Beirut National Museum newly openened basement collection showcases funerary art and practices beginning with articles dating back from prehistory until the Ottoman era.
Collection highlights include 31 Phoenician anthropomorphic sarcophagi from the Ford collection, a fresco depicting Mary the mother of Jesus dated to c. 240 A.D., and which is believed to be one the oldest discovered representation of Mary in the world.
Other artifacts of note are the naturally preserved Maronite mummies of ‘Assi el Hadath cave in the Qadisha valley and the frescoed tomb of Tyre.
Tomb of Tyre
This tomb richly decorated with frescoes was accidentally discovered in 1937 in Burj el-Shemali, about 3Km from Tyre in an ancient necropolis area. It is a remarkable example of funerary art from the Roman period.
In 1939, the archaeologist Maurice Dunand undertook excavations inside the tomb. At the end of the same year, the architect Henry Pearson dismantled the frescoes from the original walls with their mortar and restored them in the basement of the National Museum of Beirut.
The tomb was used during the 2nd century AD.
The tomb (or hypogeum) measures 6.30m x 5.40m and 3.40m from the floor to the ceiling in its highest part. In antiquity, the tomb was consolidated by two transversal arches built on two rectangular pillars.
Fourteen loculi (or cavities) were carved on the Northern, Southern and Eastern walls of the tomb in order to house the sarcophagi. The loculi were blocked with flagstones. Two secondary tombs were found one to the left side of the vestibule and the other to the left side of the entrance.
The frescoes cover the four sides of the tomb with rich funerary themes and ornaments.
The largest collection of anthropoid sarcophagi in the world
Characteristic of Phoenician funerary art from the 5th century BC, these sarcophagi are the fruit of different influences. The beginnings were Egyptian: the cartonnage mask placed over the mummy’s face in the late 3rd millennium BC was gradually extended to cover the whole body, thus creating the sarcophagus, which in the 26th Dynasty (663-525 BC) began to be carved from stone. The appearance of the first Phoenician sarcophagi in the early 5th century BC is certainly related to the conquest of Egypt and the looting of the necropolises of Memphis and Saqqara by the Persian army in 525; among the troops were Phoenicians (from Tyre, Sidon, and Arados), Ionian Greeks, and Cypriots.
The model of the sarcophagus was thus introduced into Phoenicia, probably adapted or influenced by Greek artists in the service of local rulers, as is suggested by this example, both in the marble used – clearly imported from one of the Greek islands – and in its execution. The wavy tresses evoke the Greek art of the 520s, although this may well be an archaism deliberately introduced by the sculptor, for the treatment of the face and the rounded form of the sarcophagus trough and lid would suggest the 470s. It is thus a characteristic work of the Persian period, when the kingdoms of Phoenicia acted as a melting pot for influences from Greece and Egypt.
Assi el Hadath mummies
The Maronite mummies are eight well preserved natural mummies of Maronite villagers dating back to around 1283 AD. They were uncovered by a team of speologists in the Qadisha Valley in 1991
The mummies were found in the ‘Assi-al Hadath cave located in the Qadisha Valley, on July 13, 1990 by a group of speleologists working with the Groupe d’Etudes et de Recherches Souterraines du Liban (GERSL). The find was the result of two years of excavation. Initially, the discovery consisted of a single four-month-old infant mummy.
The infant was named Yasmine by her discoverers. The infant was clothed and fully interred only 40 cm below ground, she was laid on her back alone in the grave, her head resting on a smooth stone. Yasmine was carefully wrapped in gauze by the team and transported from the grotto to the laboratory.
Multiple other remains were found following the discovering, include seven bodies (four infants and three adults) as well as skeletal remains of several others.
Yasmine wore beneath her shroud three dresses one blue, a beige dress over it, and a more elaborate dark beige dress embroidered with silk threads over both. Her head was covered with a headdress under which she wore a headband made of silk. She was adorned with one earring, and a necklace garnished with mouth-blown glass pearls and two coin pieces dated to the era of the Sultan Mamluk Baybars.
The mummies of Maryam, Yasmine and Sadaka are exhibited for the first time
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