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. Tyre was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Byzantine Basilica site