Tyre

Once dubbed the “Queen of the Seas”, the ancient city of Tyre (Ṣūr/Týros/Tyrus) was one of the earliest Phoenician metropolises where, according to legend, purple dye was invented. Located along the eastern bank of the Mediterranean, 83 kilometres south of Beirut in Lebanon, this great Phoenician city became a flourishing commercial centre for international trade. According to Herodotus, the town’s foundation dates back to approximately 2750 BC, after which it was ruled by the Egyptians and then King Hiram, under whom it prospered. It was later colonised by the Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, Greeks, Seleucids, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks and Ottomans. Its archaeological remains are divided into three parts; Al Mina on the south side of the city, Al Bass on the original mainland section and a medieval site in the centre of the town. In 1984 Tyre was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Coordinates: 33°16’03.9″N 35°12’38.8″E

According to tradition, Tyre was founded during the third millennium BC on an impregnable offshore island about 1000 metres from the coast, and its first inhabitants were the priests of the Temple of Melqart. In 1580 BC, the settlement came under the supremacy of the Egyptian pharaohs and started to benefit from the protection by the Eighteenth Dynasty and prospered commercially. The Amarna Letters (1350-1335 BC) provide evidence of Tyre being an important, fortified city and that the town had already by the middle of the second millennium BC established the industrial production of purple dye. A good deal of the correspondence is from Abimilku, Prince of Tyre during the period of the Amarna letters correspondence.

The supposed tomb of Hiram I, King of Tyre.

Tyre became independent when Egyptian influence in Phoenicia declined in the 12th century BC. While neighbouring Sidon lost its role as the dominant metropolis around 1100 BC, the Tyrians began a commercial expansion. They established cities around the Mediterranean, like Utica in Tunisia, and Gadez in Spain. Under its most important leader, King Hiram, who ascended the throne in 980 BC, Tyre reached a golden era. Hiram expanded the urban territory by joining the two islands on which it was built and added a second harbour to take advantage of changing wind conditions. Ship manufacturing was highly developed, and Tyre enjoyed commercial relations with all parts of the Mediterranean world. The products traded ranged from imported textiles, purple dye, ivory, olive oil and cedar tree timber. According to the Bible, King Hiram sent cedar wood from Lebanon to Jerusalem to build Solomon’s Temple.

Assyrian relief from the palace of King Sargon II in Khorsabad showing Phoenician ships transporting cedar by sea to Assyria. Louvre Museum.

In the 9th century BC, colonists from Tyre founded the North African city of Carthage. According to the myth, Carthage (Qart-Hadašt = “New City”) was founded by Tyre’s Princess Elissa, commonly known as Dido (“the wanderer”), who escaped after a power struggle with her brother Pygmalion with a fleet of ships. For much of the 8th and 7th centuries BC Tyre was subject to Assyria, and in 585–573 BC it successfully withstood a prolonged siege by the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar II. However, due to the long siege, Tyre suffered economically as its commercial activities were greatly damaged, and lost its supremacy over the Phoenician city-states to its rival city, Sidon.

Tyrian coin, c. 360BC-350BC, with Melqart riding on a maritime horse.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Between 538 and 332 BC, Phoenicia was ruled by the Achaemenian kings of Persia. In this period Tyre lost its hegemony in Phoenicia but continued to flourish as it furnished fleets for Persian kings in exchange for peace. The first Phoenician coins were struck at Tyre during this period. The coins featured dolphins, showing the importance of the sea, Melkart as the city god of Tyre, seahorses, and the murex shell from which the Tyrians obtained their purple dye.

The Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus visited Tyre in the mid-fifth century BC.

Because I wanted to know more about it, I made a voyage to Tyre in Phoenicia, because I had been told that in that place there was a holy temple of Heracles. The sanctuary was richly furnished, there were many votive offerings, and I noticed two pillars: one of pure gold and one of an emerald stone of such size as to shine by night.

I interviewed the priests of the god, and asked them how long ago their temple had been built, and I discovered that they were at variance with the Greeks, because they said that the temple had been built when Tyre had beend founded, and that this happened 2,300 years ago.

In 333 BC, when Alexander the Great defeated the Persian king in the battle of Issus most Phoenician cities surrendered, but the only city that refused to come to terms was Tyre. The Tyrians refused to allow Alexander to make a sacrifice at the temple of Melkart and instead suggested that Alexander sacrifices at another temple on the mainland. Angered by this rejection, Alexander decided to attack Tyre despite the city’s high walls. The Macedonian conqueror succeeded after A seven-month siege by demolishing the old town on the mainland and using its stones to construct a 20-metre-wide causeway to the island. In the next centuries, Tyre was alternatively ruled by the Seleucids and Ptolemies. Tyre became Hellenized, celebrating Greek festivals, but in 126 BC, Tyre regained its independence and minted its own currency.

Illustration of Alexander’s siege by Frank Martini, United States Military Academy. Public Domain.
Marble statue of Hadrian from Tyre at the National Museum of Beirut.

The city succeeded in preserving its independence in the 1st century BC despite the occupation of Phoenicia by Tigranes the Armenian. When the Romans arrived in 64 BC, Tyre was allowed to keep much of its independence and remained a free city. Tyre continued to keep much of its commercial importance during the Roman period and maintained protection from the Roman emperors. During the reign of Claudius, Tyre became known as “Claudopolis”, and the city helped the emperors Titus and Vespasian to suffocate the Jewish revolt in Palestine in AD 66. Later, Trajan allowed Tyre to mint official currency while his successor, Hadrian, who visited the cities of the East around 130, conferred the title of Metropolis on Tyre after one of its citizens,  Paulus, gave an oration in Rome. Tyre was later elevated to colonial rank in AD 198 (Colonia Septimia Severa), following Tyre’s early support for Septimius Severus against Pescennius Niger in the spring of AD 194.

During the Byzantine era, the Archbishop of Tyre had primacy over all the bishops of the Levant. At this time the town witnessed a second golden age. The Tyrians built the first basilica in the history of Christianity in AD 313. The historical role of Tyre declined at the end of the period of the Crusades. Tyre was under Muslim rule from 638 to 1124, when it fell to the Crusaders, and until the 13th century, it was a principal town of the kingdom of Jerusalem. Captured and destroyed by the Muslim Mamlūks in 1291, the city never recovered its former importance.

Excavations have uncovered remains of the Graeco-Roman, Crusader and Byzantine civilisations, but most of the remains of the Phoenician period lie beneath the present town. Today, three historical sites are accessible to visitors, the Al-Bass site, Al-Mina site and the Byzantine basilica. The remains include the ruins of a street with a 2nd-century mosaic pavement and a double colonnade of white green-veined marble, Roman baths, the ruins of a Roman-Byzantine necropolis, and one of the largest Roman hippodromes ever discovered.

Plan of Tyre’s archaeological sites.

PORTFOLIO

Al-Bass site

The Al-Bass archaeological area consists of an extensive necropolis, a three-bay monumental arch and one of the largest Roman hippodromes ever found. All date from the 2nd century AD to the 6th century AD.

The Byzantine Road was uncovered for a distance of more than 300 meters, reaching the foot of the Monumental Arch. Paved with well-preserved limestone slabs, this road is delimited on both sides by the Necropolis.
The Necropolis consists of a large number of sarcophagi and constructed tombs dating back to the Roman period. They were reused many times after that date throughout the Byzantine period.
The Necropolis is divided into a number of burial complexes, each usually belonging to the same family. Each complex has a variety of burial sites, small buildings which would house up to sixteen burial rooms known as a columbarium, and there are also singular tombs, burial rooms and sarcophagi.
The Mosaic Tomb, 6th century AD. This structure has mosaic-covered floors representing Christian symbols.
Funerary church with mosaic from the Byzantine period.
Built in three levels with four burial cells each, this columbarium dates back to the mid-2nd century AD and was used until the 4th century AD. The façades were covered with lime plaster coloured with reddish-brown paint during the Byzantine era. The inscription bears the date 280 from the calendar of Tyre which started in 126 BC when the city was declared an independent republic.
Sarcophagus with scenes of the life of Achilles, from the Al-Bass Necropolis of Tyre, 2nd century AD. National Museum of Beirut, Lebanon. Front lid: Achilles drags the body of Hector and Priam begs Achilles to give him the body of his son.
Sarcophagus of Achilles, from the Al-Bass Necropolis of Tyre, 2nd century AD. National Museum of Beirut. Front lid: Achilles is wearing his armour to join the other Greek leaders in the War of Troy after Ulysses found him at Skyros.
The Byzantine Road reaching the foot of the Monumental Arch built in the 2nd century AD during the time of Hadrian. The road running behind the gate dates from the Roman period.
The Monument Arch was constructed during the 2nd century AD, most probably during the time of Hadrian who visited Tyre in 130 or 131. The arch was 21 metres high and had two lateral doors on either side.
The Monumental Arch was built of sandstone and was partly covered with a layer of white plaster. The two columns flanking the arch have Corinthian capitals decorated with lotus leaves.
The Roman Road running to the west of the Monumental Arch. This road was uncovered by removing the upper layer containing the Byzantine Road. It is paved with large limestone blocks on which traces of chariot wheels can still be seen. It is bordered on both sides with a Doric colonnade. The road has a convex shape and on either side are two small channels fro collecting rainwater.
The Pedestrian Road with Byzantine paving located the southern side of the Roman Road. This pedestrian road gave access to several shops on its southern part. Remains of these shops were discovered under the arches of the aqueduct.
The Hippodrome of Tyre is one of the best-preserved in the world. Built in a U shape, it measures 480 meters by 160 metres and used to accommodate around 30,000 spectators. It is considered the second-largest hippodrome in the ancient world.
The preserved seats of the Hippodrome.
The spina of the Hippodrome with the red granite obelisk at the centre.
The passages under the Hippodrome.
Various Greek games and chariot racings (the Actia Heraclia and the Olympia) took place every four years in the hippodrome of Tyre.

Al-Mina site

Located on what was originally the Phoenician island city, this site has remains of civic buildings, colonnades, public baths, mosaics, streets and a rectangular arena.

The commercial area bordered by a paved Roman-Byzantine road.
The so-called Mosaic Road (or Grande Allée) extending over 170 metres in length and paved with green-veined marble and mosaics dated to the 2nd & 3rd centuries AD.
The so-called Mosaic Road (or Grande Allée).
Corinthian capital from the colonnade of the so-called Mosaic Road (or Grande Allée).
Column base from the colonnade of the so-called Mosaic Road (or Grande Allée) decorated with the head of Medusa.
The so-called Rectangular Arena with rows of stepped seating able to accommodate 2,000 spectators. It was most likely a meeting and gathering place attached to a temple of another public building.
The Palaestra consisting of a 30-metre wide square area enclosed inside a granite colonnade.
The Roman Baths, built in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
The Roman Baths were divided into two symmetrical parts. The lower part consisted of arched vaults giving considerable strength to the whole structure. The upper part consisted of large hypocaust bricks covered with marble pavement. The hot air used to circulate between these superimposed baked clay disks, diffusing the heat into the different parts of the bath.
Beneath the Palaestra are the remains of two parallel walls made of sandstone. They are the old city walls from the Phoenician period that had been destroyed and set on fire during Alexander the Great’s attack in 334 BC.

Byzantine Basilica site

This structure consists of the remains of a 12th-century cathedral that was the site of the coronation of the Kings of Jerusalem during the 13th century. It is said that the body of Frederick Barbarossa, the German Emperor, is buried there, but his body was never found during the excavations.

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