Museum Day

My first few days in Lebanon were rainy. When I say “rainy”, I’m not talking about just overcast skies and some little showers here and there. I mean that for three straight days, it was like the sky decided to finally unload some serious emotional baggage. I usually don’t believe in umbrellas (don’t bother trying to make sense of me), but no chance was I going out in THAT with just a rain jacket.

We started out by planning “rainy day activities” and ended by defiantly going outside despite the rain. The National Museum of Beirut was stop #1 on the rainy-day Beirut tour, and it was a great way to start off my time in Lebanon! It’s an archaeology museum, and they have a huge variety of artifacts. There are so many different types of things, and they span thousands of years of history. The museum has over 100,000 artifacts, and about 1,300 of them are displayed. If you think that sounds like they’re kind of gypping you, trust me when I say that 1,300 is more than enough. The museum is incredibly well done with enough stuff to make you feel satisfied but not so much that your brain is mush by the time you leave. I was also impressed with their audio guide… they give you an ipad! And you go around the museum scanning barcodes to bring up more information about certain objects. So high tech!

Doesn’t this just look exactly the way you think an archaeology museum should look?

The museum is located right along the road that served as the separating line between the east and west sides of Beirut during the civil war. That meant that there was no chance of the building making it through the war unharmed, so the curator of the museum at the time undertook measures to protect the collection. Some artifacts were relocated to other parts of the country, and other small objects were hidden in the basement. Those storerooms were walled in so that no one even knew they existed, aside from the very few who were involved with the installation. Larger, unmovable objects, such as the mosaics set into the floor and large statues, were encased in wood and concrete and left in place.

Museums are the best.

The war lasted longer than expected, so despite these protection measures, the collection still suffered greatly. The artifacts hidden in the basement storerooms were in an uncontrolled environment for 15 years. Flooding in the museum led to high humidity levels (around 95%). A fire caused by shelling resulted in the destruction of museum records and artifacts. Large objects suffered damage from the salt in the concrete and the lack of ventilation in their emergency casings. Looting scattered the collection across the world. The building itself was covered in shell and bullet holes and graffiti.

I’ll be honest, I don’t remember what these are. I imagine they’re like the ancient version of little green army dudes (ignore me).

It took 21 years after restoration began for the entire museum to open again. The building needed a serious overhaul, and the collection had to be inventoried and restored. In 1999, four years after restoration efforts began, the museum permanently reopened, but the final floor wasn’t completed until October 2016. The museum is STILL working to track down artifacts that were stolen and sold during the war.

Some cool rings that they found buried with the anthropoid sarcophagi.

I was lucky that the basement was open by the time I visited. It included some of the coolest stuff in the whole museum… there were three naturally mummified people who were found in a cave, a huge collection of anthropoid sarcophagi, and a 2nd-century frescoed tomb that was relocated from Tyre. I don’t have pictures of the people because it seemed disrespectful or of the tomb because photography isn’t allowed, so I guess you just need to visit Lebanon if you want to see them…

I checked out the National Museum solo, but Badveli and Maria joined me for the next museum on the list, the Nicolas Sursock Museum. During his life, Sursock was an art collector, and his will left his house to the city of Beirut to be converted into an art museum. I’ll be honest, 90% of the reason I wanted to go was just to see the house. It’s a modern/contemporary art museum, and we all know the complicated relationship I have with modern art. I figured that no matter what the art was like, the building would be worth the trip. Badveli was interested in checking out these 19th-century pictures they have of the ruins in Baalbeck, so we made it a family trip!

That stained glass though…

Talk about an epic doorway!

The house was built in 1912 and is a cool mix of architectural styles, including some elements inspired by Venetian and Ottoman architecture. It also has a bunch of stained glass which basically guarantees that I’m going to like it. The museum first opened with the house kept in its original condition, and exhibitions were shown in the many rooms of the mansion. Eventually, a project was undertaken to reconfigure some of the rooms into more traditional gallery spaces. Recently, a much larger project was completed that added four underground floors beneath the house and garden. I can only imagine how fun that construction process must have been, figuring out how to levitate a mansion while constructing another building underneath it.

For the most part, the exhibitions were about what I expected… weird. There were a few cool pieces, but it was largely baffling, as is the way with modern art. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issues with weird. I love weird things! But the weirdness of most modern art is a type that must be incompatible with my personal brand of weird. There was one thing though… as we were leaving, we walked past a curtained doorway marked with a sign saying, “Please do not touch the floating burger.” I was intrigued. Burger like hamburger? Why was it floating? What about it made touching it so tempting that they explicitly had to tell people not to? I peeked my head inside, and somehow what I saw was simultaneously exactly what I expected and the last thing that I expected. It was a floating burger. The room was completely dark, a blacker darkness than any I’d ever experienced. The only light shone directly onto a floating hamburger. It was like a beacon, calling you towards it. The burger practically screamed, “TOUCH ME!” I’m not an uncultured scrub… I know that you’re not supposed to touch things at museums, but I’ll be honest. I wanted to touch that burger. HOW DID THEY KNOW?  It was like I was hypnotized. There was also a museum staff woman standing by the entrance, probably making sure that the burger was left untouched because I bet she’s felt the same, inexplicable desire that I felt to touch the forbidden burger.

Like… how could you NOT look after seeing this??


I felt like my faith in modern art was restored… until we left the museum and I read the pamphlet that accompanied the piece. It was something about capitalism and blah blah blah profound symbolism blah blah blah. I immediately forgot what I read because I knew that trying to assign too much meaning would inevitably ruin the whole thing for me. Maybe that’s the problem. I want modern art that has no explanation besides “I made this because I thought it was weird and funny.” Otherwise, it gives me flashbacks to university where we’d make a design that we thought looked cool and then go back later to make up some stupid, symbolic meaning because the project required it. What’s wrong with just saying, “I did this because it looked cool”? To be fair, sometimes the explanations feel legitimate, but most of the time they seem like a bunch of hooey.

This is the salon where Sursock would entertain guests. It’s a ridiculous room but also kind of awesome.

I couldn’t get over how much detail there was in EVERY aspect of the room.

The wood paneling on the walls was brought in from Damascus.


Lebanon History Lesson

Remember when I said that Lebanon is super old? As you might expect from a very old place, there are a lot of museums in Lebanon displaying very old things. I went to two of them, the National Museum of Beirut and the American University of Beirut’s Archaeology Museum. Beyond just museums, there are ruins all over the city (and under the city) and the country. It would be impossible to give you a thorough history of Lebanon, mostly because you would be bored to tears reading it, and I would react similarly to writing it. Instead, I’m going to give you the highlights deemed most interesting by me.

(Disclaimer: as usual, I’m at like 90% confident that what follows is accurate, but I’m not a scholar of ancient history which means that looking at this stuff for too long makes my head hurt. I did my best.)

View of the main hall in the National Museum of Beirut.

Ancient molar! It’s dated to 200000-50000 BP.

To talk about the first humans in Lebanon, we have to go back… waaaaaay back in history to AT LEAST 48000 BC. Oh yes, that’s right. The National Museum has a molar that has been radiocarbon dated to 250000 – 50000 BP (BP means the number of years before 1950). That, yes, seems like quite the range of dates. I know this is complicated stuff, but you’d think they could come up with a gap of less than 200,000 years. Anyway, that’s beside the point. The point is, even if it’s only from 50000 years before 1950, it’s still ridiculous.

The first permanent settlements are estimated to have emerged by 5000BC. By 4000BC, the land was inhabited by the Canaanites, or Phoenicians. They lived in coastal cities, and the inland was covered in forests. Those cities are still in existence today: Tyre and Sidon were big maritime and trade centers, and Gubla (Byblos) and Berytus (Beirut) were trade and religious centers. The Phoenicians thrived because of their location and many tradable resources. They established a trading relationship with Egypt, bringing in wealth and foreign goods.

These bones from a woman are dated to 15000 BP. They’re laid out exactly as they were found.

In the 1400s BC, Lebanon became part of the Egyptian empire for a couple of centuries. Egypt was just the first in a long line of powerful outsiders to come in and rule over the land. Post-Egyptians, the Phoenicians enjoyed a few centuries of independence, thriving again and mastering the arts of textiles, ivory work, metalwork, and glassmaking. The Phoenician alphabet spread, making it possible for common people to learn to read. Many modern alphabets can be traced back to the Phoenician alphabet. It was during this period that Sidon and Tyre first entered the story in the Bible, when cedar trees and craftsmen were provided to Israel’s King David to build his palace. Later, Jezebel, the queen of Israel who led the Israelites astray by worshipping the Phoenician god Baal, was the daughter of the king of Sidon.

Thirty-one anthropoid sarcophagi were found near Sidon. They’re from about the 5th century BC and show both Egyptian (the sarcophagi) and Greek (the style of the carved faces) influences.

Ancient braces! This is dated back to the 5th century BC, during Phoenician times. It’s the earliest known example of “retentive dentistry”.

When the Assyrians conquered the Phoenicians in the 9th century BC, they ruled oppressively. Any uprisings were squashed, and the people were punished for their rebellion. The Babylonians were similarly harsh rulers. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar sieged Tyre, an island city, for 13 years before gaining control. This siege is described by the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Next came Persian rule and a period of peace until they started imposing high taxes, and the people rebelled.

When Alexander the Great and the Macedonians came onto the scene in the 300s BC, most cities didn’t resist and instead welcomed them in. Tyre, on the other hand, refused to allow entry into the city. The Macedonians sieged the island for seven months and ended up victorious after constructing a causeway from stones, timber, and dirt that linked the island to the mainland. Without its water defenses, the city fell, and its inhabitants were harshly punished for their resistance. Over time, the causeway widened as more and more sand and debris washed up, and today, Tyre is a peninsula. The fall of Tyre and its failure to ever recover its previous status as a world-wide trading center was described by the prophet Ezekiel.

After Alexander died, his great kingdom fell apart under the conflict-filled rule of his successors. The Romans took over, and Pompey added Lebanon as a Roman province. The inhabitants of its major cities were given Roman citizenship. The language switched from Phoenician to Aramaic. It was a time of economic prosperity.

This is a model of a 2nd century AD temple. It was made to guide the builders… architectural drawings, classical style! Imagine being an architecture student in those days and having to make your models out of limestone… I thought cardboard was bad enough!

This was also the time period in which Jesus performed his first miracle in Qana, in the south of Lebanon, turning water into wine at a wedding. He visited Tyre and Sidon as part of his ministry. Later, Paul also briefly visited both cities and met with disciples in each. Christianity spread quickly, leading to a Christian majority in the area. The Maronite church emerged at the end of the 4th century from the followers of Saint Maron, a monk.

Natural disaster in the form of earthquakes struck in the 4th and 6th centuries AD. The 4th century earthquakes were accompanied by tidal waves that destroyed the coastal cities. The 6th century’s destroyed Baalbeck (originally a big pilgrimage location for the Phoenician god Baal and later the location of Roman temples) and Beirut, killing thousands. Between these disasters and internal conflicts in the empire, Roman control of the area weakened.

These ruins are guessed to be the remains of the famous Roman law school in Beirut. They haven’t found any decisive evidence of this, so really it’s just a guess because they don’t know what else it might be.

Islam was introduced by the prophet Muhammad at the beginning of the 7th century, and the Muslim Arabs took control from the Romans in the same century. Islam began to spread, and Arabic was introduced as the new language. The Maronite community clung to Christianity and was treated with varying levels of tolerance depending on the ruler at the time. The Druze faith also emerged around the end of the 10th century.

This is some Roman goddess… maybe Venus? I can’t remember, but I thought the fact that she’s wearing a necklace and earrings is pretty cool.

The Crusaders swept in during the 11th century, organized by Western European Christians who were trying to reclaim the Eastern Mediterranean. Lebanon became part of the Crusader states, split between two of them. The Maronites formed a connection with the French and pledged their allegiance to the pope in Rome, rather than to a more local patriarch, bringing them support from both France and Italy.

Muslim control resumed in the late 13th century. The Ottoman Turks were growing their empire, and Lebanon became a semi-autonomous part of it. Fakhr-ad-Din II was a Druze leader who ruled in the 16th century and worked to unify Lebanon. He resolved religious conflicts and enforced tolerance, enlarged the emirate, and is considered the founder of modern Lebanon. His rule led to economic and cultural prosperity, and he wanted Lebanon to gain its independence from the Ottoman Empire. They obviously didn’t like that very much, and his execution was eventually ordered by the sultan.

The AUB museum. It’s very pretty.

Fakhr-ad-Din II’s rule was a high point, and after that, things went downhill. Conflicts between the Maronites and Druze got increasingly violent in the 1800s. The Ottomans helped the Druze conduct massacres of the Maronite population. The Maronites grew more and more discontented with Ottoman rule and were fighting with the support of the French. The British backed the Druze. The Ottomans wanted to maintain the conflict to maintain control. Eventually, foreign powers threatened to intervene, and the Ottomans worked to end the conflict to avoid foreign meddling.

The latter half of the 1800s was more peaceful. The next big disaster struck during World War I when food shortages led to the deaths of almost half of the population. At the end of the war, with Ottoman assets being divided up, control of Lebanon and Syria was given to the French who were meant to prepare the countries for independence.

That’s where I’m going to leave off for now because I’m exhausted, and I assume that if you’ve managed to make it this far with me, you’re also exhausted. Sorry to anyone who fell off somewhere in the middle. I tried to stick to the most interesting and important parts, but we just went through about 7000 years of history so really there’s only so much you can do.

To be continued… HERE

More of the AUB museum.