Emir (Prince) Maurice Chehab In Perpetuum Honorum
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A brief biography of Emir (Prince) Maurice Chehab, a great master from the homeland, father of modern Lebanese archaeology and treasurer of our Phoenician heritage.
Archaeology and world culture are deeply indebted to that fine gentleman and his group, for the invaluable service they had bravely, selflessly and graciously given the nation and the world in protecting the treasures of the Lebanese National Museum.

Education

Emir (Prince) Maurice Chehab In Perpetuum Honorum

Emir (Prince) Maurice Chebah was born in 1904 and received his education at the St. Joseph's University Jesuit Institute in Lebanon. He continued his education and received his graduate degree in archaeology from the Louvre Institute in France. He was the first Lebanese ever to receive such a degree in this field.

Achievements

During the French Mandate over Lebanon (1918-1943), he worked for the French Institute for Archaeology that included a large number of distinguished French scholars of this field. He became a member of the Friends of the National Museum Committee that included many prominent personalities in the field of education, science, public service and the press.

During the early of the French Mandate and the Lebanese Independence, the government designated him head of the commission for archaeological research. It developed under his guidance to a general directorate. He was appointed in 1928 and remained in his post until 1982. He worked as a professor of history at the Lebanese University as well as other universities and institutes. During this time also, he personally supervised archaeological digs of ancient Tyre.

He established, managed and published the " Bulletin du Musee de Beyrouth," an annual journal of archaeological research. He wrote many of the articles that appeared in that publication along with the world's most renowned archaeologists. This made it a publication of international stature and was respected and in demand by the world most important museum. The journal ceased publication after his retirement.

He was an active participant in the establishment of the Institute for Presenting Archaeology (?). He personally took charge of organizing and cataloguing the treasures of the Lebanese National Museum and the adjunct Museum of the Beit El-Deen Palace.

The Lebanese National Museum

The story of the National Museum started in 1919 with a small group of ancient artifacts, which had been collected by Raymond Weill, a French officer stationed in Lebanon. These objects were displayed in one of the rooms of the German Deaconesses building in Georges Picot Street in Beirut, a property of the German Evangelical Nunnery.

A committee of 15 members named "Friends of the Museum Committee" assembled in the year 1923 for the purpose of establishing a national museum that proceeded with collecting donations for its construction while Emir Maurice Chehab was designated as Curator. Construction ended in 1937 and it was inaugurated on May 27, 1942 by Alfred Naccache, then President of the Lebanese Republic.

Golden Era of the Museum

Under its curator, Emir Maurice Chehab, throughout a 33-year period, the museum flourished uniformly and witnessed a golden era. It was visited by tens of thousands of tourists, intellectuals and students every year. It contained considerable treasures of significant antiquities of all sizes that included tombs, statues, and mosaics, besides mummies and small pieces. They were the ramnant of treasures found on Lebanese soil or "left overs". Too many occupying forces including the Ottoman Turks, French and British had numerous pieces conveniently "relocated" to their museums in Istanbul, Paris and London, when the country was in their control.

During the Lebanese Civil War

Arrangements were under way to hold an international glass history exhibition at the beginning of the year 1976. However, the war broke out in Lebanon and left its brutal impact on this highly significant edifice.

The headquarters of the Directorate-General of Antiquities at the National Museum was situated in the heart of a battle zone. The building literally stood on the infamous Green Line that divided East from West Beirut. The museum paid dearly for its location — bullets riddled its walls, and rocket blasts pockmarked its facades. The interior was burned by direct rocket hits.

At the beginning of the civil war, it was possible to go to the museum area and check on the situation. The staff did so whenever they could. Gradually the museum junction became the dividing line between east and west Beirut and became so unsafe that it constituted a virtual death trap for anyone who braved it.

At some point during the war, the museum became one of the headquarters of warring factions. Rumour had it that armed groups even used the Roman sarcophagi in the gardens and inside the museum as their bunkers – to sleep in, as well as to shoot out from at their opponents!

The catalogues, card indexes, and photographic archives of the National Museum were burned during the bombings; this damage made it difficult to estimate the collection's original size and what remains of it. During this time, Emir Maurice Chehab, stowed smaller objects in the basement and sealed them behind double cement walls; he then spread the rumor that the museum's objects had been sent abroad. Nina Jedijian in her commentary "Saving the Beirut National Museum" in The Daily Star newspaper wrote:

"But one man and one woman, Emir Maurice Chehab, the director-general of antiquities, and his wife, (Rinata Ortali Tarazi) Olga, had the foresight and courage to take measures to protect Lebanon’s rich cultural heritage.

"As the fighting intensified, the couple removed all the precious artifacts from their showcases. Works of art too heavy to move were simply encased with wood and concrete.

"This is how the famous sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos (1000 BC), which carries the oldest inscription of the Phoenician alphabet, was protected from destruction at the hands of looters.

"Maurice Chehab hid the museum’s treasures in its basement. Only a few people in key positions were informed of what he had done. In the basement, he built a series of steel reinforced concrete walls to dissuade looters. By doing that he also protected the valuable collection of anthropoid sarcophagi (5th century BC), the most prestigious collection in the world. Chehab also built a concrete wall at the entrance of the basement, thus securing the site until peacetime."

Other co-workers of the museum, at the time such as Rinata Ortali Tarazi, worked hand in hand with Emir Maurice and his wife, Olga to hide antiquities and evade robbery and damage caused by shelling. The museum area was too dangerous to enter when fighting was going on, but in between bouts, during lulls and/or when there were truces between the warring factions, they could brave the roads and the check-points. Then this strange cortège, consisting of Emir Maurice and his wife, his secretary, Suzy Hakimian (then 21 years old), and a few workmen carrying bags of cement, plywood and rolls of thick sheets of plastic, would be seen going into the museum to work.

They tackled each problem individually and created the best solution possible to fit that particular situation. They took out all the exhibited antiquities including Jbeil (Byblos) collections, took photos of them and put them in boxes after having made lists of them. They packed and stored the smaller objects of the collection in cardboard boxes and placed them in a secure room on the second floor. Afterwards, they moved them to underground storage areas and covered them with earth for camouflage. All antiquities that they had no room for were transmitted to the Department's stores in Jbeil (Byblos) were placed in the underground chambers of the Crusader Castle in Byblos, north of Beirut and in Saida. The valuables were taken to the Central Bank and to the to the French Archaeological Institute in Damascus for safe-keeping. Other objects stayed in the museum; most of the delicate objects were stored in cardboard boxes in the staff offices on the second floor and the more resilient objects were placed on shelves in the basement storage rooms that were sealed.The larger objects – the sarcophagi, the floor and wall mosaics and statues – cumbersome to say the least, could not be moved, and so had to be protected in situ. These sarcophagi and mosaics survived because of the foresight of Emir Maurice. During a lull in the war, he had the sarcophagi encased in reinforced cement and the floor mosaics covered first with plastic sheeting and then with a layer of cement. Unfortunately, objects hurriedly packed into the library on the second floor did not fare well. Two rockets hit the library, and the ensuing fires burned the 2,000 or so bronzes and other objects within, mangling some and charring others.

The sarcophagi were first on the list. Each one was encased in a box made of plywood planks; they were virtually ‘boxed’ in. Then, leaving a space of about 4 inches, they built another plywood box and the space between the two ‘boxes’ was filled with cement. Once this cement had dried the whole ‘box’ was covered over with another, thicker layer of cement. The sarcophagi literally looked like large rectangular cement blocks. The large marble statues were protected in a similar manner.

The image of the restored museum above is a 360 degrees revolving and zoomable one in QuickTime format. Click and hold the image turning left, right, up or down to revolve. If you experience problems viewing the image in a browser window, please click this "Museum" link.

However, the floor mosaics needed another solution, so they adapted their technique to fit a flat surface. Each floor mosaic was covered with a sheet of thick plastic. Over this were placed plywood planks and then cement was poured over the whole until nothing showed; the mosaic was completely hidden under cement. However, they could not invent a system to cover and protect the mosaics that were displayed vertically on the walls – luckily, they survived the war, although one has been pierced by a large rocket hole. It left a very neat round hole with a diameter of about 25 inches – one could get a good view of the street traffic through it! In 1993, the staff of the museum decided to open up the museum galleries as they were, in their bombed state – burnt walls with gaping holes from rockets and grenades, bullet holes everywhere, and graffiti defacing every available surface. They opened the museum with an exhibition of photographs of their collection – no entry fee – just come and look at how it survived! Behind the scenes, the small staff began to work; cataloguing, restoring the burnt objects, and cleaning up the mess, which was of truly horrific proportions. It took five years.

Unlike the Baghdad National Museum in Iraq which was horrifically vandalized, the National Museum of Lebanon was saved thanks to the wisdom, dedication and far sightedness of a number of individuals headed by the master of Lebanese archaeology, Emir (Prince) Maurice Chehab.

We honor and are indebted to Emir Maurice Chehab

The illustrious career of Emir (Prince) Maurice Chehab and his work in courage and wisdom to the cause of Lebanese antiquities especially Phoenician heritage truely earned him our "In Perpetuum Honorum" ( perpetual honor). All lovers of history and archaeology owe this great man a debt which will continue to live so long as there are people and they care for the heritages of nations. Phoenician history. He dedicated a lifetime excavating, codifying, cataloging, writing and disseminating information about the history of that part of the world, and when everything around him went crazy with war and destruction, he was the gardian angel of the nation's treasures.

The nation and the world are deeply indebted to that fine gentleman and his group, for the invaluable services they had bravely, selflessly and graciously given to the nation and the world in protecting the treasures of the Lebanese National Museum for histor, human heritage and culture.

Publications

Some of his publications include:

  1. "L'archéologie du Liban"
  2. "Les Phéniciens : l'expansion phénicienne, Carthage." conjointement avec Parrot, André. Moscati, Sabatino.
  3. "De la Phénicie";
  4. "Mosaiques du Liban"
  5. "Relations Entre L'Egypte et la Phenicie Des Origines a Oun-Amon,"
  6. "Tyr à l'époque des croisades"
  7. "Tyr à l'époque romaine"
  8. "Sarcophages à reliefs de Tyr"
  9. "Fouilles de Tyr; La nécropole"
  10. "Chroniques"
  11. "Tyre at the End of the Twentieh Century,"
  12. "Mosaïques découvertes au Liban"
  13. "Excavations en Tyr"
  14. "Un livre concernant la soie"
  15. Other essays in world scientific journals.

Note: Some of the titles of publications may not very accurate because they were not available to the author in French.

Credit
The author of this site recognizes and is grateful to Emir (Prince) Selim Abillamah for his kind assistance in writing this brief biography of the late Emir Maurice Chehab.

Sources:

  1. Jedijian, Nina , "Saving the Beirut National Museum" The Daily Star newspaper
  2. Our National Museum, Tours & Guided Walks, Lebanon.com Interactive U.S.A. Beirut - Lebanon.
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