First Published: 2016-11-01

Ancient treasures unveiled at Lebanon's national museum
Beirut's National Museum showcases 520 pieces that range from Paleolithic period to Ottoman Empire for first time in four decades.
Middle East Online

Precious collection

BEIRUT - Beirut's National Museum has opened its basement of ancient treasures for the first time in four decades to show the public its stunning array of funerary art, including the world's largest collection of anthropoid sarcophogi.

The new exhibition's 520 pieces range from the Paleolithic period to the Ottoman Empire. They include Phoenician stelae and rare medieval Christian mummies along with the anthropoid coffins, which display a human face on the sarcophogus and were long a standard for the elite.

Some of the items have never before been on public display.

Other pieces have not been shown since the 1970s, when the museum was forced to shut down because it sat on the frontline that ran through the city during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

"This is a lesson in courage and hope because 41 years after the museum was closed in 1975, we today are able to receive visitors on three floors," says museum director Anne-Marie Maila Afeiche.

The archaeological museum was renovated after the years of fighting and shelling damaged its building and exhibits, and reopened in the 1990s.

But the current exhibit is the first time its basement has been open since the civil war.

Among the treasures of often-breathtaking beauty is a fragment of a Roman sarcophagus found in Beirut that depicts the myth of Icarus, who is shown alongside his father Daedalus, making his ill-fated wings.

Another gem is an extraordinary hypogeum -- an underground tomb -- accidentally discovered by a farmer in the Tyre region in 1937.

It is covered with restored frescoes inspired by Greek mythology, including a scene of Priam on bended knee begging Achilles to return the body of Hector.

- 'Belongs to humanity' -

"It was essential to show the public this heritage, which belongs to Lebanon and humanity, that was lying in our storage," said Afeiche.

All of the exhibits on display in the museum were excavated across Lebanon, which is rich with historical sites and artifacts.

They include a premolar from 70,000 BC belonging to the first known example of a homo sapiens in Lebanon, and stretch through to an 1830 Ottoman stele adorned with a turban.

Among the collection's flagship displays is a series of Phoenician sarcophagi dating from between the sixth and fourth century BC that were found in the southern region of Sidon.

"We're exhibiting 31 of these sarcophagi at the moment," which mix Greek and Egyptian styles, said Afeiche, noting that some of the sarcophagi found in Sidon are currently displayed in the Louvre.

This is "the largest collection of anthropoid sarcophagi in the world," she added.

But perhaps the most striking part of the exhibit is the unprecedented display of three mummies found in 1989 by cavers in the Qadisha Valley.

The area is a UNESCO World Heritage site and its cave-pocked sheer rock faces provided refuge for Maronite Christians persecuted during the Mamluk and Byzantine eras.

"They were discovered in a cave along with eight naturally mummified bodies" wearing the clothes of of women and children, in some cases the 13th-century silk embroidery still intact.

- More treasures to display -

Around them were nuts, onion skins, ceramics, bronze tools and documents written in Arabic and Syriac.

"They were psalms and liturgical chants that showed that these were Christians who had taken refuge in this cave," said Afeiche.

The three mummified bodies are particularly rare as Lebanon does not have a tradition of mummification, according to Marco Samadelli, director of the EURAC centre in Italy, who offered his expertise to help conserve the unique mummies.

Italy contributed 1.02 million euros ($1.1 million) to the project of restoring the museum's basement and collection, along with the expertise of leading archeologists including Antonio Giannarusti.

Even with the basement now open, the museum's storage areas contain plenty of undisplayed pieces and the culture ministry has plans for a new history museum in Beirut as well as museums in both Sidon and Tyre.

The new exhibition provides a timeline of burial techniques, from a 6000 BC Neolithic cradle tomb to a 4BC Chalcolithic burial jar found in Byblos.

Phoenician urns holding cremated remains are exhibited alongside a Byzantine-era tomb decorated with the face of the Virgin Mary from 440 AD.

"We believe this is the oldest representation of the Virgin discovered to date in Lebanon," said Afeiche.

The largest is the hypogeum from Tyre, with frescos reminiscent of Pompeii. One of its sides features an inscription: "Be brave, no one is immortal."

 

Moscow seeks to boost its influence in Kurdistan through oil

Tillerson does not expect Gulf crisis to be resolved soon

Lebanon approves first budget since 2005

Iraq army takes last Kurd-held area of Kirkuk province

Ancient Turkish town set to vanish forever under floodwaters

Germany advances Israel submarine deal after corruption holdup

Bashir Gemayel's killer convicted, 35 years later

SDF hails 'historic victory' against IS in Raqa

Hamas delegation visits Iran

Turkish court orders release of teacher on hunger strike

Yemen rebel youth minister urges children to join war

Iran's Guards show no intention of curbing activities in Mideast

EU will cut some money for Turkey as ties sour

Iraqi workers return to oil fields retaken from Kurds

Kurdish disarray shows resurgence of Iraq's army

Iranian military chief visits frontline near Syria's Aleppo

Turkey issues arrest warrants for 110 people over Gulen links

Hamas calls US unity comments ‘blatant interference’

OPEC chief pleased with oil market rebalancing

Turkish police detain leading civil society figure

G7, tech giants meet to tackle terror online

Iraq’s Kurdish regional government open to Baghdad talks

Tensions flare among Yemen's rebels

Baghdad court issues arrest warrant for Iraqi Kurd VP

Erdogan, Nigerian counterpart to ramp up cooperation

Russian medics operate on Yemen's Saleh despite embargo

Baghdad condemns oil deal between Russia’s Rosneft, Kurds

Power shifts again in Iraq's multi-ethnic Kirkuk

Syrian general accused of journalist deaths killed in Deir Ezzor

Raqa liberators ready for civilian handover, on to next battle

Revolutionary Guards say Iranian missile program will continue

Erdogan calls on three major mayors to resign

ICC investigating several war crimes in Mali

Erdogan says may shut Iraqi border at any moment

Tunisian couple jailed for 'public indecency' over car kiss

Next round of Syria talks at end October

Gazans hope Palestinian reconciliation ends their woes

PSG's Khelaifi to be quizzed in Swiss World Cup probe

UN urges de-escalation in Iraq

Haley: Iran must be judged in totality of its aggressive behaviour

EU says Israeli settlements illegal under international law

Kurdish independence goes from dream to dust

Female commander more than just poster girl for Raqa victory

Saudi airline flies to Baghdad for first time in 27 years

Wanted Dead: France's approach to IS jihadists