Fascinating Lebanon (Book Review)

catalogueFascinating Lebanon: Sixty Centuries of Religious History, Art, and Archaeology (French: Fascination du Liban: Soixante siècles d’historie de religions, d’art et d’archéologie) is the exhibition catalogue of the eponymous show at the Musée Rath (associated with the Musées d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève) in Geneva, Switzerland. This publication is edited by a talented and international group of researchers from Europe and the Middle East: Claude Doumet-Serhal (British Museum, London); Helga Seeden and Hermann Genz (American University of Beirut); Jean-Paul Thalmann (Université de Paris I Sorbonne); Henri-Charles Loffet (Docteur en égyptologie-École Pratique des Hautes Études-Paris); Maria-Eugenia Aubet (University of Barcelona); Julien Aliquot (CNRS-Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée); Jean-Baptiste Yon (Université de Lyon); Tomas Walizewski (University of Warsaw); Grace Homsy (Université Saint Esprit de Kaslik); and Hala Boustany (Université de Paris IV Sorbonne). Highlighting the religious and cultural diversity of Lebanon, this catalogue succeeds in delineating Lebanon’s importance at the nexus of trade, religion, and cross-cultural exchange for thousands of years.

From Paleolithic artifacts to Ottoman textiles, Phoenician sarcophagi to rare Melkite icons, this lavishly illustrated catalogue shares an unprecedented selection of unseen archaeological treasures. Each theme or historic era is introduced through an essay, which frames a particular topic or site. While the introductory essays are succinct, they will not frustrate the novice or bore the expert. Written by leading professionals in the fields of archaeology and art history, the information rendered is thought-provoking, pertinent, and perhaps even tantalizing. With over 350 artifacts presented in just 271 pages, readers will marvel at the range and rarity of items showcased within this publication.

While the presentation and analysis of Greco-Roman artifacts–like that of the sarcophagus depicting the “Judgment of Orestes”–and Phoenician objects of devotion is impressive, the book’s most interesting in chapters encompass Lebanon’s forgotten golden age during Late Antiquity (c. 330-800 CE). During the transition from paganism to Christianity, and in turn to that of Islam, Lebanese artisans created spectacular works of art. Few are aware that purple dye brought enormous prosperity to coastal regions of Lebanon during the Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic periods. Increased wealth lead to increased artistic and agricultural production, helping to stimulate an international trade of silks and other goods. Mosaics from the Basilica of Chhîm, incense holders from Marjhine, and fragments from the former Umayyad palace at Anjar recreate a pulsating world of power, economic prosperity, and sustained socio-religious evolution.

The Ancient History Encyclopedia highly recommends this stunning catalogue to art historians, archaeologists with an interest in the Levant, and those scholars interested in Late Antiquity. Medievalists will also appreciate this work as a many artifacts pertain to the Crusaders, Mamlukes, Ottomans, and Melkite Christians. The annex includes a list of abbreviations and an extensive, but useful bibliography with works in French, English, and German. Our sole regret is that this publication is only available in French; however, this volume is published in accessible French via Skira Publications (2012). Those with a reading-knowledge of the language should not encounter many difficulties. It is currently available for purchase from the Museum and Amazon.fr.

Please be sure to read our interview with 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, who helped organize this extraordinary display of Lebanese patrimony.

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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.