooms of the upper harem, the private chambers of the former rulers, stands a grand piano that only reveals its intriguing history upon second glance. Unremarkable on the outside and only bearing a tiny, barely legible golden emblem, it only discloses its secrets when you open it: in fact, it is a grand piano by Ernst Kaps, a renowned piano manufacturer from Dresden. Golden plaques on the inside of the piano show that Kaps was the royal supplier of pianos to the Belgian and Saxon Courts. The pianos were famous for a resonator invented by Kaps that significantly increased the beauty and richness of their sound. Only a few hundred were built each year and sold through salons in Germany, Europe and the USA.
Company emblem inside the Kaps grand Piano | © Goethe-Institut Libanon
The grand piano in Beiteddine has seen better days, but upon closer inspection, you can clearly make out its production number finely engraved in the wood in golden letters. It is the twenty-four-thousandth of its series. Old production lists from Ernst Kaps’ now-defunct company provide information on which serial numbers were produced in which year. The grand piano in Beiteddine Palace was built between 1901 and 1902 in Dresden. But that isn’t the end of its story. When you take a closer look at the barely legible emblem on the body of the piano, you can tell that this is a very special piano. The emblem uses ornate Arabic calligraphy to display the tughra, the seal of the High Porte of Istanbul, or to be more precise: of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid. The grand piano was most probably a present by the Sultan which was made during the final years before his removal by the Young Turks in 1909.
Side view of the grand piano | © Goethe-Institut Libanon
But why, and who was the recipient of Abdul Hamid’s gift? There is no verified information on its true background, so we can only speculate. The vast geographical expansion of the Ottoman Empire caused problems for as long as it existed, as representatives dispatched by the Ottomans frequently came to oppose Ottoman rule and threatened to secede. The increased influence of the colonial powers of France and England increased these secessionary tendencies. The Sultan in Istanbul was forced to attempt to secure the loyalty of his local governors and representatives – and this included providing them with valuable gifts, for example a precious European grand piano.
Furthermore, Sultan Abdul Hamid II was known to be a passionate piano player himself. He had already travelled extensively in Europe in his youth, and throughout his life he was fascinated with European arts, for which he was chastised by the more conservative elements of Ottoman society. He also had a special affinity for Germany because he was personal friends with Wilhelm II, the last German Kaiser, and the two nations were allies. Experts from Germany modernised the Turkish army, and German expertise was called for in other areas as well. The discovery in Beiteddine is a testament to the extent of this exchange – it even went so far as to include musical instruments.