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Written by Anne-Marie Maila-Afeiche   
Saturday, 02 July 2011 12:21




By Anne-Marie Maila-Afeiche - Curator
National Museum of Beirut
Ministry of Culture - Directorate General of Antiquities

Restorer Giorgio Capriotti
Figure 1

In May 1937, near the village of Burj el-Chemali about 3km from Tyre, a peasant uncovered a tomb or hypogeum carved in the rock while digging in his field. In October of the same year, the Directorate General of Antiquities commenced archaeological excavations in the subterranean tomb. What made the discovery unusual were the frescoes that covered its walls. Lively colors on well-preserved paintings ran along the four inner walls. They depicted different scenes from Greek mythology which were no less remarkable for their composition than for the striking beauty of their colors still extraordinarily preserved.



A 26-step stairway leads down to the tomb carved in the rock. The chamber itself consists of an underground rectangular area measuring 6.30 m x 5.40 m and 3.40 m from the floor to the ceiling in its highest part. At the time of discovery, the ceiling was some 2.25 m under the surface soil. Inside the chamber benches run along the walls; fourteen loculi (or cavities) were built into the malleable limestone of the rock thus creating a depth of about 2 m intended to house the sarcophagi. The loculi were blocked with flagstones. Two secondary tombs were found, one on the left side of the vestibule and the other to the left side of the entrance. The excavations brought to light numerous findings which, apart from 43 human remains, included some terra cotta oil lamps and coins. Indeed, the latter were used to date the tomb to the 2nd century AD.


Mural paintings of outstanding quality cover the four sides of the tomb: narrative decoration borrowed from scenes of Greek mythology is depicted in the upper parts of the walls, while trompe-l’oeil architectural compositions imitating columns, capitals and double wing doors are painted in the lower parts, thus producing an illusion of architectural grandeur inside the relatively small chamber (Figure 2). A winged Eros appears flanked with garlands in the middle of each door side. A rich floral decoration composed of interlacing branches starts at the entrance.

Figure 2 - Trompe-l'oeil double winged doors

The goddess Psyche (Figure 3), often depicted with wings, appears in the middle of the foliage as the representation of the human soul.

Figure 3 - Psyche

Inside the tomb, two musician mermaids are painted on either side of the entrance wall. One holds a four-string harp while the other plays a double flute. These instruments are commonly used in funerary ceremonies. The enchanting sirens were also celestial birds intended to guide, with their music, the soul of the deceased to the world beyond (Figure 4).

Figure 4 - Musician-Mermaid playing the harp


Five different scenes involving mythical heroes are represented inside the tomb. Starting in a clockwise direction, the mural decorations depict:

Tantalus in the infernal gardens

Tantalus appears in a well-composed scene dressed with a skirt and wearing a hat. An inscription to his name is painted above his bent back. He is standing in a pond bound by olive and pomegranate trees filled with fruits. Tantalus is serving a sentence imposed by the gods to whom he offered his child's flesh during a meal. His punishment was therefore to live in a rich and prosperous environment of which he could not however benefit.

Alcestis and Heracles

This funerary scene depicts the hero Heracles holding his mace; he is bringing Alcestis back from the hereafter to the world of the living. Beneath them is the Greek inscription: ”Be courageous, no one is immortal”.

The abduction of Proserpina

The frescoes on the wall facing the entrance depict the myth of Proserpina’s abduction. To the right, recognizable by their inscribed names stand the goddesses Athena and Artemis. To the left is Pluto abducting Proserpina. His chariot is carried away by four horses led by Hermes, identifiable by his Winged ankle. The ascending horses symbolize the moment the soul passes to the hereafter (Figure 5).

Figure 5 - The abduction of Proserpina

The return of Hector’s body

This scene from Homer’ s Iliad reveals the importance of funerary rituals to the soul's survival in the afterlife. Priam is kneeling in front of Achilles, begging him for the return of his son Hector’s body (Figure 6). The names of Priam, Achilles and Hector are written in red characters whilst Hector’s body is depicted on a weighing scale.

Figure 6 - Priam and Achilles

Heracles and Cerberus

Heracles is represented holding his mace in his right hand while gripping Cerberus’ chain in the other. Cerberus the dog is the mythical guardian of the hereafter and only became docile when Heracles tamed him at the gates of Hell. This second appearance of Heracles in the tomb reflects the devotion Tyre’s inhabitants had for their hero.


These frescoes of the Roman tomb of Tyre are extremely fine examples of the period's funerary art. They not only reveal the tomb owner's desire to be surrounded with the ”aura" of Greek heroes but also show the influence of Roman painting techniques during the 2nd century AD.

Why the Tomb of Tyre is displayed at the National Museum of Beirut?

In 1937, the discovery of the Tyrian tomb was a major event in Lebanon as recognized by Maurice Chéhab, the Director of the Antiquities at the time. In a note published in the Bulletin du Musée de Beyrouth, he acknowledged that the frescoes were dismantled from their original support in Tyre and transferred to Beirut in 1939. Because they were saturated with water when the tomb was first opened, it was not possible to keep the paintings in situ due to the humidity that would eventually have destroyed them completely. Consequently, the decision was taken to reconstruct the tomb in the basement of the National Museum of Beirut and to recompose the mural paintings on its new walls. This very ambitious and delicate operation was successfully undertaken and completed at the time by the architect Henry Pearson.

The 2010 Restoration Project

Between 1975 and 1995, the National Museum of Beirut remained closed due to a time of civil unrest. During this unfortunate period a number of setbacks contributed to the degradation of the wall paintings such as the upwelling of Water, the high level of humidity and the inadequate environmental conditions in the museum basement.

Winged Eros before and after restoration

Figure 7 - before restoration

Figure 8 - after restoration

In 2010 a restoration project for the frescoes was initiated by the Ministry of Culture / Directorate General of Antiquities. Thanks to the generous contribution of the Embassy of Italy in Lebanon and to the Cooperation Development Office in Beirut, a team of Italian and Lebanese restorers undertook a rescue operation at the beginning of February 2010 under the direction of Giorgio Capriotti (Figure 1). The project came to an end in November 2010. The preliminary phases of the - project had determined the necessary major cleaning and restoration techniques that would be best for the frescoes (Figures 7 and 8). Furthermore, an appropriate conservation program was designed to ensure their long-term protection and presentation well beyond the completion of the restoration process. The museographic presentation of the tomb of Tyre, as planned by the architect Antonio Giammarusti, was carried out in 2011. It gave this exceptional masterpiece of Roman art a new dimension, thus contributing to promote the educational commitment of the National Museum.


Source: Ceders Magazine, April 2011.

Last Updated on Sunday, 03 July 2011 04:41

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