A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

a palace fit for a pharaoh

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 22, 2007

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to tour my first Lebanese museum – and what a gem it is.

The Mouawad Museum is a private museum established by Robert Mouawad, a wealthy Lebanese businessman known for his gemstone dealings. In the mid 1990s, he purchased the Pharaon family mansion, an Italianate villa in Zokak al-Blatt, built in the 1890s and filled by Henri-Philippe Pharaon over the following decades with the interiors of some of Syria’s finest old houses.



(Photo courtesy of the Mouawad Museum website – I saw it during the day, but isn’t it stunning at night?) 

Pharaon was a political figure and one of Lebanon’s original seven deputies – and is credited with designing the national flag.

He was also a racehorse owner and – if rumors be true – enjoyed amorous relations with many men, including the architect who oversaw the Orientalization of the Pharaon family home.

Eleanor Roosevelt met him and his wife during an official visit to Lebanon in 1952:

We had dinner at one of the most remarkable houses I ever seen, our host being Mrs. Henri Pharaon. On his vast acreage Mr. Pharaon has between 150 and 200 fine racing horses, the biggest stable in the whole Near East. He also showed me a most priceless Ninth Century copy of the Koran.

Mr. Pharaon’s house and his way of life, however, can hardly be typical of the average. He quite evidently is a man of political and financial power but also a man of great artistic taste.

Having survived the civil war (and kept his house intact by paying off the various militias), Pharaon’s last days were somewhat less pleasant. He was kicked out of the family home by his son, who had begun selling off the treasures his father had collected so painstakingly (including this 16th century “checkerboard carpet”, sold by Christie’s in 1990 and re-sold in 2001). Homeless, Pharaon took up permanent residence in the Carlton Hotel in Raouche, from which he traveled to the Goethe Institut and other cultural sites around the city. In 1993, at the age of 93, he was murdered in his hotel room along with his driver. (Pharaon’s son, no lover of antiques, sold the house to Mouawad, who had every piece cleaned and restored.)

I loved the museum – loved wandering through it and discovering each new treasure – painted wooden walls, Chinese porcelain, Delft tiles (apparently Syria was a huge export market …!), and more. I had a wonderful “tour guide” – a long-time Beirut resident who made the spaces come alive with stories.

Unfortunately for the museum, its location (at the end of Army Street) has cut down dramatically on the number of visitors it receives. But it is still open – and the soldiers at the checkpoint were quite friendly. You can go – and you can even drive there (or take a taxi). And thanks to the situation, museum parking is plentiful.


4 Responses to “a palace fit for a pharaoh”

  1. TwoSpot said

    Good article. Always meant to go inside. I’ve been in the grounds which are impressive themselves but which is odd in the different cultures it contains i.e. that it had phoenician, byzantine, arab et etc but that it had mesopotamian and Assyrian etc. which Lebanon is nowhere near.
    I was once talking to an Armenian bar owner who during sanctions in Iraq in the 1990’s that they use to plunder Iraqi artifacts for sale.

    Anyway I digress. Where did you take the photo from ‘cos there’s only those new apartments accross the road. did you manage to get on one of the floors!

  2. MacDara said

    One of the nicer houses in Beirut. I have the pleasure of living directly opposite and my corner balcony affords me a view of the front of the house. It is fantastic when lit up.

  3. TwoSpot – thanks for the very good question! I “took” the photo from the museum’s website, and had every intention of crediting it, but … intentions are not reality! Now its properly sourced. I wish I could have taken a photo from across the way, but I doubt the army/derek guys watching us with such interest as we toured the museum grounds would have looked kindly on any tourist photo ops.

    MacDara, I am sooooo jealous! I would take the security inconveniences for the view any day!

  4. flower said

    Were did you get your inside info ?
    I doubt all what you say is true…

    Is that the official version released at the Museum ?
    It would explain the photo …

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