One man's battle to save Lebanon's treasures

Maurice Chehab has a secret. A big secret. For eight years, he has known the location of Lebanon's buried treasures, the hiding place of ancient Roman and Greek coins, gold jewelry and swords and miniature idols of the Phoenicians, and priceless sculptures.

Mr. Chehab knows because he and his wife hid them.

''What I did then was not 100 percent legal,'' he said of his decision that urgent action be taken to protect Lebanon's antiquities at the outbreak of civil war in 1975.

The National Museum, reputedly the second best in the Middle East, was located at the middle of the ''green line'' that divided Beirut's warring rivals. Theft was probable and destruction almost certain in the massive yellow stone building that, after years of absorbing artillery and rocket rounds, looks as if it was made of Swiss cheese.

Mr. Chehab has been director general of Lebanon's antiquities since 1928, a job from which he should have retired 13 years ago. But there is no one to replace him.

It was the same problem when Lebanon's art and archaeological treasures were at stake, for his staff had abandoned him. ''So I entrusted my own wife with the task of transferring some of the valuable objects that could be carried from the museum to a safe place,'' he explained.

Three times over the past eight violent years, Mr. Chehab and his wife, Olga, have secreted batches of art from the museum. Only the previous and current presidents of Lebanon have subsequently been told of their location.

''Perhaps I am killed, the objects would be lost,'' he explained. ''I have not even gone to check on these objects, because I don't want anyone to know where they are.''

The risks to the Chehabs were high, for they eventually decided the only way to protect the immovable objects was to move into the museum at the height of the war. They had no help and no protection.

''Had it not been for one man in the neighborhood who kept us supplied with food and water, we could have starved to death, never mind the shells and bullets that were raining on and around the museum,'' he recalled.

They ended up living in a corner of the museum for six years, five of which they shared with Syrian soldiers who were originally sent in to keep the peace between rival Christian and Muslim militias.

That led to a new set of problems. ''You can't expect a simple soldier to respect antiquities and treat them like a scholar,'' he said with understated tolerance. The museum walls still carry the black spray-painted graffiti of the Syrians, such as ''Muhammad was here,'' complete with his address back home in Homs, Syria.

''At one point we had attempted to protect the valuable sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos by surrounding it with sandbags and wood. One day we found the wood gone, the soldiers had used it to build fires,'' Mr. Chehab said.

''So we replaced the wood with cement blocks, but these too were removed by the soldiers who used them for shelter.'' They eventually solved the problem by helping to build proper little rooms in the museum's cavernous first floor.

His only complaint: ''It wasn't easy to find cement in those days.''

But the years of work paid off, for most of Lebanon's national treasures are safe. Yet Mr. Chehab is still unwilling to reveal his secret, underlining the tenuous status of Lebanese politics.

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