The International Writers Magazine: Hacktreks in Ancient Tyre
of a famous battle
Tyre (Sour) was founded by the Phoenicians in the 3rd millennium
BC. It originally consisted of a mainland settlement and an island
city just offshore
Its most famous king was Hiram; it was
to him that Solomon appealed for cedars to build the temple of Jerusalem
and his palace."
Lonely Planet, 1997
I had decided I
was going to travel east from Lebanon, to Syria and Damascus. But before
I could do that I decided I wanted to make a journey to the south. That
way was the closed border and beyond the lands of northern Israel, whose
soldiers in the frontier zone were Lebanons other unwelcome guests.
After my run-in with the military I had no desire to talk to soldiers
again. But there was something else I wanted to see, the ancient city
of Tyre, now known as Sour.
Marcel and his friends, however, were more interested in going to the
beach at the southern resort town of Jiyé. They wanted to spend
the morning sunbathing. But the pleasure of lying on the beach was somewhat
marred by the noise and smell of an oil refinery on the other side of
the coastal road. I turned to Marcel and told him of my plan to make
my way further down the coast.
Marcel wasnt disappointed by my decision. It would give him some
time with his friends and enable him to get away from entertaining me.
I followed his advice and walked to the side of the road, where I flagged
down a servis by the roadside. This was the standard way of getting
about the country for those without a car. Most of them were old Mercedes
taxis. They followed set routes between and through towns. Necessity
had obliged their use, owing to a basic lack of public transport infrastructure.
I was unfazed by the sight which confronted me. Having spent several
days in Beirut I was now used to the rundown nature of the buildings,
roads and vehicles. The shops may well be full and life seemed to run
according to some kind of routine, but the Mercedes in front of me had
certainly seen better days. It cut a sad looking figure; much of its
yellow paintwork was missing while its bodywork had been hammered out
to hide telltale dents. But at least it was spacious, large enough to
include a woman completely covered in black, a young woman who cast
a cursory glance my way and a man with a turkey at his feet. We drove
south along the coast. Despite the windows being open, the heat of the
day was strong; inside the car it was stifling.
We also drove in silence. None of the passengers spoke. But perhaps
there were other thoughts going through my fellow travellers minds:
the south of Lebanon was then under Israeli occupation; the border strip
was out of bounds to both foreigners and Lebanese alike. The previous
year, in 1996, Israeli units in the area had been mobilised and shelled
Qana, less than 20km away from Sour. The provocation had been Hizbollah
activity along the border.
Along with the Israeli presence, a UN mission was also in evidence.
In the centre of town white UNIFIL vans were parked outside prominent
buildings and here and there went green-uniformed soldiers with their
blue berets. But the servis did not go into the town centre. I would
have to walk through the citys outskirts.
Entering Sour, here and there people went about their business; butchers
hung meat outside their stalls while mechanics worked underneath cars
in ad hoc garages by the side of the road. As the concentration of buildings
began to rise, I stumbled across the port of Tyre. It was hard to miss.
Set apart from the modern town, the port stretches out from a peninsula
into the sea. Sailing vessels filled the harbour and the surrounding
air with the stench of putrefying fish.
Nearby the port sat the old Christian quarter, amid street upon street
of white-washed buildings and playing children. Using my schoolboy French
I found my way to a fine looking Maronite church. Sadly it was closed
for the day and despite the best attempts of Mohammed, a local French-speaking
telephone engineer who I encountered outside the church, it did not
appear likely it would open at all.
Mohammed was a Muslim, which was the predominant faith in Sour. In contrast
to most of the Lebanese I had come across, he was pale and blond with
an engaging smile. He was in a rush to get to the other side of town
to do a job, but he had space in his van; he gave me a lift to the nearby
ruins of the ancient Roman town. Here there was a man-made peninsula,
on top of which stretched a straight Roman road for almost a mile out
to sea. I picked my way down onto the structure and wondered about the
point of the protective barriers which had been placed along its sides.
If they had been designed to discourage people from entering the ruins,
they had failed to do so. Burnt papers and rubbish here and there suggested
this was a popular meeting spot for parties and fires. On one side of
the road lay an ancient viaduct while on both sides stone and marble
sarcophagi could be seen, including some with bas-reliefs from Homers
Iliad. Here and there a column remained which had not yet fallen down.
But the sense the ruins left was of a town which had seen its glory
days come and go in the very distant past.
Looking westwards across the sea, I felt the warmth of the sun in my
face as it began its descent. I was the only one standing on the ruins.
Present day Sour, with the everyday concerns of its inhabitants, bustled
about behind me. I tried to imagine the scene during the tenth century
BC when Hiram, the king of Tyre, began the development and expansion
of the ancient city around me.
Nearly two hundred years before Alexander the Great, Nebuchadnezzar,
the Babylonian king, had besieged the city for thirteen years. He failed
to take it. But Alexander managed it and in doing so cemented his reputation
as a military genius.
In 334BC Alexander had set out with an army composed mainly of Macedonians,
along with other Greeks. His aim was to bring to an end the Persian
domination of Greece, including those Greek city-states along down the
Aegean and Mediterranean littoral in what is today modern Turkey. After
a victory against the Persians who controlled the region at the time,
Alexander marched south. His terrible reputation ensured compliance
from the cities he passed. But when he reached Tyre he was rebuffed.
Tyres refusal to submit to his will presented Alexander with a
problem. The city was located on an island a mile out to sea, around
which it had high, fortified walls. Alexander could not attack by sea:
he would have no defence. Neither could he impose a siege on them: his
siege engines could not get close enough.
In Robin Lane Foxs biography of the great general, he recounts
how Alexander and his men hit upon their solution. They decided to fill
in the sea as far as possible to bring up their war machines, from which
they could project burning oil into the city and smash boulders into
the walls. This decision was no mean feat, especially since a short
way out from the half mile distance between the coast and fortified
city island the sea shelf drops away steeply. His siege of Tyre lasted
for seven months. He was reportedly so enraged by the unwillingness
of the citys defenders to submit his army killed around 8000 citizens
and enslaved 30,000. On his orders 2000 were crucified along the shore.
He could be a hard man when he wanted to be.
I turned to go. Soon I had flagged down a servis to make the journey
back to Marcels. We soon established I was English.
"Manchester, Liverpool, Arsenal," he cackled as we headed
north and back towards Beirut. He looked at me in the mirror. "Chelsea,
Tott-nem." The trip back would be made to the names of football
teams. This was going to make for rather limited conversation.
© Guy Burton November 2004
gisburton at hotmail.com
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