DATELINE: BEIRUT

Where have all the museum treasures gone?

Mystery surrounds the disappearance of Lebanese artifacts

Sean Toolan April 20 1981
DATELINE: BEIRUT

Where have all the museum treasures gone?

Mystery surrounds the disappearance of Lebanese artifacts

Sean Toolan April 20 1981

Where have all the museum treasures gone?

DATELINE: BEIRUT

Mystery surrounds the disappearance of Lebanese artifacts

Sean Toolan

Maurice Chéhab lowered his head, waved to the wall behind his desk and pointed in the direction of a small blackened hole in the plaster. “I was sitting at my desk,” he explained, “when the shot came. The bullet hit only six inches over my head, and I ask you, who would want to shoot at an old archeologist?”

Chéhab’s office, which is also his home, is an annex of the Lebanese National Museum, a once-imposing building that sits directly on the Green Line, the string of checkpoints separating Christian Beirut from Moslem Beirut. The line was erected when the Lebanese civil war ended in an uneasy truce five years ago. The war split the country, and little effort since has been made to bring Christians and Moslems together.

But most distressing for Chéhab was the fact that his beloved museum was in the path of fighting that killed 90,000 people in two years. The building, battered from shellfire and hand grenade attacks, is pockmarked with gaping holes and surrounded by decaying sandbag fortifications.

Even though the war is over, Chéhab’s museum is still not safe, for there is a madness about Beirut—shootings are an everyday occurrence, and violence has flared up this month. The police and Lebanese army are powerless to control the gangs of armed militia, and the only apparent authority is the Syrian army, brought in by the Lebanese government to halt the civil war. The Syrian troops have been here since, and are mistrusted by Lebanese Moslems, who say the soldiers side with the Beirut Christians during the frequent clashes, and the troops are hated by the Christians, who say they have no business on Lebanese land.

Chéhab, director general of the museum since 1959, is reverently referred to by his staff as Emir Maurice: at 78, he is thought of as a hero by those who claim to love Lebanese national history, and as a fool by others who see Lebanon as a permanently shell-shocked refugee camp that will never recover from the war. For the past five years Chéhab has been caught in the middle of a curious controversy over the fateofthousandsof priceless museum treasures that have allegedly disappeared since the end of the civil war. It’s a mystery worthy of this city. Beirut has long been a place of intrigue, a town where, for a price, you can get anything done, and where, since the civil war, anarchy has ruled. The British diplomat-turned-spy, Kim Philby, operated from here just before fleeing to the Soviet Union in the late ’50s. Intelligence agents from a dozen countries received and passed information in the bar and lobbies of the St. Georges Hotel before it was gutted in the war. And there is every reason to suspect the successors to those agents still operate in other locations in the city. It’s this atmosphere of intrigue and betrayal that leads Maurice Chéhab to growl: “I will never tell where the museum treasures are.Only three people in the world know: me, my wife and the president of the Lebanese Republic. And that is too many people.”

Since the war ended, a few attempts have been made to try to solve the tantalizing problem. As a matter of form, Interpol looked into reports of missing treasures when the war ended, but the international police agency was limited to distributing descriptions of some museum pieces throughout Europe and North America, and agency spokesmen say they did not expect, and did not get, any information back.

At its eminent peak, before the civil war, the museum was filled with antique Phoenician jewelry of Persian and Greek influence, pre-Christian-era drinking cups from early Egypt, Persia and Greece excavated from northern Lebanon and shelves of jewelry sent as gifts from the Egyptian pharaohs to the Lebanese kings of Byblos. Chéhab talks with enthusiasm of the days when Lebanon was the crossroad for conquerors and merchants. Alexander the Great fought here and destroyed the southern Lebanese town of Tyre, crucifying thousands of its inhabitants when they refused to surrender. Saladin battled the crusaders here, and now the Israelis cross the Lebanese border almost at will to attack Palestinian camps.

Chéhab, warming to the subject, recalls: “There was Roman antique jewelry from Tyre and Arabic jewelry from all parts of the Middle East. There were marble mummy boxes from 400 BC, sarcophaguses of Greek legend and a large collection of Roman mosaics and lead coffins from the end of the Roman period in Lebanon.” Chéhab is unaware he’s speaking in the past tense, and when reminded will simply say, “I will not tell where the treasures are.” He rejects rumors that the treasures were damaged or looted during the civil war. “I prepared for that war,” he says indignantly, “I knew it was coming, I could feel it in the air.”

It’s hard to believe that the museum’s contents were not damaged. The area abounds with armed groups of Christian and Moslem militia and Syrian soldiers and companies of Syrian troops now live in the museum.

The Syrian occupation, and the fact that Syrian army permission, not Lebanese government permission, is needed to get into the museum, have fired rumors the museum has been looted and many of the treasures taken out of the country. These days Beirut is likened to Berlin at the end of the Second World War. “It’s a place,” says one Lebanese shopkeeper, “where anything can be bought or sold. There is no control here.” The Lebanese don’t ask too many questions of the Syrian army. “Just like the Germans didn’t ask the British and Americans what they did in Berlin,” the shopkeeper explains. “There is fear in Beirut,” he continues. “The Syrians can stop people, search them and arrest them if they want to. I do not know what happened in the museum, but I believe, and many people believe, the treasures are gone.” Beirut newspapers have reported that five million dollars of treasures have been stolen, “but that is stupid,” says Chéhab. “I know they have not been stolen, but I will not say where they are.” He reluctantly tells the story that has made him a hero to many Lebanese museum admirers. “My wife and I stayed here when the fighting started, and we were bombed many times, but I had to stay, it is my museum. Late at night my wife and I took out many of the treasures by car. We drove through the fighting to save them. Sometimes a member of my staff would help us to carry them down to the car. But I could not ask them to risk going through the fighting.” Chéhab refuses to say if any treasures were left behind. He also relates what he says is “inevitable when armies occupy museums—the soldiers were ripping up the wood from the walls and floors to make fires, so we built them simple shelters in the building to save the museum from being damaged. I do not often go into the museum anymore—I need permission and it hurts me to see the soldiers there.”

So far, there has been no evidence to indicate that the museum has been looted, but by the same token there is no evidence the treasures are safe. There is only the battered hulk of a once internationally known museum, and the word of one man that 6,000 years of priceless history was kept safe while everything around the building was looted and burned to the ground.