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Beirut recovers its past with the renovated National Museum of Lebanon

The National Museum of Beirut, the most important archaeological museum of the Lebanon, has been shaken by the same ups and downs that have shaken the small Mediterranean country in its short existence.

Beirut recovers its past with the renovated National Museum of Lebanon
Priam kneeling before Achilles, detail of a marble sarcophagus from Tyre, 2nd century AD 
[Credit: Lebanon National Museum]
With the opening of the underground floor, which had beeng closed for over 40 years, the National Museum of Beirut offers the world a unique collection which includes, among other ancient wonders, the tomb of Tyre.

The building opened its doors for the first time in 1942, hosting valuable prehistoric objects including sarcophagi, mosaics and collections of jewellery, coins and pottery from excavations carried out throughout the country.

With the start of the civil war in 1975, the museum, located in the symbolic "green line" that divided Beirut into two parts, was forced to close. While many antiquities disappeared or were destroyed, many other objects were kept safe in underground storage areas. On the ground floor, mosaics, which had been fitted in the pavement, were covered with a layer of concrete. Other large and heavy objects, such as statues and sarcophagi, were protected by sandbags. When the situation reached its worst in 1982, the sandbags were replaced by concrete cases built around a wooden structure surrounding the monument.

The declaration of ceasefire in 1991 left a devastating spectacle: water flooded basements, columns pierced by shrapnel and walls covered with graffiti left by the militias who used the Museum as a military bunker.

Beirut recovers its past with the renovated National Museum of Lebanon
The tomb of Tyre, with frescoes that survived the war  [Credit: Lebanon National Museum]
After years of restoration work the museum opened again in 1999 with only two floors, displaying more than 1,300 artefacts from its collection of approximately 100,000 objects. They have now rehabilitated the basement galleries which showcase ancient funerary art, that also includes the unique Tyrian Tomb.

This Roman-era tomb, which dates back to the 2nd century AD, was found by chance in 1937 in Burj el-Shemali, about 3 km from the city of Tyre, in the south of the Lebanon. Measuring 6.30m x 5.40m and 3.40m from the floor to the ceiling in its highest part, the tomb is richly decorated with frescoes covering its four sides.

Beirut recovers its past with the renovated National Museum of Lebanon
Anthropoid sarcophagi from Saida, dating back to the fifth century BC [Credit: Lebanon National Museum]
The restoration of the frescoes, damaged by humidity, indifference and the long civil war, was carried out in 2010-2011 thanks to the generous contribution of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affaires/Italian Cooperation Office in Beirut, who have also funded the entire restoration of the underground wing with a sum exceeding one million euros.

Under the guidance of restorer and architect Giorgio Capriotti and museographer Antonio Giammarusti, who have designed the wide spaces where the works are exhibited, the National Museum has once again become one of the essential attractions of the Lebanese capital.

Beirut recovers its past with the renovated National Museum of Lebanon
The Ahiram Sarcophagus [Credit: WikiCommons]
In total, visitors will enjoy 520 exhibits that date to periods ranging from Prehistory and the Bronze Age, to Hellenistic and Roman times up until the Ottoman period. Lebanon also has the largest collection in the world of anthropoid sarcophagi (those whose cover depicts a human figure): 31 of these sarcophagi, found in the region of Saida and dating back to the fifth century BC, can now be admired in the museum next to the famous sarcophagus of the Phoenician King Ahiram, discovered in Byblos, and which shows practically all signs of the Phoenician alphabet.

Surprisingly, there are also three naturally preserved mummies dating to the thirteenth century, found in a cave the Qadisha Valley, a mountainous area full of caves and imposing monasteries in northern Lebanon.

Source: ABC [October 11, 2016]

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