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The Museums of Lebanon (1 May 2023)

The Museums of Lebanon

Presented Online

Nicholas Hardwick

Since Lebanon has been important historically and artistically for many centuries, its significant culture is preserved and showcased in many major museums in the country.  Many of these museums are of international importance, and the collections contain archaeological objects from all periods of the country’s history, works of art by Lebanese artists, art from other parts of the world and displays about various aspects of Lebanese culture.

The National Museum of Beirut, near the Beirut Hippodrome, is the country’s major museum.  Its foundation was one of the principal contributions to the cultural life of Lebanon during the period of the French mandate (1923-46).  It was constructed between 1930 and 1937, and was opened in 1942.  The building is in art deco style, the popular international decorative style of the period, with elements from ancient Egyptian architecture.  It was designed by the architects, Antoine Nahas (1901-66), from Egypt, and Pierre Leprince-Ringuet (1874-1954), from France.  It houses the principal archaeological collection of Lebanon, which had been commenced after World War I.  

The collection has over 100,000 objects and all the significant historical periods are represented in the museum, including prehistoric (eleventh-third millenia BC and earlier), Old Babylonian (nineteenth-sixteenth centuries), Hittite (seventeenth-twelfth centuries), Neo-Assyrian (c.900-609), Persian (c.550-330), Phoenician (c.1200-800), Greek (c.850 BC-AD 500), Roman (c.100 BC-AD 500), Byzantine (c.500-1400), and Ottoman (1400-1918).  

The highlight of the collection is Ford Collection sarcophagi, which are thirty-one Phoenician anthropoid sarcophagi, that is, stone coffins of human form, made of white marble, and are dated to the fourth century BC.  They combine the features of Egyptian sarcophagi and heads which are characteristic of ancient Greek sculpture.  The collection is named after George Alfred Ford (1851-1928), who was an American missionary and the director of the American Presbyterian Mission School, which owned the land near Sidon, where the sarcophagi were found in 1901.  These are exhibited in the newly refurbished underground floor which was opened to the public in 2016, and displays only funerary art and objects.

From the Temple of the Obelisks at the important coastal site of Byblos, which is a Bronze Age temple dated c.1600 BC and the most important building on the site, are a number of significant objects in the museum.  These include the Byblos figurines, of which there are over 1500 mostly male bronze, and in many cases gilded, figurines in Egyptian style, and the gilded bronze statue of the Phoenician god, Reshep, both dated to the nineteenth-eighteenthcentury BC.

Another important exhibit is the Ahiram sarcophagus, from the Royal Cemetery at Byblos, dated to the tenth century BC, which has important low relief carvings in Assyrian style and an early example of Phoenician alphabetic writing.

From the Roman period, important exhibits are the four large sarcophagi, made of marble and over two metres in length, which were found at the Al-Bass Necropolis at Tyre, dated to the second century AD.  Two portray scenes from the life of the mythological hero, Achilles, who was significant in the story of the Trojan War between the Greeks and the Trojans, and is a central figure of The Iliad, the Greek epic poem by Homer, which was probably composed in its final form in the eighth century BC.  The story of Achilles was influential throughout the Greek and Roman world, and often featured on works of art.  One of the two sarcophagi has on top the portraits of the man and his wife reclining at a funerary banquet, whereas the other has a lid with bucrania, that is, skulls of oxen, linked by garlands of flowers and fruit.

A third is the Sarcophagus of the Drunken Cupids, which is surrounded by scenes of cupids either drunk or playing musical instruments.  This also has on top the portraits of the man and his wife reclining at a funerary banquet.  A fourth is a sarcophagus with a fighting scene.  It has similar portraits on top as the other two sarcophagi.

From near Baalbek, the important archaeological site not far from Toula, which is famous for its temples of the Roman period and is the subject of another lecture of the museum, is the Roman mosaic of the Muse, Calliope, and the Seven Wise Men, dated to the third century AD.  Of the nine Muses, who were goddesses to which attributes of literature, the arts and science were assigned, Calliope was the Muse of eloquence and epic poetry. 

The Seven Wise Men portrayed in the mosaic, each with his name and an associated saying, are Chilon of Sparta, Pittakos of Mytilene, Periander of Corinth, Kleoboulos of Lindos, Bias of Priene, Thales of Miletos, and Solon of Athens, with the philosopher,  Socrates of Athens (c.470-399 BC) placed at the top, as an addition to the traditional seven, who are statesmen, law-givers and philosophers of Greece of the seven and sixth centuries BC.  In an adjoining panel are portrayed Summer and Earth.

Over five metres in length, it came from a Roman villa at Suweydie, near Baalbek, and is representative of the elaborate mosaics used to decorate the floors of Roman villas throughout the Roman Empire, which often have themes taken from the Greek intellectual tradition and nature, in order to display the real or aspired erudition and cultivation of the villa’s owner.

Also in Beirut is the Archaeological Museum at the American University of Beirut (AUB), which is situated in Ras Beirut overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.  The university is the major independent university in Lebanon, and one of the most important universities in both the region and the world.  The museum was founded in 1868, two years after the foundation of the university itself, and is the third oldest museum in the Middle East, with only those of Cairo and Istanbul being older.  It houses a significant collection of artifacts, which include the first collection of the museum, the Cesnola Collection of Cypriot Antiquities, donated in 1868 by Luigi Palma di Cesnola (1832-1904), who was the first Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1879-1904). 

From the late Bronze Age (1600-1200 BC) are bronze metal figurines, including some from the Temple of Obelisks at Byblos, which is discussed above.  These are virtually all males, and the female figurines in the collection were rarely made of metal, being a precious substance reserved for male representations, but of clay.  On display are the discoveries from AUB Museum excavations​ at Tell el-Ghassil (1956-74) in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, which was a rural agrarian site dated 1800-600 BC. 

The museum has strengths in Phoenician discoveries, including the contents of a warehouse, including many storage jars, which was excavated in 1995 in the Central Business District of Beirut.  The Ford Mandible, which is a lower jaw bone found in a tomb at Sidon, has the front five teeth bound with gold wire, and is the earliest example of dentistry, dated to the fifth century BC. 

From the Classical period are funerary reliefs, dated from the first to the third century AD, in the form of busts in the local sculptural style from Palmyra, the important Roman city and trading centre at an oasis in Syria.  The Islamic Collection (AD 656-nineteenth century) has a significant representation of glazed pottery and tiles, for which the Islamic culture is noted.

A recent programme of the museum has been the restoration of glass vessels, which had been damaged in the 2020 Beirut explosion, which occurred in the port of Beirut and caused extensive damage to the city.  The vessels were in a glass case of 74 glass vessels which was smashed on the floor of the museum.  As well as the museum itself, the restoration project has involved various institutions both in Lebanon and internationally.  These include the Institut National du Patrimoine (INP), Paris, which is an institute for the training of curators and conservators.  It was responsible for the initial sorting of the mixed glass debris and the restoration of some of the vessels.  

Eight vessels, mainly Roman, but also Byzantine and Islamic, dated from the first to the ninth century AD, were sent to the British Museum, London, for restoration.  These were on display in the British Museum in the latter part of 2022.  Eighteen further vessels have been conserved by the AUB Museum, and, in a short time, the remaining 46 will be conserved.

Beirut also has museums of other varieties, including museums of Lebanese culture and of modern art.  The Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum, which opened in 1961, houses modern and contemporary art, as well as oriental objects.  Nicolas Sursock (1875–1952), who was an art collector and prominent member of the aristocratic Sursock family of Beirut, recognised the importance of supporting Lebanese artists, and left his residence to the citizens of Lebanon for that purpose.  

The museum is housed in Susrock’s former residence, which was built in 1912 and has features of Venetian, that is, of Venice, and Ottoman, that is, of Ottoman Turkey, design, which were characteristic of the architecture of Beirut of the period.  Some of the original interiors of the house are preserved, including the reception room, the Salon Arabe, which features woodwork imported in the 1920s from Damascus in Syria.

The collection mainly displays the works of Lebanese artists from the late nineteenth to the twenty-first century.  The art of the early twentieth century is particularly well represented, and the collection includes works of the significant artists Shafic Abboud (1926-2004) and Amine el Bacha (1932-2019), both of whom worked for a significant time in France. 

The museum’s Oriental Collection is also significant, and includes Islamic and late Ottoman artworks, carpets and textiles, and icons from the Byzantine tradition, that is, the Greek religious art of the Byzantine Empire (AD 330-1453), which was centred on the eastern Mediterranean region.

The museum underwent a significant expansion and renovation from 2008, which significantly increased its area and added exhibition galleries and other resources.  It reopened in 2015, and it featured the most modern museum resources.  However, being quite close to the site of the 2020 Beirut explosion, the building and its collection were badly damaged by the blast.

In the centre of Beirut, Robert Mouawad Private Museum was opened in 2006 by Robert Mouawad, who is a wealthy Lebanese businessman from a well-established business family.  His wealth is based on international business in the areas of jewellery and real estate.  The museum is housed in a neo-gothic style palace, which was built in 1892.  Its collection has a range of eastern and western art and objects from the region, as well as a display of Mouawad’s spectacular jewellery.

The Beirut Museum of Art-BeMA, situated near the National Museum of Beirut, is planned to open in 2026.  The multi-storey building has an innovative design and the collection will be modern and contemporary art from the region.  It will also be the focus of the creation of new artistic works.

Important museums are found outside Beirut in many parts of Lebanon.  The North Lebanon and Aakkar Museum is in Tripoli, located in the Castle of Tripoli.  It is a significant archaeological museum, which features artifacts from the region including Tripoli and El-Mina.  The collection is displayed in the impressive setting of the stone vaulted spaces of the castle, and is highlighted with descriptive display panels.  The history of the Kadisha Valley in northern Lebanon is well represented for the Mamluk Period (AD 1250-1517), that is, the time when the region was ruled by manumitted slave soldiers, called mamluks, who formed a military caste, headed by the sultan.  The numismatic collection of coins, mainly minted in Tripoli, is a significant part of the collection.

The Archaeological Site of Byblos Museum has a restored Crusader castle in the middle of the archaeological site of Byblos, which has remains of many periods.  The castle incorporates a museum which displays the history of the site.

The museum at Baalbek, which was opened in 1998, is located in the tunnels beneath the Temple of Jupiter and in the southern tower of the fortress.  The section in the tunnels describes the history of the site and the research about the Roman sanctuary.  The section in the tower covers the Roman tombs and the mediaeval period of the site.  A number of Roman sculptures form a significant part of the display.  The museum has been organised by a close collaboration of German and Lebanese authorities.

The Gibran Khalil Gibran Museum in Bsharri, which is not far from Toula, contains the possessions of the famous writer, poet and artist, Khalil Gibran (1883-1931), including manuscripts, paintings and his library.  These were transferred from New York in 1932 and the museum was opened in 1975.  The museum is in a former monastery and hermitage for monks.

The Soap Museum in Sidon is managed by the Audi Foundation.  It was established in 2000 in the residence of the Audi family.  This had previously been a soap works which dated back to the seventeenth century AD.  The museum traces the history of soap making in the Levant, including traditional soap made of olive oil.  There are also displays on the history of bath traditions.  Baths are, of course, an important part of the culture of the Arab world.

For the sake of completeness, two major objects from Lebanon, which are held in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, in Istanbul, Turkey, can be mentioned.  These are the Alexander Sarcophagus, which has relief carvings of the exploits of Alexander the Great (356-323), and the Mourning Women Sarcophagus, which has high relief sculptures of mourning women between Ionic columns.  Both are dated to the late fourth century BC and were found at Sidon.  They were found in 1887 and were taken to Istanbul, when it was the capital of the Ottoman Empire, which covered the area of Lebanon.

The museums which are described in this lecture are of international importance and they present the outstanding culture of Lebanon to a national and international audience.

In Sydney, the Toula Museum of Australia Inc. is an extension of the significant museum culture of Lebanon.  It showcases Lebanon’s important history on its website, in its lecture and exhibition programmes, its collection, library and archives.  It is accessible to the Lebanese community in Australia, as well as the Australian public and the international audience.


National Museum of Beirut: www.museebeyrouth-liban.org; Underground Floor: The National Museum’s Underground Floor Officially Reopened! | Blog Baladi

The Archaeological Museum at the American University of Beirut (AUB): www.aub.edu.lb/museum_archeo/Pages/default.aspx

The restoration of glass from Beirut: www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/shattered-glass-beirut

The Susrock Museum: sursock.museum

The Robert Mouawad Private Museum: www.robertmouawad.com/private-museum

The Beirut Museum of Art-BeMA: www.bema.museum/en