American University of Beirut

AUB Archaeological Museum counts cost of Beirut blast

​​​​​​​​​​Martin Asser, ​Office of Communications,

In the aftermath of the August 4 Beirut explosion, staff from the AUB museum could only guess at what damage the citywide shockwave had caused to the university’s priceless archaeological collection. 

Eastern façades of Post Hall took the force of the blast

Several east-facing windows were completely blown in
Several windows in Post Hall, which housed the collection, were smashed and a huge 118-year-old door which opened onto the main exhibition space had been blown off its hinges. Somehow, the timber had not crashed onto the magnificent Phoenician terracotta figurines nearby but rather had fallen in the other direction, into an empty hallway. 

“I was holding my heart,” Nesrine Aad said, the research assistant’s voice cracking as she relived the experience of that first foray to check on AUB’s archaeological riches. “I was shocked by the door—maybe everything was destroyed.”  

The AUB Archaeological Museum charts millennia of human development through some 5,000 artifacts, many of them irreplaceable. On the morning of August 5, shattered windows, dust, and debris lay scattered on the floor, but incredibly Ms. Aad and her colleagues found rows of display cases and their precious contents seemingly intact. The great door had borne the force of the shockwave. 

However, tucked inside the base of one of Post Hall’s grand towers, a desolate scene awaited. 

The space had been curated to tell the story of “Glass through the Ages”. Display cases showed Phoenician, Roman, and Islamic manufacturing techniques, and every-day and ornamental uses of ancient glass. The centerpiece was a two-meter-wide cabinet of five shelves that showcased 74 exquisite examples of domestic glass—lamps, vases, bowls, and drinking vessels. 
Phoenician Gallery Case #2 lay face down on the marble floor, surrounded by a carpet of ancient polychrome smithereens mixed with the smashed display casing. Still visible among the thousands of shards were elegantly fashioned bottlenecks, curved handles, and spouts. 

Phoenician Gallery Case #2 lies where it fell awaiting recovery​

Cultural loss 
Two weeks after that awful day, the case remains as it fell, waiting to be painstakingly raised to see if any treasures have survived more or less intact. 

Ancient glass is mixed with the remains of the
display casing and nearby windows.

The delay is understandable. Beirut’s complete focus is fixed on the colossal humanitarian response that is needed. Meanwhile, eight other museum buildings have been damaged in the Lebanese capital, although only two, AUB and Sursock Museum in Ashrafieh, are believed to have lost part of their collections. 

“Although we are somehow blessed that the damage was limited, it is no doubt a great loss for our cultural heritage,” says incoming museum director Dr. Nadine Panayot, who takes up her post on September 1. “This was one of my favorite cases; I always brought the children to talk about the glass manufacturing process and the beauty of each iridescent glass piece with its rainbow colors.” 

(Dr. Panayot explains the word “iridescence” is derived from the Greek Goddess of rainbows, Isis, and refers to the colors seen on excavated glass, which change according to lighting, and the burial conditions of each piece. Centuries of heat, humidity, heat, soil type, and their length of time underground, has determined how such pieces appear today.) 

While AUB Archa​eological Museum suffered one of Lebanon’s heaviest losses among museums, Dr. Panayot is more concerned for the fate of numerous galleries, artisanal workshops, heritage buildings, and—crucially—private collections kept in the old houses of Ashrafieh and Mar Mikhael, which bore the brunt of the explosion.

“Owners do not have the resources to recover valuable items and may not even be aware of treasures being lost. Every day we discover new dimensions of horror to this disaster.” Dr. Panayot is marshalling volunteers specialized in museum studies and cultural heritage management (her former students at University of Balamand, primarily) to help with assessment and recovery in the worst-hit areas in Beirut. 

Nesrine Aad and colleagues started the clear-up 
and repairs the morning after August 4​

Lucky escape
Destruction on AUB campus and at the medical center was widespread, including some significant structural and other damage to half a dozen key university buildings. Initial estimates run more than $10 million in necessary repairs. Of course, no price can be put on the loss of Phoenician Gallery #2.

The specific location of display meant the curtain wall behind it was hit by the westward-racing pressure wave emanating from Beirut’s port at 6:08 PM on that fateful Tuesday. Similarly exposed, behind Post Hall’s main eastern façade, a large hall houses the museum’s Study Collection where items not on show to the public are kept. 

But despite its location, these “hidden treasures,” including several cases of delicate 2,000-year-old glass, were mercifully unaffected by the explosion. Nesrine Aad almost embraces a display case containing dozens of bottles, bowls, and other glass objects as she marvels at their deliverance.  

“With these, maybe we can replace some of the lost items. Unfortunately, the really rare pieces were on display. It’s the same in a museum or in your house. You always offer the best.”

“But despite everything, I consider AUB museum to be a lucky place, that it was only… as we say in Arabic, Fadaynaha one display case,’ that is, one case paid the debt for the whole museum.”
Broken glass on the floor of the main exhibition space, but fortunately no other damage.​​

“Glass through the Ages” can be viewed virtually at AUB Museum 360​. AUB Communications will follow efforts to salvage items from Phoenician Gallery #2 with webcasts and on the university’s social media channels


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