By Selma Al-Radi

Conservation image
Conservation image

Since Lebanon's civil war ended in 1990, the country has been trying to reconstitute its institutions, destroyed during 16 years of savage fighting. In the last four years, enormous progress has been made toward rebuilding the nation's infrastructure and institutions. But much remains to be done, including protecting and conserving Lebanon's cultural heritage, which suffered neglect and destruction during the brutal war.

The first action of the post-civil-war government was to create an independent agency, Solidere, that would be responsible for the reconstruction and development of Beirut's central district. Beirut was where the war began, and the city's center was repeatedly and heavily bombarded, reducing many 19th-century buildings to rubble-strewn shells. Under Solidere's reconstruction plan, a few historic buildings were designated for restoration, but the rest of downtown was virtually razed in preparation for new construction.

While this clearing of the city's center constituted a loss of some of the city's architectural heritage, it did provide an opportunity for archaeologists to determine the chronology of the ancient city known as Berytus. Under the auspices of the Directorate-General of Antiquities—the agency responsible for Lebanon's cultural heritage—and with some financial support from Solidere, an international campaign of rescue excavations downtown was initiated in 1993.

Conservation image
Conservation image

Remains of the middle Bronze Age and Phoenician city walls of Beirut were unearthed, as were houses, workshops, baths, and shops dating from the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Mameluke periods. Parts of a monumental 3rd-century Roman forum were discovered by bulldozers excavating foundations for a government office building. Mosaic floors, ceramics, terracotta and stone sculptures, glass and bronze vessels, lamps, and coins found during the excavations attest to the city's wealth through the ages. Some of these finds will be incorporated into the planned public spaces of downtown Beirut, while others will be displayed in the refurbished National Museum.

During the civil war, movement within the country was extremely difficult, and the Directorate-General of Antiquities was unable to carry out even its most basic duties. The country's many archaeological sites were left unattended, and the survival of historic cities depended largely on the conservation interests of local political forces. Tripoli and Sidon suffered relatively minor damage to their Crusader and Islamic monuments (they are presently undergoing basic restoration), and the Shouf area, east of Sidon, emerged virtually unscathed. Byblos, the ancient port city important during the third and second millennia B.C.E., also survived unharmed. Its Crusader/Muslim castle remains intact, although bullets and mortar shells have left their impact on the walls. However, archaeological excavations at Byblos urgently need a site management program. Protective railings are broken, burial pits are unprotected, and walking around can be a hazardous experience. The most famous archaeological site in Lebanon, the Roman site of Baalbek, with its imposing ruins of the temples of Jupiter, Bacchus, and Venus, was undergoing major restoration when the war began. Cranes and lifts were left in situ and are still bearing their loads of suspended stone blocks. The limestone facades have suffered from weathering and neglect, and this site, too, requires a conservation and maintenance program.

Conservation image
Conservation image

The Phoenician and Roman port of Tyre was seriously affected by the civil war. Its spectacular panorama—sweeping views of ruins set against the backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea—has been sullied by jerry-built constructions illegally thrown up during the war. Ten- and twelve-story buildings of cement and cinder blocks abut the walls of the Roman hippodrome and necropolis, intruding into the boundaries of ancient Tyre. Presumably, inhabitants of these buildings were also responsible for pillaging and vandalizing some of the sarcophagi in the necropolis. Many other sites around the old town were looted, including a unique Phoenician infant cemetery. Frequent Israeli air raids and the 1983 invasion have also left their mark on both Tyre and Sidon.

The headquarters of the Directorate-General of Antiquities at the National Museum was situated in the heart of a battle zone, the building literally standing on the infamous Green Line that divided East from West Beirut. The museum paid dearly for its location—bullets riddled its walls, and rocket blasts pockmarked its facades. The interior was burned by direct rocket hits.

The catalogues, card indexes, and photographic archives of the National Museum were burned during the bombings; this damage makes difficult the present task of estimating the collection's original size and what remains of it. The former director, Emir Maurice Chehab, stowed smaller objects in the basement and sealed them behind double cement walls; he then spread the rumor, which many still believe, that the museum's objects had been sent abroad. The basement remains sealed; it will be opened only when the building has been secured and when there are enough conservators to undertake the daunting task of conserving the thousands of objects that will emerge.

Conservation image
Conservation image

The museum's sarcophagi and mosaics also survived because of the foresight of Emir Maurice. During a lull in the war, he had the sarcophagi encased in reinforced cement and the floor mosaics covered first with plastic sheeting and then with a layer of cement. The mosaics exhibited on the walls are still in place, although one has been pierced by a large rocket hole. Unfortunately, objects hurriedly packed into the library on the second floor did not fare well. Two rockets hit the library, and the ensuing fires burned the 2,000 or so bronzes and other objects within, mangling some and charring others. The conservator has been kept busy trying to stabilize and consolidate these objects.

The roof and the administrative wings of the National Museum were repaired in 1993. During 1995 work on the museum's front facades was completed; the rear facades, badly damaged by rocket fires, are presently being restored. Replacement of the staff has proved more complicated than building repair. From a prewar number of 150, the Directorate-General of Antiquities is down to only 18.

There are only two archaeologists (aided by two volunteers), and the Director, Dr. Camille Asmar, is an architect-restorer by profession. There are no curators, architects, draftspersons, or photographers; there is a library without a librarian and a conservator with a laboratory—but almost nothing else.

Despite the lack of personnel and the large amount of conservation work that needs to be done, there is enormous pressure from the government and the public to reopen the museum. In response Dr. Asmar has taken the cement casings off the sarcophagi and plans to open the building temporarily so that the public can see the museum's condition, then close it again to complete the interior's restoration—a good compromise.

Even though the Directorate-General of Antiquities remains underbudgeted, understaffed, and overworked, it has made progress in readying the museum for opening up the storeroom and dealing with the collection. The director of the museum has made a plan for permanently reopening the building after the conservation of the objects has been completed. But additional trained personnel—particularly conservators with expertise in metal and stone—are needed to accomplish that task. The establishment of a management program for the major archaeological sites is another priority. It is important that this program be operational before mass tourism starts again in Lebanon.

The country, emerging from years of civil strife, is rebuilding itself on all fronts, and its rich cultural heritage can play a significant part in reconstruction. If properly managed, this heritage can help provide tourist revenues for the restoration and preservation of the nation's monuments and museums and contribute considerably to reestablishing Lebanon's national identity.

Selma Al-Radi is an archaeologist and a member of the GCI's Visiting Committee.