Aerial photo of Tyre taken circa 1934.

What Happened To Tyre?

In the south of Lebanon there is evidence of an ancient battle so fierce that it permanently altered the Mediterranean coastline. A peninsula juts out from the mainland in the place where a proud island city once refused an invader, providing silent testimony as to the fate of all those who defied Alexander the Great. The city is called Tyre and it is located approximately 20 kilometres north (12 miles) of the Israeli border and about 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of the Lebanese capital Beirut. Tyre is well-known to Bible students particularly (although not exclusively) from the prophecy of Ezekiel who was inspired to foresee details of Tyre’s downfall that would have seemed wildly improbable to his contemporaries yet in the course of time proved accurate to the smallest detail.

Ancient Tyre consisted of two parts. The first part of the city was on the mainland and the second part was on an island just under a kilometre from the shoreline. The island city of Tyre was blessed with not one but two separate harbours which faced opposite sides of the island. The north harbour (also called the “Sidonian Harbour”) which is still in operation today was one of the best natural harbours on the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea. Having two excellent sheltered harbours gave the city great advantages and enabled Tyre to become a major destination for merchant ships hoping to trade and practice commerce with the people of the eastern Mediterranean. Tyre became very wealthy and the island portion of the city over time became heavily fortified. The city on the mainland was the secondary part of the city and principally served to supply the island with water and supplies. One might think of the mainland portion of the city as being the “suburbs” while the island was the home of the wealthy and those of noble birth. The island also served as the city’s religious centre and the principal location for trade and commerce.

At first, the city/state of Tyre enjoyed good relations with Israel and Judah although the relationship was commercial and not based on any religious or cultural sympathy. When King Solomon built the first temple in Jerusalem, King Hiram of Tyre famously supplied cedar from the forests of Lebanon as well as other materials and even skilled workmen. For this, Hiram was well paid. (1 Kings 5)

One export that contributed to the great wealth of Tyre was purple clothing dye, which came to be known as Tyrian purple. This was the most precious dye of its time, in large part because of the great amount of labour required to produce even small amounts. First, Murex shellfish from the Mediterranean Sea were captured in traps in large numbers. It took an incredible amount of these shellfish to produce a single gram of dye. For example, as many as 12,000 shellfish were used to produce the dye for a single garment. For this reason, owning garments dyed purple was prohibitively expensive for most people. In time. purple came to be a colour associated with royalty.

The people of Tyre along with the people of its neighbouring city of Sidon are generally called, “Phoenician”.  The principal cities of the Phoenicians were originally Byblos, Sidon and Tyre but they established colonies all along the north-African coast and as far west as Portugal and Spain. The cities of Byblos, Sidon and Tyre are located within the territory of modern Syria and Lebanon. A Phoenician colony in North Africa called Carthage later became a major city and a fierce competitor with the republic of Rome. The Phoenician cities were organised as city-states and there does not seem to have been a centralised Phoenician government.  The Phoenicians were a seafaring people and their merchants-ships ventured all over the Mediterranean Sea making their cities very wealthy.

The Principle Cities of Phoenicia

The seafaring Phoenicians originally built cities along the eastern Mediterranean coast. They later established colonies in North Africa and as far west as Spain.

Culturally, the Phoenicians were Canaanites and spoke a variation of the Canaanite language and worshipped variations of the same gods as the Canaanite people in Israel. The fertility god commonly referred to as “Baal” in the Bible was commonly worshipped in Phoenicia along with its attendant practices of ritualized prostitution, sex worship and infant sacrifice. The particular Baal worshipped in Tyre was named Melkart (or Melqart). The Greeks saw Melkart as a variation of their own demigod Heracles (or Hercules to the Romans). This connection to the Greek divine hero of myth would play a role in the city’s downfall.

The Tyrian Baal worship of Melkart seems to have been introduced into the 10 tribe kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Ahab. Ahab unwisely made a marriage alliance for the daughter of the Phoenician king of Sidon named in the Bible, “Ethbaal” (meaning “With Baal”). Ethbaal’s daughter of course, was the infamous Jezebel, an aggressive promoter of the worship of Melkart and a vicious opponent to the worship of the God of Israel.

After this point in history the once good relations enjoyed by Tyre and the people of Judah and Israel soured.  The prophet Joel accused the people of Tyre and Sidon of selling the people of Judah into slavery to the Greeks:

“And the people of Judah and Jerusalem you have sold to the Greeks, In order to remove them far from their territory” (Joel 3:6)

The people of Tyre became overly confident in their natural island defenses and overly proud of the wealth and beauty of their city. They developed a feeling of jealousy and rivalry toward Jerusalem and exulted over the misfortunes she faced and hoped to exploit them for commercial opportunity. For these reasons the prophet Ezekiel was inspired to prophecy against her:

“Son of man, because Tyre has said against Jerusalem, ‘Aha! The gateway of the peoples has been broken! Everything will come my way, and I will become rich now that she is devastated’; therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord Jehovah says: ‘Here I am against you, O Tyre, and I will bring up many nations against you, just as the sea brings up its waves. They will destroy the walls of Tyre and tear down her towers, and I will scrape away soil and make her a shining, bare rock. She will become a drying yard for dragnets in the midst of the sea.’ (Ezekiel 26: 2-5)

Notice this prophecy makes certain predictions:

  • There would be “many nations” against Tyre (Ezekiel 26: 3)
  • Her walls and towers would be torn down (Ezekiel 26: 4)
  • Her soil would be scraped away and she would become a shining bare rock (Ezekiel 26: 4)
  • Fishermen would use the area for drying nets (Ezekiel 26: 5)

A closer examination of the rest of Ezekiel chapter 26 reveals more details:

  • Settlements in the countryside would be slaughtered (Ezekiel 26: 6)
  • King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon would come against Tyre (Ezekiel 26: 7)
  • He would lay siege and tear down Tyre’s walls and houses (Ezekiel 26: 12)
  • Tyre’s stones, woodwork and soil would be thrown in the water (Ezekiel 26: 12)

Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Tyre began not long after Ezekiel’s words against the city. According to the first century Jewish historian Josephus, Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Tyre for an incredible 13 years:

“I will now add the records of the Phoenicians; for it will not be superfluous to give the reader demonstrations more than enough on this occasion. In them we have this enumeration of the times of their several kings: “Nabuchodonosor besieged Tyre for thirteen years in the days of Ithobal, their king; after him reigned Baal, ten years;”  (AgainstApion, 1.21)

Josephus also quotes an account that has not survived til our day by a historian named Philostratus (who lived circa 170 to 250 B.C) who in his accounts said of Nebuchadnezzar: “this King besieged Tyre thirteen years: while at the same time Ethbaal reigned at Tyre.” Unfortunately, this is as much as the ancient records have to say regarding Nebuchadnezzar’s siege. Still between Ezekiel, Josephus and certain archaeological records, some conclusions may be drawn. That the siege would be long, Ezekiel adds:

“Son of man, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon made his army labor greatly against Tyre. Every head became bald, and every shoulder was rubbed bare. But he and his army received no wages for the labor he expended on Tyre. Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord Jehovah says, ‘Here I am giving the land of Egypt to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and he will carry off its wealth and take much spoil and plunder from it; and it will become wages for his army. As compensation for his labor against her, I will give him the land of Egypt because they acted for me,’ declares the Sovereign Lord Jehovah.” (Ezekiel 29: 18-20)

During the protracted, multi-year siege, Babylonian soldiers heads became bare from the chafing of their helmets, their shoulders rubbed raw from wearing armour and labouring long in the siege. Evidently, the mainland portion of the city fell to the Babylonians along with associated settlements in the surrounding area. The walls and towers of the mainland city were levelled along with the homes within. The neighbouring settlements were razed to the ground and their inhabitants cruelly slaughtered. Yet lacking a significant navy, Babylon was incapable of taking the fortified island city. So Nebuchadnezzar choose to lay siege to the island, cutting it off from provisions from the mainland and to the extent they could, cutting it off from resupply by sea. In this way they hoped to starve the city into submission. A lengthy siege of this type would have cost the Babylonians dearly, which is also implied by Ezekiel who said that the army would receive “no wages for the labor he expended on Tyre.” (Ezekiel 29:18) As compensation, Nebuchadnezzar is promised the wealth of the land of Egypt.

Although the historical record of both the Babylonian siege of Tyre and the subsequent invasion of Egypt is limited, archeological evidence does support the Bible record. A broken cuneiform tablet first published in 1926 by German archeologist  Eckhard Unger refers to provisions of food for “the king and his soldiers for their march against Tyre“. Other cuneiform tablets show that at some point Tyre was in the hands of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Finally, a cuneiform tablet at the British Museum shows that Nebuchadnezzar did indeed successfully engage the Egyptian forces.

Nebuchadnezzar did not take the island city by force. It seems likely that the city negotiated a surrender after 13 years of siege. Either King Ithobal of Tyre died during the siege or he was surrendered to the Babylonians to be replaced by his son Baal who would become a Babylonian puppet-ruler. The later theory is supported by an ancient list of foreign kings residing in Babylon who like Judean King Jehoiachin were prisoners dependent on the Babylonian monarch for their lives. At the top of this list is an unnamed king of Tyre.

Yet the prophecy concerning Tyre at this point could only be said to be partly fulfilled. Nebuchadnezzar had taken the mainland city, but the island city had not been destroyed let alone “thrown in the water”. The fulfilment of this part of the prophecy would wait over 250 years for the ascent of Alexander the Great. Remember, Ezekiel had said that Tyre would be plundered by “many nations”. (Ezekiel 26: 3)

After the fall of Babylon, the Achaemenid dynasty, ruled over what the Bible calls the empire of “the Medes and the Persians” (Daniel 5:28). This Persian empire ruled for two centuries over the former holdings of Babylonia including Tyre until they were taken away by a fierce young king from Macedonia. By the time of his premature death at the age of 33, Alexander the Great controlled an empire that stretched from Greece, down south to Egypt and as far east as India. He was never defeated in battle and may have continued his conquests had he not suddenly died in Babylon under circumstances that are controversial still. Many ancient historians thought he had been poisoned although many (but not all) modern historians believe he died of natural causes such as malaria or typhoid fever.

Shortly after succeeding his father, Alexander turned his eyes toward the ancient rivals of Greece and he determined to conquer Persia. First his army marched south, towards Egypt. Alexander had already bested two massive Persian armies before coming to Phoenicia. The king of the Persians, Darius III had eluded capture and fled to the eastern part of his empire, free to fight another day. Alexander’s army continued south where the Phoenician cities of Byblos and Sidon capitulated without a fight. Now only Tyre, the grandest and richest city of the Phoenicians remained outside Alexander’s control.

Hoping to avoid bloodshed, the king of Tyre sent envoys bearing gifts to meet with Alexander. They greeted Alexander most courteously and while not formally submitting to him, requested a formal alliance. Alexander countered with a request of his own that made the Tyrians immediately suspicious.  Inside the heavily fortified island city there was an old and famous temple to the chief god of Tyre, Melkart (or Melqart).  The Greeks identified this god with their famous mythic hero Hercacles (Hercules). Like many ancient kings, Alexander claimed descent from the gods. Specifically, Alexander claimed descent from Heracles. On statues and images created of Alexander he is depicted wearing or carrying items associated with Heracles. On his coins he is depicted as a youthful and powerful Heracles. In modern terms you could say that Heracles was Alexander’s “brand”.

The Tyrians politely declined Alexander’s request to offer sacrifice in their city. The request came during their major annual religious festival to Melkart and they may have felt that to allow Alexander to sacrifice there and at that time would have meant that they acknowledged his sovereignty over the city. Perhaps they suspected (correctly) that having invited Alexander and his forces in the front door the Greeks might never leave. Or they may have wanted not to pick a side between the Greeks and the Persians before the war was decided. In any case, they proposed that rather than making his sacrifice in the temple of the island city of Tyre, Alexander make his sacrifices in a temple in “Old Tyre”, the city on the mainland that Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed. Alexander was furious and immediately threatened to lay siege saying, “You indeed, relying on your situation, because you live on an island, despise this army of foot-soldiers, but I will soon show you that you are on the mainland. Therefore I want you to know that I will either enter your city or besiege it.

The Tyrians continued to refuse Alexander. Further envoys from Alexander were murdered. He was right in his assessment of them, the Tyrians were over-confident in their natural island defences and in their own military forces. They may have also thought that if Alexander could be forced into undertaking a difficult and protracted siege, that Darius III of Persia would have time to prepare and come to their rescue. Another theory is that the people of Tyre may have hoped for help from their greatest colony, Carthage.

Unlike Nebuchadnezzar two centuries earlier, Alexander was not content to simply wait and starve the Tyrians into submission. Nebuchadnezzar did not have the imagination to do what Alexander would do next. Alexander had empires to conquer and the island of Tyre was in his way. Delay was intolerable! Further, if he let Tyre alone, the Persians could safely harbor their fleet there and Alexander would continue to have an enemy at his back as he ventured east. Though the sea barred his path Alexander was able to see past this obstacle. True to his word, he would turn the island of Tyre into mainland.

Demolishing the ruins of mainland Tyre (“Old Tyre”), Alexander had the stones transported to the sea at the point where the distance between the mainland and the island of Tyre was shortest. His forces began to build a massive causeway to the island. Alexander’s soldiers became engineers and construction workers. Their material was timber from the famous cedar forests of Lebanon and the abundant stone and even soil from the old city of Tyre that had lain in ruins since its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar over two centuries before.

As the water deepened, the progress of the causeway began to slow. At this point, the efforts of Alexander’s men invited only mockery from the Tyrians. The men of Tyre would approach the workers in boats so that they would be close enough to be heard but far enough away to avoid danger. They would shout scorn and reproach at Alexander’s men. “Was this work for proud soldiers? Did you imagine when you enlisted that you would be carrying baskets of rock and dirt on your backs? Do you imagine that Alexander is greater than the god of the sea?”

Labor on the causeway continued and before long included tens of thousands of men drafted into service from neighbouring cities and towns. Only now did the men of Tyre begin to awake to the danger.

As the causeway progressed, it came within range of the archers on the walls of Tyre. Although ancient accounts of their height may exaggerated, there is no doubt that the walls of the island fortress were unusually high and formidable. Arrows and other projectiles hurled down on the Alexander’s workers killing and wounding and making further progress all but impossible. Alexander countered by building two of the tallest siege towers in ancient history and then had them moved to the end of causeway. These wooden towers were covered in rawhide to protect the frame from burning arrows. These towers sheltered Alexander’s workers from enemy fire and allowed them to continue working. Further, the towers also served as artillery platforms. Catapults and archers at the top of the siege towers were able to return fire at the soldiers on the walls of Tyre.

This prompted the Tyrians to devise a very clever counter-attack. Taking an old transport ship, they filled it to the gunwales with highly combustible materials. They hung cauldrons of oil from the masts and then two galley ships towed the fireship to the end of the causeway and ran her aground. Tyrian soldiers quickly set the vessel aflame and the inferno spread to Alexander’s siege towers and other siege equipment. Tyrian soldiers in boats landed on the causeway to kill or drive back those of Alexander’s soldiers and workers that would try to douse the flames. The gambit was a complete success. The towers were destroyed and work on the causeway came to a halt.

The setback was short-lived. Alexander would not let the same strategy work twice. He realised he would need a navy. Fortunately the cities of Phoenicia which had surrendered to him largely without a fight possessed fighting ships. Further the king of Cyprus wished to be allied to Alexander and sent 120 of his fighting ships. Another 23 fighting ships came from the Greek city-state of Ionia. In total, Alexander now had a navy of 223 ships which was more than Tyre possessed and more than enough to blockade the island city. Finding themselves outnumbered, Tyrian ships could be contained in Tyre’s two harbours where the best they could do was guard against entrance into the city. The blockade was complete, the Tyrians were now cooped up inside their city, unable to harass Alexander’s men or resupply the city from the sea.

The siege of Tyre by Alexander the Great.

Work resumed on the causeway. Alexander ordered that it be widened further and the siege towers rebuilt. As the causeway was being completed, his new navy tested the city’s defences at various points and attacked the entrances to the harbours. May ships were sunk at the mouths of the harbour but the defenders were able to keep Alexander’s ships at bay. Some of Alexander’s ships were mounted with battering rams and they tested the city walls in a number of locations. Other ships were strapped together so they could support a siege tower tall enough to reach the top of the city walls. Finally, one of the battering ram equipped ships succeeded in punching a small breach through the walls.

To split the Tyrian’s attention, the Greek forces launched a number of diversionary attacks on various points of the islands walls and the navy bombarded the city from all sides with projectiles. With Tyre’s forces fighting on all sides, two ships approached the breached wall and from a tall siege tower, Alexander personally led some of his elite soldiers onto the walls of Tyre and forced their way into the city. The thoroughly demoralised defenders of Tyre were now in a panic and Alexanders forces were now able to punch through other areas of the city including through its harbours. The fighting was fierce but relatively short-lived.

Some citizens of Tyre sought shelter in the Temple of Melkart (Melqart), where Alexander had wanted to sacrifice to Heracles (Hercules). The city became a slaughterhouse. 6,000 of the Tyrian defenders died in battle while reportedly, only 400 of Alexander’s men died in the final fight for Tyre. Even if those numbers are exaggerated the disparity was surely great. 30,000 of the citizens of Tyre were subsequently sold into slavery while 2,000 soldiers who had survived the downfall were forced onto the beaches of Tyre and hung or nailed by the hands onto trees, posts and rudimentary frames until they were dead. The Roman empire would later famously employ this form of slow public execution called in Latin, “crucifixion”.

Ancient historians relate that 15,000 Tyrians were secretly saved from the victor’s cruelty. Since Alexander had pressed into service the soldiers and sailors of subjugated  Phoenicians cities, many of his forces were related to the people of Tyre by blood and culture. Some of these troops quietly provided their kinsmen protection and secreted them onto their ships where they were smuggled away from danger.

In the end, Alexander did make sacrifices to Hercules at the Temple of Melkart. Interestingly, in spite of the great slaughter that he ordered, those who had sought shelter in the temple were spared. Here to, he probably sought to show his reverence for a temple that he associated with the worship of Heracles.

Tyre was razed to the ground. It was standard practise for a victorious army to reduce the walls of a conquered city to rubble, lest the city be refortified and again used against them. This was the case with Tyre. Stripped of its impressive defences and denuded of its citizens, proud Tyre, no longer even an island was for a time, only fit for fishermen to dry their nets on the bare rock.

The city would eventually be rebuilt, although never again would it enjoy its former political importance. However, under the Romans the city would become a commercial centre. The worship of Melkart did not disappear quickly. His image , continued to be presented on Tyrian coinage. It is a strange fact that during the lifetime of Jesus, the Tyrian Shekel (also called a Tetradrachma), was the only acceptable coin that could be used to pay the temple tax in Jerusalem. The money changers that Jesus drove out of the temple were changing Roman currency into Tyrian shekels. The 30 pieces of silver that the arch-traitor Judas was bought with (Matthew 26: 14,15) were almost certainly Tyrian shekels and bore the face of the Baal of Tyre.

Many of the Phoenician’s who escaped the fall of Tyre eventually made their way to Carthage in North Africa. With Tyre destroyed, Carthage became the most important Phoenician city and would for a time under her famous general Hannibal, even rival Rome for dominance of the Mediterranean.

During the ministry of Jesus, crowds of people from Tyre and Sidon would travel to hear Jesus speak. On one occasion, Jesus personally visited the region around Tyre, on which occasion he cured the demon-possessed child of a Phoenician woman who was suffering greatly. Jesus visit to the region evidently bore fruit, because just over 20 years later toward the conclusion of the Apostle Paul’s third missionary trip, he sought out and stayed with the Christian community in Tyre for seven days.

In the 7th century AD, Tyre and what is now Lebanon and Syria fell to Muslim Arab invaders. In 1124, European Crusaders won Tyre for Christendom in the First Crusade. In 1291, Muslim forces drove out the Crusaders and for the next many centuries, what remained of Tyre lay in ruins, inhabited by almost no one. In 1697, an English academic and clergyman named Henry Maundrell passed through Tyre on his way to Jerusalem. He reported in Tyre only “a few poor wretches, harboring themselves in vaults and subsisting chiefly on fishing.” This immediately brings to mind Ezekiel’s statement that Tyre, “…will become a drying yard for dragnets in the midst of the sea.” (Ezekiel 26:5)

By the end of the 19th century, a population was again beginning to form in what had once been Tyre. These were no longer Phoenician people, whose culture, religion and language has been lost to history. Rather the new city is peopled by descendants of the Arabs who first settled in the land after the death of Muhammad. Sadly, war continues to visit the region. In 1982 the city was heavily shelled by Israeli artillery during the “First Lebanon War”. Most recently, forces in the city belonging to the Shia Muslim “Hezbollah” militia were bombed by Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War.

Aerial photo of Tyre taken circa 1934.

Aerial photo of Tyre circa 1934. Centuries of sedimentation has turned Alexander’s causeway into a peninsula 500 meters wide.

Today, visitors who look for ruins from Phoenician Tyre will be disappointed for nothing at all remains from that time period. Everything from that era was removed and thrown into the sea to build Alexander’s causeway, leaving only “shining, bare rock” (Ezekiel 26:4). Impressive ruins from Roman period do exist and UNESCO has declared the area a World Heritage Site. Alexander’s causeway permanently altered the sea currents and many long centuries of sedimentation has turned the causeway into a sandy peninsula approximately 500 meters wide. In recent decades the area has been heavily built over. The area of the causeway now contains hundreds of apartment blocks and Lebanese Tyre has a population roughly estimated in 1993 to be 117,000 (although the real number is probably much higher). Tyre’s southern harbour gradually filled with silt and has long since disappeared but the northern, “Sidonian” harbour is still used and is filled with fishing boats and pleasure craft. Recent years have seen a marked increase in tourism and it is hoped that the newborn city’s white sandy beaches and rich historical heritage will make modern Tyre a tourist hotspot.

Photo Credits:

Aerial photo of Tyre, circa 1934. {PD} Source: Wikimedia Commons

Phoenicia map by author. Created on StepMap.

Siege of Tyre. Created by Frank Martini of the Department of History, United States Military Academy. {PD} Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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