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
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
Golden Era of the
Under its curator,
Emir Maurice Chehab, throughout a 33-year period,
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
sizes that included tombs, statues, and mosaics, besides mummies and
small pieces. They were the ramnant of treasures found on Lebanese
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
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.
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
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
gardens and inside the museum as their bunkers – to sleep in,
as well as to shoot out from at their opponents!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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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
by the master
Emir (Prince) Maurice Chehab.