From the archway outside proclaiming Lebanon's ancient heritage onwards, the National Museum of Beirut is an outstanding, breath-taking collection of antiquities and should be on any visitor's itinerary. The museum was only opened in 1938, but has finds ranging from prehistory right through Lebanon's rich history.
This museum houses around 100,000 fantastic finds from the region, with around 1300 on show. Bearing in mind that Lebanon is half the size of Wales, it has acted as a gateway to the East from the Mediterranean, and attracted millennia of extraordinary people, including Alexander the Great, Rameses the Great and St Paul. So much has happened, and the museum honours it all.
Relatively unassuming but magnificent is the sarcophagus of King Ahiram, which dates from around 1000BC. It's fairly simple, but around the lid is an inscription in Phoenician, which is the oldest attested long linear alphabetic inscription of this script in the world. Ahiram was king of Jbeil, or Byblos in Greek, so called because the Greeks rediscovered the art of writing here.
Another fascinating sarcophagus dates from the Roman period. On top there sit two people, without any facial features. It is possible that they have been worn away, blasted by the sands of time. It looks more likely, however, that they were never carved in the first place. My guess would be that this was an 'off the peg' sarcophagus lid, with general figures carved in advance, features added on purchase, but in this case they had to rush to use it before the features could be added, or perhaps the buyer ran out of money.
There are plenty of exhibits which commemorate the strength of relationships between couples and their memorialisation after death. Particularly touching are the different kinds of stele, or stone slabs erected as grave monuments.
One of my favourite exhibits is an unusual semi-circle. It looks like it could be a model theatre, except the bits along the ledges would make it impossible for theatre goers to climb in, and the base isn't quite right for a stage. Is it instead a mould for something? Is it perhaps a wheel? This item reminds you that the ancient world is there to be interpreted and we don't know everything yet.
Not everything is a stone monument. There are also some wonderful mosaics, reminding us of how colourful the ancient world was, and how skilled and intricate their craft works could be. This one of Europa and the bull recalls how Europa was snatched at the orders of Zeus, a story which leads to the mythological founding of Thebes, for example.
In the cases upstairs are some wonderful smaller finds. There's a child's toy chariot, a mirror and a duck-shaped ivory makeup box. These are the things which tell you about daily life in the ancient world, those personal items which make the ancient stories come alive.
During the civil war in 1975, when the museum lay on the conflict's front line, it was amazingly forward-thinking, and protected all the antiquities in case it was hit. The result is that relatively little damage was done to exhibits, and Lebanon's amazing cultural heritage was preserved. They show a short film about this process throughout the day, and it's well worth responding to the bell telling you it's on (every hour from 9 until 4).
There is a small gift shop area where you can purchase postcards and assorted souvenirs (10-5). The entrance fee is extremely small for the quality of the museum. This is a national site to be proud of. Tucked away in the middle of Beirut, you may find you need to take a taxi from one of the main bus drop off areas to get there, but this shouldn't be expensive either.