Could Lebanon’s economic collapse be affecting history? Quite an unusual question to ask yourself, I suppose. But, if we look a little deeper into how intertwined politics, economics and history are, we find that the ties are as obvious as ever. We are presented with a modern-day example of how Lebanon’s economic meltdown may put ancient artefacts at great risk. Although the Lebanese economy may not impact many, history does. It is the reason the world is the way it is today. Try envisioning museums as portals. Portals that teleport you to the past that teach about why our lives are the way they are today and help predict what certain outcomes may look like in the future. Losing organic artefacts that require climate control in museums is quite alarming once you grasp the true importance of history. In this article, we dive into Lebanon’s economic crisis’s effect on the thousands of Roman, Phoenician, Byzantine and Mamluk periods, what it means to us and why it is such a disaster.
According to the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, “Lebanon is hanging by a thread”. Six words that could not have described Lebanon’s situation more accurately. It all started with a vision. A vision to transform Lebanon into the “Switzerland of the Middle East”. Of course, without the proper planning, long-sightedness, and necessary restraints, such a large, transformative vision was bound to end up a burden rather than a success. The millions spent on building high skyscrapers and filling up malls with high-end fashion boutiques led to the hefty accumulation of debt following the Lebanese civil war that took place between the years 1975 till 1990. The government is now unable to pay back its overdue debts, savers are either unable to access their dollar accounts or told that whatever is left is now worth a fraction of its original value due to skyrocketing inflation and a 90% devaluation of the currency, and the currency has completely crashed leaving a greatly unfortunate 80% of the population in poverty.
Lebanon’s economic crisis is labelled as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s. To illustrate the tragedy of the situation even further, recently, on the 14th of September, Sali Hafiz, a client at the Blom Bank in Lebanon, stormed into the bank carrying a gun, held people hostage, and threatened to set the bank on fire demanding to withdraw money from her own bank account beyond set limits. Sali Hafiz needed the money to fund her sister’s cancer treatment in Istanbul. “I am Sali Hafiz. I came today to take the deposits of my sister who is dying in the hospital… I did not come to kill anyone or to start a fire. I came to claim my rights,” Sali said in an attempt to claim her money back from the bank. The heist lasted for about an hour. Sali Hafiz escaped from the bank carrying a bag full of cash and headed straight to the airport flying to Istanbul. Earlier that day, Sali posted a photo of her sister captioned, “My love, I promise you will travel and get your treatment and return strongly on your feet and continue to raise your daughter even if it costs me my life”. A story that simultaneously provokes shock, disbelief, pity, and sadness and opens our eyes to the severity of the case at hand and how desperate the people of Lebanon have become. This shows how corruption and mismanagement of the country’s resources are not only impacting history where museums and historic centres are unable to be kept under proper maintenance and control, thus putting them under severe risk, as will be later discussed, but also deeply affecting individual’s lives.
The country faces severe communication equipment, fuel, medicines, and electricity shortages. Food aid and healthcare are now incredibly scarce resources. Long, several-hour queues must be endured to complete the simple task of refuelling vehicles. Power outages are now an integrated part of their daily lives. Working hours have changed to adapt to the limited time frame when electricity is made available, greatly inhibiting productivity and economic growth.
The National Museum of Beirut is also affected by this energy crisis. Visitors now need to enter the museum with flashlights in hand in order to see anything. Mariela Rubio, a tourist visiting Lebanon this summer, posted a tweet writing, “Lebanon cannot afford an illuminated museum”, and attached a video of the dark museum with tourists peeking at whatever detail their eyes can capture through the rays of their small flashlights. This tweet drew much attention to the Lebanese electricity crisis as it reached an international audience who expressed their sadness watching such a beautiful country as Lebanon go through such troublesome times. Mariela Rubio described the situation to be a perfect metaphor for what the country is going through.
The museum holds much significance being home to thousands of rare collections dating back from prehistoric times. Each item and object tells a story, holds meaning, and contributes to the making of today’s world. The museum has endured many disruptions throughout times of the civil war and when it was severely hit by the Beirut blast. But now, with the ongoing power outages, it is questionable whether some of the organic artefacts can withstand such unstable climate control conditions constantly fluctuating from hot to cold. The reasons why temperature and humidity control are so crucial to some of the artefacts held at the museum is because they include frescoes, mummies, textiles, metal and organic materials such as Bronze Ageweaponry and Roman leather armour, which require being kept in suitable environments for their sustainability.
Surprisingly, despite the current situation, the museum still hosts around 150 to 250 people daily. This alone shows how although some may think of a museum as the least of the country’s worries or at the bottom of the priority list with regard to everything happening at the moment, it is not. The museum’s director quotes, “These collections cannot be replaced. This is our treasure, our heritage, and we must take care of it in the best way.” Historically, countries have faced harsh circumstances and have managed to rise above them, but once historical artefacts are lost, there is no redemption or retrieval.
Advances are being made in hopes of helping sustain the museum’s survival. The International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas has been focusing on helping improve the state of the museum. Additionally, Paris’s Louvre Museum is coordinating with Lebanon’s General Directorate of Antiques to implement solar power generators to help generate electricity. Hope has not been lost yet. With the right amount of patience, time and dedication, forces will come together to help save the wonderful National Museum of Beirut and the beautiful people of Lebanon and restore history.