Ro­man fres­cos in the Na­tional Mu­seum

Lebanon Traveler - - CONTENTS -

In un­der a year the Na­tional Mu­seum of Beirut plans to re­open their base­ment, which has laid empty for over 40 years. Anne-marie Maïla-afe­iche, the musuem’s cu­ra­tor, talks us through their col­lec­tion from Ro­man fres­cos to 6th Cen­tury BC sar­cophagi

Per­haps un­know­ingly at the time, Ray­mond Weill, a French of­fi­cer sta­tioned in Le­banon, founded the Na­tional Mu­seum of Beirut in 1919 when he ex­hib­ited a small col­lec­tion of an­cient ob­jects in a tem­po­rary mu­seum. Soon af­ter­wards the idea to raise funds for a na­tional mu­seum were set into mo­tion and build­ing work be­gan in 1930, open­ing to the public in 1942.

For over three decades, the mu­seum housed an ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of an­tiq­ui­ties rang­ing from pre­his­tory to 19th Cen­tury AD. Closing its doors with the out­break of the civil war in 1975; the long restora­tion process be­gin­ning in 1995.

Be­hind the Na­tional Mu­seum there has al­ways been a re­silient team, that de­spite work­ing against fund­ing dif­fi­cul­ties and the scars of a war that dam­aged both the build­ing and its col­lec­tion, have shown ded­i­ca­tion to the preser­va­tion of its an­cient an­tiq­ui­ties dis­cov­ered in Le­banon and shar­ing them with the public. Cur­rently un­der way is a huge project to re­open the base­ment of the mu­seum that has re­mained un­used since 1975.

It all started with the restora­tion of the Tomb of Tyre, a 2nd Cen­tury tomb with im­pres­sive Ro­man fres­cos, first dis­cov­ered in 1937 by a peas­ant dig­ging in his field, 3km from Tyre.

When dis­cov­ered, the fres­cos were re­moved and trans­ported to the Na­tional Mu­seum but dur­ing the war they were badly dam­aged. In 2010 the Di­rec­torate Gen­eral for Devel­op­ment Co­op­er­a­tion of the Ital­ian Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs pro­vided spe­cial­ists and funded the con­ser­va­tion, restora­tion and mu­seum dis­play of the fres­cos. Open­ing to the public in 2011, it's now per­haps the mu­seum’s most mag­nif­i­cent master­piece.

The ex­cep­tion­ally in­tact fres­cos are now dis­played in the Na­tional Mu­seum's base­ment, show­ing images of eter­nity in the Hel­lenis­tic con­cept, in­clud­ing a

winged Eros with fruit and flower filled gar­lands and an im­age of dou­ble doors, typ­i­cal of the Pom­peii style in the 1st Cen­tury BC, hint­ing at the other world lay­ing in wait. It fea­tures scenes from Greek mythol­ogy from Tan­talus in the In­fer­nal Gar­dens to The Ab­duc­tion of Proser­pina. “Be coura­geous, no-one is im­mor­tal,” reads a Greek in­scrip­tion.

“In 1939 they made the de­ci­sion to re­move the fres­cos from the tomb and trans­port them to the Na­tional Mu­seum,” Anne-marie Maïla-afe­iche, the mu­seum’s cu­ra­tor says, “We’ve re­com­posed ev­ery­thing. [Nowa­days] we would pre­serve them in their sit­u­a­tion. But who knows what would have hap­pened dur­ing the war if they had been left in Tyre.”

Af­ter the suc­cess of the Tomb of Tyre restora­tion, the Ital­ian Co­op­er­a­tion Of­fice have agreed to fund the en­tire base­ment which will com­prise of 518 ob­jects and will open in De­cem­ber 2015. It will fea­ture a chrono­log­i­cal path of fu­nery art, rep­re­sent­ing all pe­ri­ods of Le­banese his­tory. “One part of the ob­jects will be from the old col­lec­tion of the mu­seum, mas­ter­pieces of the col­lec­tion. We have things from be­fore the war that peo­ple are long­ing to see again, along with new dis­cov­er­ies,” Maïla-afe­iche says.

With the re­open­ing of the base­ment, large mar­ble 6th to 4th Cen­tury BC sar­cophagi will be ex­hib­ited. The mu­seum’s 31-strong col­lec­tion makes it the largest in the world. There are nu­mer­ous new dis­cov­er­ies from re­cent ex­ca­va­tions across Beirut, found from new constructions. “They dis­cov­ered glass items in a tomb in Furn el Hayek. It used to be a Ro­man ne­crop­o­lis, now it’s the site of Fall Tow­ers,” Maïla-afe­iche says sar­don­ically. Though the land be­ing built on might be pri­vately owned, any­thing found un­der­ground be­longs to the state and once a dis­cov­ery is made, the Direc­tor of Gen­eral An­tiq­ui­ties sends in a team.

In the ‘90s spele­ol­o­gists cav­ing in the Qadisha Val­ley dis­cov­ered eight nat­u­rally-mum­mi­fied mum­mies, dat­ing back to the Mam­luk pe­riod in the 13th Cen­tury, along with 24 manuscripts and ob­jects from daily life from onion skins to ce­ram­ics, all which will be put on dis­play along with three mum­mies. “USEK have just fin­ished restor­ing the manuscripts. Ev­ery­one is help­ing in the process,” Maïla-afe­iche says.

Though many rem­nants of the city’s an­cient civ­i­liza­tions that once lived in Le­banon re­main un­der­ground await­ing dis­cov­ery, Maïla-afe­iche is re­al­is­tic. “The thing is not to dis­cover them but how to re­store them, pre­serve them and keep them for the next gen­er­a­tion.”

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