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"Sarsak" Opens the "Archives of Eternity": Baalbek Is the Foothold of Gods and Humans

Updated on January 11, 2020
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With 300 pieces of art and antiquities, some of which we see for the first time, Baalbek, the Archives of Eternity, legitimizes and dismantles the city. In the grand hall of the Sarsak Museum (Ashrafieh, Beirut), the exhibition's nine sections form diverse thresholds for entering the City of the Sun by recounting its archaeological, anthropological, geographical, artistic and political history.

"Um Kulthoum al-Baalbekia: In two nights, Egypt has fulfilled what Egypt has imported from our season". Al-Nahar, like other press coverage of Um Kulthoum's 1966 concert, mocked the 80,000 Lebanese pounds that the six paid for two nights at the Baalbek International Festivals. In an oil painting of the late Rafik Sharaf, the rebels attack Saray Baalbek in 1958 in protest against President Camille Chamoun's policy and in solidarity with Arab issues, including the Suez Canal crisis in Egypt. Sabah, dressed in green folklore, launches a long-standing "Oofa" among the relics in a rare video from the Archives of Lebanon TV. A letter from French Prime Minister Alexander Miller to Bishop Khoury, promising him to annex the Bekaa and Baalbek to the State of Greater Lebanon.

Poster "Visit Lebanon - Summer of Expatriates 1955, 1955 (Official Agency for Lebanese Tourism" - Offset Print by Catholic Press, Beirut, 102 x 72 cm) - Bank Audi Group (Switzerland)
Poster "Visit Lebanon - Summer of Expatriates 1955, 1955 (Official Agency for Lebanese Tourism" - Offset Print by Catholic Press, Beirut, 102 x 72 cm) - Bank Audi Group (Switzerland)

"Alitalia" invites passengers to visit Lebanon with the pillars of the Temple of Jupiter on the poster.
Baalbek, The Archives of Eternity, legitimizes and dismantles the city. But it is a maze that will lead us back to the first magic by surrounded by a flood of elements from which Baalbek was formed. Although these elements have come in the form of social and urban transformations that have afflicted the city in recent years and have not yet subsided. Roman temples are just a station in their history, a key period that made them the seat of the successive gods, and a place of revulsion for the new religion that came in the fourth century to destroy its temples. Temples have been repeatedly eroded in natural and human earthquakes. When the Byzantines ruled, Theodosius I (4th century) ordered the demolition of the Temple of Jupiter to build a church in its place. However, there was room for gods and human beings alike, for stones and absences, for dates and events that did not stop breeding in the city whose name derived from the Aramaic God Baal al-Arami, and the Nabak (fountain).

In the grand exhibition hall of the Sarsak Museum (Ashrafieh, Beirut), where the exhibition runs until 22 September, history is not a rigid and heavy aura that is centuries apart. We travel with him for 10,000 years of the city's life, temples, festivals, nature and people. The exhibition was curated by Iranian curator Vali Mahloji (see staff), who provided multiple ways and perspectives to identify them through about 300 pieces of art (paintings, photos, videos, posters...) Written and audio documents, and artifacts collected by the exhibition for the first time. A process that can't be as easy as it might be, i.e. holding an exhibition, no matter how big it is for a city or a land in general, so how if this land is Baalbek.

Mrs. Khawla's tomb in front of the Roman temples - Hikmat Awada Group
Mrs. Khawla's tomb in front of the Roman temples - Hikmat Awada Group

The first fact that Mahaluji doesn't neglect is that he's dealing with a living place. This prompted him to abandon the rigid archaeological image. A Bekaa woman (via video) will come to tell about Baalbek and people's relationships together. Its presence in the exhibition is the importance of the castle stones or even a certain time period. Everything that happens is added to the biography of monuments and temples, which the Lebanese authorities, and urban planning tried to separate from the city and people. The exhibition's overall framework does not show the isolation of temples from people or the present time, but rather extends their disconnection, following the many layers that Baalbek has accumulated for years. There are nine sections that form diverse thresholds for entry into Baalbek, where the exhibition re-lists the city's archaeological, anthropological, geographical and artistic history, photography, lyric, musical, poetic and political history.

The beginning of "Ten Thousand Years – From the Time of the First Settlements to the Present" which documents Baalbek from the first times before the general history (AD) through a timetable: the Bronze Age, the Egyptian and Hittite powers, the Aramaic, Roman, Byzantine and Periods of Islamic Rule, And ottoman. In this section, he paints and explains two details of roman temples, and their periods of construction, including the front yard, the Temple of Tikh, the Temple of Bacchus, the small altar, and the temple of Jupiter, the best and greatest god in Heliopolis. The construction of temples required the Romans to search for the Ademi rock so that the earth would not swallow them. In addition to the detailed timeline of the civilizations that rolled over Baalbek, traces and relics from several periods are displayed, including those of the Roman period (in collaboration with the Directorate General of Antiquities), coins from Byzantine history, ceramics and perfume bottles. In the "European-organized scene" section, he traces the Orientalist European view that repainted and shaped Baalbek, through a collection of paintings on display at the museum. According to the exhibition's texts, these artists were inspired by the claim to own the place and the temples, as guardians of the entire Roman scene. The restoration came centuries after the end of Roman rule, specifically in the 8th and 19th centuries, most notably the paintings of Louis François Casas, which evoke the construction of the three Roman temples, and the temple of Bacchus, as well as paintings by artists during their visit to the Levant, including the British artist Edward Lear in a 19th-century painting of Roman columns, paintings by The Frenchman Paul Pascal.

"Reformation of the Three Temples of Baalbek" (Water colours and ink on paper, 71 x 138 cm , circa 1784-1787) by Louis-François Casas (1756-1827) by Philippe Jabr
"Reformation of the Three Temples of Baalbek" (Water colours and ink on paper, 71 x 138 cm , circa 1784-1787) by Louis-François Casas (1756-1827) by Philippe Jabr

The exhibition does not ignore the orientalist view that followed Baalbek and its image, as part of the "Western" monuments in the Near East. In Imperial Archaeology and Aspirations, the focus continues on excavations and excavations in the 19th century, within the "imperial competition for domination of the Near East". Napoleon's expansion ambitions and his invasion of Egypt, and the Battle of Navarreno in support of Greek liberation from Ottoman rule". This period followed in the 8th and 19th centuries, a German intervention in Baalbek seeking to rid the layers and urban growths that followed the Roman period. The more you go in and move in the gallery, the more you will make sure that you can't get one picture of your baalbek. Photographers entered the perfect place with a new and contemporary invention, i.e. with a camera. We stop at those experiences that were haunted by the obsession of the past, with the obsession with the old character of temples and the place sometimes without human presence, but by framing images in a mythical mould like the ones we see in the "Worthy of Photography" section. There are images that have created the imagination of Baalbek, and photographers have repeated their photographs over the years, such as images of temples and columns by The Scotsman James Graham, Frenchman Felix Bonfis, and Italian Tancred Dumas, who opened a photography studio in Beirut during the 19th century.

Lebanese poet Talal Haidar in an interview (Photo and editing: Malik Hosni, 2019)
Lebanese poet Talal Haidar in an interview (Photo and editing: Malik Hosni, 2019)

Between the outside and the inside, the exhibition focuses on Baalbek's presence in the national consciousness and its association with the Lebanese identity. In recent history, their geographical nature has led the French authorities to annex greater Lebanon. We see these documents and letters in the section "From The Picture to the National Impact – The Rise of Lebanon's Baalbek", as well as postage stamps that appeared in Baalbek in the 1930s and 1950s without giving up their shorthand with antiquities, as if they were copied from photographs. The exhibition shows the local dealings with Baalbek, from its presence in popular imagination through cinema, television and posters, to interviews with some of the people of Baalbek in videos including the poet Talal Haidar and former Speaker of the House of Representatives Hussein Husseini. In the case of the most prominent artists Rafik Sharaf Zawiya special To display his paintings of the Bekaa Valley, the Temple of Bacchus and others. It is not surprising that Baalbek International Festivals is the preferred section for many visitors.

Baalbek Village - Marilyn Stafford Photography
Baalbek Village - Marilyn Stafford Photography

In the dark room, we have rare archives of Fairuz, Ella Fitzgerald and others, as well as press documents, concert coverage, posters and photographs of the world's most prominent Arab and famous faces who made the name of the festival when it was a race between the region's festivals. We go back to the first year of launch (1956) through a message recorded in the voice of President Camille Chamoun announcing the "civilized message of the Lebanese Festival". This section lacks any reference to the Palmyra Hotel, which has gained fame thanks to festivals, and the artists who stayed there, such as The Frenchman Jean Cocteau, and Fairuz, whose room still exists today. In fact, the citadel was suspended in its Lebanese character, and this character was completely absent from the city, lacking any urban, social or economic planning or interest.

French colonialism gave him legitimacy through a decree issued in the late 1930s to separate the city from the archaeological site. The exhibition does not reveal these changes and tragedies that are affecting Baalbek, but rather reconnects them, even through the endorsement of urban, environmental, social and religious disasters in the "Modern City" section. Here he participates in the rewriting of history, documenting the changes that followed the war, including state neglect, and security evasion. We read about the cutting of the trees of Ras Al Ain road one night, and then people woke up to find the way and lost its highlights. These transformations amount to the new character worn by the city, with the construction of the Shrine of Khawla, the daughter of Hussein, on the outskirts of Roman temples in the 17th century, before being restored in the 1990s. The last section, standing with the people of Baalbek, politicians, poets, and citizens who show the demographic diversity of the city through seven interviews, monitors their memories, people's relations, and the transformations they have made in recent decades.

* Baalbek, Archives of Eternity: Until September 22 - Sarsak Museum (Ashrafieh, Beirut). To inquire: 01/20201

Vali Mahloji: Towards the Humanization of the City

Curator Vali Mahloji spent three months in Beirut preparing for baalbek, The Archives of Eternity. In an interview, he tells us that the main purpose of the exhibition is "To humanize Baalbek, which is a living and moving city above all". He emphasizes that the monument built during roman rule "is rooted in the city's present". Two years ago, the idea was put forward between the Sarsak Museum and the Baalbek International Festivals Committee and Mahloji was invited, while the Jabr Group formed the nucleus of the exhibition with documents and essential pieces. Mahloji's work later described it as aimed at moving beyond the famous Baalbek monument towards "a deeper understanding of human civilization and human history".

The character of "Baalbek Festivals" by Mark Henry (2.50 BC - Photodrill, 2.4 x 4 cm - 1964 - from the Collection of Abdou Ayoub)
The character of "Baalbek Festivals" by Mark Henry (2.50 BC - Photodrill, 2.4 x 4 cm - 1964 - from the Collection of Abdou Ayoub)

Thus, he returned the archives and historical documents to the time periods and civilizations that rolled over Baalbek, seeking to "be surrounded by lenses, dialogues and perspectives covering the old and the modern, legendary and experimental, physical symbolism, global history and personal testimonies". Valley delved deeper into the study of Baalbek and its history, trying to demonstrate the process of tension and attraction between humans and gods. Thus, people did not ignore their contemporary lives and the modern social and urban changes that afflicted Baalbek. It is the first time that Mahloji has been working on an exhibition in Lebanon. In recent years, London-based curators have coordinated several exhibitions in Amsterdam, London, Dubai, Moscow and Singapore. Among his most notable recent projects is a special pavilion by the late Iranian photographer Kaoh Kolstan (1950-2003) at the Tate Modern Museum in London, as well as the launch of the Archeology of the Final Decade in 2010. It is an educational platform that investigates, deepens and republishes some of the obscure cultural and artistic material from those that have been destroyed, banned and censored.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Hafiz Muhammad Adnan


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