Lebanon's medieval frescoes at risk

BEIRUT: "A lot of these frescoes are discovered by accident," says historian Ray Mouawad, gingerly turning the pages of a doorstop-sized photography book documenting medieval churches in Lebanon. Mouawad is particularly interested in the wall paintings that adorn these structures, or rather, what is left of them.

For example, in the mountain village of Kaftoun, Mouawad explains, a group of Greek Orthodox sisters decided to restore a long-abandoned medieval church. A wall broke in the process, revealing a second wall behind it that was covered in intricate wall paintings. Intrigued by their discovery, the sisters poked around further and discovered a false ceiling that likewise concealed a massive, historically precious mural.

"It is beautiful to discover these frescoes because they are not known," says Mouawad.

Lebanon may never pull in the same volume of tourists as Italy or Greece, but it does have the historical artifacts and relics to compete. The areas of Byblos, Batroun, Koura and the Qadisha Valley in particular are full of old chapels and churches. Some date back to the 12th and 13th centuries, and many are covered from floor to ceiling with frescoes.

The significance of these decorative paintings extends to several disciplines, from religious scholarship and theological debate to the rather more secular study of art history. Many are inscribed in three languages - Greek, Syriac and Arabic. Some look as if they had been sprung from the surrealist imagination of Andre Breton, with elaborate systems of symbols, including seraphim wings that open to reveal an allover pattern of watching eyes. The problem, however, is that little to no attention has been paid to their proper preservation.

In September 2005, Mouawad, who is a professor at the Lebanese American University and a researcher at St. Joseph University, formed an association with four of her colleagues in the field - Suad Slim, chairman of Antioch studies at Balamand University; Levon Nordiguian, director of the prehistory museum at St. Joseph University and co-author of "Chateaux et Eglises du Moyen Age au Liban," the book Mouawad is presently using as a reference; Nada Helou, an art historian and Byzantine specialist at the Lebanese University; and economist and fund manager Bernard Jabre.

The idea for the Association for the Restoration and Study of Lebanon's Medieval Frescoes was born a year before that, when Mouawad was one of a number of specialists to host a delegation of 100 visitors to an academic conference.

"We were showing [them] these churches," she recalls, "and we realized through their eyes that these frescoes were in a serious situation. They couldn't believe these frescoes were in such a condition. They were coming from Syria, Turkey, Egypt. All these countries have policies of preserving frescoes and churches but in Lebanon nothing was done. This was shocking for them."

The ravages of time, harsh climactic conditions, random acts of vandalism and, perhaps worst of all, ill-informed, ad hoc attempts at fashionable renovations - all these factors have converged to put Lebanon's medieval frescoes in a precarious position, at a real risk of disappearing altogether.

This is what motivated Mouawad and her associates to come together. After a year of administrative running around, securing approval from Lebanon's Director General of Antiquities and so forth, they finally got the association off the ground and compiled a comprehensive list of 100 at-risk sites. Now, they have honed their attention on two, in Kfarshlayman and Kfarhelda.

This weekend, the association is organizing an excursion to both sites. The trip is part fundraiser, part awareness campaign. Mouawad says the mission is threefold: first, to raise the visibility of the frescoes as sites of national heritage and cultural patrimony (and also as potential sources of tourist revenue for the surrounding villages); second, to raise actual funds for the restoration effort; and third, to attract the interest of people who might just want to become restorers themselves. (The association hopes to raise money to send a few Lebanese abroad to study restoration techniques, in hopes of eventually opening a proper, accredited restoration center in Lebanon.)

The association has already enlisted the expertise of Livia Aliberti, an Italian restorer of international renown who was responsible for heading up the team that worked on the Mar Moussa al-Habashi monastery in Syria.

"She worked there for many years and now those frescoes are cited everywhere," says Mouawad. "She is very conservative. The point is to restore but not to add. This is very Italian," Mouawad laughs, "very picky."

Aliberti established a budget and a work program for restoring the frescoes at Kfarshlayman and Kfarhelda, in collaboration with Antoine Fischfisch, a specialist in architectural renovations who recently worked on the souks of Tripoli and the ancient city center of Duma in Batroun.

What is interesting about the chapel at Kfarshlayman is that the structure was originally a tomb built into the rock. According to Mouawad, most likely an ascetic lived there and painting the entire interior himself.

"Today it is a Maronite chapel," she says. "But this doesn't mean anything." All of the churches on the association's list are either Maronite or Greek Orthodox, but Mouawad stresses that when looking at medieval relics, it is extremely difficult to distinguish between the two.

The site at Kfarhelda is today a Greek Orthodox chapel. The frescoes there were discovered by chance. They are intact, largely owing to the fact that the nearby village migrated further south a long time ago.

But the frescoes are nonetheless covered in thick black grime. The first task of Aliberti and her team will be to determine what this black substance is (soot from a fire, a kind of fungus) and then to find the appropriate remedy for removing it.

One particular fresco has caught Aliberti's eye. It shows the Virgin Mary feeding her infant son, which is evidence, according to Mouawad, that Christ has two natures, itself the subject of intense theological debate. What cannot yet be determined, however, is whether Christ is suckling on his mother's breast or a taking a drop of milk from her finger. It will take a full restoration effort to discover what is on the receiving end of the infant's lips, which is nothing if not cause for anticipation.

The Association for the Restoration and Study of Lebanon's Medieval Frescoes is coordinating a visit to a number of sites in Batroun on Sunday, June 4. Organized with Liban Trek, the trip is a fundraiser. Tickets are $50 for adults and $25 for children, including transportation, guides and lunch. Minivans will be leaving from the Sofil Center in Achrafieh and traveling to the crusader chapel of Mar Saba, a tomb in Kfarshlayman, Sayyidat al-Khrab in Kfarhelda and the monastery of St. John in Duma. For more information, reservations and a full itinerary, please call +961 1 329 975





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