Art & Culture

The Future of the Past: The Robert Mouawad Museum

Tucked away in an unassuming side street in the heart of the Beirut neighborhood of zoqaq al-blat lies a cultural gem. The Robert Mouawad Museum of art and history is a treasure waiting to be discovered. 
 
Restored and renovated by renowned international jeweler Robert Mouawad, the 27-room private museum contains a vast collection of Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic art, housed in an exquisite centuries-old palace.
 
The palace, once owned by Lebanese politician and businessman Henri Pharoun, dates back to 1872 and was built by his father, Phillip Pharoun, who intended it as a family residence.  Although Robert Mouawad opened the museum to the public in May 2005, the residence’s transformation from a humble abode to a palace of fine art and historical treasures had long since begun.  In 1929, on a visit to Damascus, Henri Pharoun, mesmerized by the majestic Syrian houses of the Ottoman period in Damascus and Aleppo, decided to incorporate these architectural elements into the home he inherited from his father.   With the help of Lucien Cavro, a young French architect who worked in Lebanon and Syria during the French Mandate, so began the endeavor of a lifetime, a labor of love that took over half a century to complete.  
 
Robert Mouawad built on this endeavor, adding two rooms displaying exquisite jewelry and watches from his private collection as well as an expansive library.  
 
The meticulously maintained museum is something to behold. In addition to the hundreds of artifacts on display, even the walls, floors and stain glass windows of the palace are features in and of themselves.  The walls are decorated with mosaics and wooden panels rescued from Damascene homes that dated back from the 16th to the 19th centuries. 
 
When visiting the museum, make sure your first stop is the independence room located on the ground floor. It was in this room that Lebanese politicians gathered around the 24-seat table in 1943 and agreed upon the Lebanese flag.   The dining room table, adorned in 890 Dutch tiles, extends in length throughout the entire room, from the doorway all the way to the foot of the room in front of a large arch-shaped stain glass window. 
 
As you stroll through the museum, you are taken on a journey through time as you explore the vast array of antiquities on display originating from southern Italy, Cyprus and Phoenicia as well as Syria, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia.  The impressive collection, which dates from the third millennium BC to the seventh century AD, comprises objects made of bronze, glass, limestone, marble, pottery and terracotta.  Some of the few items originally from Lebanon include Phoenician terracotta figurines discovered in Tyre.  These figurines date back as far as the third century BC and can be found in the room that was once Henri Pharoun’s bedroom. 
 
Another must-see feature is the room in which famous French General Charles De Gaulle once stayed.  It now fittingly displays an ornately decorated old rifle collection.  But don’t stop there, just across the hall is a library added to the museum by Mr. Mouawad.  Stepping into the library is like taking a journey through time as you scroll through the 700 books and manuscripts written in Arabic, Greek, Latin and Syriac. Not only does the library contain the handwritten journals of Le Martine, French author and philosopher, but also a variety of religious books including the first printed Koran from Hamburg, Germany dating back to 1694.  
 
The magnificent sculptures are not only displayed throughout the museum but also in the garden among fragrant gardenia trees and perfectly paved paths.  It is among the greenery that you will find the intricately carved limestone columns and statues as well as a Phoenician sarcophagus from 500BC.  
 
In addition to the furniture and sculptures, the institution displays examples of all the most important periods in jewelry design.   The stunning jewelry collection, which has been accumulated over the last 30 years by Robert Mouawad, features numerous pieces signed by famous jewelry houses from all over the world.  Prepare to be mesmerized by the sheer intricacy and audacity of the many pieces.  
 
Take advantage of this rare opportunity to examine first hand a vast array of fine gemstones and jewels, from a 16th century Spanish emerald pendant to a diamond brooch of the 1960s by Van Cleef & Arpels and even more recent creations.  Also featured is the necklace that Queen Elizabeth wore on her wedding day as well as the outstanding 70-carat Excelsior diamond, which dates back to 1893.
 
Lebanon is a land rich in historical sites, from Baalbek to Byblos and beyond. The Robert Mouawad Museum is a must see for anyone interested in taking a journey through time and discovering centuries of history, culture and tradition.
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