Like most sites in Beirut, the National Museum – the principal museum of archaeology in Lebanon – hides a turbulent story in the background. Inaugurated in 1942, it was severely damaged during the Civil War of the 70s since the building stood on one of the front lines that separated various military factions. As the war raged, the famous “museum alley” became a check-point for several militias, and the edifice turned into barracks for the fighters, while enduring heavy shelling. Thankfully, the ancient sarcophagi were protected with sand and concrete casings, the mosaics were covered with cement layers, and the small artefacts were whisked to the basement to evade obliteration. Despite the efforts, though, destruction was not avoided. Once the war ended and the Lebanese started putting their lives and cities together again, they discovered that the museum had flooded and the antiquities, hidden for over 15 years under inadequate conditions in the humid basement were severely damaged; the building’s walls bore the scars of innumerous bullets, and grotesque, graffiti inscriptions from the militiamen; and the lack of ventilation in the casings used for the large stone antiquities had caused significant erosion. A fire had destroyed maps, photographs, unique records, and many objects; the laboratory equipment was lost, and numerous exhibits – many of which had been transferred to Byblos or Sidon to avoid destruction – were stolen or auctioned. Despite all these challenges, today the building and its exhibition halls have been restored into a priceless bijou, and they stand as silent story-tellers of Lebanon’s colourful past.
I am still surprised that it took me so many years and more than ten trips to Beirut to finally visit this museum. I should never have delayed so much. There is an emotional ambience – something intangibly tender – that hovers over the majestic sarcophagi that dominate the entrance. It might be the imperceptible links that connect the historical pages of my country’s bygone times with the developments in the Levant area, offering a familiar, yet new, perspective. Or, it may be the cosiness of the place that appears deceptively small – but do not underestimate it: one needs at least 2 to 3 hours to go through the artefacts with the attention and reverence they deserve.
Unfortunately, my planning proved inadequate and, as such, I had to browse through so many eras in limited time. So, here I share the exhibits that excited me the most, postponing a more detailed analysis for a next visit.
The National Museum of Beirut goes through seven historical eras whose layers have formed the essence of modern Lebanon. Starting from the Prehistoric times (1 M – 3200 BC) with the evolution of tools and settlements, the traces of the first villages (at Dik El Mehdi, Labwe, and Byblos) and the development of an agro-pastoral economy, we move into the Bronze Age (3200 – 1200 BC) with the evolution of urban civilization and the emergence of writing. Trade and maritime activities evolve and cities like Byblos on the coastline (connected with Egypt since the 4rth millennium through commercial activity) or Tell Arqa in the inland turn into prominent settlements. During the Iron Age (1200-333 BC), the so-far autonomous city-states fall under the dominance of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and, finally, the Persians; the Phoenician civilization reaches its peak through its maritime expansion, and the alphabet is exported (according to the Greek legend, through the Tyrien prince, Cadmus, when he went after his abducted sister, Europa).
In the Hellenistic Era (333-64 BC), the Persian Empire is defeated by the army of Alexander the Great, and the Phoenician cities are now ruled by officials bearing Greek names. The Greek civilisation becomes even more influential to the extent that educated people speak Greek and adopt a Greek lifestyle; in general, though, the population remains faithful to its Semitic gods and language, leading to a beautiful, artistic and architectural symbiosis. In 64 BC, Phoenicia is conquered by the Romans, initiating the Roman Era (64 BC – 395 AD), and the Pax Romana that follows brings prosperity to all major cities (Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, and Baalbek-Heliopolis). Trade flourishes, the towns grow through the efficient Roman urban planning, and many public works (aqueducts, temples, theatres, forums, and basilicas) are completed, including the famous Law School at the end of the 3rd century AD. Famous philosophers, geographers, and jurists are natives of Tyr, Sidon, and Byblos. Yet, the intellectual elite continues to learn Greek and in Beirut, and legal texts are translated from Latin to Greek.
At the end of the 4rth century AD, and with the division of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western, the Lebanese cities become an integral part of the Eastern Empire, entering into the Byzantine period (396 – 635 AD). Many churches are built, and the urban development continues, while prosperity is evident in the famous luxurious villas of Jnah, Ouzai, and Baalbek with the decorative mosaics and the marble floors. The Beirut Law School is the focus of the country’s intellectual life and attracts students from all over the empire. In 551, an earthquake and a subsequent tidal wave destroy Beirut and other coastal cities.
In 635 AD, the invasion of the Arabs begins, leading to the Arab and Mameluke period (635 – 1516 AD), during which, the coastal cities develop even more. This is a turbulent era with successive changes of power among the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatimids, the Seljuks, the Ayyubids, and the Mamluks, with a 200-year ruling presence of the Crusaders as well. This era ends with the Mamelukes in power who, among other things, are great builders, leaving behind many mosques, madrasas, khans, and hammams.
Presentation of some of the most beautiful exhibits of the museum
Among all the precious artefacts that represent the various aspects of life in each of the seven periods above, four categories attracted most of my attention.
As soon as a visitor enters the museum, she is overwhelmed by the imposing presence of several magnificent sarcophagi, which, despite their initial purpose of existence, do not emanate a morbid ambience but, instead, stand as a majestic link between life and death, or past and present.
The museum hosts one of the most spectacular and rich collections of Roman mosaics I have seen. Many of them were found in Byblos, Baalbek, Beirut, and Tyr. Below are some indicative examples.
The figurines of Gods and ex-Votos
The fame of Byblos is closely linked to the discovery, some fifty years ago, of numerous ex-votos presented to Baalat Gebal and the warrior god worshipped in the Obelisk Temple. Bronze and faience figurines – some of which represent gods wearing a helmet and a loincloth – as well as ceremonial weapons and jewellery were hidden by the priests under the temple floor and were often placed in jars. Similar offerings were also discovered in the sanctuary of Kamed el Loz. Today, these figurines stand as an eternal symbol of Lebanon, echoing their Phoenician inheritance.
The Phoenician inscriptions
From the 1st millennium BC, Phoenician alphabet, comprising of 22 consonants, revolutionised the writing systems previously used and gave birth to the Greek alphabet (the Greeks were using, until then, the Linear A and B for their written records). The inscriptions found on most sarcophagi and tombstones are a plea not disturb the peaceful sleep of the dead.
The lights had turned off according to their automatic schedule as the museum was closing, and I was still inside the chambers, trying to squeeze an additional minute of exploration through the pages of Lebanon’s ancient history. I climbed the stairs from the basement almost in complete darkness and hurried to reach the exit door where the guards were politely waiting for me, exchanging smiles and “good evening” wishes. On the last second, I turned to look again at the main hall of the museum, the marble of the sarcophagi reflecting the feeble light coming through the door. There was something fresh and eerie in the ambience, something that did not exist a few minutes ago. The exhibits seemed to take a new life of their own, in privacy, away from the curious eyes. During those few seconds, I was given the privilege to connect with the secret magic that unfolds in all museums during the night.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
To explore Lebanon further, complement this article with A Photo Journey to the Hidden Spirit of Beirut, The Origins of the Citadel fo Raymond de Saint-Gilles, A Bried Description of 12 places to visit outside Beirut, a visit to the St George Cathedral and the Crypt Museum, and Hidden Treasures in the Old City of Tripoli.