By the Rev. J. Starcky †
Honorary Research Director at the National Center for Scientific Research
According to the Greek Historian Herodotus, who visited Tyre around 450 B.C. the city of Tyre was founded 2750 B.C. In fact, it was the arrival in Lebanon of the Canaanites, the Semites whose dialect would become Phoenician. The future excavations of Tyre without doubt will reach deeper levels, proving that before this date other populations lived on the site, as it is the case in Byblos or Ugarit.
In the 14th Century B.C., the archives of Pharaoh Akhenaton contained 10 letters written by the King of Tyre, Abimilki, to seek his help against invaders from the country of Amurru in Syria. They were written in Acadian, the diplomatic language of the era, but various signs prove that the spoken language in Tyre was already Phoenician. In the following century, Egypt retook control of the city, as two Egyptian inscriptions bearing the name of Seti I and Ramses II show. These inscriptions were found in excavations near the Shiite cemetery.
Around 1200 B.C., the invasion of the “Peoples of the sea” freed Tyre from Egyptian domination. For six centuries, Tyre would be the most active Phoenician port and would establish banks and colonies all around the Mediterranean and even beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, at Lixus on the Moroccan coast and as Gades (in present day Cadiz) on the Spanish coast. Among the merchandise exported by Tyre let’s remember the cloth dyed purple and certain kinds of ceramics.
Around 967 B.C. Solomon asked King Hiram of Tyre for cedar wood and the necessary craftsmen to build him a palace and the temple of Jerusalem, and a century later, the daughter of Ithobaal king of Tyre and Sidon Jezebel, became the wife of King Achab of Israel and their daughter Athalie married the King of Juda, Joram.
Around 814, Elissa, sister of the King of Tyre, Pygmalion, founded Carthage “the new city” (Qart Hadasht in Phoenician). As recounted by Virgil according to tradition she was called Dido.
The Poet shows us her in love with Aeneas who leaves her to found a city on the Palatine Hills, the center of the future Rome which was founded in 753 B.C. by his descendants Romulus and Remus. In effect the war of Troy takes us back to the 12th Century, the period of the Homeric legends, and one must therefore disassociate the legend of Aeneas from the story of the founding of Carthage.
In the 9th century, the Phoenicians were present in Sardinia, as the inscription at Nora proves, and in Cyprus, previous relay point for the transmission of the Phoenician Alphabet to the Greeks. In the following century, King Hiram of Tyre had a governor on the Southern coast of the Island. The oldest Greek inscriptions date from this period and the famous legend of Cadmos, son of King Agenor of Tyre, who vainly sought his sister in “Europe” and wound up in Beotie, where he taught the Phoenician Alphabet, confirms in its own way the role of Tyre in the diffusion of a cultural instrument that became universal.
From the 9th to the 7th centuries, the city-states of Phoenicia were more or less dependant on Assyria. From 586 to 574, the troops of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, laid siege to the island city and destroyed the part of Tyre that was on the shore. Ezekiel’s well known prophecies retrace these events as well as the scope of Tyre’s trade and beauty. Nonetheless the competition with the Greeks in the Mediterranean was very intense. It was the time when the Ionians of Phocee founded Massalia (Marseille), on a coast known to the Phoenicians.
In 539 Cyrus captured Babylon and until 333 Phoenicia was part of the 5th Persian Satrapy along with Palestine, Syria and Cyprus. Its importance was reduced and Sidon’s increased. The Kings of Tyre lent their navy to the Great King in the battles that the Persian fought against the Greeks.
In 331 Alexander the Great puts an end to the Persian Empire. From 333, he came down along the Syrian-Phoenician coast and, after a siege of seven months, during which he linked the island of Tyre with the mainland, he captured the city. Alexander’s successors fought to win Phoenicia but from 287 to around 200, it belonged to Egypt, then until the arrival of the Romans in 64, it was part of the Seleucid Empire.
Hellenic influence was very intense in all areas and Greek remained the major language during the entire Roman and Byzantine period. The main monuments excavated date back to the Roman period. The beautiful arch opening the portico way; the imposing Necropolis which stands near by the Hippodrome 500 meters long; a way of marble columns twenty one meters wide; a strange rectangular arena with steps, a palestra and thermal bathes as well as many others monuments excavated by Emir Maurice Chehab, Director General of Antiquities for Lebanon. The site that he opened more to north has revealed the remains of a Cathedral, whose columns of rose granite have been borrowed by the crusaders from a neighboring temple, probably that of Hercules or Heracles, the Great God of Tyre. The Roman temple has its origins in the Phoenician temple of Melkart, whose name means “King of the city”, a Baal assimilated to Heracles. His mother Astarte, great Goddess of the city, known as Asteria, is the wife of Baal-Shamen, the “Master of Heavens” who is likened to Zeus. The location of their temple has not been discovered.
Christianity came very early to Phoenicia. Not only did Jesus travel through « the territory of Tyre » (Mark, 7, 24-31), but also from the year 58 A.D., the apostle Paul found in Tyre an already existing Christian community (Acts of the Apostles 21,3-7, cf. 11, 19). The well-known theologian Origene spent the last days of his life there (255). Roman Tyre also counted among its member’s geographers such as Marin and philos phers like Maximus and Porphyry. Tyrian commerce in cloth, purple dye, glass was very prosperous and was maitained during the Byzantine Era.
In 636, Tyre came under Islam and the city became the princpal arsenal. It was the most business-oriented city along the coast. On the eve of the Crusades, the major part of the po ulation was Shiite. Tyre did not surrender to the Crusaders until June of 1124 but remained in their possession until 1291, the date of departure of the last Crusaders. Remember that it was at Tyre that the Kings of Jerusalem were crowned. Under the Mamelouks and the Turks, Tyre lost its importance.
Recently it came back to life but the present war dealt it a blow that could be fatal if the International community does not help it.