An Enduring Fascination with Lebanon: A Conversation with Dr. Marielle Martiniani-Reber

Unique among the countries of the Middle East, Lebanon is a mélange of diverse peoples, cultures, and religious creeds. For centuries, it lay at the crossroads of civilizations with a history marked by the ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, European Crusaders, Mamluks, and the Ottomans. With over 60 centuries of human history, Lebanon’s countless archaeological treasures and stunning works of art beguile and mesmerize the world.

Fascinating Lebanon (Fascination du Liban), now on show at the Musée Rath (Musées d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève) in Geneva, Switzerland, surveys the role of religion and the arts in Lebanon’s history. Featuring a selection of 350 archaeological objects and works of art–never before seen in Europe–Fascinating Lebanon reveals the social and artistic elasticity of Lebanon’s religious and cultural past through the presentation of votive statues, ancient sarcophagi, Byzantine mosaics, Crusader coins, Mamluk garments, in addition to Melkite icons and manuscripts. In this brief interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Dr. Marielle Martiniani-Reber, Curator-in-Chief of Applied Arts, Byzantine and post-Byzantine collections at the Musées d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève, about this extraordinary display of Lebanese patrimony.

JW: Dr. Marielle Martiniani-Reber, I extend my thanks to you and the Musée Rath (MAH) for agreeing to speak with me about this incredible show in Geneva, Switzerland. Welcome to the Ancient History Encyclopedia!

In learning more about your exhibition, I wondered what stimulated the MAH to create a show that so thoroughly explores of Lebanese art, history, and religion? How challenging is it to organize a show, which recounts religious diversity and pluralism across thousands of years of history, in a museum setting?

MMR: Thank you, James! It is a pleasure to speak to you about our exhibition. It actually happened during a vernissage of a different exhibition, Gaza at the Crossroads of Civilization (Gaza, à la croisée des civilisations), in April 2007. At that time, Mr. Tarek Mitri, who was then Lebanon’s Minister of Culture, asked Mr. Patrice Mugny, a politician in charge of culture for the city of Geneva, if an exhibition could be organized with a specifically Lebanese focus. MAH’s curators–including Dr. Marc-André Haldimann, then the Curator-in-Chief of the Classical Archaeology and myself–were in close proximity to the conversation, and thus delighted to be included.

We were enthusiastic and decided to do it, but we explore more periods than the Gaza show–we had to consider the important historical links and the coexistence between Christians and Muslims–which, made for a great deal of work. For this challenge, Dr. Haldimann and I worked in collaboration with Dr. Anne Marie Afeiche, Curator of the National Museum in Beirut (Musée National de Beyrouth) and also, for the Melkite icons and manuscripts, with Dr. Sylvia Agemian, Curator of the Sursock Museum (Musée Sursock) in Beirut. A successful team can make a tremendous difference in shaping an exhibition. I feel as though we were most fortunate and have presented a truly unique show.

JW: “Ancient Lebanon” is perhaps synonymous with “the Phoenicians.” As seafarers and traders, the Phoenicians developed sophisticated, maritime technology, settling lands across the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians are also well known for inventing a syllabic alphabet, from which the Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew alphabets originate.

Few are aware, however, that the Phoenicians also produced exquisite votive figurines, magnificent obelisks, and resplendent funerary objects, which often reflect strong ties with their ancient Egyptian neighbors. Could you comment on the ways in which these Bronze and Iron Age objects demonstrate the emergence of a distinctive, Phoenician identity?

MMR: Our exhibition begins with an arresting presentation of artifacts from Byblos–a funerary jar of a child from excavations in Byblos takes center stage–and, of course, we share the most marvelous ex-votos from the “Obelisk temple.” As we wanted to show examples of material culture from the time before the Phoenicians, we demonstrate the role of incense in ancient Sidon. Even before their interactions with Egyptians and other Near Eastern peoples, the ancient inhabitants of what is present-day Lebanon displayed remarkable creativity and their own artistic styles. They were masters in blending a variety of styles to suit their needs and tastes.

Naturally, the brilliant Phoenician period is typified by wonderful ceramics and steles with inscriptions, which are very important in our understanding of the ways in which the Phoenicians exerted influence on ancient Greek culture. What is noticeable about this era is the balance of influences: foreign and indigenous.

JW: The arts of Christianity and Islam are given considerable attention in Fascinating Lebanon and with good reason; both religions entered Lebanon in their respective, formative stages, playing a decisive role in shaping modern Lebanon. As a medievalist, I was eager to see how the exhibition showcased the efflorescence of arts during the Lebanon’s “golden age,” when it was a part of the Byzantine and Umayyad Empires (c. 331-750 CE). This was an era of protracted peace and prosperity, driven by the agricultural production of olive oil and wine, in addition to the urban production of silks.

Among the exhibition’s highlights are the Byzantine mosaics of Chhîm (located roughly 45 km or 28 miles from Beirut). Dr. Martiniani-Reber, could you share a word or two on the significance of these mosaics? What makes them exceptional and of such great interest? As a Byzantinist, I am sure that you are thrilled to present these to the Swiss public!

MMR: For this section of the exhibition, we really wanted to stress the production of purple dye, which was the “specialty” of several important cities along Levantine coastline: Sidon, Tyr, and Sarepta. Few are aware that purple dye also brought enormous prosperity to coastal regions of Lebanon during the Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic periods. Increased wealth lead to increased agricultural production, helping to stimulate an international trade of silks and other cloths. We had the opportunity to present the results of research conducted by the late Dr. Joseph Doumet, a renown Lebanese specialist on the topic, and also those of Dr. Rolf Haubrichs, a chemist at Geneva University (Université de Genève), who collected information and documentation on purple.

Indeed you are correct, I am excited to present the three Byzantine mosaics of Chhîm in Fascinating Lebanon. They were discovered in 1996 by a joint archaeological mission sponsored by the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) and the University of Warsaw (Uniwersytet Warszawski). The team excavated the Basilica of Chhîm, uncovering the mosaics. Chhîm is a quiet place of rural beauty, located near ancient Sidon–present-day Saïda–in the Mount Lebanon Range. Originally a Roman town with a pagan temple, a modest but lovely church was built in Chhîm, around c. 498 CE, during the early Byzantine era. Through their marvelous symbolic representations of plants and animals, these mosaics demonstrate how a small community living from olive oil, wine, and wheat was able to obtain a high quality decoration for their church. They offer a portal into the agarian world of Late Antiquity and are normally shown in Lebanon’s Beit-ed-Din Palace, just outside of Beirut. It is most interesting to compare the motifs of these mosaics with the artifacts presented from the former Umayyad town of ‘Anjar. There are intriguing similarities and fascinating differences between the two.

JW: Aside from ancient and medieval treasures, I was surprised to see that Fascinating Lebanon includes works by Max Van Berchem (1863-1921 CE) and Manoug Alemian (1918-1994 CE). From what I understand, both men were photographers and drawn to Lebanon’s bucolic countryside and ancient monuments. If I am not mistaken, Van Berchem had strong connections to Geneva.

MMR: In truth, only Manoug Alemian was a genuine photographer. He is a remarkable artist; born in Turkey of Armenian origins, Alemian grew up in Syria but lived most of his life in Lebanon. He stayed in Beirut though the devastating civil war (1975-1991 CE) and captured scenes of everyday life across Lebanon: children playing; Bedouins working in the mountains; dancers and musicians in celebration of special events; and exquisite images of the Lebanese countryside. Alemian’s works are emotional, meditating on the interconnectivity between the Lebanese and their homeland.

Max van Berchem was an important scholar from Geneva who organized, with many international contributors, the famous Recueil des inscriptions Arabes in 1910 and 1911 CE. He is widely regarded as the father of “Arabic epigraphy,” making it an independent discipline. Van Berchem traveled, studied, noted, drew, and photographed ancient inscriptions, in addition to monuments and landscapes, across the Arab World. He had a very interesting methodology when approaching the study of epigraphs and medieval monuments; he studied each building holistically, recording a structure’s urban and natural environment. His photographs are absolutely striking, but entirely different from those of Alemian.

JW: After reviewing all of the displayed artifacts and objects, I kept returning to the Greco-Roman “Sarcophagus of Orestes” and the Melkite icons on loan from the Abou Adal Collection. Examples of cultural and religious synthesis abound in your exhibition, making this show a treat for museum visitors. Can you say that any single item from the exhibition resonates with you? If so, which one and why?

To conclude this interview, I would also like inquire as to how have the Swiss reacted to this compelling display of art and cultural history. What can you share?

MMR: As I am expert in the textiles of the Middle East I am extremely biased, James. Perhaps, the “adult dress” restored with other textile pieces in MAH’s textile workshop–in Lebanon they have no specialists for textile conservation–is my favorite. The form and the sewing of this dress underscores the transition between tunics worn in the Roman Empire and the traditional, but still worn Palestinian dresses. Its embroidery is simple, but very decorative.

The Swiss of the Romandy and French citizens from the régions of Rhône-Alpes and Franche-Comte have been very interested in the exhibition. Across these regions, there are many people of Lebanese descent or people who are Lebanese by birth. We have found that there is great interest in Lebanon in part, for this reason, and also because the Swiss French, French, and Lebanese are curious about what happened in Lebanon before and after the civil war. Attendance has been quite strong and we have received positive feedback from museum visitors. This is very gratifying!

JW: Dr. Marielle Martiniani-Reber, you must be congratulated for your part in organizing such a fine exhibition. It has been a pleasure to speak with you while sharing your insights with the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Merci beaucoup et bonne chance, Docteur Martiniani-Reber! Nous espérons vous parler à nouveau à l’avenir.

MMR: Je vous remercie, James! We hope to have the same success for our following exhibitions!

Image Reference Key:

1. Coin issued by King Adramelek. Byblos, Iron Age III, c. 350 BCE (era of Persian Occupation). Silver. Photo: MAH, CHAMAN Studio, S. Crettenand.

2. Phoenician Sarcophagus. Sidon, c. 400 BCE. Marble of Paros (imported from Greece). Photo: MAH, CHAMAN Studio, S. Crettenand.

3. Stele representing a priest under the winged disk of the sun. Boustan-ech-Cheikh (Sidon), Temple of Echmoun, Hellenistic Era (c. 300-200 BCE). Limestone. Photo: MAH, CHAMAN Studio, S. Crettenand.

4. Central panel from the choir mosaic of the Basilica of Chhîm, representing a lion. Chhîm, Byzantine Era (c. 500 CE). Mosaic of limestone and colored glass. Photo: MAH, CHAMAN Studio, S. Crettenand.

5. Circular hanging lamp or “polycandelon.” Kharayeb (?), Byzantine Era (c. 500-600 CE). Gilded copper alloy with décor. Photo: MAH, CHAMAN Studio, S. Crettenand.

6. Sarcophagus with the legend of Orestes. Tyr, Roman Era (c. 100 CE). Marble. Photo: MAH, CHAMAN Studio, S. Crettenand.

7. Passion of St. George. Ne‘meh al-Musawwir, 1666 CE. Inscriptions in Arabic. Tempera paint on wood. Photo: André Held.

Please click here to read the Ancient History Encyclopedia’s review of the exhibition catalogue for Fascinating Lebanon.

Dr. Marielle Martiniani-Reber is the Curator-in-Chief of Applied Arts, Byzantine and post-Byzantine collections, at the Musées d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève, in Geneva, Switzerland. An alumna of the Université de Lyon II, Marielle Martiniani-Reber has a PhD in Art History and Archaeology. She is a specialist of textiles and Christianity in the Middle East, and an author of more than 80 articles and books in these two disciplines. Recently, Martiniani-Reber published a catalogue of MAH’s Byzantine collection in 2011. In 2012, she was the Co-Commissioner of At Nightfall (À la tombée de la nuit: Art et histoire de l’éclairage) at the MAH and worked with the Louvre Museum on the exhibition, Cyprus between Byzantium and the West, 4th-16th Centuries (Chypre entre Byzance et l’Occident, IVe-XVIe siècle). Currently, Martiniani-Reber is preparing Medieval Fervor: Representations of the Saints in the Alps (Ferveurs Médiévales: Représentation des Saints dans les Alpes) at the Maison Tavel (MAH). Aside from her passion for archaeology and textiles, Martiniani-Reber has also taught in Lyon, Lausanne, and Paris.

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All images supplied by the Musées d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève are copyrighted by the Ministère de la Culture du Liban/Direction Génerale des Antiquités and the Collection Abou Adal. They have been given to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, as a courtesy, for the purposes of this interview. The Ancient History Encyclopedia would like to extend a special thank you to Ms. Christiane Zimmermann, Press Officer at MAH, for providing these images in addition to the exhibition catalogue. Translations from French to English were completed and undertaken by Mr. James Blake Wiener. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013.


By James Wiener

James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.