National Museum of Beirut mirrors Lebanon’s past – and present

For a frequent museum-goer like myself, the ultimate test of a history museum is how much it says about the present in addition to the past. The National Museum of Beirut, Lebanon’s premier cultural shrine, delivers on both. Rendered in Lebanese ochre limestone, the museum’s 1940s Egyptian Revival edifice and interior are austere but vastly atmospheric. Punctuated with bullet holes from the 1975-1991 civil war, it is also a testament to Lebanon’s troubled recent past and post-war reconstruction.

The magnificent display of archaeological finds from the country’s successive civilisations is both comprehensive and uncluttered. Set against the luminous limestone background stand its Phoenician sarcophagi, Roman statues, Byzantine mosaics and Mamluk tombstones. My favourites include giant Roman marble sarcophagi dotting the main lobby, Phoenician statues of baby boys reminiscent of cherubs and rows of human-faced sarcophagi staring at themselves in suspended mirrors in the basement.

Perhaps the most touching takeaway from this museum is a short documentary screened at regular intervals in the foyer. It details how dedicated curators saved the museum’s collection during the civil war from both mortars and water damage and then restored it to its former glory. Some of the damage is still visible on the walls, staircases and artifacts themselves: the large mosaic of the Good Shepherd surrounded by animals in an idyllic setting in a side room has a huge hole gaping through it.

The museum and the country at large are forever in­debted for the ultimate preservation of this extraordinary collection to Maurice Chehab, the late director of the Lebanese Department of Antiqui­ties. His ingenuity, such as encasing in thick concrete the bulky sarcophagi that couldn’t otherwise be moved into safety, has saved these and other treasures from the onslaught of heavily armed militias that clashed almost daily for some fifteen years along Beirut’s Green Line where this museum is located.

This outstanding collection in a sombre museum that has re-emerged from a recent civil war is a tribute to Lebanon’s past – and present. On a rainy Sunday morning, with anti-government riots raging all over Beirut, I was the only visitor here. The museum staff were as unfazed by the unrest in the city as the ancient statues they were guarding. The museum stands still in the midst of tension, much like the Roman ruins of Baalbek I visited the day before deep inside Lebanon’s Hezbollah-controlled territory.