Maurice Chehab, the guardian angel of Lebanon’s cultural heritage
Beirut - Lebanon is forever indebted to a single person whose genius and dedication saved the collective memory of its people.
Emir Maurice Chehab, the late director of the Lebanese Antiquities’ Department, is prized for his ingenuity in protecting the country’s cultural heritage from the wrath of 15 years of civil war. By devising the most incredible and unusual schemes, the emir, Arabic for “prince”, succeeded in preserving the National Museum’s treasures from falling into the hands of militiamen who had occupied the museum building.
“Yes, Lebanon was lucky to have a Maurice Chehab,” commented museum curator Anne Marie Afeiche, in an interview with The Arab Weekly. When looking at the ongoing destruction of archaeological sites and artefacts taking place in Syria and Iraq, one cannot but recognise Lebanon’s good fortune.
Though he was past 70 when Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war broke out, Chehab, had the most unusual idea of burying the museum’s priceless holdings behind concrete shields. By doing so, he preserved them from looting and years of shelling that badly damaged the museum building, located right on the demarcation line that divided Beirut into Christian and Muslim parts.
“In the first year of the war, Emir Maurice gathered the smaller items on display and concealed them in a niche in the museum’s basement, which he then sealed with steel-reinforced concrete walls,” Afeiche said.
“No one could imagine that the museum’s most valuable items, including the collection of old jewellry, were sitting behind these walls. People were guessing about their whereabouts. Some thought they were placed in the Central Bank, others said they were taken outside Lebanon.”
Conserving the big pieces, including the stone sarcophagus of Ahiram and colossal statues, proved to be a much more difficult task for the Chehab, Afeiche noted.
She said Chehab first covered the items with sandbags, which the militiamen later removed to use as barricades. He then placed wood panels around them and again the fighters used the wood to make bonfires to keep warm. Finally, Chehab built a case of reinforced concrete around each piece.
The museum, which was used as a bunker by various militias due to its location on the “Green Line”, still bears the traces of the fighting. A shell-pocked mosaic panel, The Good Shepherd, was intentionally left without full restoration. “We decided to keep the hole in the mosaic to bear witness of this dark period, which is unfortunately part of our history,” Afeiche explained.
Snipers were barricaded for years in front of The Good Shepherd mosaic, hanging in the “Mosaics Hall” on the western side of the museum. From there, they targeted civilians crossing the demarcation line.
“What an irony to have the snipers firing exactly from here next to the mosaic referring to the Christ… Only God knows how many people they have killed,” the curator commented.
The hall was renamed the Emir Maurice Chehab room, another appropriate metaphor for the good shepherd emir, the saviour of the National Museum.
Lebanon’s unique National Museum was created in 1942 when the country was under French mandate. It was re-inaugurated in November 1999, nine years after the guns of war fell silent. The strenuous restoration work was carried out over more than five years by a team of Lebanese archaeologists with support from UN experts. Afeiche, who was part of the team, describes the emotions of “rediscovering” the museum’s holdings.
“When we first went into the museum after the war, we found 94 imposing cement blocks. Although we suspected what they contained, every time a block was dismantled, it was a big emotional moment,” Afeiche recalled.
“In the basement, as well, the concealed treasures were revealed as we knocked down one wall after the other… We just marvelled as we rediscovered our heritage.”
Chehab’s ingenuity drew admiration at home and abroad. “It was just extraordinary how Lebanon’s heritage could be preserved,” observed Caroline Aures, a French archaeologist visiting Beirut. “This museum is a jewel. It contains nothing but beautiful pieces.” Having worked in Syria for several years, Aures said she is distressed about the destruction of archaeological sites in Syrian and Iraqi regions under control of the Islamic State (ISIS).
“I am so sad but I often come here as a remedy, this place is just beautiful and appeasing,” she told The Arab Weekly as she strolled past the museum’s sarcophagi and statues, all survivors of the Lebanese war.
Thanks to Maurice Chehab very few objects were lost. “What was basically stolen were the objects placed in storage on archaeological sites, exactly as it is happening in Syria right now,” Afeiche pointed out.
She said Lebanon’s sites also suffered clandestine excavations but on a much smaller scale than in Syria. Lebanon, a signatory of the 1970 convention against clandestine trafficking of antiquities, is active in intercepting looted objects.
“We are helping in the restitution of looted artefacts and have been regularly returning them after they are seized at the borders on their way to be smuggled outside the region,” Afeiche noted.
Emir Maurice Chehab saved the Lebanese people’s collective memory, Afeiche said. “All these objects here are witnesses of our history, they were created and used by our ancestors… it is simply our past… our identity which unite us.”