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The National Museum

The National Museum of Beirut was built according to the plans submitted by the architects A. Nahas and P. Le Prince Ringuet. The Museum's collection, during the following years, was enriched by items from various archeological excavation sites from all over the country.

1975: The National Museum closed its doors at the beginning of the Lebanese war. In order to be protected, small objects were moved, while some sculptures, low relief and mosaics were poured in cement screed.

1995 and onward: With the return of calm, the rehabilitation of the museum became the main concern of the Ministry of Culture and the National Heritage Foundation. Restoration of archeological pieces and the full rehabilitation of the museum took place.

Today, and after a great deal of hard work, the national Museum proudly exhibits six thousand years of civilization and heritage, a landmark for generations to come.

Read this article: Beirut museum text by Hana Alireza Kobeissi

Most national museums can be said to have an intimate connection to the cities in which they reside, protecting within their walls the material culture of a nation and preserving behind glass, physical testaments to former glories and empires past. In the case of the Beirut National Museum, this is especially true.

In its relatively short lifetime, it has witnessed the best and worst of Beirut’s recent history and found itself fulfilling a role as shelter to the country’s cultural patrimony in the most literal sense.

Although the current building was inaugurated by President Alfred Naccache in 1942, the museum traces its story back to a group of artifacts collected by a French officer stationed in Lebanon in 1919, by the name of Raymond Weill. These were displayed in a temporary space for many years, until sufficient funds were finally collected by 1930 to begin the construction of a national museum to house them and all antiquities subsequently unearthed in Lebanon. Across the Middle East, the following three decades were to prove extremely rich in archaeological discovery. By the time Suzy Hakimian joined the museum staff in 1975, it was filled with beautiful and unique artifacts from the great ancient cities of Beirut, Baalbeck, Byblos, Tyre, Sidon and numerous archaeological sites around the country. Little did she know that it would soon be forced to shut its doors to the public for a 16-year hiatus. In the same year, the museum’s location near the demarcation line that was to divide the city had made it so vulnerable to destruction by shellfire that it was forced to close.

Today, Hakimian is the museum’s Director. She has led the renovation project since 1992 and has seen the museum through some of its worst times. “It was only meant to be closed temporarily”, she says. “Everyone thought the situation would calm down and the fighting would stop. No one imagined that it would last so long.” She explains how emergency measures were taken during the brief ceasefires to place sandbags around the larger pieces in the galleries and remove the most delicate objects from their cases to put them into storage in the museum basement, which in turn was walled off to prevent any access to the lower floors. In 1982, the sandbags were deemed insufficient and the mosaics, statues and sarcophagi had to be encased in protective structures made of wood and concrete.

A short video presented to visitors at the museum presents its history in a series of dramatic images. It begins with early photographs of the museum in sepia tones, followed by shots of the destruction inflicted on the building and its contents during the war. The camera pans across open gaps in the ceiling, bullet holes and the devastation of fire in the façade of the building and its interior, all accompanied by a haunting vocal soundtrack. Like a team of explorers, a team of conservators in facemasks navigates the flooded lower floors armed with flashlights, briefly shining their lights across rows of shelves holding endless boxes of archaeological objects that were hastily stored. The most valuable artifacts, like an ancient Greek terracotta rhyton shaped like a cow’s head, are passed gingerly from one set of hands to another. In the main gallery, lit by shafts of light through broken windows, massive monuments that were encased in concrete are freed as huge pieces of cement come crashing to the floor one after another, bringing up clouds of dust. Meanwhile in the laboratory, researchers in white coats peer through microscopes to gently restore the most fragile pieces. We catch a glimpse of Hakimian placing a delicate Bronze Age pectoral plate made of gold into a display case on the upper floor. The museum is ready.

The video is dramatic and effective in putting the history of the museum in context, but these images only hint at the conservation nightmare that the museum staff faced when they started working to restore the museum in 1991. Aside from the extensive destruction to the building’s façade and infrastructure, a large part of the collection had suffered terrible damage. All the laboratory equipment, as well as 45 cases of archaeological artifacts in storage, had been destroyed by fire. Many of the stone monuments had suffered salt water corrosion as a result of a rise in water table levels beneath the building. Extremely high levels of humidity in the basement had harmed countless objects, which had been stored in emergency conditions without proper ventilation for 15 years. The Lebanese Ministry of Culture, the National Heritage Foundation and the Director General of Antiquities joined efforts to support the restoration process. Fortunately, interest by foreign museums also helped to provide opportunities for funding and expertise to restore some of the largest pieces. Three of the museum’s prize objects, The Ahiram Sarcophagus, a mosaic depicting the ‘Rape of Europe’ and another depicting the birth of Alexander, were shipped to France for an exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in 1997 entitled: ‘Liban, L’autre Rive’. Cracks in the sarcophagus, dated to the 10th century BC, were repaired in Beirut before it was shipped by sea in a custom-built metal cage to France, where it underwent analysis of surface pigment and stone. There, the concrete backing on the mosaics was also removed and replaced by new lightweight fiberglass backing, reducing the weight of the pieces by over 80 percent.

It took five years of restoration and reconstruction before the museum was fully ready to reopen its doors in 1991. Today, visitors continue to be impressed with the richness of its collection and the beautiful way in which it is displayed. Given the amount of devastation inflicted by the war, the galleries were completely renovated with new lighting, signage and display cases. A favorite tool with many visitors is a heavy-duty, rolling magnifying glass that slides up, down, and across many of the table cases, allowing visitors a closer look at small objects like jewellery and coins.

Suzy Hakimian explains that being a national museum, they have a responsibility to represent a full chronology of Lebanon as well as to try and represent all parts of the country. “We are not only an archaeological museum, and this is not a warehouse. We are selective in what we choose to show”. The permanent collection on display numbers around 1400 objects. It begins with some of the earliest objects found in Lebanon from the Neolithic era (c. 7500 BC) and continues up until the Mamluk period in Lebanon in the 14th century. Highlighs of the museum are many: Bronze Age figurines from Byblos, Roman glass, Phoenician art of all kinds, Mamluk jewellery, coins and pottery, are all exceptional. Examples of the influence of neighbouring empires; Greece, Persia and Egypt can also be seen in many of the statues and mosaics, especially on the ground floor. When asked what she thinks are the most interesting parts of the collection, Hakimian says it depends on the context. Some people are most interested in the uniquely local works, such as the Phoenician pottery, the figurines from Byblos or the coins. On the other hand, the museum recently loaned some ancient objects for an exhibition in Athens during the last Olympic Games, where the aim was to show the common threads between the modern nations of the Mediterranean. The story of the Beirut National Museum cannot just be told by what it displays in its cases. Lebanon’s ancient and diverse cultural history, the violence of its wars and its numerous rebirths, are all intimately linked to, and represented within, the walls of this institution. With a full renovation already underway at the American University’s Archaeological Museum and beautiful new museums recently opened in Sidon and Byblos, Lebanon has shown that even after so many years of conflict, it can act as an example for modern museology in the Arab world. With the devastation of cultural property that is being suffered in lrak as a result of the current instability, we see daily threats to their historical establishments and archaeological sites. Let’s hope that the institutions of this region are ready to pool their knowledge and share their experience to support each other in preserving our common cultural heritage.

The Tomb of Tyre

This tomb richly decorated with frescoes was accidentally discovered in 1937 in Burj el-Shemali, about 3Km from Tyre in an ancient necropolis area. It is a remarkable example of funerary art from the Roman period.

In 1939, the archaeologist Maurice Dunand undertook excavations inside the tomb. At the end of the same year, the architect Henry Pearson dismantled the frescoes from the original walls with their mortar and restored them in the basement of the National Museum of Beirut.

The tomb was used during the 2nd century AD.

The tomb (or hypogeum) measures 6.30m x 5.40m and 3.40m from the floor to the ceiling in its highest part. In antiquity, the tomb was consolidated by two transversal arches built on two rectangular pillars.
Fourteen loculi (or cavities) were carved on the Northern, Southern and Eastern walls of the tomb in order to house the sarcophagi. The loculi were blocked with flagstones. Two secondary tombs were found one to the left side of the vestibule and the other to the left side of the entrance.

The frescoes cover the four sides of the tomb with rich funerary themes and ornaments...

Between 1975 and 1995, the National Museum of Beirut remained closed. During this period, several factors contributed to the degradation of the wall paintings of the tomb of Tyre, such as the upwelling of water, the high level of humidity and the inadequate environmental conditions.

Thanks to the generous contribution of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affaires/Italian Cooperation Office in Beirut, the restoration of the frescoes as well as the design and execution of the museographic presentation for the Tomb of Tyre were carried out in 2010-2011, in the framework of the museology of the National Museum basement.

- The National Museum: >> View Movie << (2001-02-01)
- The National Museum: >> View Movie << (2001-02-01)
- The Tomb of Tyre: >> View Movie << (2011-03-01)

 

 


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