When we think of museums, we think of the Louvre, Met or Moma. Giant storehouses of art, run like corporations. Too many times we miss the little marvels in between. The archaeological museum of the American University in Beirut is one of those. Located in a luscious campus, it’s a welcome retreat from the noisy city.
The AUB museum doesn’t blow you away with bombastic statues and sarcophagi. It charms you with a well arranged collection of little treasures. Small objects with big stories. Here’s my personal selection.
Music Maestro, please
There’s an incredible humanity in this ensemble of musicians. A boy is playing the "tibia" - the double barrelled flute, often depicted in art. A girl is playing drums. Check the tender caress of the female figure, as she rests her hand on the girl’s shoulder. I guess a mom’s loving touch never changes over time.
Egg cup or candle holder?
Make a guess. This unusual terracotta object from the iron age (1200-600 BC) caught my attention. What is it? A Greek "Kernos" - a pottery ring that holds different little vessels. These were filled with small offerings - milk, olive oil, wine - to the gods.
His Purple Highness
“We’re not Arabs, we’re Phoenicians” is a popular Lebanese cliché. Who were these mysterious ancestors? The Phoenicians were actually Canaanites. It was the Greek who called them “Pho-ni-ces" after their typical purple dye, extracted from murex shells. When crushed these sea snails secrete a purple colour. Around 12000 shells were needed for 1.5 gram of dye, making it extremely expensive. A child born to a reigning emperor was said to be “Born in Purple.” You mean Prince?
Open up! Going to the Dentist, 500 BC
This jaw is the star exhibit of the museum. It used to belong to a Phoenician man who lived in the 5th century BC. The poor chap had little reason to smile. A nasty gum disease was loosening his 6 front teeth. A Phoenician dentist solved the problem by bounding them together with a single, golden wire. One of the first examples of dentistry. Smile!
Look into my Eyes
I’ve seen these Big Eyes on the cover of salon table books. Can you believe they hardly measure 3 centimetres? The Phoenicians didn’t invent glass making, they perfected it. They introduced these little glass beads, to ward off the evil eye. Today, this theme is still part of local folklore. You’ll see the teardrop shaped, blue "Nazar" staring at you everywhere.
Quia Ego Sum Tanti
(latin for: Because I’m worth it)
Kohl was the eyeliner of antiquity. In Egypt, thick lines around the eyes were believed to protect against strong sunlight. Even in ancient times, cosmetics came in fancy, premium packaging. Check out these Roman, double tubed kohl flasks. They had a bronze of glass applicator to scoop the right amount of powder.
A little further we see these lovely, dove shaped perfume vessels. True Beauty, roman style?
What’s on your tablet?
Did the Phoenicians really invent the alphabet? Mmm, it’s a long story. The Sumerians were the first to scribble wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets. Their syllabic system had over 700 symbols, making it as complicated as Egyptian hieroglyphs. The great writing innovation was to reduce 700 signs to only 30 consonants. The first cuneiform alphabet appeared in 14th century BC in Ugarit (Northern Syria). 300 years later the first Phoenician linear alphabet appeared in Byblos, allowing people to write on papyrus. It consisted of 22 consonants and no vowels. These were later added by the Greek who pimped the Phoenician ABC in the 8th century BC. Not as simple as 123, eh?
Visit Palmyra without losing your head
The oasis of Palmyra (Syria) is one of the greatest archeological marvels. Few months back, the world watched in horror as IS destroyed monument after monument. One of the victims was an ancient funeral tower, now reduced to dust. Inside, the dead used to be buried in compartments or “Loculi”. These were then sealed off with stone reliefs of the deceased. The AUB has a whole collection of these portrays.
It’s an incredible sensation to come eye to eye with people who lived in the 2/3 century AD. Women like “Aha, daughter of Kalafta, son of Bar’a Zabdateth” posing with refined clothes, elaborate hairstyles and delicate jewellery. Men with well trimmed beards stare back at us with hollow eyes. Their beardless companions represent priests.
Need a hand?
Legend goes that Ray Charles could tell if a woman was attractive just by touching her hand. What can you tell just by looking at this fragment of an Egyptian mummy? We know she lived during the 18th dynasty (1550-1295 BC). Judging the delicate linen wrappings, she must have been a woman of means. Did you also notice the turquoise ring on her finger? Deduction, my dear Watson.
The man with the golden mask
The ancient Greek used to burry their dead. In a procession the body was carried to the cemetery, laid in a wooden or stone coffin and placed in a common or individual tomb. Grave goods accompanied the deceased to the afterlife. Only the rich and famous got a golden mask or gold leaves placed over their faces.
Laugh at the devil
You can’t escape the haunting grin of this bearded figure. It’s a tiny Roman theatre mask (330-64 BC) used to ward off evil spirits. Humour always works, right?
Judas’ 30 pieces of silver
Coins contain a wealth of information, but make rather poor exhibits. I really love how the museum brought some life to this section. 30 silver pieces is the price for which Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus. At that time, Palestine did not produce silver Shekels, so he must have received these regional, silver coins from Tyr.
The AUB campus is situated in Bliss Street, between Hamra and the Corniche. It opens every weekday. In winter from 9 am to 5 am. In summer, just till 4 pm. Closed on AUB and official holidays.
Entrance and audio guide are FREE, so hop in and out. Art is like a good glass of Bordeaux, best consumed in tiny sips.
Special thanks to Doctor Badre and M. Nesrine Add for granting permission to take pictures.