From the 28th of June until the 22nd of September, an exhibition will be held at the Sursock Museum in Beirut: Baalbek, archives of an eternity. A unique tribute to a thousand-years-old city that has survived the times, but also to the men who inhabited it.
Listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, Baalbek is a city whose history is intrinsically linked to the one of human civilizations. Born 10,000 years ago at more than 1,000 meters of altitude on a summit in the northeast part of the Bekaa Valley, its existence precedes the erection of the Roman temples which made it notoriety. Result of a long investigation led by Vali Mahjouli, curator of the exhibition and independent consultant for the British Museum, this exhibition Baalbek, archives of an eternity intends to bring the historical and human dimension of this iconic Lebanese city.
A little bit of history …
“When we talk about Baalbek, everyone thinks about its civilization and its monuments which have built the Lebanese national identity. But what the exhibition does is to go beyond this epic of the site, by also telling another story: the story of a city that has survived 10,000 years of history and whose settlement has since been uninterrupted. “Vali Mahjouli.
Thus, the visitors travel through the different periods of time that have marked the human and urban history of the city; from its first settlements Thousands of years ago, until the Ottoman period. The first settlers who observed sacred rituals because of the proximity with the abundant Litani and Al Assi rivers, the Hellenistic dynasty of the Seleucids in the first century BC, the Roman conquest and construction of the Bacchus and Jupiter temples at the end of the second century, their destruction by the Christians in the 4th century, and finally the conquest of the city by the Arabs who transformed the Roman structures into a fortified citadel in the 7th century. The whole history of this city and its unique architectural heritage are revealed in this exhibition, through a series of objects including fragments of ceramics from the Neolithic period or Roman sculptures. However, the curator of the exhibition confesses to giving as much importance to the form and objects, as to the substance and information. “The creation of knowledge is really at the center of this exhibition. I do not believe in the supremacy of the object. There is a balance to be found between objects that tell a story, but also the knowledge that induces them in another form. The exhibition also seeks to introduce the public to time and space. “
Orientalism and political instrumentalization of Baalbek
The emphasis is also placed on the construction of Baalbek mythology, as a founding element of the Lebanese nation. But also on its function as a link between the Eastern and the Western world. After the dismantlement of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th century, Europeans tried to extend their influence beyond the borders of Rome and Greece by claiming their roots to the origins of civilization in Mesopotamia. Then, Baalbek and its Roman site become the perfect tool of this “civilizing mission” from Europe to the Middle East. Idealized to the extreme by Western artists and intellectuals, they become the object of the romantic vision of the East, a vision that can be found in the paintings on display. In 1920, the French Mandate officially claims that the Bekaa valley is part of the Lebanese territory, which further reinforces the political instrumentalization of the city in the construction of the Lebanese national narrative, creating a link between an idealized past and a contemporary society. The columns of the site then appear on stamps and banknotes. A myth that the rise of photography and archeology will continue to feed, and that the visitor discovers through a selection of tourism and movie posters where the temple of Jupiter appears. But this mythology culminated in 1956 when the city became the place of the most emblematic festival in Lebanon: the International Festival of Baalbek. The first event of this scale in the Middle East, it became today a cultural regional institution that strengthens the bridges between East and West, having already hosted international artists such as Fairouz, Sting, Ella Fitzgerald or Nina Simone.
Beyond myth, humanize Baalbek
“When you go down the stairs to enter into the exhibition space, there is an image of the Bekaa. It is a metaphor that gives the impression of going down from Mount Lebanon to the Bekaa valley. It was important for me to invite the audience to contemplate this valley which is an important site of human civilization and which hosted the first human settlements. “
Beyond the ancestral epic of the mythical city of Baalbek, the exhibition aims to bring the human back to the foreground, by paying tribute to its current inhabitants and all the different populations that have inhabited. “The beginning of the exhibition seeks to show this very long history of the city, the people who settled there and their relationship to the land. In the end, there are testimonies and interviews of current inhabitants and people related to the destiny of Baalbek. The goal is to show the gap between the monuments and the rest of the city from which they are disconnected”. Explains Vali Mahjouli. Among the testimonies, we can find the Lebanese architect Youssef Haidar, a native of the city and architect of Beit Beirut, an old building located on the old demarcation line during the civil war, now rehabilitated as a museum.
If this exhibition gives a sense of pride to the people of Baalbek, it also highlights the challenges of the authorities to bring tourists back to this city they desert, and reconnect its inhabitants to its history. “The inhabitants of Baalbek have been there long before the site and will stay there long after. It was necessary to pay tribute to them. “