The ancient port city of Sidon (also spelled or known as Zidon, Saidoon and Saida) is situated 35 Kilometres north of Tyre and 48 Kilometres south of Beirut. It stands on a headland bordered by coast-hugging reefs. The territories of the city are defined by an oval mound of around 58 hectares and the El Kamlé and El Barghout Rivers. The city lies adjacent to two natural harbours (a southern circular cove and an enclosed northern port) and this appealing landform means that modern urban density (a product of continual inhabitation since the first few millennia BC) has hampered excavation attempts, although work undertaken since 1998 by the Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities has facilitated several insights into the city’s early occupation, through to the conquests of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Muslim Arabs.
The date at which the city was founded is not precisely known - the first mention of it is found in the Amarna Letters written by Amenhotep III to neighbouring monarchs (in the mid-14th century BC). In actuality, it is thought that the city was founded in the 3rd millennium BC and abandoned until the mid-16th century BC, at which time Egypt began to import Asiatic copper (the Levant being the second largest producer next to Cyprus at the time) and furtively sought timber suitable for ship-building, which was rare in Egypt but abundant (in the form of cedar) in Syria-Palestine. The only large Phoenician settlement of the time, Sarepta, also enjoyed a rapid economic boom. Furthermore, trade goods came from as far away as Afghanistan to the Phoenician cities (as the Uluburun Shipwreck attests).
The Early Iron Age saw the wide dispersal of colonies. This primarily occurred along the Levant coastline, but also occurred elsewhere (as far away as Tunisia, where Carthage was founded). During this time, the cities of Sidon and Tyre came into conflict and battled for economic supremacy. As there is no written evidence, assigning leadership to one party or the other can only be guesswork, although Sidon appears in Biblical accounts as a more powerful, territorial city and this is further substantiated by the Inscription of Tiglath-Pileser I. As an island port, Tyre could not readily access any mainland holdings. Indeed, Sidonian troops were able to force the naval evacuation of Tyre by blockading the mainland - this was conducted under the reign of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ignored all pleas from the people of Tyre. Whatever the case, the decline of Egypt as a market eventually destroyed Tyre, leaving Sidon in a position of regional hegemony.
The slope of the city (low to the east, high to the west) corresponds directly to the residences of the commoners and elites (including administrators), respectively. Although no evidence has been uncovered to substantiate the theory, it is likely that a palace or fortress existed at the summit of the hill now marked by the Saint Louis Crusader chateau as it is a prominent and tactically sensible position. Sidon also possessed a number of fertile and populous strips of land suitable to agriculture (from Ras Sarafand to Ras-al-Jajunieh and inland to the Beqa Valley) and laid claim to territory in the foothills of the Lebanon Range, enabling trade with Syria. Indeed, an inscribed clay prism of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (704-681 BC) indicates that Sidon held sway over seven satellite towns via the use of strategic fortifications. Speculation has placed two such fortresses at Mer Elias and Brak et-Tell.
Sidon’s primary industry was arguably glassblowing (the city even being credited with its discovery), although the dye industry was also undertaken with similarly great exertion. This fact is denoted by large piles of murex shells (up to 40 metres tall) along the southern coast, which may have been entirely devoted to the murex trade and the harbouring of fishing fleets. The chief port was situated to the immediate north of the city and was ideal for its function by virtue of its shelter and calm waters (as prevailing winds and strong currents are even now diverted by rocky offshore islets and reefs. Sidon’s culture was strongly influenced by the dominant culture of the time, as it was still reliant upon trade despite the aforementioned advantages it held over Tyre. Sidon led the way in opening commerce with the Aegean and Greek artistic styling (seen in the Eshmun Temple), coinage (and the standard weighting thereof), military tactics and even religion was quickly absorbed (although the deity primarily worshipped remained the native Baal). Conflict with various civilisations has seen the city damaged and rebuilt several times.
Little is known about the Phoenician military in general and less still is known about Sidon’s in particular. It appears that chariot warfare (augmented by light infantry) was adopted from the Egyptians during the New Kingdom and iron weapons integrated around the 7th century BC. Of all the components of the armed forces, the navy is best renowned and its 4th century coinage bears an image of a Phoenician war galley situated in front of the city. In particular, the Persians found the Sidonian navy indispensable during the invasions of Greece and favoured them accordingly. The standard vessels of the navy were the triaconter and penteconter, both single-banked vessel types, although smaller, more efficient double-banked vessels were adopted sometime during the 8th century BC. All vessels were equipped with bronze rams.
The largest Sidonian cemetery is the necropolis of Dakerman (south of the city), which contains tombs from the 14th century BC all the way through to the early Roman period. Hellenistic and Persian tombs are scattered throughout hills to the south and east. Two other necropolises (dated to the Iron Age) can be found at Tambourit and Ain el-Helwé, while more rudimentary Bronze Age burial sites have been located in the eastern foothills.
The modern city serves as a seat of government and important economic hub (being the third largest city) for southern Lebanon and is pleasantly situated amongst citrus and banana plantations. Despite the fact that 19th century opportunists denuded Sidon of much of its valuable architectural heritage, many sites (including the Crusader Sea Castle) remain. It is also renowned for its quaint atmosphere and numerous cafes.
Peoples of the Past: Phoenicians, Glenn E. Markoe
The Phoenicians, I.B. Taurus