Beirut Art through the Millennia

27 comments
Asia, Lebanon, West

A grand welcome to the National Museum of Beirut

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.

A Roman period marble sarcophagus from Tyre in southern Lebanon

Priam kneels before Achilles and kisses his hand

A third-century BC tribune depicting Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Leto and Artemis

The Birth of Alexander mosaic from Baalbek

The abduction of Europa, found in Byblos

A fifth-century BC statuette with Phoenician inscriptions

The mosaic of the Good Shepherd with war damage in its lower left-hand corner

Hygeia, the Greek personification of hygiene

A Roman eagle discovered in Beirut

Lions from the past

Sarcophagus carved with battles between the Greeks

Sarcophagus of Ahiram, King of Byblos some 3,000 years ago

An stele from the period of strong relations between Ancient Egypt and Ancient Lebanon

The thrones of Astarte

A capital with bull protomes from the fifth century BC

A Roman statue from Beirut

Depiction of a sailing boat on a sarcophagus from the Roman period

Anthropomorphic marble sarcophagi from the fourth century BC

A vase from the Roman period

The view from the upper floor

The mosaic of the Seven Wise Men, from Baalbek

Figurines from Byblos, 19th to 18th century BC

A pilgrim’s flask from the Roman period

Artifacts destroyed by a fire during the civil war

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.

The beautiful villa of Nicolas Sursock which is now the Sursock Museum

The grand Salon Arabe

Wood panels from Damascus

A special exhibition by Laure and Mazen

Mother and son collaborated on these eye-catching illustrations

Modern art in an early 20th-century villa

A contemplative moment

One of the museum’s sculptural pieces

A portrait of Juliana Seraphim (a Palestinian artist who sought refuge in Lebanon) by Cici Tommaseo-Sursock

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

27 thoughts on “Beirut Art through the Millennia”

  1. What an incredible collection of art. That is pretty cool that is stayed open during the civil war. It looks like the closing and facelift a few years ago was worth it – it looks well lit and high class.

    Liked by 1 person

    • To our surprise, most of the museums we went to in Lebanon have a world-class standard, which made me a bit ashamed with the quality of the museums in Indonesia in general. History lovers would enjoy Lebanon, so would art aficionados.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Beirut Art through the Millennia – nelsongondotcom

    • And thank you for reading! I’m glad this post could give you a glimpse of Beirut’s vibrant art scene.

      Like

  3. Another surprise, Bama! Honestly, I have never thought that Beirut’s cultural scene is so impressive. Those artefacts are pretty amazing. I really like the colourful flask. I guess it came from an ultra-wealthy pilgrim because colours such as red or azure blue were extremely rare at that time 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • So there are even more reasons for you to consider a visit to Lebanon one day? 🙂 I’m not sure if that flask has always looked like that or the coloration is actually a result of thousands of years of chemical reactions with the elements. But it does look stunning!

      Liked by 1 person

    • And it’s very heartening to know that despite the bitterness of the civil war, many people in Lebanon are so keen on keeping the country’s status as the cultural hub of the Middle East.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The more reason for me to visit Greece sooner than later. If only I could just pack my bag and go without having to get a visa beforehand!

      Like

  4. It is so sad what war does to a country’s invaluable art and architecture. I’m glad to read though about the wonderful restoration efforts and the foresight of people like Mir Maurice Chehab in helping to protect precious pieces. Both places look magnificent…I’m quite drawn to the Grand Salon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This made me think of the artworks that have been destroyed in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. But these countries should also take Lebanon as an example that not everything is lost when a war is over as long as people are passionate for bringing vibrant art scene back to their countries.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Into Lebanon’s Snowy Realms | What an Amazing World!

  6. It was heartening to see just how many priceless artifacts at the National Museum of Beirut managed to survive the bitter Civil War – but at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling sad about the twisted remains of the ones that melted because of fire (which I think was induced by mortar shelling). Art and cultural heritage almost always become the first victims in armed conflict. It might have been pouring that day in Beirut, but I loved spending hours and hours in both those museums… I still can’t get over the fact that the Sursock used to be a home. It is absolutely palatial!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s really sad to see those artifacts that have been forever destroyed by fire, but I also commend the National Museum of Beirut’s bold move to display them so people can see what war can do to their heritage — thinking about what has been lost in places like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

      I did enjoy our museum-hopping day in Beirut because despite the rain, what we saw really blew our minds — what people have been saying about Beirut’s world-class art and cultural scene is true after all.

      Liked by 1 person

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