In 1942, Lebanon’s National Museum opened in Beirut, celebrating the country’s golden age, and inside, it housed some of the region’s most important artifacts. So when the Lebanese war started in 1975, the museum staff came up with an elaborate scheme to save everything inside the museum. This week on Kerning Cultures, the story of how a small team of museum employees protect thousands of years’ worth of history.
This episode originally aired in December 2019, and was produced by Alex Atack and edited by Dana Ballout, with additional support from Tamara Rasamny and Hebah Fisher. Fact-checking by Zeina Dowidar and sound design by Mohamad Khreizat.
Support this podcast onpatreon.com/kerningcultures for as little as $1 a month.
Dana: Hi everyone, Dana here, we are taking this week and next week off to work on some upcoming episodes, but in the meantime we wanted to bring back one of our favorite episodes, one of my favorites, from our kerning cultures vault. It’s a beautiful story about a group of staff working at the Beirut museum at the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. The war was getting pretty brutal and so the team of the museum came up with this crazy and elaborate plan to protect some of the museum’s most precious collections. It’s a wonderful story that will make your heart swell. I really hope you enjoy it, here is the episode
HEBAH: Our story today starts with a woman named Suzy. In 1975, Suzy was about 24 years old, and right out of university, she landed a job at the Beirut National Museum.
SUZY: I studied archaeology. In fact I have, also I had a degree in political sciences.
HEBAH: This is Suzy, Suzy Hakimian [7akimian].
SUZY: But I mean it seems that fate brought me to the Department of Antiquities. There was a vacancy.
HEBAH: And when she started working at the National Museum in Beirut, she joined a team of older, mostly male archeologists, who were a little confused about why she was there.
SUZY: I remember when I came one of the archaeologists asked, what are you going to do? I said I don’t know, if you give me the work I’ll do what I have to do. And in a way they found it very funny to have somebody very young.
HEBAH: Her boss at the time was this well known, respected Lebanese archeologist named Maurice Chehab. Maurice had earned the title of the “father of Lebanese archeology” – because in the early 20th century in Lebanon, he had been responsible for a bunch of important excavations. He was kind of a big deal. And Suzy quickly learned that her boss didn’t like going by Maurice Chehab –
SUZY: And if you don’t call him Emir he wouldn’t be happy.
HEBAH: but instead he insisted on being called Emir Maurice Chehab – or Prince Maurice Chehab.
SUZY: He was very picky, and he was very serious and you know we were all afraid you know – to be always on the level you had to be always doing the best that you can do. And so he was not an easygoing person for sure.
In fact, because he was… he was so passionate about his work, so he couldn’t understand if you were somebody who was very in French [tired]. You had to be also passionate like him.
HEBAH: It meant he wasn’t always an easy person to work with. But after the Lebanese civil war started in 1975, the year Suzy started working at the Beirut National Museum, none of these workplace dynamics really mattered any more. Because when the war began, everything changed.
SUZY: I am, how would you say, I’m an anxious person. So I lived the war, in all its sadness and and the difficulties … I stopped everything, it’s as if my life stopped.
HEBAH: When we hear stories of war, there’s trauma, destruction… and unfortunately in many parts of the Arab world and the world in general, really, much of our historical artefacts and monuments become collateral damage. And in the 15 years that followed the Lebanese Civil War, there was tragically a lot of collateral damage. But — There was also something else happening – something kind of extraordinary. Inside the walls of the Beirut Museum where artefacts more than 2,000 and 3,000 years old were on display, Suzy, Emir Maurice, and their colleagues were devising a plan to preserve these precious exhibits.
HEBAH: Today on Kerning Cultures, when so much of a city fell to war, the National Museum that somehow shielded itself – and the history it was able to protect inside its walls.
I’m Hebah Fisher, and you’re listening to Kerning Cultures. Stories from the Middle East and the spaces in between.
[KC INTRO STING]
HEBAH: Our story today comes from producer Alex Atack.
ALEX: There was no grand opening for the National Museum of Beirut.
Officially, it opened on March 25th, 1942. But the building had already been there for 5 years by that point. Getting the showcases delivered from Paris kept getting delayed. Then there was world war two, and the battle of Beirut in 1941, which meant the founding committee couldn’t open it until years after they’d hoped to.
But, eventually, Beirut got its museum… this grand building that looks exactly how you’d imagine a museum to look; six tall pillars out front with a big staircase leading up to them… a central atrium room for all of the exhibits… balconies overlooking that atrium… glass ceilings. I could carry on describing what the museum looks like. I could tell you about some of the things inside it; its famous collection of Arab jewels, or it’s Phoenician frescos. A lot of the things in that main room are a very big deal to historians.
But, me just listing them off like this gets boring quickly.
So, I think it helps to imagine this guy called Dr. Reinhard G. Lehmann, sitting behind his desk in a city called Mainz, in Germany. He’s a lecturer in ancient North Semitic languages, and a specialist in Phoenician scripts.
The Phoenicians, by the way, were an ancient civilisation who lived in the kind of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine area, roughly between 2000 and 3000 years ago.
ALEX: The recording is a bit scratchy. I spoke to him over the phone from Germany. But anyway… Dr. Lehmann found himself at the National Museum of Beirut because of this one sarcophagus which is on display there, and specifically, this one sentence carved into the side of it, that he was trying to translate to English. In English, it’s about 50 words long, but it took him a year to get the translation right.
REINHARD: I was there in 2003, and the museum was always open for the public. And so I have, I could only work there, before it was open for the public. So in the very, very early morning [laughs] … And so every morning I got up and at five o’clock and … worked there until 10 o’clock, when they opened to the public, and then I had to do other things.
ALEX: So that was more than one year for essentially one sentence.
REINHARD: [Sighs] It sounds crazy, I know.
ALEX: Here’s what it says:
“Now, if a king among kings / and a governor among governors and a commander of an army should come up against Byblos; and when he then uncovers this coffin, may the sceptre of his judiciary be stripped off / may the throne of his kingdom be overturned and may peace and quiet flee from Byblos.”
The reason I’m telling you about all this, is because the line is carved into the side of a sarcophagus from around 1000BC, which now sits in the National Museum of Beirut. A sarcophagus, by the way, is an ancient stone coffin. This one is the final resting place of King Ahiram, who we think was a Phoenician King – I say we think because there’s speculation among a couple of scholars around whether or not he even existed, but that’s a rabbit hole we don’t have time for here.
The reason I think this is so interesting, is because it’s the oldest extensive example of Phoenician writing that we’ve got. And the Phoenician alphabet is the root of many of the alphabets humans write with today – Arabic, Latin, Greek. Imagine this 50-word paragraph like the deepest root of a tree, and everything we write and read today as a branch somewhere much, much further up.
REINHARD: This Phoenician standard script from the 12th century, or 12th, 11th, 10th century BC – spread out in the Mediterranean … all of these scripts, you can say, all alphabet scripts of the world nowadays … are direct or indirect followers of the old Phoenician standard, what we call Phoenician standard.
ALEX: Woah, that’s crazy isn’t it?
REINHARD: It is crazy. Indeed.
ALEX: But, by the time he translated that sentence, that sarcophagus had survived 15 years of war. The reason you can walk into the Beirut National Museum at all and see it now, is because of this small group of museum staff who, as soon as the war came to the museum’s front door and threatened its destruction, baked up what was then a radical plan to save the museum’s artefacts… to spread lies and rumours, and to risk their lives, to keep them safe.
ANNE-MARIE: I think between the 40s and the 70s, just before the civil war broke, the national museum knew its golden age.
A lot of people were coming, a lot of visitors, a lot of tourists. And people who are very much interested in this, in the history of this newly born country.
ALEX: This is Anne-Marie Afeiche.
ANNE-MARIE: Yes, that’s me… I’ve been working at the national museum of Beirut since 1994, almost an antiquity myself.
ALEX: She used to be the curator of the National Museum, now she’s director general for the Council of Museums in Lebanon. Anyway, we started our interview talking about the museum’s early history.
Lebanon became independent from French rule in 1943, and part of the idea behind the museum was to celebrate this new era in Lebanon’s national identity.
ANNE-MARIE: it was the creation of a place that could represent, that could collect, that could show the people, the history of Lebanon … So it was created specifically, specifically for this intention of doing a national museum to enhance the national identity of the people and of a country.
ALEX: Which is why they put Maurice Chehab, this guy who was known as Lebanon’s “father of archeology”, in charge.
ANNE-MARIE: he gave a lot during these golden ages, he was able to open a museum that was at an international level. Of course, because of the beautiful artefacts and so important discoveries, but also because of his personal touch.
ALEX: He even lived in the museum – the room Anne-Marie was in when I interviewed her used to be part of his living quarters.
ANNE-MARIE: It used to be the bedroom of one of his sons. [laughs] So it’s very touching to know that we are living in the offices today… are in his own house.
ALEX: By 1975, after 35 years as the museum’s director, Maurice was 71. At the start of that year, they were preparing for a big international glass history exhibition in the museum.
But in April that year, 1975, the war in Lebanon started.
And as the situation got worse, Beirut as a city was divided into two sides, and the road the museum was on – Damascus street, was the road that marked the division.
ANNE-MARIE: It was called the green line at the time that was dividing two parts of Beirut, East and West … This was a very difficult place to cross.
SUZY: In fact the museum had this bad experience to be in a place where it shouldn’t be.
ALEX: This is Suzy Hakimian, from the start of the episode, again: she’s the one who started working for the museum when she was 24.
SUZY: The museum was not the target of the war or the violence, but I mean what we call collateral damages. The museum was at this crossing point where the battle used to take place.
ALEX: And she told us that, a few months after the war started, the roads around it were fully deserted, full of broken cars, empty pavements. At a certain point the road became overgrown with trees because so little people used it.
SUZY: It was a no man’s land. It was a no man’s land.
ALEX: Suzy lived with her family, in a house her grandfather had built on the other side of the city from the museum. So everyday, she’d get in a shared taxi which would take her on this elaborate route to work. They couldn’t go into the museum through the main entrance – it was too exposed to the militias that kept watch over the Museum Crossing. So the taxi would drop her off around the back.
SUZY: So it was a nightmare to go to work in the morning because sometimes we had shelling all night. So I had to go and find which streets were more secure, which were not secure … So for me it was a nightmare.
ALEX: Suzy said at first her friends and family told her not to worry, that the fighting wouldn’t last more than a few months and they’d be back to normal soon. So most days, the small museum team of around six or seven people showed up at work anyway.
But as we know, the fighting didn’t stop. The war lasted 15 years and, after those initial few months ended and the fighting kept getting worse, the museum team had just realised that they needed to start taking more serious measures to protect their artefacts.
ALEX: At first, Maurice assigned the staff to start archiving things – taking a proper inventory of what they had. Suzy was put in charge of the books, she didn’t really know what she was doing, this was her first job and she had no previous experience, but she showed up and that was what was important
ANNE-MARIE: He was able very quickly at the beginning of 1975, the beginning of the civil war, to remove the small objects that were displayed on the first floor into showcases of the first floor of the museum. And these objects were carefully put in boxes that were hidden in the basement of the national museum.
ALEX: Basically, anything they could carry down to the basement with their bare hands, they did. And once it was down there, they built these kind of protective walls out of wood and sandbags all around them.
SUZY: In fact, they succeeded, they did what is a miracle, also, to bring all these objects, hide them in the basement, close the basement, wall the basement.
ALEX: To try and deter people looting the place, the museum team spread a rumor that everything had been shipped off to Switzerland at the beginning of the war, that there was nothing left of any value inside the museum.
SUZY: They thought that they went to Switzerland, in fact they spread this news saying that the objects were safe, that they were in the central bank, they were in the safe. But in fact, everything was there.
ALEX: This is actually quite a common tactic for museums and galleries during wartime. In World War II, the National Gallery in London transferred almost 2000 of their paintings to a remote coal mine in Wales. The Louvre in Paris moved three and a half thousand paintings out of the museum and into private houses and castles around France to hide them from the Nazis. But these were all relatively small, easy to transport objects. The Beirut museum had much bigger pieces to deal with…
ANNE-MARIE: we had huge objects, many tons – the sarcophagi, the statues, altars, mosaics on the floor and all the walls. So this was very difficult to move, of course.
ALEX: The team couldn’t move them out of the museum or drag them down to the basement – there wasn’t enough time between the fighting to arrange for anything like that. And, they couldn’t exactly sneak them out through a back door.
SUZY: I mean, where do you want to go with the sarcophagus of four tons, in a country or in a town which is full of bombs and shelling? I mean you also have to be practical.
ANNE-MARIE: So the big objects, Maurice Chehab could not move or just safeguard in another, in a different way, he was able to find a fantastic solution, actually. He decided at the time where it was more quiet, he decided to build around each and every object, the big objects he couldn’t move – walls, and after he sealed with cement.
ALEX: The museum team basically constructed these concrete tombs around the bigger objects. They started with a wooden frame, padded that out with sandbags, then poured concrete into a kind of outer shell. It wasn’t perfect, but at least this way, if they were hit by bullets or if the museum was heavily shelled, they’d have a layer of protection.
SUZY: They were blocks, square, rectangular – you can use the word that you want. I mean it depended. I mean in fact it reflected the size of the objects that you were covering. For the sarcophagus of Ahiram, I mean you would say you have four meter by two metres. For the rest, they sometimes brought together two columns plus a statue and built a kind of a house around it.
ALEX: But Suzy told me that this really was a last resort.
SUZY: The idea of covering them with cement must have been something not very easy as a decision to be made because cement is the biggest enemy of archeology.
ALEX: She said an archeologist’s job is to take these artefacts out of the ground… not to cover them back up.
SUZY: I mean for us the cement is like, what are you going to seal again history?… And in fact it was also dangerous for the objects. It was not that safe. But I mean it happened happily to be the best way to protect them.
ALEX: And as the situation in Lebanon carried on deteriorating, the National Museum was taken over by varying militias.
At night, armed men slept on the floor of the grand atrium, lying next to Lebanon’s most important ancient history, sheltered in their concrete casings.
And outside, the museum crossing became more and more dangerous.
SUZY: We didn’t enter the museum, I mean because, I mean we had a lot of militiamen inside and it was, you know, the dark side of the whole thing. The museum was living its own life at that moment.
ALEX: Around the Israeli invasion in 1982, the staff stopped coming to work at the museum – they’d done what they could to protect what was inside of it, and the museum itself was too dangerous to work in. That same year – 1982 – Maurice Chehab and his family moved to Paris, where they lived until the end of the 80s, until the end of the Lebanese war.
ALEX: The war ended, at least in theory, with the Taif agreement in 1990. And when it did, life in Lebanon began a slow journey back to a new normal.
ALEX: So when you first came back in the 90s, um, if you were to stand outside the front of the museum, could you describe what it looked like?
ANNE-MARIE: Terrible. It looked terrible. Actually, everything looked terrible. The whole country was completely destroyed. The outside facade was completely damaged, completely destroyed. The stairs, you know, the staircase was also in very bad shape. Inside the museum doors and windows and ceiling, all the walls were burned. A lot of, a lot of dirt everywhere, a lot of dust.
What shall I say? It was a terrible sight.
SUZY: It was a mess … I mean, everything was broken, the walls had to be rebuilt, as I said the windows, the ceilings. All the showcases were thrown away because I mean they were broken. The shells were coming inside the museum at the end, so they broke everything.
ALEX: In November 1993, the museum opened for ten days to raise money for its reconstruction. Around 20,000 people went on tours around the burned, leaking, windowless building. There was no electricity, but a giant shell hole in the roof let in enough sunlight for people to see the exhibition: a small collection of photographs of Lebanon before the war. One woman came up to Suzy and told her: I didn’t even know this building was a museum!
SUZY: You know, the museum at a certain moment didn’t have any meaning for people. It didn’t have the meaning of a place, a museum. It was a crossing line. It was a demarcation line.
ALEX: Anne-Marie started working for the museum in 1994, four years after the war ended, and it was her job to bring it back from the state it was in – back to being a proper, functioning museum.
ANNE-MARIE: So when we entered the museum in the early 90s, we discovered like a surrealistic exhibition, I must say – all blocks of cement everywhere, in the ground floor of the national museum … And we were not sure about the content.
ALEX: So in 1995, Anne-Marie, Suzy, and the rest of the museum team, they began the work to restore the exterior of the building.
SUZY: We also had to rebuild the walls and close the doors of the museum. I mean you don’t take off the cement before all your house is secure and safe. And so this was the first job, was to rebuild the walls, and there were big holes in the ceiling so it was raining inside the museum.
I mean, you can imagine that it was.. in French you would say [gruyère]. It’s like cheese, you know, full of holes and the columns are completely eaten by the shells.
ALEX: But when they did the rebuild, Suzy told me they wanted to keep the architecture of the building more or less the same.
SUZY: We didn’t change it. And this was very important. I find the building wonderful.
ANNE-MARIE: And in 1996 we had the possibility to start breaking these cement blocks.
ALEX: That’s the cement blocks that were protecting the large artefacts. To open them back up, they brought in a team of workers with crowbars, chisels and hammers. The museum team stood around watching as they opened up the artefacts that they’d sealed away in these concrete tombs 15 years earlier.
SUZY: It’s like a book, as if you were opening the two parts of the book and suddenly something appears in the light. And it was – these were really intense moments.
ANNE-MARIE: I must say that this is a moment of the emotion you can’t imagine the very tiny small team standing outside and standing around these blocks and just waiting to check what was, what we were going to discover, within these blocks and what artefacts was here protected for more than 15 years.
SUZY: And in fact I tell you, these were very very happy moments.
ALEX: But… There was one person missing. Maurice Chehab had died a year earlier, on December 22nd, 1994, he was 89.
ANNE-MARIE: I’m sorry to say that he passed away and he didn’t realize what we were doing. He was not here anymore.
ALEX: When he built the concrete tombs around the museum’s artefacts – the artefacts that had defined his career, and his life since he was a young man – it was the last time he ever saw them.
ALEX: Today, the Beirut Museum is fully open again. And, that’s in large part because of Maurice, Suzy and their other colleagues’ work. If they hadn’t carried on showing up to work in the 70s and 80s, it’s likely much of the artefacts in the museum would’ve been destroyed.
But when we were producing this story, we kept coming back to this question; how many people know about this story, how many people know about how much it took just to keep the lights on in this building? And, how many people have actually been?
I myself had lived in Beirut for a year and a half before I visited it. My colleague Tamara has never been. So last week, she took a walk around Badaro – that’s the neighbourhood the museum is in – to ask people if they’d visited.
TAMARA: And have you been to the national museum?
OMAR: I haven’t because I didn’t know we have one… Where is it?
ALSEEL: No actually I haven’t.
TAMARA: Did you know it existed?
ALSEEL: Ya, I did. I always hear ‘mathaf mathaf, mathaf’ but I’ve never been honestly.
Rami: Errr… I don’t remember honestly. I thought I would remember but I don’t remember.
TAMARA: So probably not.
ALEX: Which kept me coming back to another question, which was like: why does it matter? Like what purpose does keeping 3000 year old artefacts in a museum serve for us, as people who are alive in society today? I was trying, I guess, to understand Maurice’s and Anne-Marie’s and Suzy’s drive or motivation for all their work. I asked everybody this, but I think Dr. Lehmann’s answer resonated the most.
REINHARD: Yeah, that’s a question I’m often asked and – yes, it’s nothing to, It’s nothing that really contributes to our being here today and it’s no profession that feeds someone or heals someone and so on. But, and to know about how people lived and thought 2000 years ago or, 3000 years ago, tells us something about what it means to be a human being.
I think ancient history and history of different cultures and different languages and old, so-called dead languages, makes us a little bit more humble today. That’s my idea about doing that.
HEBAH: This episode was produced by Alex Atack, with editorial support from Dana Ballout, Tamara Rasamny and me, Hebah Fisher. Sound design by Mohamed Khreizat and fact checking by Zeina Dowidar. Nicole Bozorgmir helped us record Anne-Marie’s interview in Beirut. Thank you also to Suzy Hakimian [7akimian], Anne-Marie Afeiche [Afaiche] and Dr. Reinhard G. Lehmann [leeman] for speaking to us for this story.
ALEX: And, we tried to find and reach out to Maurice Chebab’s family for this story, but we just couldn’t find any leads to them.
And, another thing: we only used a little bit of Dr. Lehmann’s tape in this story, but I spoke to him for about an hour and a half, and he told me a loads more fascinating stuff about the Phoenician alphabet and the Sarcophagus of Ahiram that we just couldn’t fit into the episode. We’ll be sharing some of those stories, along with photos of the Beirut museum throughout the years, on our instagram this week, so follow us there if you don’t already, it’s @kerningcultures.
HEBAH: Thanks for listening, until next time.
[KC OUTRO STING]