Lebanon Traveler

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.”

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