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Tyre and Sidon

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Archives / 1958 / January

 

 

Tyre and Sidon

Halvard J. Thomsen

Halvard Jessen Thomsen, Minister, Washington Conference

 

Our great interest in the ancient cities of Tyre and Sidon, always mentioned together in the Gospels, is fixed largely by the specific prophecies of Ezekiel about Tyre. We Chris­tians use this city as a dramatic exhibit of di­vine predictions fulfilled.

It was with a heightened sense of anticipa­tion, therefore, that we boarded the bus at Beirut to visit these sites, wondering how they would look to our eyes conditioned by the study of the Bible and our standard Adventist writ­ings.

I already knew something about the history and geography of the area. I had learned, for example, that each city had at various times been ascendant in the history of Phoenicia, a land prominent and important in the ancient world out of all proportion to its diminutive size, a nation of traders and sailors. I knew that the climate of the Phoenician coast, now a part of modern Lebanon, was characterized by mild, rainy winters and warm, dry summers with almost no spring or autumn. I knew, too, that at more or less regular intervals the subcoastal mountain range thrusts headlands right down to the Mediterranean as if to divide the shore into links in a natural chain.These jutting bar­riers made boat travel from one city to another a necessity until roads could be laid, blasted, or beaten across the mountains. The ancient cities of Arvad, Tripolis, Gebal, Berytus, Sidon, and Tyre, from north to south, which were roughly equidistant and separated by the protruding mountain barriers, formed the chain of rival city-states in the nation of Phoenicia.

Sidon was famed as a fishing center and for its glasswork and its dyes of purple, the Greek name of which, phoinikous, gave the land its name. The unsuccessful thirteen-year siege by Nebuchadnezzar and the brilliant military de­struction of Tyre by Alexander were common knowledge. With these few facts in mind we were off across the Lebanese countryside to see what we could see.

En route we passed melon fields, banana plantations, olive groves, and almond, apricot, and citrus orchards. We saw ample evidence of American money and influence in the bulldoz­ers and farm machinery at work everywhere. As we traveled, it seemed to me that cities, like people, have personalities. Dressed in brick, mortar, glass, stone, and steel, they beat with a pulse that is the collective soul of their in­habitants. They live, breathe, and die like human beings.

There are cities of sin or sorrow, hard and harsh and masculine like New York; brash and driving cities, reckless and free, like Chicago; sleepy cities like Naples; or gay and feminine cities like Paris. There are thriving, busy, hec­tic crossroads cities like Beirut; and ghost towns like Tyre, our destination.

These were my thoughts as we rode along. When they are living, cities have a kind of soul of their own. But when war and siege come they shed their lifeblood, hoping to live on, and yet they too die.

Modern Sidon

I was therefore wholly unprepared for mod­ern Sidon, now Saida, when we drew up in one of its busy streets. On the whole, the city does not present a pleasing aspect to an uninitiated American traveler. It is dirty, crowded, and unplanned, with crooked, narrow streets and choked plazas. I learned to my surprise that forty-two thousand people call it home. None of its early glory remains in the modern com­merce, industry, or buildings.

Like most Phoenician cities it was built on a promontory, faced by an island upon which the Crusaders built the prominent Castle of the Sea. In the blocky walls of this crumbling cas­tle cylindrical fragments of columns are em­bedded, probably taken from an ancient hea­then temple, we were told.

We saw a huge mound of debris, called Murex Hill, formed by the accumulation of refuse from purple-dye factories and topped by a small cemetery. Rather high, surely more than a hundred feet, and perhaps as long as a city block (three hundred feet), its very size proves that the ancients must have broken open many of the small murex shells from which to extract their dye. It seemed that they had an extensive business.

Saida is still active. There we took photo­graphs of the fishing nets drying in the warm Mediterranean sun. We saw many woodwork­ing shops manned in part by young boys, who looked to be twelve, fourteen, or sixteen years of age, operating planers, jointers, band saws, and other complicated and dangerous machines. It was there too that we noticed a large log be­ing sawed asunder by the crude whipsaw method. This is done by two men, one standing upon and another under the log, pulling a blade through the wood. The contrast did not escape our cameras.

Tyre as It Looks Today

Perhaps this tourists'-eye view of Saida will prepare you for the shock I experienced when we entered Tyre, or $iir, as the Arabs call it. I had supposed, of course, that I would see a bar­ren, windswept, rocky coast, breasted by an un­inhabited island upon which there would be a few boats beached and fishermen's nets drying on upended sticks.

Undoubtedly this mental picture was largely formed by the prophecy in Ezekiel 26:14, which reads: "I will make thee like the top of a rock: thou shalt be a place to spread nets upon; thou shalt be built no more: for I the Lord have spoken it." Rather conclusive, isn't it? That's exactly what I expected to find—wouldn't you?

But it isn't that way at all. Instead there is a crowded Arab village, the population swelled to twelve thousand by refugees from Israel, a military fortress, an archeological workshop—and no island! Photography was strictly for­bidden, the ban enforced by the military, as some members of our party learned to their embarrassment, because 511r is at the southern­most boundary of Lebanon and therefore vis­ible to the Israelis, who might conceivably like to have pictures of its defenses.

We saw the remnants of a jetty in the "Side­nian harbor" on the north coast, though they were for the most part submerged. Once a thriving seaport, it is now deep enough for only small craft. It is still possible, though difficult, to make out the faint outlines of the "Egyptian harbor" on the south, which a Catholic arche­ologist named Father Poidebard discovered in 1935-36. He used divers, aerial photography, and motion pictures, as well as the more con­ventional excavations in his work.

Apparently the refugees make up half or more of the population. Most of the perma­nent residents are fishermen or boat builders, though a few are shopkeepers, who deal in foods and building materials. One persistent fellow offered us "genuine" antiquities from a folding display case he had set up on the rub­ble. As we were leaving we found that some of these people are fairly well educated: about a dozen of their schoolboys greeted us in English and opened up a rather enlightened discussion of American foreign policy in the Middle East.

Yet you feel that you are in a dead city. There is nothing about the modern town to hold your attention for long. Your mind keeps going back to the prophecies in an effort to understand what you see. Who are these peo­ple? How long have they lived here? What eter­nally important events happened in this once proud commercial city "in the midst of the sea" (Eze. 26:5)?

The answers don't come easily. The com­bined sources available to scholars leave an in­complete picture. Sanchuniathon, Herodotus, Diodorus, Arrian, Pliny, Strabo, Josephus, Euse­bius, and Justin—all of them tell something, but not enough. The oldest and most reliable sources are the Ras Shamra findings and the Amarna Letters. Excavations have revealed lit­tle because the city was so completely destroyed.

The digging we saw on the south part of the former island had not brought to light any­thing from the Phoenician period. There were some Roman remains that included an interest­ing sarcophagus and what was thought to be a Roman bath in the middle of things. The bro­ken columns lying about were said to have been thrown down by the many earthquakes that shook the island. They probably supported the mile-long arcade over the north-south main street from the Sidonian harbor to the Egyptian harbor. Paved in mosaic, an art form with which we became most familiar on our tour, the street was about thirty to thirty-five feet wide, but the only paving we saw was of the Byzantine.

There are remains of walls and towers of the Crusaders' fortifications, thinly buried for the most part under the ever-growing sand dunes, and a series of cell-like chambers on the west­ern shore, the walls of which are plastered with a hard stucco. They may have been tombs or else parts of the dye factories.

That striking sense of missing a whole is­land that jolted me when we arrived was caused by the silting in of the sea between Tyre and the mainland. Here waves and currents have dumped their loads ever since Alexander's causeway blocked their passage nearly 2,300 years ago. Now rubble and debris scattered over the sandy beach have buried the ancient work­manship so that the whole appears to be a nat­ural part of the original coast line. How easily an uninformed person could make a snap judgment and be altogether wrong about what he saw?

Three miles away, before the village of Han­nawe, we saw a remarkable monument called Kabr Hiram and said to be Hiram's tomb, a huge sarcophagus of stone with a gabled lid, which is itself more than 6 feet high and about 13 feet long. Since there is no longer a body in it and no inscriptions have been found on its surface, no proof exists that Hiram was laid there. But the archeologists do say that it is doubtless Phoenician. It seems appropriate to Hiram, friend of King David.

The origin of the Phoenicians, who called themselves Canaanites, is learned from Gen­esis 10:15-19, which shows that sons of Canaan founded several of their cities.

High Points of Tyre's History

Their religion is reasonably well understood. A revolting corruption of the worship of God, it descended to a bloody and obscene image worship. The notorious Jezebel, symbol of hea­thenism and heresy, was a daughter of Ethbaal, seventh king of Tyre after Hiram and a priest of Astarte, otherwise known as Aphrodite. Jeze­bel took with her to Israel a retinue of her licentiously obnoxious priests, for whom Ahab was induced to build on the hill of Samaria (1 Kings 16:32) a temple to the Tyrian god Baal, also identified as Melkarth and Adonis.

A study of this cult leaves one nauseated and depressed. But it does serve to explain why Ezekiel was led to predict the utter destruction of this nerve center of Baal worship. The mind is glad to turn to the higher religious ideals of Scripture.

Tyre was besieged and pillaged many times: for five years by Shalmaneser V and Sargon II in Hezekiah's time; by Sennacherib in 701 B.c.; by his successor, Esarhaddon; by Nebuchadnez­zar for thirteen years, from 585 to 572 B.c.; and by Alexander in 332. Each of these devastating wars took its toll of the city's population. Alex­ander alone is said to have killed eight thousand men and sold thirty thousand more into slavery, leaving only a few pitiful Tyrians of the poorer sort amid the ruins.

The Arabs who presently inhabit dr are not true Phoenicians, being descendants of Ish­mael, though there are still Phoenicians in Leb­anon. None of the sources consulted nor any of the people to whom I have talked indicate that the present villagers are of the old stock.

After Alexander's destruction Tyre no longer figured in Mediterranean trade. It was rebuilt, however, without political importance. Its new inhabitants were converted to Christianity—Paul en route to Rome found believers there—and it became the see of an archbishop with fourteen bishoprics, by the fourth century A.D. having a magnificent basilica.

In 636 it fell to the Arabs. In 1124 a fleet of Venetian Crusaders attacked the town, by this time again considered impregnable; five and a half months was required to conquer it. A cathedral was begun in 1127. Conrad of Montferrat twice successfully resisted Saladin's efforts to capture the city. But in 1291, after 167 years of occupation, the Crusaders were forced to abandon .5f.cr to the Moslems, who again de­stroyed it, using the ruins as a ready-made stone quarry.

After the Ottoman Empire fell, Sib- was in­corporated into the Lebanese Republic.

The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commen­tary takes the position that Ezekiel's prophecy was fulfilled in the destruction of the old city, which was undoubtedly complete, as any Bible-loving traveler can readily see. It has never been rebuilt.

One is reluctant to concede that his firmly established opinions must bow to the unwel­come facts, but since the Bible does not con­tradict them, only two or three solutions to the problem of the existence of Siir in the face of Ezekiel's predictions present themselves:

  1. Tyre did not fulfill prophecy but contra­dicts it. I certainly do not hold this view.
  2. The prophecy is yet to be fulfilled by some modern destroyer who has not yet appeared—possibly in the forthcoming battle of Armaged­don. But this seems to strain the original idea behind the destruction of the Baal center, and can be held only as a last unreasoned resort by those who prefer to believe that Sites existence denies Scripture. I think it is exegetically un­sound.
  3. The destruction of Tyre by Alexander did fulfill the prophecy of Ezekiel. Baal worship was dealt a serious blow; the ground was scraped bare. What we saw, Stir, is not the an­cient city nor even a reincarnation of the island city, but a modern transplantation of displaced persons to a location that has much in its favor. Commercially it is insignificant. Politically it is impotent. Religiously, Baal, Melkarth, and Adonis are reduced to tradition and myth. It poses no threat to God's people, gives no com­fort to atheists.

I am glad for the privilege of visiting Tyre. I hope you too may someday have the expe­rience.


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