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Lessons from Beirut on bombed-out art

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The museum was in shambles, its offices looted and precious ancient art missing. People thought that the museum staff had sold off the nation's archeological patrimony to European art dealers.

It's not Baghdad in 2003; it was Beirut in 1975.

During Lebanon's tumultuous 15-year civil war, the Beirut National Museum lay in ruins. The museum was hit by artillery shells. Snipers fired from its upper floors, even boring a rifle hole into one of the ancient pieces of art. The fate of its priceless collections was unknown.

"When I saw the damage to Baghdad's museums and libraries, I was depressed because it reminded me of Beirut," says Hareth Boustany, who was curator of the Beirut National Museum from 1970 to 1979. "All of the cultural and intellectual heritage of the world comes from Mesopotamia."

While initial fears of damage to Baghdad's National Museum may have been exaggerated, some 3,000 pieces of art remain missing, according to the US military forces.

Mr. Boustany notes that the level of looting and destruction was far worse in Baghdad than in Beirut. Nevertheless, he says, Beirut's experiences can provide some "valuable lessons for Iraq."

Within a few years of the end of Lebanon's civil war in 1990, the Beirut National Museum had unearthed its hidden treasures, recovered its stolen art, and built a state-of-the-art complex.

"Iraq can do it as well," says Boustany, "if there is the will."

When Lebanon's fighting broke out in April 1975, museum curators quickly realized the civil war wouldn't be over anytime soon. The Beirut National Museum, a beautiful example of 1930s architecture, sat directly along the Green Line dividing east and west Beirut. Artillery shells from the warring Christian and Muslim militias whizzed over the museum nearly everyday, recalls Suzy Hakimian, the museum's current curator.

"I don't think they intentionally bombarded the museum," she says. "But it was standing there in the line of fire."

The building, originally constructed with real Roman columns, began to look like a archeological ruin. Some of the works, such as heavy Phoenician and Roman stone sarcophagi, couldn't be moved. So the museum staff encased them in concrete to protect them from looting and shelling.

"Archeology and concrete don't go very well together," says Hakimian wryly, but they had no choice.

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