Tyre (50 m. S. of Beirut in Lebanon) is now quiet coastal town drawn mostly into the political orbit of Syria. However, there was a time when the Mediterranean was referred to as the Tyrean Sea, and as a city it was as important a center as New York or London is today. The town of Tyre was founded roughly 2700-2900 B.C., at first as minor coastal villa, on a peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean in what was originally Phoenician territory.1 She originally consisted of a mainland residential district (initially known as Ushu) and a modest island port and commerce area. Tyre began its commercial ascent with the plundering of Sidon by Philistines around 1200 B.C. The influx of refugees and the temporary loss of competition spurred a period of great growth. (Isaiah 23:8). As the trade capital of Phoenicia, her wharves and ships overflowed with trade goods borne by caravan out of the desert, but at the time the Syrian slopes were also green with cedars, which were shipped to Egypt for use in their seemingly endless construction projects, as well as to Jerusalem for use in the First Temple of King David. The city also exported Tyrean purple, the dye extracted from the murex sea-mussel, which was rare enough to become an elite fashion, and later used as a mark of imperial and royal ranks. Ezekiel records that Tyre’s trade included:
...slaves, cypress, cedar, oak, ebony, ivory, embroidered linen, purple and scarlet cloth, gold, silver, iron, tin, lead, bronze, horses, mules and other livestock, coral, rubies, corn, wax, honey, tallow, balm, wine, wool and spices. The word cinnamon is Phoenician, as are cumin, coriander, crocus, myrrh, aloe, balsam, jasper, diamond and sapphire.2
The Maritime supremacy of Tyre was well established by 1100 B.C., its navigators having charted the Mediterranean and founded colonies in Spain, Italy, and North Africa. In 969 B.C., Hiram I becomes king of Tyre and rules through a golden age of growth and prosperity for over 34 years. However, in 868 B.C, Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria makes Tyre a vassal state – but even the Assyrians quickly lose sway as the Phoenicians rise in territorial power. Phoenician exploration and trade dominate by 814/815 B.C. when Tyre founded Carthage in North Africa; according to Appian’s Punica, this when Dido decided to bolt from her home city of Tyre when she dreamt about Pygmalion’s murderous intentions. Eventually its colonies spread around the Mediterranean and Atlantic Spain, bringing to the city a flourishing maritime trade. But prosperity and power make their own enemies. By 720 BC, Assyrians are back and their siege does not end until the surrender of the mainland city to Sargon II. Twenty years late, the Tyrian Navy leaves the ‘known world’ altogether when Tyrian ships name “the pillars of Hercules” at Gibraltar and sail out of the Mediterranean and as far north as Cornwall – where they traded olives for British tin with the local Druidic culture. !
In early 6th c. B.C. Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, began a siege of the walled city that would last for thirteen years. The island portion of Tyre survived, but most of her mainland district and ramparts were obliterated. By 605 BC., the Assyrian Empire has been essentially destroyed by its enemies and Tyre becomes a vassal state of Babylon.
Despite a well-equipped navy, however, overland invasions by the other powers in the Middle East were recurrent. Tyre was attacked first by the Assyrians, then the Chaldaeans, until she finally fell to the Persians. Later, in the 4th c. BC, the city was sacked by Alexander the Great but was quick to recover as her commercial ties throughout the Mediterranean were now invaluable to other nations –as one scholar explains:
“The Tyrians with their numerous ships assisted Xerxes against the Greeks, who moreover were their commercial rivals, and Darius against Alexander the Great. The King of Tyre himself fought in the Persian fleet. Tyre refused submission to the Macedonian hero, as well as authorization to sacrifice to the god Melkart, whose temple was on the island; Alexander, taking offence, determined to capture the island at any cost. “ 3
Alexander the Great to facilitate his siege of the city (333-332 B.C.) formed a causeway more than .5 mi (.8 km) wide to bridge the two districts. Unable to storm the city, he blockaded Tyre for seven months and used the debris of the abandoned mainland walls to build a causeway across to the island. Once he was in range of the fortifications there, Greek siege rams battered and finally breached the fortifications. Alexander was so enraged at the Tyrians' defense, his being distracted with the island from the larger object of his campaign, Persia, and the loss of his men that he destroyed half the city. 6000 of its defenders were beheaded, 2000 crucified, more than 30,000 women, children, and servants sold as slaves.
In 64 B.C., under Pompey, the city was brought within the fold of the Roman Empire by Julius Caesar. In spite of newer cities such as Alexandria and Aleppo, she continued to be a cultural center. The Romans built great important monuments in the city, including an aqueduct, a triumphal arch and the largest hippodrome in antiquity – and Tyre became the center of Roman Syria. Exotic goods, spices and silks were all brought of the Far East (mostly be Persian caravans shipping out of the markets of Armenia & Nisibis) for consumption by the elite and fashionable of Rome, especially silk. Gibbon describes how Aurelian bemoaned the price of silk from Tyre – a pound of the precious fabric fetched 12 oz. of gold in the markets of the imperial court – and even tried for a time to legislate the price. $
Christianity was introduced early to Tyre, and there remain ruins of several early churches built at the end of the 4th cent. AD. † However, after the rise of Islam, Tyre came under Muslim rule. Taken by the Islamic armies in 636 AD, Tyre surrenders to Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan and his brother Mucawiyah and becomes a Muslim city. The city offered no resistance and continued to prosper under its new rulers, exporting sugar as well as objects made of pearl and glass. With the decline of the Abbasid Dynasty, Tyre acquired some independence under the dynasty of Banu 'Aqil, vassals of the Egyptian Fatimides in 969 AD. This was a time when Tyre was adorned with fountains and its bazaars were full of all kinds of merchandise, including carpets and jewerly of gold and silver. Thanks to Tyre's strong fortifications it was able to resist to onslaught of the Crusaders until 1124. After about 180 years of Crusader rule, the Mamlukes retook the city in 1291. It never recovered its former greatness - the principal ruins of the city today are those of buildings erected by the Crusaders.4 The city then passed to the Ottoman Empire during their expansion at the start in 1516. With the end of the World War I Tyre was integrated into the new nation of Lebanon. Most of the archeological work underway in the area now focuses on the Crusader, Byzantine and Roman eras – being soil layers which are exposed or within several feet of the surface in most places. Deeper excavation into the Greek and Phoenician sites, which are actually now in the harbor underwater as result of numerous earthquakes in the early Middle Ages, have yet to be undertaken.
1 Herodotus wrote in The Histories (trans. Aubrey de Selincourt, II, 44, written 450 B.C.) that Tyre had stood on the same site for 2300 years – H. can be a bit wiggly on dates though, and was actually quoting some priests of Melkart at the time, and you know how they can be...
2 Bikai, Patricia Maynor. “Phoenician Tyre,” in The Heritage of Tyre: Essays on the History, Archaeology and Preservation of Tyre, p. 48.
! I know, I couldn’t quite believe that one either, but apparently there is archeological off goods exchange, just outside Cornwall, which have been dated to or about this period: see J.M. Robert’s History of the World (London: 1985), p. 117. Arnold Toynbee wrote in his Study of History (NY: Oxford, 1947) the impulse of the Phoenicians to push outward into the open sea may have arise partly from geography – “…the Lebanon Range rises sheer from the sea – so sheer there is hardly way for road…the Phoenician cities could not communicate easily, even with each other, except by sea…thus, while the Philistines were browsing like sheep among clover, the Phoenicians, whose maritime horizon had be hitherto restricted…now launched out Minoan fashion into the open sea…” (p. 93)
3 S. VAILHÉ, 1912, “Tyre” from the Catholic Encyclopedia, v. 15. Plutarch (writing four centuries later) reports in his Lives that after the months of seige dragged on into another year, Alexander was increasingly unsure of whether the city would succumb. Encamped by a stream far from the clamour of battle, he was apparently slumbering one afternoon by the water, only to see a satyr mocking him on the other shore. He leapt to his feet, grabbed his sword and splashed across the stream, only to find the wood-spirit already in flight. He chased it in a rage as the laughter of the satyr echoed through the trees, but finally, after what seemed hours of running, he finally tackled the thing. It vanished in his hands, and he awoke. Later that day, when his soothsayers heard his dream, made two words of Satyrus, 'Sa Tyrus' (Tyre will be yours) and assured him that Tyre would fall. See Plutarch, "Alexander", tran. John Dryden: Internet Classics Archive : http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/alexandr.html. Thanks Gritchka for pointing out the story.
$ Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, v.4, ch. 40, 193. That’s about $3600 US at current value – which actually isn’t bad considering it was being shipped by horse and camel across Asia to Tyre – at the time a 243 day trip.
† Not much left of the churches before that as the Huns made pretty short work of them, and just about anything else standing, when they tore through Armenia & Syria, c. 380 AD. St. Jerome said in his Letters (77, xiii & 60, xvi) : “Suddenly messengers flying in all directions bring the fearful news that from distant Maeotis…hordes of Huns had swept through and were spreading slaughter and terror in all directions…the Roman army is tied with civil unrest in Italy…these savages are everywhere and where least expected, their speed outstrips all rumors of their approach…Antioch is under siege, Tyre broken from the mainland and retreated into its island shell…we stay by ships at seashore as a precaution…less afraid of shipwreck than of the barbarians…How many monasteries are seized? How many rivers run with human blood?”
4Baldwin I, King of Jerusalem lay siege to Tyre from 29 Nov., 1111, till April, 1112. It did not fall. His son, Baldwin II captured it, 27 June, 1124, after five months' siege. When the crusaders lost Jerusalem in 1187, they fell back to Tyre.