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Geneva puts Lebanese prehistory on show
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BEIRUT: “Fascination du Liban: 60 Siecles d’Histoire des Religions, d’Art et d’Archeologie” (Fascination of Lebanon: 60 Centuries of History on Religions, Art and Archaeology) is a massive exhibition ongoing at Geneva’s Rath Museum.

The show is the fruit of a collaboration between the Lebanese Culture Ministry, the Directorate-General of Antiquities, the National Museum of Beirut and the Musees d’Art et d’Histoire de Geneve – Switzerland’s largest group of museums which includes the Rath.

The museum stages several temporary exhibitions each year, with the goal of exposing patrons to the work of different cultures. “Fascination” saw some 350 archaeological and art objects shipped from Beirut to Geneva.

“This exhibition tells about the history and civilizations,” project curator Anne-Marie Maila-Afeiche told The Daily Star. “We wanted to give another dimension, than it being a simple display of objects.”

The initiative dates from 2007 when Geneva was hosting a show on Gaza archaeology.

Since there is an exhibition about archaeology in Gaza, then-Culture Minister Tarek Mitri observed, why not do one on Lebanon?

Current Culture Minister Gaby Layoun was among the notables present at the inauguration, which suggests something of the political importance of this project to Lebanon and Switzerland.

In assembling the exhibition, Maila-Afeiche was joined by two other curators: Marc-Andre Haldimann, an expert in Mediterranean archaeology, and Marielle Martiniani-Reber, conservator of Byzantine and post-Byzantine collections at the Musees d’Art et d’Histoire de Geneve.

The Rath Museum is comprised of two floors. The first level showcases precious objects from the fourth millennium B.C. to the Roman Empire, while the second features archaeological items from the Byzantine and Ottoman periods.

The objective of the show, Maila-Afeiche said, “was to show this cultural and religious pluralism” that characterized the antique region now known as Lebanon.

The exhibition explores the relationship between the people who once resided in the region of Lebanon, the sacred and the profane. “The objects that were chosen,” Maila-Afeiche continued, “are either cult and ritual objects, or discovered in temples, churches and funerary contexts.”

Of the 350 archaeological objects on display, 277 were taken from the collection of the Directorate-General of Antiquities to bring a new perspective to these items. These items have never been put on public display and had to be restored beforehand, a task taken up by Musees d’Art et d’Histoire.

Among the principal objects on display are three mosaics from a Byzantine basilica in Chhim, about 45 kilometers away of the Lebanese capital. The first represents a vase, flanked by two birds apparently confronting one another. The second mosaic depicts two antelopes flanking a chalice. The third mosaic depicts a lioness running. Probably the most important of the three works in archaeological terms, this third mosaic had been part of the basilica floor.

Another of the exhibition’s unique items is a sarcophagus adorned with a bas-relief depiction of the so-called Judgment of Orestes – who, in Greek mythology, undertakes with his sister Electra to kill their mother Clytemnestra and her lover, to avenge the murder of his father, the mythic King Agamemnon.

Exhibited on the second floor of the museum gallery is an array of Melchite icons from the private collection of Abou Adal.

“A part of this collection was already in Geneva,” Maila-Afeiche explained, “but never exhibited.”

In addition, three rare editions of the Bible, one from the Middle Eastern Library of Université St. Joseph, are also on display.

The aim of these curatorial exertions, Maila-Afeiche says, is to “show the blending of religions.”

The stuff of this major exhibition also includes ancient Roman and Greek jewelry, Mamluk-era clothing discovered in Qadisha, the throne of Astarte found in Echmoun (Sidon), and with a selection of Bronze Age limestone statuettes.

More recent cultural production is also an important part of this show, with works by photographers Max Van Berchem and Manoug Alemian among the many on display.

The Swiss Berchem traveled to Lebanon at the end of the 19th century and published a selection of photographs and sketches of Tripoli around the beginning of the 20th century.

Maila-Afeiche believes the most important points in this project are the “multicultural and multi-religious aspects, which reflect Lebanon today.”“Fascination du Liban: 60 Siecles d’Histoire des Religions, d’Art et d’Archeologie” is on display at the Rath Museum in Geneva until end of March. For more information, please visit http://www.ville-ge.ch/mah/index.php?content=5 or call +41-22-418-33-40.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 03, 2013, on page 16.
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