It is easy to associate Beirut with the scars of the civil war, and it is understandable if one is completely oblivious to Lebanon’s thriving art scene for the country has been portrayed in the media as one of many dangerous corners of the Middle East. But those who know Lebanon a little bit deeper, or have a penchant for anything Lebanese, must have realized how the country produces some of the greatest artists in the region. Its singers are well-known beyond its borders, even beyond the Middle East, and its diaspora has helped to reinvigorate its art scene as peace and normalcy returned following the conclusion of a bloody chapter in the country’s history.
Those who settled in this land since antiquity set a path of artistic developments which eventually shaped Lebanon’s contemporary art scene. The seafaring Phoenicians whose civilization reached its apex between 1200 to 333 BC carved out Astarte – an ancient Mesopotamian goddess – onto their stone thrones and decorated their kings’ sarcophagi with elaborate bas-reliefs. The Romans built spectacular temples embellished with impressive columns, detailed mosaic tiles, and finely-carved statues. The Arabs added beautiful palaces to this land already filled with a plethora of great artistic achievements. However, the civil war has undeniably created irreversible damage to some of them, but the good news is since the end of the war, modern-day Lebanese have been eager to rebuild and reshape the country’s artistic and cultural scenes.
The National Museum of Beirut, located in the southern part of the Lebanese capital’s city proper, is a good place to get a glimpse of the art scene in various epochs of the land’s very long past. Built in the Egyptian Revival architectural style using locally-sourced ocher limestone, the museum was officially opened in 1942. Mir Maurice Chehab was its first head curator who for the next 33 years amassed archaeological artifacts procured from all over Lebanon. The outbreak of the civil war in 1975, however, cast a dark shadow on the museum’s fate.
Situated on the front line separating warring militias in Beirut, the museum was heavily bombarded by gunfire during the dark days of the civil war in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Realizing the great threat the museum’s invaluable collection was facing, Mir Maurice Chehab moved small artifacts to the basement then sealed it off. Protective layers of concrete were added to cover the mosaics on the ground floor, while sandbags were used to protect statues and sarcophagi. However, these measures could not completely prevent damage to some of the collection, including the fifth- or sixth-century mosaic of the Good Shepherd which was badly damaged in its lower left-hand corner by a sniper. Other artifacts were destroyed by a fire which was started by explosive shells.
Following the end of the civil war in 1991, restoration efforts to bring back the museum’s past glory brought repeated re-openings and re-closings of its premises, with the latest restoration works concluded in 2016 to its basement. Today the institution’s entrance brings visitors into the past in an elegant and stylish way. The mosaic of the Seven Wise Men originating from Baalbek in the third century AD sits at the center of the ground floor with the grand staircase – its base flanked by two tall statues of women from the Roman period – leading to the upper floor providing a stately backdrop. To the right and left of the mosaic are mostly stone artifacts dating back to the Phoenician, Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods, with some being incredibly well-preserved for thousands of years.
The museum’s collection showcased on its upper floor and in the basement is no less impressive. While smaller objects including small, slender figurines from the Bronze Age fill up the former, the latter is where artifacts related to the underworld or afterlife are displayed. Dozens of anthropomorphic marble sarcophagi from the fourth century BC are laid in an orderly and solemn manner within a room with dark walls. Meanwhile the mummies of early Maronite Catholics from a cave in the Qadisha Valley are stored in a specially-made humidity-regulated chamber to preserve them for many more years to come.
Across the city in the district of Achrafieh lies a contemporary art museum housed in a handsome early 20th-century villa which bears influences from the Venetian and Ottoman architectural styles. Owned by late Lebanese aristocrat Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock, an avid art collector who decreed in his will that the villa would be bequeathed to the city of Beirut, the property was turned into a museum upon his death in 1952. Nine years later the museum officially opened its doors with the Salon d’Automne, an exhibition showing new and innovative art of the time. This marked an important milestone of the country’s pursuit to be a cultural powerhouse in the Middle East.
Throughout the course of the civil war, the museum surprisingly remained open, though Lebanon’s cultural scene was eclipsed by the brutality of the fighting. The Sursock Museum only closed its doors in 2008 for a major renovation that would increase its total area and equip the premises with world-class facilities. Finally, in 2015 the Sursock Museum reopened to the public with great fanfare, although the international media couldn’t resist reacting in a clichéd way, a case in point: “Beirut’s legendary museum rises from the ashes”.
Visitors here can get a glimpse into the high life of Lebanese aristocrats in the early 20th century, most evident in the Salon Arabe, a grand reception area of the first floor of the former villa, lavishly decorated with ornamental wood panels most likely brought from Damascus in the 1930s, as well as glistening marble tiles. Today, apart from Nicolas Sursock’s preserved study and the salon, the rest of this floor is dedicated to showcasing the works of contemporary artists. At the time of our visit, whimsical illustrations by mother-and-son creatives Laure and Mazen were on display.
On the second floor, the museum’s permanent collection since its opening in 1961 as well as recent acquisitions and donations occupied several different chambers. From paintings in various styles to sculptural artworks, not only was the collection impressive and evocative, but the extremely quiet ambiance also provided visitors with a measure of tranquility from Beirut’s cacophony. Meanwhile, at the Twin Galleries on the ground floor, Baris Dogrusoz’s Theater of Operations is a multimedia work examining the acts of aggregating and digging – creating two potentially resistive architectural typologies: the barricade and the tunnel – using the ancient city of Europos Dura in Syria as the subject.
The Sursock Museum and the National Museum of Beirut are only two of many museums in the Lebanese capital that help confirm Beirut’s reputation as a regional cultural hub. We did not have enough time to visit the others, but I can assure you that what people are saying about the city’s world-class artistic and cultural offerings is true. Despite the civil war in the past and the occasionally dysfunctional government today, Beirut manages to stand tall as a progressive and innovative beacon in the Middle East.