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The International Writers Magazine
: Hacktreks in Ancient Tyre

Echoes of a famous battle
Guy Burton

"Ancient 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 Lebanon’s 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 wasn’t 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 city’s 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 Homer’s 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. Tyre’s 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 Fox’s 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 city’s 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 Marcel’s. 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

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In Babylon

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