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Lebanonwire, August 5, 2003

The Daily Star

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Saving the Beirut National Museum
Nina Jedijian
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The looting of Baghdad National Museum shocked and dismayed the world, for the museum housed priceless artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia, widely known as the cradle of civilization.
Beirut National Museum could have suffered a similar fate during the 1975-90
civil war that tore the country apart.
But one man and one woman, Emir Maurice Chehab, the director-general of antiquities, and his wife, Olga, had the foresight and courage to take measures to protect Lebanon’s rich cultural heritage.
The National Museum is situated on the “green line” that separated East from West Beirut. During the war, the area was shot at and shot from, since it was occupied by armies and militias.
In fact, the passage between the two Beiruts, housing the country’s museum, was known as “the route
of death.”
As the fighting intensified, the couple removed all the precious artifacts from their showcases. Works of art too heavy to move were simply encased with wood and concrete.
This is how the famous sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos (1000 BC), which carries the oldest inscription of the Phoenician alphabet, was protected from destruction at the hands of looters.
Maurice Chehab hid the museum’s treasures in its basement. Only a few people in key positions were informed of what he had done.
In the basement, he built a series of steel reinforced concrete walls to dissuade looters. By doing that he also protected the valuable collection of anthropoid sarcophagi (5th century BC), the most prestigious collection in the world.
Chehab also built a concrete wall at the entrance of the basement, thus securing the site until peacetime .
In 1992, Michel Edde, then minister of culture and higher education, proposed a plan to restore the museum. Camille Asmar was assigned to the post of director of antiquities, and was put in charge of the museum ­  which by that time was still standing, but with no doors or windows.
To protect the main entrance once the concrete wall was removed and a metal door was donated and installed by Ghassan Tueni ­ no public funds were available at the time.
Once the facade was completely restored and doors and windows were put in, the decision was taken to pull down the concrete wall that protected the entrance to the basement. When this was done, another concrete wall appeared and when that was opened, another one appeared.
In a country where secrets are rarely kept, Maurice Chehab seems to have been extremely successful in keeping his secret about the multiple concrete walls.
And so when the time came to remove the remaining walls, Edde asked me to be present with Asmar in order to certify that no one had “visited the basement before us.”
Openings were made in the walls and we crawled through. Behind the last wall we came upon the treasures of the museum, neatly arranged in the corners of the rooms or on wooden shelves. And yes, we were able to confirm that no one had been there before us.
The Foundation Du Patrimoine National, under the presidency of former first lady Mona Hrawi, has been raising funds from private donations to complete the restoration work and to equip the museum with new showcases and a gift shop.
Today, as a result of these efforts, we can still enjoy the Beirut National Museum as one of the most up-to-date museums in the world, and contemplate in these impressive surroundings 7,000 years of human history.

Nina Jedijian is a member of the National Museum’s board. She wrote this commentary
special to The Daily Star

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