Monday, April 14, 2014

‘Drunken Cupids’ and Other Snapshots of Time at the National Museum of Lebanon





             "Drunken Cupids" is the title curators a the National Museum of Lebanon gave to a carving on one side of a second century Roman sarcophagus at the National Museum of Lebanon. Depictions of revels by imaginary beings such as chubby cherubim are just one of those themes Romans liked to do. (Top photo at left.)
            Possibly the museum's most spectacular pieces, four Roman sarcophagi were found in a necropolis in Tyre, one of Lebanon's oldest cities on the Mediterranean. Located on the boundary between East and West Beirut, the National Museum is beautiful airy building with an usually spacious layout for its best pieces. It was restored after the Lebanese Civil War, following heroic efforts to save the most important works from the violence that laid waste to much of the building.   
            According to the museum the Roman sarcophagi were found by the first director of Lebanon’s Director General of Antiquities and put on display when the national museum opened in 1943. The ornamental carvings on these are exquisite and have been preserved to a degree that would appear miraculous anywhere in the West. But the weather is kinder here to old stone.
            The second of four pieces, titled “Battles Between Greeks,” depicts feats of arms. It's the final two final sarcophagi, decorated with scenes from the Iliad entitled by the museum “The Legend of Achilles” that knock me out.(Second photo at left)
            In the Homeric epic of war, wartime politics, sexual politics, and a scale of human devastation that Achilles, among others, saw as fated and even managed by Olympians using human stupidity, greed and lust, as their agents, the single most human moment comes when Priam, the aging king of Troy, begs Achilles for the body of his son Hector slain by Achilles in single combat. Achilles has already abused the body, dragging it behind his chariot as he rode around the city of Troy. This was big boy warrior culture violence-as-intimidation, essential to the dehumanization of your enemy. The next step would be feeding it to the dogs. 
            Priam, who now knows that his city is doomed, travels virtually alone through the army lines at night to Achilles’ tent to beg for the body so he can take it home and bury it in accord with the deepest urgings of pagan religion. Burial will keep his son’s soul from howling in the wilderness. The artist’s stone-carved depiction of Priam on his knees, small and old, kissing the hand of the indifferent half-divine warrior is devastating. What this ‘depiction’ of a famous episode in the Iliad doesn’t show is that Achilles was moved, got beyond his own grief for the death of his lover Patroclus and rage at those who killed him in battle, and not only gave Priam the body but bared his soul to him by sharing his foreknowledge of his own doom. Their encounter is a moment of compassion, transcendence and despairing wisdom in a legendary chronicle of a ‘great’ war, a ‘great’ warrior, and the supreme founders of the war-like culture that – the Romans seemed to be saying in their art – gave birth to us all.
            Museums tell lots of stories. A few of the treasures in the National Museum of Beirut go back to the second millennium BCE (Before the Current Era). What the museum calls its most important piece is another sarcophagus, this time of Ahiram, a king of Byblos from the 10th century BCE – think Pharonic Egypt (the style of its art, we're told, reflects the Egyptian influence of the previous millennia) and the early books of the Hebrew bible.
            Byblos was a coastal Phoenician city. What the Phoenicians did there was invent writing in the western tradition by creating the prototype of modern alphabets. When you look at the inscription you can see the similarity to the Greek and Roman alphabets. The inscription on the coffin, the museum says, is “the earliest text using the Phoenician alphabet.” From the name Byblos comes an early word for writing, which in turn gives us “bible.”
            For me the biggest reason to go to this museum or any museum that deals with humanity’s past is the stories that they tell.