Roman frescos in the National Museum
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.”