tours in Arabic, English, French)
The National Museum of Beirut is a must on every visitor's
itinerary. An effortless introduction to Lebanon's history, it speaks volumes about
the country's ancient peoples and civilization. Although it was severely
damaged during Lebanon's war (1975‑91), generous public and private
support allowed the museum to reopen permanently in 1999 with a face-lift,
updated displays and a renewed sense of purpose.
A branch of
Lebanon's Directorate General of Antiquities,
the Museum's function is not
only to exhibit objects, but also to conserve, restore and document them. Its collections
are also a valuable resource for scholars, students and tourists.
museum's story goes back to the 1920's when a central collection point was
needed for archaeological finds. Work on the handsome building, designed in a
neo‑pharaonic style, was begun in 1930 and completed in 1937. When it
opened in May 1943 it displayed antiquities from excavations in Beirut, Sidon,
and Tyre. Further discoveries around the country added more material and over
the next three decades the museum served as one of Lebanon's most important
hostilities broke out in 1975 action was taken to protect the priceless
collections. Large objects such as sarcophagi were covered in reinforced
concrete. Other antiquities were either removed for safekeeping or walled up in
the basement. Mosaics were protected with plastic and layered with cement.
Despite these precautions, the museum building was badly damaged and much of
its collection suffered from neglect and salt water corrosion. Shellfire destroyed
storage rooms where new articles awaited indexing and the 17,000 volume library
was found lying in the rubble.
conclusion of the war in 1991 the Directorate General of Antiquities was faced
with what seemed an impossible task. The building had to be repaired, the
objects restored and inventoried, and the museum's entire function reassessed
and updated. By 1997 the pockmarked sandstone facade had been renewed with a
mixture of stone powder and resin. A cleaner, more open interior was achieved
by stripping walls to the original stone. Later, acoustical tiles and elevators
were installed and the all‑important air‑conditioning system and
climate‑controlled display cases added to protect delicate objects from
excessive heat and humidity.
fascinating story of this restoration work, including scenes filmed during the
release of sarcophagi and statues from their concrete casings, can be seen in
a 20‑minute video film on show in the museum's audiovisual room.
THE MUSEUM VISIT
floor of the museum is reserved for mosaics and stone pieces, some of which are
monumental in size. In the central and right-hand sections of the hall are
objects from the Roman‑Byzantine period (64 BC to 636 AD ), starting with
the famous Mosaic of the Seven Wise Men at the museum entrance. This well‑preserved
mosaic, which once graced the dining room of a Roman villa in Baalbeck, depicts
Calliope, muse of philosophy, surrounded by Socrates and the Seven Wise Men.
Nearby is statuary from the same period, including a headless Emperor Hadrian,
found in Tyre.
second century AD Roman sarcophagi, two on either side of the central hall, are
arguably among the most spectacular objects in the museum. One is decorated
with Drunken Cupids, another with scenes of Battles Between Greeks, Both tell
the legend of Achilles. The sarcophagi were found in Tyre's necropolis, along
with dozens of other tombs and sarcophagi discovered by Emir Maurice Chehab,
Lebanon's first Director General of Antiquities (1942‑1982). You
can also see stone architects' models of the Roman theatre in Baalbeck (not
excavated) and the Roman temple at Niha in the Beqaa. Also from the Niha temple
is a reconstructed stone altar flanked by carved lions.
The remainder of the museum's
ground floor is dedicated to the second and first millennium BC. On the right
side of the hall are objects associated with Eshmoun, the Phoenician god of
healing, whose temple can still be seen near Sidon. Eshmoun was especially
venerated as a healer of children, and the statues of babies (usually boys)
were used as votive offerings to the god. Also look for the huge tribune from
the Eshmoun temple (4th‑3rd century BQ, carved with gods and goddesses on
one tier and dancing figures on the other. Displayed on the left of the central
hall is an Eshmoun throne and six miniature thrones belonging to the goddess
Astarte (Venus). Flanked by winged sphinxes, the Astarte thrones come from
various sites in Lebanon and date from the Persian to the Roman periods.
imposing limestone colossus in the Egyptian style at the far left of the hall
was found in Byblos. Of local manufacture, its date is uncertain although it
probably reflects the pervasive Egyptian influence in Byblos during the 3rd and
2nd millennium BC. Scorch marks on its lower half show it was damaged by fire.
In the same room is a plain marble sarcophagus with a Phoenician inscription. Found in Byblos, it dates to the 4th century BC.
museum's most important piece is undoubtedly the sarcophagus of Ahiram, King of
Byblos (10th century BC). The inscription, on the edge of the lid, is the
earliest known writing in the Phoenician alphabet, the prototype of modem
Western alphabets. In contrast to the ornately carved Roman‑Byzantine
sarcophagi, this limestone coffin reveals a mixture of Egyptian and Hittite‑Syrian
influences. The whole rests on four crouching lions while on one side king
Ahiram is seated on a throne guarded by winged sphinxes. The other side shows a
procession bearing offerings.
Only two of
the museum's 26 white marble anthropoid sarcophagi, each with the carved face
of the deceased, are on display. This important collection will be exhibited in
its entirety after extended work in the building's lower level is complete.
Dating from the 6th‑4th centuries BC, nineteen of the sarcophagi were
found near Sidon in 1901. They were called the "Ford Collection" in
honour of the Director of the American Presbyterian School. Later, other
anthropoid sarcophagi were added to the collection. Another important sarcophagus
from Sidon will also be on display on the lower level. Decorated with a carved
Phoenician ship in full sail, it dates to the end of the 1st century AD.
object can be found among all these stones. To the left of the entrance is a
well‑aged chunk of cedar, dating from 41 BC. Valued for its long lasting
properties, the Cedar of Lebanon played an important part in the early commerce
of Tyre, Sidon Byblos.
carved and inscribed stones on the first level are architectural and monumental
in scope, the second floor reveals artistry of a finer kind. Here the march of
history seems to slow as the traditions of pottery, jewellery and glass‑making
reveal the timelessness of human endeavour.
clockwise around 'the hall, the chronological exhibit begins with prehistory
and the Bronze Age (3200‑1200 BC) and continues through to the Arab
conquest and the Ottoman Period (635‑1516 AD).
one of humankind's' earliest artifacts and the lingua franca of archaeology, is
well represented. Beginning with‑ the Chololithic period (4th millennium
BC), the collections include late Bronze Age jars from Kamid el Loz in the
Beqaa, Iron Age funerary pottery found in Khaldé south of Beirut, Roman vessels
and beautiful Islamic pottery. Figurines, often used as offerings in temples or
as funerary material, are one of the delights of the museum. Charming
zoomorphic (animal shaped) figures of stone as well as a large collection of
ivory objects and figurines from Kamid el Loz date from the Bronze Age.
Byblos' temple of the Obelisks come the famous bronze figurines with their tall
"Phoenician" style hats. Overlaid with gold leaf, they are always
seen clustered together in an imposing crowd and have become a popular symbol
of Lebanon's long history. Also look for terra cotta figurines from the
Hellenistic period (333 BC‑64 AD).
jewellery, from Middle Bronze Age carnelian necklaces, to gold funerary
adornments of 5th century BC Sidon, would all be wearable today.
particular interest is the gold Byzantine Treasure found in a clay jar in
downtown Beirut. The rings, bracelets with carved animal heads, a series of
pendants with settings of semi‑precious stones and pendant earrings, are
all of fine quality. The jar was unearthed in 1977 during archaeological
soundings by the Directorate General of Antiquities and the French Institute of
Archaeology. More attractive gold jewellery comes from the Mamluke period (1289‑1516).
Byblos is the source of many of the museum's treasures. One of the great
Phoenician cities, Byblos enjoyed close relations with Egypt from the 3rd
millennium BC onwards. Here royal tombs yielded gold diadems or crowns, gold
and jewelled breastplates, sceptres, and a gold dagger. The obsidian (volcanic
glass) vase and a coffer set with gold were gifts from pharaohs Amenenhat XI
and IV. Objects from the Temple of Obelisks in Byblos include gold and bronze
fenestrated axes, an impressive gold, silver and ivory dagger and a gold vase.
hand blown glass comes mostly from Roman, Byzantine and Islamic workshops, but
the art probably originated in Tyre in the first century BC. With their elegant
shapes and exotic colours, these glass bottles, flasks and jugs are among the
most arresting objects on the floor.
to these spectacular showcases, two small exhibits should not be missed. Easily
overlooked, but of a unique interest is a sample of purple‑dyed cloth
from the murex, a marine snail. The purple dye industry thrived in ancient Tyre
and Sidon, and the murex can still be found in coastal waters, although
commercial dyeing is on longer feasible. Finally, reserved for the end of the
exhibition, is a display of objects damaged during the war. Lumpish blobs of
molten glass, blackened stone and twisted metal give some hint of the war's
effect oh Lebanon's heritage and of the tremendous task of rehabilitating the
museum. Many other objects are being restored and will gradually be shown to
the public. The next step will be the opening of the museum’s lower level and the
display of 26 anthropoid sarcophagi.
Audio Visual Room is to the right of the entrance. On the left are the ticket
booth and an attractive museum gift shop. Restroom facilities are in a separate
building on the museum grounds.
are 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Mondays.
Entrance Fee: L.L.5, 000 ‑ Students: L.L. 1,000 Across from the
museum on Damascus Street is a small garden with five columns of Roman
colonnade, probably from a basilica. Discovered in Beirut in 1940, the
colonnade was later moved to this site. Also in the garden is a mosaic from a
5th century AD Byzantine church found in Khaldé, south of Beirut, in the