Byblos, Lebanon: Art as a History Book

By Jean Lahoud

Byblos, an ancient port city on the Lebanese coast of the Mediterranean Sea, is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with a rich history dating back to the Neolithic Period (8000-4000 BC). This exceptionally diverse past has endowed Byblos with a unique, vibrant, and multicultural art scene.

Originally inhabited by the Phoenician people, Byblos witnessed the rise and fall of several civilizations, like the Assyrians, Romans, Crusaders, Mamluks and Ottomans. The various ruling cultures and cultural upheavals directly impacted the city’s craftsmanship and artisanal production. Over time, this craftsmanship evolved and matured into an artistic style based on cultural synthesis, as seen on medieval church walls in Lebanon’s mountainous north. Multiculturalism quickly became a distinguishing feature of Byblos artists.

Throughout the past few centuries, despite the rising influence of Western art on Byblos, local artists have continued to question and selectively synthesize its elements. They never took anything for granted and neither forgot their past nor rejected their present. The deeply ingrained ability to calmly absorb and integrate, while imparting a local flavor, persists to this day. Notwithstanding all the political, social, and economic turmoil that Lebanon now faces, Byblos artists continue to defiantly push their boundaries and find their identity.

Modern-day Byblos is characterized by its ancient Roman road, Persian fortifications, Crusader castle, Byzantine churches, charming old harbor and beautiful Souks (open-air marketplaces). The city inspires artists, painters and photographers from across the country. Byblos’ rich past makes it a natural convergence point for international art and culture. World-renowned musicians, such as Lana Del Rey and John Legend, have participated in the Byblos International Festival held every summer.

On a personal level, the area around Byblos has influenced me tremendously as an artist. Amchit, my native village, borders the city and is famous for its historic mansions. They prominently feature mullioned windows, known locally as mandalouns, which have been the central theme for many watercolor artists in Lebanon. Concealed in Amchit’s winding back streets, one can find several permanent art exhibitions. Rachana, another nearby village, has made a name for itself as an outdoor sculpture museum. Sculptures created by the threeBasbous brothers dot the streets in a completely integrated manner, in true Byblos fashion.

Without a doubt, the vast convergence of civilizations has influenced Byblos from antiquity to modern times, leaving its mark on local artists and transforming them into exemplary integrators. No one style dominates the city’s art scene. Instead, visitors experience a strong rush of history embedded in the art itself — as much in the styles it embraces as in those it leaves out.