Sofar

صوف

Explore 57 Villages of Aley District - Mount Lebanon

Sofar

Arabic: صوف
Located in the District of Aley,
12 km from Aley. Famous for its
tree-lined streets, architecture
and history.

Etymology

Origins
Sofar (Sawfar/Saoufar)
– of Syriac origin, “Sephro”
or “Saphro” meaning “bird”
or “morning”
– or may be derived from “asfar” (yellow)

Location

Co-Ordinates
Longitude: 33 ° 48 ’10” N
Latitude: 35 ° 42′ 2″ E
Area:
• City 3.12 km2

Elevation: 1300 m

Discover

Sofar – A name with many possible meanings, all of which aptly describe aspects of this beautiful village … the whistle of the bird, which is perhaps a metaphor to describe the sound of the winds for which Sofar is inseparable; “asfar” (or yellow) for the color of the early morning rays of the sun as they rise over the mountains, and the kaleidoscopic autumn leaves that mark the change of the seasons.

Whatever its etymology, Sofar is a village like no other, a village (almost) frozen in time.

Located in the district of Aley at an average height of 1300 m above sea level, 27 km from Beirut, overlooking the Lamartine Valley and surrounding gorges, Hammana and Falougha, Sofar is situated close to Mdayrej and the summit of Dahr el Baydar, once a popular ski center.

It is truly a village of four splendid seasons, attracting visitors all year round, whether for its cool, refreshing summer breezes, or the sheer beauty of fluffy white snow flakes on its tree-lined streets and icicles dripping from turn-of-the-century eaves.

Famous also for its fog, at certain times of the day Sofar becomes enveloped in a cloud of white mist, rolling in from the Lamartine.

In the past, Sofar was also known as Ain Sofar, for its water sources. There are several other “ains” – Ain Ibrahim, Ain Sursock, Ain Beit Tabet, Ain Saaf-Saafi.

Sofar receives heavy snow during the winter, often reaching over 1 metre. Temperatures usually drop to less than zero during the months of December and January. Nevertheless, it experiences moderate and dry summers, which is why it has long been considered a perfect destination for Beiruti residents escaping the humidity of the coastline during hot summers.

Characterized by its high position on the top of the mountain and the valleys surrounding it, Sofar became a favorite high-society summer resort.

The village owes its celebrity to the railway, built in the 1880s, linking Beirut to the Bekaa Valley and Damascus. The easy access and its stunning scenery overlooking the beautiful Lamartine Valley attracted Beirut’s Haute Bourgeoisie, who built lavish villas.

It was a hub of luxury and sophistication luring the business of kings, emirs, artists and politicians.

Before 1950, Sofar was a passageway and a rest stop for passers-by between Lebanon and Syria. With the construction of the Grand Hotel Sofar in 1885 and the building of the railway line, commercial movement flourished and the town became a popular holiday destination. And maintained its position until 1982 .

Sofar is still admired today for its architecture, luxurious villas and rich history.

Since 2001, Sofar has been the home to Lebanon’s largest bridge – stretching 5.5 kms.

Famous Places -

Sofar’s tourism dates back to 1885 when the Grand Hotel Sofar was established – it was the only hotel that included a casino at the time (and the first casino in the Middle East).

Sofar is known for its sumptuous residences, villas, and palaces, etc. Famous aristocratic Lebanese families built unique mansions, engaging international architects from Italy and France.

The Sofar Grand Hotel was built in the late 1880s by the Sursock family and was the first casino in Lebanon. Because it was built around the same time the train station was opened across the road, travelers taking the Beirut-Rayak line would stop there to stay at the hotel which was notorious for its casino, cinema, and nightclub – the Monkey Bar.

The hotel itself was never managed by the Sursock family and had various families (Tueni, Najjar, Rihani) renting it over the years. Government officials, Saudi kings, and other well-to-do foreigners would take up residence at the hotel because it was seen as a “slice of Europe”  without needing to leave the country. The restaurant was also a drawcard – George Rayess, the first Lebanese chef to publish his own cookbook, was in charge of the kitchen.

Built on an area of 30,000 square metres, the hotel was a hub of luxury as well as gossip and political intrigue.
It was a destination favoured by Arab leaders who came there for vacationing.

On a hilltop overlooking the tree-lined Sofar corniche, once a popular afternoon promenade, stands Villa Donna Maria, a fairytale castle built in 1909 by a member of the Sursock family.
Like the hotel, it was severely damaged and looted during the civil war. It stands today wrecked and uninhabited but forms a majestic and dramatic backdrop to the events that took place in the front esplanade, which has been rehabilitated, a first step towards restoration of the villa.
In addition to the many villas and old houses built by the high society of a bygone era, Sofar boasts two churches dating to the 19th century.

The village, once too small to be noticed, grew quickly at the end of the 19th century under the pulse of the aristocracy, due to its natural beauty and cool summer weather. Even the French ambassador had his summer residence in Sofar for many decades.

Over the years, summers became more bearable in Beirut and less people made the trip to mountain getaways. After its closure, the Grand Sofar Hotel was the headquarters for the Syrian army who also contributed to the damages of war by stripping the wooden beams from the roof and burning them for warmth, as well as dragging the elevator engines down the stairs, creating deeper gashes in an open wound.

Sofar is the base of the summer location of the French Embassy in Lebanon and is home to one of the well-known hotels, the Chateau Bernina, tucked in the green side of northern Sofar and overlooking Lamartine Valley and the Kneise Mountain.

Famous Faces -

In its glorious past, Sofar played host to “who’s who” – it was the summer retreat of the Lebanese and Arab-world bourgeoisie. The majestic Grand Hotel was the meeting place of celebrities, film-stars,  artists and actors, politicians and dignitaries from Lebanon and the region.

Even earlier on, Sofar attracted attention – The hotel Château Bernina was occupied by the infamous Jamal Bacha, the Ottoman governor during the First World War.

President Edde built his summer residence in Sofar, the illustrious Sursock family built estates there; all the nobility and notables of Beirut made it an annual ritual to spend their summers in Sofar.

Celebrities including Oum Kalthoum, Asmahan, Farid al Atrash and Abdel Halim Hafez performed in the Grand Hotel. Omar Sharif was often seen gambling in the casino.

Even intellectuals enjoyed this tranquil mountain retreat. The revered Lebanese writer and activist Amin Rihani was once thrown out of the Grand Hotel  because he was not wearing his best attire. In his book, The Heart of Lebanon, he writes of his rail trip to Sofar.

The educator, writer and artist Omaya Hamdan el Qaisi was born in Sofar in 1935. She was an esteemed member of the Lebanese Writers Union.

Faysal Sayegh was also born in Sofar. He was Governor of the South, director of “Belle” magazine, and established the Snob El Hasna magazine.

Today, the delicate but ever-feisty activist, Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane still spends her summers in Sofar – and still fights to maintain the heritage of this beautiful village.

History of

The Municipality of Sofar was established in 1890, with prominent Beirut families at the helm – Daouk, Beyham, Salam, Sabargh, Trad, Sursock and Nakkache.

The fate of Lebanon was decided in the garden of the Grand Sofar Hotel. General Edward Spears, a British-French liaison officer (who, at one stage, set up his headquarters in the Arslan residence in Aley)  frequented the hotel in the 1940s. He sat on the terrace of the hotel with French General Georges Catroux and British General Henry Wilson, negotiating Lebanon’s independence from the French in 1943.

The first Arab League summit in Lebanon was held at the Grand Hotel Sofar in the 1950s.

In 1969, while digging excavations for the railway station in Sofar, rare natural Lebanese amber was discovered.

"It’s one of the only villages that hasn’t been spoilt by concrete."

Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane

Perhaps more by luck than design, Sofar is one of the few villages in Lebanon to have retained its old-world charm and much of its historic European-style architecture. Thus far escaping the excesses of developers, this village offers a visual architectural feast.

Iris

The Iris Sofarana, a rare and beautiful flower of purple hues, is named after the village in which it was first found – and one of the few villages in which it still survives – Sofar.

It was first described in The Gardeners’ Chronicle Issue #26 1899, by Sir Michael Foster, an English physiologist, with specimens collected around the village of Sofar.  Beside being endemic, Iris Sofarana is an endangered species known from only seven localities in Lebanon including Sofar, Dahr el Baydar, Ehmej, Ehden, and Faraya.

Entrepreneur, conservationist and winemaker, Sarmad Salibi, named his Btalloun-based award-winning wine label – Iris Domain – in honor of this rare species, and even donates a portion of sales to its preservation.

Heather & Sami Eljurdi

Founders • Archivists • Editors

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