The main museum in Lebanon, the National Museum’s primary mission is to bring together archaeological artifacts discovered in the territory of the Land of Cedars, some of which have been since the First World War.
Located in Beirut, the Museum is home to about 1,300 objects on display chronologically, from Prehistory to the Mamluk period through the various periods during which Lebanon was still called Phoenicia.
The National Museum is best known for having one of the most important archaeological collections of Phoenician objects including the famous sarcophagus of Ahiram, King of Byblos or the largest collection of anthropoid sarcophagi in the world, ready for perpetual use of the Ford Foundation. We must also not forget the famous Tomb of Tyre or the 13th century Maronite mummies of the Holy Valley of Qadisha, now visible recently to the public.
The National Museum building
In 1923, an association called “Friends of the Museum Committee” led by the man who would become the President of the Republic Bechara el Khoury worked for the opening of this institution. He was able to gain the support of the main figures of the time – businessmen and politicians – including Alfred Sursock, Omar Daouk, Ali Joumblatt, Henri Pharaoh to name but a few.
Its Egyptant building was built under the French mandate from 1930 to 1937 under the direction of architect Antoine Nahhas and Pierre LePrince-Ringuet on land donated by the Municipality of Beirut. The National Museum was officially inaugurated on May 27, 1942 by President Alfred Naccache.
First of all, it will be a building built of sandstone, local material, on 3 levels of a total area of 6,000 square meters presenting first the collections previously collected by donations and excavations that multiply on Lebanese territory at the initiative of the French and Lebanese authorities at the time, including those of the site of Byblos, Tyr, Saida, Baalbeck or even less known as Kamel el Loz since the years 1920 to 1975.
An institution that survived the civil war
Like Lebanon, it will know the greatness of its pre-civil war period and will suffer, being located on the Green Line, demarcation line, the agonies of this civil conflict during which it will close its doors.
On the eve of the 1975 civil war, Emir Maurice Chehab – his first curator in 1942 and for a period of 33 years and who will also be appointed head of the Directorate General of Antiquities from 1962 to 1982 – will make the decisions that will sometimes be necessary at the risk of his own life to save the collections of the National Museum then located on the demarcation line also known as the Green Line separating West Beirut from East Beirut.
The concrete structure covering the priceless sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos and the fact that he walled many artifacts in the basement of this institution will be remembered. It is thanks to his actions that the collections of the National Museum will escape looting and destruction, even if significant damage will appear, such as a mosaic pierced by a sniper to clear his line of fire or the rise of groundwater in the basement of the Museum which will then be closed for many years before its recent reopening.
After the end of the civil conflict in 1990, the National Museum will be restored from 1993, and opened again to the public on November 25, 1997 mixing old collection presented before the civil war and new objects just discovered especially during excavations undertaken in the city center of Beirut as the Mosaic of Jealousy.
At the time, only the ground floor and first floors were open to the public, the basement still being the subject of major works to waterproof it.
The ground floor
The ground floor is dedicated to the large objects and mosaics of the 2nd and 1st millennium BC. J.C. and the Roman-Byzantine era. These include the sarcophagus of Ahiram de Byblos or the ex-votos of the temple of Eshmoun. Reopened in 2013, the Maurice Chehab gallery on the right of the entrance shows an important collection of mosaics including the famous mosaic of the good shepherd.
Its second floor
On the second level, small pieces ranging from prehistory to our contemporary era, through the Bronze Age or Iron Age, are presented. It is precisely at this level that visitors will be able to see the famous Phoenician bronze statuettes from the L temple of Byblos, which have become almost a national symbol, or the famous collection of terracotta objects by Kamed el Loz.
We are also affected to see small objects damaged by fires or water and virtually rendered unrecognizable having suffered the damage of the civil war.
The basement reopened since 2016 only
In addition to these two levels, the basement has been reopened since 2016 after a long period devoted to its restoration, mainly due to rising waters during the civil war. The 700 meters renovated in cooperation with the Italian authorities and by the architect Antonio Giannarusti show the evolution of funeral rites in Lebanon from the Paleolithic – with the first human traces found in Lebanon – until the Ottoman period.
We will be greeted by a Roman sarcophagus with the famous Phoenician ship that has become the symbol of the Lebanese capital. However, this sarcophagus was found in Saida, 40 km south of Beirut.
Present is the largest collection of anthropoid sarcophagi in the world, found in what would become the Palestinian camp of Ein Helwoué, located near the city of Saida or 3 of the Maronite mummies found in 1989 in the holy valley of Qadisha.
A special mention also for the tomb of Tyre which is also in this basement. It is a collection of Roman frescoes, a true masterpiece of funeral art of this period discovered in the burj Chémali region, a town near Tyre. Heavily degraded by humidity and water, these frescoes have been restored with the help of the Italian Cooperation Office.
To get to the National Museum of Beirut