The Phoenician city of Tyre - A rich history of industry, mythology and conflict
According to tradition, the city of Tyre was founded in 2750 B.C., and is considered one of the world’s oldest metropolises. For much of its history, Tyre has played an important role in the region. The Tyrians were master seafarers and explorers. By sailing around the Mediterranean, the Tyrians made contact with other civilizations, and founded colonies. As a result, Tyre had a special place in a number of ancient Mediterranean communities.
A fragment of the shroud in which the Emperor Charlemagne was buried in 814. It was made of gold and Tyrian purple. Public Domain
Greek mythology states that Europa, for whom the continent of Europe was named, was a Phoenician princess of Tyre who was abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull, and brought to the island of Crete. On the island, Zeus revealed his identity, and Europa became the first queen of Crete. One of Europa’s brothers was Cadmus, who, according to legends, brought the alphabet to mainland Greece. In addition, the Tyrians also founded colonies, the most famous of which is Rome’s great rival, Carthage. It is believed that this city was founded by another Tyrian princess, Dido, who left Tyre to escape her evil husband. It is said that when she arrived in North Africa, she requested a small piece of land from the Berber king, Iarbas, and subsequently founded Carthage. The story of Dido is most vividly portrayed in Virgil’s Aeneid.
Aeneas recounting the Trojan War to Dido, a painting by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1815. This scene is taken from Virgil's Aeneid, where Dido falls in love with, only to be left by, the Trojan hero Aeneas. Public Domain
Tyre also has an important place in biblical history. According to the Old Testament, the city was an ally and trade partner of Israel during the reigns of David and Solomon. Through their alliance with the Israelites, the Tyrians were able to access the trade routes to Egypt, Arabia and Mesopotamia. During Solomon’s reign, the king of Tyre, Hiram I, sent architects, workmen, cedar wood and gold to aid the building of the First Temple in Jerusalem. In addition, several books in the Old Testament, including Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, are said to have prophesized the destruction of Tyre. Indeed, the city’s importance as a trade center often made Tyre a target for conquest by other regional powers. These powers included the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and most famously the Macedonians under Alexander the Great.
Phoenician ship Carved on the face of a sarcophagus. 2nd century AD. (Elie plus at en.wikipedia)
Alexander’s conquest of Tyre is quite a well-known story in the life of the conqueror. It is recorded that Alexander wished to offer a sacrifice to Melqart (who was identified as Heracles by the Greeks), the patron god of Tyre. The Tyrians refused to let Alexander into their island city, and suggested that he offer the sacrifice in the temple on the mainland. A second attempt to negotiate failed, and Alexander began besieging the city. Whilst it may seem that the Tyrians were the engineers of their own destruction by refusing Alexander’s request, it is unlikely that the Macedonian king would have allowed Tyre to remain independent, as it provided a port for the Persian navy. In other words, the Persians would be able to launch an assault on Macedon itself whilst Alexander was campaigning in the East, a scenario that was prevented through the conquest of Tyre.
A naval action during the siege of Tyre by Alexander the Great. Drawing by André Castaigne, 1898. Public Domain
In 68 B.C., Tyre was absorbed into the Roman Republic, after being under Ptolemaic and, after 200 B.C., Seleucid rule. Tyre’s days of glory, however, were behind her. During the early Christian period, Tyre was to regain some of this lost glory, as it became the seat of a province that contained 14 bishoprics. The Arab conquests in A.D. 636, however, created new ruling dynasties. In A.D. 1124, the city was retaken by the Crusaders, and became one of their strongholds in the Levant until its fall at the end of the 13 th century.
As of today, Tyre is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its archaeological value. Although Tyre was inhabited by numerous civilizations, the archaeological remains belong mainly to the Roman and Crusader period, as it was razed to the ground on several occasions. Another area of focus by researchers is the coastal area of the city, where sunken harbors may be found. In addition to increasing our knowledge of the city, these underwater archaeological features also have the potential to develop as a tourist area. With the present instability in the Middle East, however, this may have to wait.
Roman columns at the Al Mina excavation site. Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.5
Featured image: The Abduction of Europa, 1716, Jean François de Troy. Public Domain
honorfrostfoundation.org, 2014. Archaeological Survey of the Phoenician Harbour at Tyre, Lebanon – by Ibrahim Noureddine and Aaron Mior. [Online]
Khalaf, S. G., 2015. Phoenician Cities. [Online]
Available at: http://phoenicia.org/cities.html
UNESCO, 2015. Tyre. [Online]
Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/299
Zaatari, M., 2002. Salameh announces plan to map underwater site. [Online]
Available at: http://www.lebanonwire.com/0207/02071212DS.asp