Related topics

Museum Showcases Lebanon’s History

November 22, 1997

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Inside a granite stone building in the heart of the city, archaeological treasures showcase Lebanon’s rich, ancient history.

The building itself is a monument to the recent, bloody past.

Forced to close during Lebanon’s civil war, the National Museum reopens Tuesday after 22 years. Priceless objects _ such as a sarcophagus inscribed with the world’s first phonetic alphabet _ have been brought from the basement, shed of the cement casings that protected them during the fighting.

For history buffs and archaeologists, the museum is returning to its original glory. But for a younger generation that grew up during the war, the museum’s reopening gives it a whole new identity.

Set smack against the ``green line″ that split Beirut into Christian and Muslim sectors from 1975 to 1990, the Museum _ or ``The Mathaf″ (pronounced MAT haf) in Arabic _ was synonymous with kidnapping, killing and division.

The building marked one of three crossing points between the sectors, and Christian militiamen occasionally set up so-called ``kidnapping checkpoints″ on its doorstep.

In 1982, Israeli invaders placed tanks outside the museum to enforce a siege of Palestinian guerrillas holed up in Beirut’s Muslim sector.

It took two years and $1.2 million to restore some of the museum’s prewar grandeur. Columns were polished, holes from bullets and shells erased. The facade looks just as it did when the museum was built in 1923.

Less than 100 yards away, a skeletal building with gaping holes from hundreds of shells is a reminder of what the museum endured.

Leila Badr, archaeologist and director of the museum at the American University of Beirut, called the National Museum’s reopening ``a great moment.″

``It’s very important for the national feelings of every Lebanese person,″ she said. ``It’s our country’s national heritage and we are very proud of it.″

Some of that heritage didn’t make it through the war.

Objects dating from as early as 4000 B.C. were destroyed or looted. Others, mainly small- and medium-size objects, became rusted and corroded in the museum’s humid basement, where salt water occasionally seeped in.

But most of the museum’s collection survived or was saved from damage, including one of its most celebrated: King Ahiram’s limestone sarcophagus, with its inscriptions in the Phoenician alphabet.

At first, only the ground floor will be open to the public, with an exhibit of statues, stone objects, tombs, and sarcophagi.

The rest of the museum’s collection is being restored, a laborious process expected to take two more years. Salt residue must be cleaned off some objects, and 50 tons of protective concrete removed from others.

``The restoration of these objects is a very big and difficult job,″ said Helga Seeden, a German archaeology professor at the American University.

As much as it destroyed, the war still had some advantages for Lebanon’s artifacts.

When the devastated downtown was razed to build a new commercial district, workers by chance uncovered relics from the Iron and Stone Ages, and the Phoenician, Hellenic, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader and Ottoman eras.

The discoveries will be added to the museum’s collection.

Update hourly