Located on the former Green Line, the National Museum of Beirut is an impressive building with a magnificently displayed collection of archaeological artifacts that offers a great overview of Lebanon’s history and the civilizations that made their home here. The National Museum is considered to be one of the most significant Near Eastern museums because of its rich collection.
The museum building itself is streamlined and spacious, in modern Pharaonic architecture, symbolic of the Lebanon’s extremely ancient connection with the Pharaohs of Egypt, some of whose treasures, sent to the Lebanese city-states of antiquity are preserved therein.
The story of the National Museum started in 1919 with a small group of ancient artifacts, which had been collected by Raymond Weill, a French officer stationed in Lebanon. These objects were displayed in the German Deaconesses building in Georges Picot Street in Beirut. A founding committee was created in 1923 with the task of raising funds to build a museum. The plans presented by architects Antoine Nahas and Pierre Leprince Ringuet were accepted by the committee which was headed by Bechara el Khoury, then Prime Minister. The Museum was inaugurated on May 27, 1942. It then closed its doors when the Lebanese war broke out in 1975. The Museum was not only a witness but also a victim of the raging war and the main road next to it came to be ironically called ma’bar el mat’haf “Museum crossing” as it was the dividing line between west and east Beirut. As the battles raged, the edifice, which had stood, as testimony to a strong sense of culture, became a war zone. Militiamen moved in, occupying its floors, lighting fires to keep warm, and scrawling on its marble statues. The Museum bore silent witness to that episode while concealing the country’s history within its walls. The war ended in 1991, and the gunmen withdrew, leaving the Museum in a state of devastation, looted and vandalized, but still standing.
Restoration work started in 1995 and focused on the building itself. Over 1300 archaeological artifacts are displayed there dating to periods ranging from Prehistory to Ottoman times.
The Museum’s story resembles Lebanon’s. The former is built over an underground spring that constantly threatens to flood it, while the latter lies in a volatile region that forever threatens its existence. Ironically as the name of Beirut means, the water seeped into the basement storerooms during the war and ruined thousands of items. It took over ten years to repair all the damage.
The National Museum of Beirut’s story is unique, being itself a killing ground, whose very name instilled terror in people, to becoming a symbol of resistance and continuation. The tenacity lay in the insistence on keeping the museum in its location, and not accepting what the war had inflicted on it, but to repair it.
Love and war, feast and famine, are a pattern that has been endlessly repeated here in Beirut, up the coast at the even more ancient Byblos, and over the Lebanon Mountains in the Bekaa Valley, in Baalbek, and the south of Lebanon like Sidon and Tyre. It is a remarkable experience to walk through this little museum that feels like a Pharaonic tomb encasing some of the treasures and history of this little country. From ancient civilizations through to our modern times, whichever society settling here seemed to have flourished in arts and culture no matter the circumstances of its times. This is my Lebanon, still to our days, flourishing in arts, leaving a small and distinct mark in this world.
Here on what used to be the cross line stands our museum reconciled with its past, and yet not forgetting its history, on the contrary proud of it, it proudly displays it.