A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, February 27, 2015

If Only Mosul Had Been So Lucky: How Maurice Chehab Saved the Beirut Museum During the Civil War

Note: I'll be in an MEI staff retreat all day today. This will be my only post unless I have something this evening. 

Yesterday's shocking videos of ISIS destroying antiquities in the Mosul Museum again underscored the threat war and instability pose to irreplaceable historical and archaeological heritage. Not since the Nazis looted Europe of art treasures during World War II (many of which have never been seen again, despite the efforts of Allied forces as depicted in the film The Monuments Men), have so many historical and archaeological treasures been threatened. The civil wars in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and the 2011 Revolution in Egypt, all saw cases of looting of museums and archaeological sites, as well as collateral damage from artillery of ancient and medieval monuments. But ISIS is embarked on a campaign to destroy antiquities not as a casualty of war but as a matter of direct policy. Shi‘ite, Christian, and Yazidi religious sites and libraries were first, but now the ancient heritage of ancient Mesopotamia is being targeted: the walls and gate of Nineveh and the Mosul Museum.

Source: phoenicia.org
It's a good time to remember the work of the late Maurice Chehab, Director of the Lebanese Antiquities Department and Curator of the Museum during the Lebanese Civil War, and a man who saved much of the collections even though the Muesum was quite literally on the front lines: the division between Christian East Beirut and Muslim West Beirut (the Green Line) was the street in front of the museum, and a key but dangerous checkpoint between the two sides was called the Museum Crossing. Lebanese know this story and have honored him; I suspect it's less well known outside.

Emir (Prince) Maurice Chehab was a scion of the Chehab or Shihab dynasty which once ruled Mount Lebanon; originally Druze, the family today has both Maronite and Sunni branches; the former produced Maurice, as well as former Lebanese President Fouad Chehab.

The National Museum, Beirut
Born in 1904, Chehab attended the Jesuit St. Joseph University in Beirut and then did graduate work in France at the Louvre. He became an accomplished archaeologist and specialist on Ancient Phoenicia, and dug at Tyre most famously but also elsewhere; from 1928 onward he held various official posts under the French Mandate and after independence, heading what evolved into the Directorate-General of Antiquities.He taught at the Lebanese University and was designated as the first Curator when Lebanon's National Museum was being organized in the years after 1928; it opened in 1942.

Wartime Museum Damage
He was a distinguished scholar and already past 70 when the Civil War broke out in 1975, when the grim twist of fate brought the war quite literally to the Museum's doorstep. Eventually, the Museum would not only be the target of artillery but would become a frontline bunker for militiamen and a death trap for anyone else. The card catalog, photographic archive and much else were lost.

But not the prize collections. Early in the war, using a rear entrance as the story goes, Chehab and his wife Olga (with a few other senior people) gathered the smaller objects on display and moved them to basement storage to avoid looting. The area was sealed off with steel-reinforced concrete. The larger objects, including the best-known objects, the stone sarcophagus of Ahiram and the other Phoenician sarcophagi, were also encased in wooden or concrete coverings.

Maurice Chehab retired in 1982 and died in 1994. In 2013 the Museum rededicated one of the key galleries as the Maurice Chehab Hall.

You can find other retellings of this story here, and at the museum's Wikipedia page, and even fuller accounts at several tribute pages: here and here and here..

Mosul could have used a Maurice Chehab.

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