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Culture : Druze Leader Rescues Past From Sands of Time : Lebanon's Walid Jumblatt figures he's spent $7 million to retrieve ancient mosaics and restore 19th-Century palace.

March 23, 1993|MARILYN RASCHKA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEIT ED DINE, Lebanon — Granted, it's not the way most countries might choose to preserve and protect an important bit of national heritage.

But then, Lebanon is not most countries.

Yes, it's true that the exquisite Byzantine mosaics on display at a mountaintop palace here were originally part of the flooring of a 6th-Century seaside town built on the reputed site where the biblical Jonah finally took leave of the whale.

It's also true that the Druze warlord-turned-government minister who spirited the mosaics into the hills remains their real caretaker, collecting a 60-cent admission from the hundreds of thousands of visitors who annually come to see the palace and its treasures.

And yes, this former militia chief has made some other changes. He won't allow the former Christian residents to reclaim the palace, which he has renamed the Palace of the People; he has added a museum dedicated to his assassinated father and a memorial in the main courtyard in honor of his Druze fighters killed in Lebanon's long civil war, and he refuses to fly the Lebanese national flag, preferring the banner of his militia-turned-political party.

But Druze leader Walid Jumblatt remains something of a cultural hero nevertheless--a sort of one-man Ministry of National Treasures who rules the mountainous region known as the Shouf with a green thumb on his iron hand.

There was an initial storm of criticism over his removal of the mosaics from their seaside home, but his defenders are philosophical. "Better to see the mosaics here than abroad," said archeologist Helgan Seeden, a professor at the American University of Beirut.

The story of Beit ed Dine, Jumblatt and the mosaics begins in Jiye, a village 20 miles south of Beirut on the Mediterranean coast. Near there are the ruins of the 6th-Century Byzantine city of Porphyrion, which prospered from its trade in murex, the mollusks yielding purple dye for which the ancient Phoenicians were famous.

European travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries wrote of the exquisite mosaic flooring in Porphyrion's church and dwellings. So prized were these works of early Christian art that in 1863 an entire mosaic from this area was presented to Napoleon III.

But in more recent times, wind and sand worked together to bury the city, its ruins hidden until greed began to undo nature's work.

From the beginning of Lebanon's civil war in 1975, profit-minded militias saw the 30-to-40-foot-high sand dunes as a gold mine because builders, who needed sand for construction, paid $400 a truckload for the stuff. And by the mid-1980s, the ruins of Porphyrion and its mosaics were exposed.

Archeologists say it was fortunate that Jumblatt's troops were in control at the time because the Druze leader understood the historic and cultural value of the mosaics and ordered the mining halted. If he had not acted, they say, the floor-sized mosaics would have been divided into pieces suitable for framing or for use as decorative tabletops and been sold off to private European or American collectors.

Jumblatt gathered a team of experts who lifted the polychrome mosaics--with their Byzantine themes of early church saints, flora and fauna--from the sands. They stuck them temporarily to heavy cloth and rolled them scroll fashion for transfer.

From their seaside site they were moved to Jumblatt's mountain fiefdom and into the palace of Beit ed Dine, Lebanon's Alhambra. Built in the early 19th Century, it was the seat of power for Lebanon's most colorful ruler, Emir Bashir Chehab--who ruled Lebanon with almost complete independence for more than 30 years. Later, it served as the summer palace for Lebanon's president--who by unwritten law was always a Maronite Christian--until the civil war, when the Druze became rulers of the Shouf.

Today, Jumblatt firmly dismisses suggestions that the president might again spend the summer there. "He's welcome to stay at my house," the minister countered with a grin during an interview.

Today the Byzantine mosaics are handsomely exhibited in the restored, vaulted stone stables of the Beit ed Dine palace. From this 2,800-foot perch overlooking a dramatic ravine, the seacoast from which they came glistens 12 miles away.

By his own estimates, Jumblatt has spent $7 million to restore the palace, its museums and its exhibition of Porphyrion's mosaics. (In addition to the museum dedicated to the memory of his father, another houses his formidable collection of antiquities.)

The popularity of Beit ed Dine is evident every weekend as visitors swarm through the slender arcades, clamber up its tiers of courtyards and say cheese in front of its flowing fountains.

Last summer the Lebanese army reclaimed government properties once usurped by the various militias, and the historical palace was ostensibly returned to its prewar status under the Department of Antiquities.

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