For a country steeped in as much history as Lebanon, it’s a wonder to many why the country houses so few museums.
A team from the American University of Beirut recently contributed to redressing this gap.
On January 3, 2011, 11 years after an AUB Archaeological Museum team began excavations under Dr. Leila Badre, who heads the University's museum, the archaeological Crypt Museum of the St. George Cathedral of the Greek Orthodox was born.
The St. George Cathedral holds a special place in the hearts of many Lebanese because of its unique location overlooking Parliament Square right in the heart of Beirut’s city center. But it was not always so.
By the time the civil war had ended in 1990, the cathedral was a mere shell of what it is today: structurally unsound and perforated with the scars of war from the bullets and shells of sectarian conflict. At the time, reconstruction plans for the city-center were in the works; Badre took up the opportunity to unearth the hidden secrets of the holy monument.
“It was a unique opportunity to perform an excavation because they were about to restore the St. George Cathedral,” explains Badre. “We knew that if we dug, we would find several churches because religious sites are usually built on top of each other.”
The history of the St. George Cathedral extends back to the sixth century AD when it was first destroyed in 551 AD by a massive earthquake that devastated Beirut. Texts from the time reveal that students of Beirut's famous law school used to pray in the “nearby Anastasis Church,” which is likely to be in the same location where the cathedral stands today. “If we found the Byzantine Anastasis Church, the school could not have been far off,” Badre said. Three successive altars corresponding to three churches from the Ottoman period were removed during the excavation in order to look for continuation of the mosaic floor and the apses of the famed Anastasis Church but were deemed to have been destroyed by later construction during the Byzantine age.
After the earthquake, the cathedral is thought to have been rebuilt around the twelfth century according to the frescos that were dated by a Polish team who collaborated with AUB’s excavation. In 1759 the cathedral was again shaken by another earthquake. It was then destroyed again to be rebuilt with a single altar dedicated to St. George.
Ultimately the design turned out to be untenable; the cathedral collapsed again three years later after it was rebuilt. Finally in 1772 it was erected once more with three new altars as it still stands today.
In 2008 Badre and the cathedral’s management decided that they would build an underground museum to preserve the archaeological remains “in situ” (in place) and to display selected artifacts from the excavation. Visitors entering the museum first see a cross-section of the ground where the excavation took place with each of the six eras of the cathedral history marked on the adjacent wall. The tour itself is comprised of 12 different stops that are individually lit in sequence from start to finish using a unique museographical display in the Near East designed by Badre and architect Yasmine Maakaroun. The stops are lit for one minute each, along with a separately lit panel describing the remains in view for each period before moving onto the next.
Asked what happens next, Badre simply shrugged her shoulders and smiled. “That’s it for now. You know it’s not every day that you build a museum and I’ve already built two,” said Badre who oversaw the complete renovation and reopening of AUB’s Museum in 2006.