If you are a history lover, like me, you should visit the National Museum of Beirut. This museum is just as impressive as the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and they both have mummies. More than 100,000 objects are part of the museum’s collection, which are mostly antiques found by the Directorate General for Antiquities. Of all these, they only exhibit 1,300 pieces dating from prehistoric times to the medieval period of the Mamluks.
The museum is located in the Mazra’a district of Beirut, at the intersection between Abdallah al-Yafi Avenue and the Damascus road. I drove from my hotel in Beirut and parked right in front of the entrance.
The architects Antoine Nahas and Pierre Leprince Ringuet built the museum inspired by Egyptian architecture with a French touch, using Lebanese ocher limestone. Right in front is another set of Roman columns that seem very old, which contrast with those of the entrance.
The origins of the National Museum of Beirut
Raymond Weill was a French officer assigned to live in Lebanon. In 1919, he created a small provisional museum in Beirut to show a few old works. The collection began to grow as more archaeological excavations were made, especially in Tire and Byblos.
Individuals also donated their private collections and in 1923, the “Committee of Friends of the Museum” began raising funds, supported by Bechara El Khoury, then Prime Minister and Minister of Education and Fine Arts.
The idea was to create a national museum and in 1930 construction began on a piece of land near the Beirut racecourse that was donated. Construction ends in 1937, but the inauguration had to be postponed due to the global political condition caused by World War II. On May 27, 1942, President Alfred Naqqache finally inaugurated the National Museum of Beirut. Maurice Chehab was the museum director for 33 years and managed to grow the collection.
Civil war closes the museum
In 1975 the Lebanese civil war began. The National Museum of Beirut and the General Directorate of Antiquities became the dividing line between both fractions. This line was known as the “museum alley” that divided the east and west of the city of Beirut. It was impossible to visit the museum, as it was one of the most dangerous places on the planet.
The museum had to close by force as it sustained bombings and became a barracks for combatants. Maurice (the museum’s director) and his wife used the small truce windows to move the artifacts.
They first moved the small pieces to the basement, which was then walled, prohibiting any access to the lower floors. On the ground floor, the mosaics that you can see on the floor were covered with a layer of concrete. Statues and sarcophagi were protected with sandbags. In 1982, the situation worsened and they had to build cement and wood boxes to protect the largest pieces that could not be moved.
16 years later the war ends
Finally in 1991 the war ends after more than 250,000 deaths. The National Museum of Beirut was almost in ruins, the entire exterior was full of bullet holes and bomb craters. The inner walls had graffiti and the floor was flooded with rain. The humidity was very high and ended up ruining some objects of wood and terracotta.
All laboratory equipment was lost, also maps, photographs and other records that were burned by fires caused by the bombs. During the war some objects were stolen, which you can now see in Turkish museums. Miraculously, most of the objects survived.
Restoration and reopening
Michel Edde, the Minister of Culture and Higher Education proposed to restore the museum in 1992. Ghassan Tueni, a Lebanese politician and journalist, donated funds to build the massive entrance gate. They could not start removing the concrete boxes or restoring the pieces until the building was closed. After they had put the windows and doors they removed the giant concrete wall that blocked the basement.
In 1995 the restoration began. On November 25, 1997, a pre-opening was made but it was premature since most of the building was still being repaired. They also needed to update in order to meet modern museum standards. Finally in 1999, the museum opens its first and second floor. The basement would remain closed. That same year, the government of Lebanon began a massive campaign to recover stolen objects. The law says that any artifact over 300 years old belongs to the state.
If you want to know a little more about the museum’s past, you can watch a 12-minute documentary that is shown every hour between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.
The basement was the last to open
The basement of the National Museum of Beirut reopens 40 years after the Civil War in Lebanon. Initially it was supposed to open in November 2010 but was delayed due to technical difficulties and lack of financing. The government of Italy donated €1.2 million in 2014 for the restoration and provided the help of Italian conservatives.
Finally, it opens its doors again on October 7, 2016. It is easy to miss the basement entrance, since its entrance is under the stairs, so I recommend being attentive.
It contains 500 pieces in chronological order, including a human tooth more than 250,000 years old and ends with carved stones from the 19th century. The main motive of the basement is funerals and funeral practices from prehistoric times to the Ottoman Empire. You can understand how different civilizationsthe had their rituals.
A Roman tomb discovered in the Tire region in 1937 was moved with all its paintings to the basement of the museum. It shows the legend of Icarus, along with his father Daedalus, making his wings ominous. If you ask security he lets you go inside the room, but tells you not to take pictures to avoid damaging the paintings.
Another notable piece is the painting of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus dating from the year 240. It is believed to be one of the oldest discovered representations of Mary in the world.
Mummies and sarcophagi
A series of 31 Phoenician sarcophagi with a human face found in Sidon (south of Beirut) are stored in a room with mirrors that show their reflection. The effect caused deceives as if the row of sarcophagi continues eternally.
They look like mummy boxes, each with a different face carved in white marble. It is presumed that they are pictures of dead people, some seem Egyptian and others Greek. They are from the sixth to the fourth century before Christ.
You can also find pottery, amulets, jewelry, stones and weapons that were buried next to people.
Collections in the museum
The Phoenician figures found buried near the Temple of the Obelisk in Byblos are a favorite. They were made between the 18th and 19th century BC. When I left the museum I bought some replicas in the store. You can also find them at any souvenir shop in Lebanon.
The upper floor has 1,243 small and medium pieces organized in chronological order. Some have magnifying glasses so you can see the details better.
Visitors can download an app in three languages which provides information about the history of the museum and its collections. You can also scan the QR code of each piece to hear about it. The visiting hours of the National Museum of Beirut are from 9 a.m. at 5 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday. On Mondays and holidays the museum is closed. We went just before closing and they start to turn off the lights to get you out, which is difficult because you want to continue seeing the wonderful historical pieces.