Phoenician Tyre was queen of the seas, an island city of unprecedented splendor.
She grew wealthy from her far-reaching colonies and her industries of purple-dyed textiles. But she also attracted the attention of jealous conquerors among them the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and Alexander the Great.
Five Millennia of History
Founded at the start of the third millennium B.C., Tyre originally consisted of a mainland settlement and a modest island city that lay a short distance off shore. But it was not until the first millennium B.C. that the city experienced its golden age. In the 10th century B.C. Hiram, King of Tyre, joined two islets by landfill. Later he extended the city further by reclaiming a considerable area from the sea. Phoenician expansion began about 815 B.C. when traders from Tyre founded Carthage in North Africa. Eventually its colonies spread around the Mediterranean and Atlantic, bringing to the city a flourishing maritime trade. But prosperity and power make their own enemies. Early in the sixth century B.C. Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, laid siege to the walled city for thirteen years. Tyre stood firm, but it was probable that at this time the residents of the mainland city abandoned it for the safety of the island.
In 332 B.C. Alexander the Great set out to conquer this strategic coastal base in the war between the Greeks and the Persians.Unable to storm the city, he blockaded Tyre for seven months. Again Tyre held on. But the conqueror used the debris of the abandoned mainland city to build a causeway and once within reach of the city walls, Alexander used his siege engines to batter and finally breach the fortifications. It is said that Alexander was so enraged at the Tyrians' defense and the loss of his men that he destroyed half the city. The town's 30,000 residents were massacred or sold into slavery. Tyre and the whole of ancient Syria fell under Roman rule in 64 B.C.. Nonetheless, for some time Tyre continued to mint its own silver coins. The Romans built great important monuments in the city, including an aqueduct, a triumphal arch and the largest hippodrome in antiquity.
Christianity figures in the history of Tyre, whose name is mentioned in the new testament. During the Byzantine era, the Archbishop of Tyre was the primate of all the bishops of Phoenicia. At this time the town witnessed a second golden age as can be seen from the remains of its buildings and the inscriptions in the necropolis. Taken by the Islamic armies in 634, the city offered no resistance and continued to prosper under its new rulers, exporting sugar as well as objects made of pearl and glass. With the decline of the Abbasid caliphate, Tyre acquired some independence under the dynasty of Banu 'Aqil, vassals of the Egyptian Fatimides. This was a time when Tyre was adorned with fountains and its bazaars were full of all kinds of merchandise, including carpets and jewerly of gold and silver. Thanks to Tyre's strong fortifications it was able to resist to onslaught of the Crusaders until 1124. After about 180 years of Crusader rule, the Mamlukes retook the city in 1291, then it passed on to the Ottomans at the start of the 16th century. With the end of the World War I Tyre was integrated into the new nation of Lebanon.
For a period of nearly 50 years the General Directorate of Antiquities excavated in and around Tyre, concentrating on the three major Roman archaeological sites in the town, which can be seen today. The most important recent archaeological find in a Phoenician cemetery from the first millennium B.C. Discovered in 1991 during clandestine excavations, this is the first cemetery of its kind found in Lebanon. Funerary jars, inscribed steles and jewelry were among the objects retrieved from the site. The importance of this historical city and its monuments was highlighted in 1979 when UNESCO declared Tyre a world Heritage Site. In the meantime, government efforts have stopped much of the wartime pillaging that Tyre's archaeological treasures have suffered because of economic stress in the area and international demand for antiquities. Grassroots campaigns have also drawn attention to the importance of the city's antiquities.
There are three areas to cover when visiting the sites:
Area one, located on what was the Phoenician island, is a vast district of civic buildings, colonnades, public baths, mosaic streets and a rectangular arena. These columns form a public walkway out to the sea, making it a favorite spot from which to view Tyre. On our walk out there we ran into two teachers from ACS and their friends from Northfeild Mount Hermon, who turned out to be friends of colleagues from Durham Academy-small world indeed! To the south this promontory overlooks the port which once dispatched ships to Alexandria and Greece. Next to the walkway are the public baths which formed the other part of the social interaction during Roman times.
Les vestiges sur Lîle.
Area Two is two blocks west. Its major point of interest is a Crusader cathedral. Only the lowest foundations and a few re-erected granite columns remain intact but these are nevertheless impressive. This area has also revealed a network of Romano-Byzantic roads. Visitors are not allowed inside the site, but the ruins may be viewed from the road. Although close by, our hired driver insisted on driving us to the site.
La cathédrale des Croisés
Area three is a thirty minute walk away and consists of an extensive necropolis, a three-bay monumental arch and one of the largest Roman hippodromes ever found. The entryway to the complex is from the northwest through a large arc de triomphe, which
Nearly dwarfs the surrounding columns. The Necropolis itself dates from Roman times and, as the picture to the right reveals, the ravages of stray artillery shells which are reminders that the south of Lebanon still falls under the shadow of war.
Les ruines de Bass sur le continent.
Perhaps the most impressive feature (at least in terms of scale) is hippodrome. Just like the one in the movie Ben Hur, it was a long and narrow track with dangerously tight turns. Using horse-drawn chariots, few racers survived more than a few laps around the congested turns. The sport was popular with the locals as well as the ruling Romans.