Between October 2022 and March 2023, Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden hosted a major exhibition called ‘Byblos, The World’s Most Ancient Port’.
What began around 6500 BC as a simple fishing village grew into a prosperous city with a rich history. Around 3000 BC, Byblos played an extraordinary role, as the most important trade hub between the Mediterranean and Middle East, being the world’s first international seaport, because of the trade with cedar wood from the trees which are now a symbol of the country, Lebanon. Wood, silver, wine, and oil found their way from Byblos by sea to Egypt and in return, the city received gold, linen, precious stones or elephant ivory. The precursor of our alphabet was also developed in Byblos. Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans left their marks on the city. Particularly important were the city’s special ties to ancient Egypt and the goddess known as the ‘Lady of Byblos’.
The exhibition, which ended in March, presented around 500 artefacts from famous museums such as the Louvre and the British Museum, and also from the National Museum of Beirut. The shipment of the collections was provided by specialized art transport companies, which handled everything with most care.
The planning of the exhibition had to be adjusted several times due to the Covid-19 restrictions between 2020 and 2022. But in the end, after three years of working closely together with the Lebanese Ministry of Culture/Directorate General of Antiquities and the Embassy of Lebanon in The Hague, the exhibition finally saw the light of day. It brought together millennia of world history and culture. All the figurines of gods, goddesses, warriors or animals, richly decorated weapons and jewellery, were presented as a storybook, in which famous stories from Antiquity were set in the port, palaces and cedar forests of Byblos, a succession of pop-ups with ships, cedar trees and mythological creatures, large projected 3D reconstructions and drone shots of the excavated ruins and historical photos of the first excavations in the early twentieth century.
They all attracted much attention upon the whole event which was officially opened on October 13 2022 by H.E. Judge Mohamad Wissan El Mortada, the Minister of Culture of Lebanon, together with his wife, Judge Maya Kanaan, with the special participation of the Ambassador of Lebanon to the Netherlands, H.E. Mr. Abdel Sattar Issa, H.E. Ms. Frances Latinou Williams, Ambassador of Cyprus and Wim Weijland, Director Rijksmuseum van Oudheden.
H.E. Mr. Daifallah Ali Daifallah Alfayez, Ambassador of Jordan, H.E. Mr. Ali Aldafiri, Ambassador of Kuwait, H.E. Ms. Rawan Sulaiman, Chief of Palestinian Mission, H.E. Ms. Sahar Ghanem, Ambassador of Yemen, H.E. Sheikh dr. Abdullah bin Salim bin Hamad Al Harthi, Ambassador of Oman, and H.E. Mr. Slim Ghariani, Ambassador of Tunisia, H.E. Mr. Jean-Marie Hoscheit, Ambassador of Luxembourg, H.E. Ms. Caterina Ghini, Ambassador of Greece and H.E. Mr. Marc Anthony Pace, Ambassador of Malta, were also present at the grand opening.
Since then, the museum has received over 103.000 visitors. Also, as Selkit Verberk (in charge of PR, Marketing & Communication at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden) communicated, ‘the exhibition received a lot of media attention, especially during the first months. The nature of the articles ranged from exhibition reviews to nice background articles on the history and archeology of ancient Byblos, in newspapers, magazines and online media, even from other countries, including Lebanon and Belgium’.
Ever since the preparations for the exhibition started, the museum has been in touch with the Embassy of Lebanon to The Netherlands. H.E. Mr. Abdel Sattar Issa, Ambassador of Lebanon, was one of the best supporters of the project and also a speaker at the formal opening ceremony.
The fantastic exhibition about Byblos was developed in partnership with the Lebanese Ministry of Culture/Directorate General of Antiquities. Through this partnership, the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden is supporting the construction of a new archaeological museum and cultural centre at the historical site of Byblos. This museum is set to open to the public in the spring of 2023.
The exhibition was also developed with the support of the Blockbusterfonds and the VriendenLoterij, with thanks to the Lebanese Embassy (The Hague), the Dutch Embassy (Beirut) and Labrys Reizen.
‘Byblos’ is the fourth successful exhibition at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden, from a series of events which were dedicated to key cities of Antiquity, following the very successful ones about Petra between 2013 and 2014, Carthage between 2014 and 2015, and Nineveh between 2017 and 2018.
Selkit Verberk says that ‘it would be fantastic to make a fifth exhibition about another famous city from Antiquity, but there are currently no concrete plans to do so. Our next big winter exhibition is about a Dutch subject, The Year 1000, and will show the present-day Netherlands in all its 10th and 11th-century diversity and glory, paying attention to the lives of both ordinary and extraordinary people’.
For sure, it will be another success, as this one was.
These days, the ancient city of Byblos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and archaeological research is still ongoing. So, maybe in the near future, we’ll get to see new artefacts from that interesting site and time.