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 t5extiles. But she also attracted the attention of jealous conquerors, among them the Babylonian King Nabuchadnezzar and Alexander the Great.
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Founded at the start of the third millennia 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 millennia B.C. that the city experienced its golden age.
In the 10th century B.C Hiram, King of Tyre, joined two islets by landfilled. Later he extended the city further by reclaiming a considerable area from the sea. Phoenician expansion began about 815 B.C. when trader 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 is 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 the 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 built c 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 hid men that 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 coin. The roman built a greatly many important monuments in the city, including an aqueduct, a triumphal arch and the largest hippodrome in antiquity.
Christian 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 Phoenician. At this time the town witnesses a second golden age as can bee seen form the remains of its building and the inscriptions in the necropolis.
Taking by the Islamic armies in 634, the city offered no resistance and continued to prosper under it new rulers, exporting sugar as well as objects made of pearl glass. With the decline of Abbasid caliphate, Tyre acquired some independence under the dynasty of the Banu ‘Aqil, vassals of the Egyptian Fatimides. This was a time when Tyre was adorned with fountains and its bazaars were full of all kind of merchandise, including carpets and jewelry of gold and silver.
Thanks to Tyre’s strong fortifications was able to resist the 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 end of World War I was integrated into the new nation of Lebanon.
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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 is 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’s efforts have stopped much of the wartime pillaging that Tyre’s archaeological treasures 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.
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Area one: located in what was the Phoenician island, is a vast district of civic buildings, colonnades, public baths, mosaic streets and rectangular arena.
Walk to beach at the far end of the site. The columns to the left belong to a palaestra, an area where athletes trained. Other excavated remains on this site date to the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine periods. A short distance from the chore you will see “islands” which are, in fact, the great stone breakwaters and jetties of the ancient Phoenician port, called the “Egyptian port” because it faced south towards Egypt.
Area two: is a five minutes walk to the west. Its major point of interest is a Crusader cathedral. Only the lowest foundation and a few re-erected granite columns remain intact but these are nevertheless impressive. The area below it has revealed a network of Romano-Byzantine roads and other installations. Visitors are not allowed inside the site, but the ruins can be viewed from the road.
Area three: it is a thirty minutes walk from Areas One and Two and consist of an extensive necropolis, a three-bay monumental arch and one of the largest Roman hippodromes aver found. All date from the 2nd century A.D. to the 6th century A.D.
The necropolis, excavated in 1962, yielded hundreds of ornate stone and marble sarcophagi of the Roman and Byzantine church can also be seen. The archway stands astride a Roman road that led into the ancient city. Alongside the road are the remain of the aqueduct that assured the city its water supply. (See reference to Ras El-Ain below.)
South of the necropolis is the partially reconstructed Roman hippodrome excavated in 1967. The 480-meter structure seated twenty thousand spectators who gathered to watch the death-defying sport of chariot racing. Each end of the course was marked by still existing stone turning posts (metae). Charioteers had to make this circuit seven times. Rounding the metae at top speed was the most dangerous part of the race and often produced spectaculars spills.
The walk to Area Three takes you through a residential part of Tyre called Hay Er- Raml or the Quarter of Sand. You are in fact walking on what once was Alexander the Great’s causeway. Accumulating sands and extensive landfill have expanded this old land link to the extent that modern visitors have the impression that Tyre built on a peninsula.
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Tyre has a colorful souk (covered market) well worth exploring. Look for he Ottoman Khan, OR inn, just inside the market entrance. On a side street is the “Mamluke House”, an Ottoman period residence that is being restored as a cultural heritage and information center by the General Directorate of Antiquities. Also in the souk area is a white, double-domed Shia mosque of great interest. Near the market you will see a busy fisherman’s port, in Phoenician times referred to as the “Sidonian” port because it faced north towards Sidon.
Walk along the port with the sea on your right and you enter the city’s Christian Quarter, a picturesque area of narrow streets, traditional architecture, and the Seat of the Maronite Bishop of Tyre and the Holly Land. On medieval tower still stands in a small garden. A second one is visible under the little lighthouse. During Crusader times towers similar to these ringed the city.
The archaeological sites are open daily. Several seafood restaurants and pubs are located in the port area and fast food places have open in the Hay Er-Raml area. Local restaurants fare is good.
The seaside Elissa Hotel is the only tourist-standard hotel in Tyre and is located near the hippodrome/necropolis.
IF YOU HAVE TIME
Skin Diving Basic equipment is sufficient for exploring the ancient Phoenician breakwaters and jetties. Look for the Murex, still living along Tyre’s shores among the rocks and sunken archaeological remains.
Ras EL-Ain (6 kilometers south of Tyre) has been Tyre’s main source of water since Phoenician days. Its artesian wells gush up into stone reservoirs that have been maintained through the ages. One of the reservoirs fed the arched aqueducts of the Roman period that once stretched all the way to Tyre. Remain of these aqueducts can be seen along the Roman road runni8ng under the monumental arch on the necropolis at Area Three. A short stretch of the original aqueduct near the reservoirs continues to serve as part of Tyre’s present day waterworks.
Sarafand (28 kilometers north of Tyre) is the site of ancient Serepta, mentioned in the bible. Excavations here revealed the remains of Canaanite-phoenician structures and Roman port installation. Modern Sarafand still has a workshop where the ancient Phoenician art of glass blowing is practiced.
Tomb of Hiram: On the road to Qana El-Jaleel, (6 kilometers southeast of Tyre) is a burial monument from the Persian period (550-330 B.C.). This has traditionally been called the tomb of Hiram, the celebrated Phoenician architect of the Temple of Jerusalem.
The ancient World had much to thank Tyre for. The Greeks attributed the introduction of the alphabet to their country to Cadmus, the son of Tyrian king. The name of the continent is said to come from Europe, the sister of Cadmus.
But it was Tire’s purple-dyed textiles, worn throughout the ancient world as a mark of royal rank that brought fame and fortune to the city. One gram of pure purple dye was worth ten or twenty grams of gold, so it is not surprising that same of the beautiful sarcophagi of the necropolis belonging to wealthy purple dye manufacturers of Tyre.
The ancient Tyrians extracted the dye from the Murex, a marine snail that still lives along Tyre’s shores deep among the rocks and sunken archaeological remains. Dye extraction is no longer a viable commercial venture, but scientists have documented the process for historical purposes.