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(Guided tours in Arabic, English, French)

(Guided 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.

The 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 cultural institutions.

When 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.

At the 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.

The 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

First Level

The ground 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.

Four carved 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.

The 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.

The 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.

One wood 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.

 

Second level

If the 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.

Starting 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).

Pottery, 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.

From 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).

The jewellery, from Middle Bronze Age carnelian necklaces, to gold funerary adornments of 5th century BC Sidon, would all be wearable today.

Of 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).

Ancient 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.

The 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.

In addition 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.

 

AMENITIIES

The 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.

Museum hours 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 1950's.

 

 

Area: Beirut
Address: MatHaf, main road
Phone Number(s): 1.612298
 
 
   
 
   
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