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Death rites emerge from the dead.

Summary: Walking down a dim stairway into the basement of Beirut's National Museum is like stepping into the underworld.

BEIRUT: Walking down a dim stairway into the basement of Beirut's National Museum is like stepping into the underworld. Locked away for over 40 years, artifacts depicting several millennia of funerary arts, rituals and creed are once again visible to the public. A sailing ship carved onto a sarcophagus greets those entering the room, as if to signal a journey back though time. The visitor encounters six chronologically arranged panels that traverse the Paleolithic, Bronze, Iron, Roman, Byzantine, Medieval and Ottoman periods.

Commissioned by the Directorate-General of Antiquities in collaboration with the Italian government, a restoration team has converted the basement chamber of the museum from a storage room to a magnificent exhibition gallery for 520 objects excavated from all over Lebanon.

The restoration of the museum's subterranean vaults took two years and museum curator Anne-Marie Afeiche says she and her team worked for eight months selecting which pieces to exhibit.

Ingeniously designed by Italian architect Antonio Giammarusti, the exhibition includes items that were on show before the Civil War and newly discovered artifacts. Light is well-used to create a dramatic effect befitting the funerary theme of the basement gallery.

Peering into the glass vitrines, the spectator is able to take in intimate details of the everyday life of long-gone ancestors.

"Each object has a story," Afeiche said. "We tried to put these objects in context so they could tell that story."

In one cradle-shaped tomb dating back to the sixth millennium B.C., a small child lies in a fetal position, frozen in time, thumb still in his mouth. The objects next to him suggest that even in those days people hoped for life beyond death. The objects were to accompany the dead in the afterlife -- a practice that resonated across the ages.

Large jars from the Chalcolithic period -- a transitional phase between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age -- are also on display. These containers ordinarily functioned to store wheat. They were also used as a resting place for corpses. More than 2059 of these jars have been discovered in Byblos.

"The dead were introduced through an opening [in the jar] and placed inside," Afeiche said. "Small object, bowls and jewelry were placed with them."

The weapons, jewelry, pots and pans -- which had been buried with the dead for thousands of years -- now hang in the gallery's immaculate vitrines, revealing something of the identities of the tomb's occupants.

Here was a warrior's tomb. There lay the coffin of a high-society woman. The intricate, modern-looking details on necklaces, bracelets and rings, and brilliant displays of well-persevered gold and amethyst, could compete with the most luxurious displays in Downtown Beirut's jewelry shops.

Another once-common funerary practice involved burning the dead and placing them in urns. A video of these cremation ceremonies can be viewed at the museum along with the urns used for that practice.

"It is not known why cremations began to occur. Perhaps it was a change in religion," remarked Hermann Genz, an archeology professor at the American University of Beirut. At some point burials and cremations took place side by side, he added. "It could have been a matter of preference."

Another display showcases the evolution of pottery across the ages. The pots were discovered in tombs from Baalbeck, Kamed al-Loz, Jezzine and several other locations.

Perhaps the crowning jewel of this subterranean gallery is a display of 31 sarcophagi depicting human features.

"We have the biggest collection in the world," declared Afeiche, noting that smaller numbers of sarcophagi can be found in the Istanbul Archeology museum and the Louvre. The museum's sarcophagi exhibit is made more interesting by angled mirrors installed by the Italian team, which reflect the expressions and faces of the figures back to onlookers.

Discovered in Sidon, these sarcophagi date from the sixth to the fourth century B.C. The faces engraved onto them depict unique features. Analysis suggests the tombs were made of Greek marble, imported from the island of Paros.

The sarcophagi appear almost entirely white today but traces of colored pigment in the hair and eyes reveal they were once painted.

"The color depicts how much money you could spend on a burial," said Genz, noting only the very affluent could afford the beautiful white marble. The sarcophagi are also a good example of cultural syncretism. "They are an interesting mixture of different styles," Genz added. "They have Egyptian-shaped bodies and Greek faces."

Phoenician inscriptions on later tombs mark the importance of writing, starting in the first millennium B.C. In fact, funerary inscriptions found on Ahiram's sarcophagus, dating to 1000 BC, reveal one of the earliest representations of the Phoenician alphabet. Ahiram's tomb can be found on the museum's ground floor.

Entering the tomb of Tyre, which dates from the Roman period, the visitor is greeted with vivid frescos depicting funerary stories from Greek mythology.

Genz suggests the Greek adornment didn't necessarily reflect religious belief but worldly pragmatism.

"The Phoenicians were clever businessmen," he said. "With every new conquest, they tried to associate with the new rulers in order to please them and promote their business."

The restoration of Tyre's tombs in 2011 spurred investors to fund the restoration of the museum's entire basement gallery. An endeavor that was long overdue.

Necropolises from to Tyre to Beirut's Ashrafieh quarter and everywhere in between have preserved a wealth of funerary objects. There is so much to see and learn, so take your time with this tour. The opening of the museum's basement is a hefty treat for visitors because it tells a rich history, one of the oldest in the world.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Oct 19, 2016
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