It’s been under lock and key for 40 years, but the National Museum of Beirut is finally opening up its basement to the public.
Visitors will find an impressive 500-piece collection of funerary art, arranged chronologically from a 250,000 year-old human tooth to 19th century Ottoman stone carvings.
During the Lebanese Civil War, the museum became a dangerous place as it was situated on the Green Line that divided East and West Beirut. It was occupied by snipers and militia, shelled and left peppered with bullet holes. It was closed altogether for 20 years. Fortunately, when the war had broken out in 1975, a forward-thinking museum director had taken steps to protected many of the museum’s treasures. “The director of antiquities then, Maurice Chehab, decided very quickly to remove the small objects from the showcases and hide them inside boxes in the basement of the museum,” says the museum’s curator, Anne-Marie Maïla Afeiche. “He put them on shelves and then he walled them off, so if you didn’t have the plan you couldn’t even tell that behind the wall the whole collection was protected … The bigger objects like the sarcophagi he couldn’t move, of course, so he decided to protect them by building a cement case around each and every one.”
Almost everything survived the upheaval. The ground floor and first floor of the three-storey building re-opened in 1999, but the basement remained closed until this month. One of the most hotly-anticipated displays is that carefully protected collection of 31 anthropoid sarcophagi. Discovered in Sidon, south of Beirut, they each have faces carved of white marble, thought to be portraits of the deceased.
Afeiche says that the reopening of the basement after so long is a message of hope at a time when regional conflicts have led to the destruction of priceless artefacts. “Even when there is vandalism and conflict, there is always hope to be able to recover a whole collection, a whole museum, and to open it to visitors so they can recognise their history and their cultural heritage.”