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11. Tyre and Sidon

Tyre and Sidon are two ancient cities that are mentioned frequently in the New Testament, and Jesus on at least one occasion visited their area and healed the daughter of a Canaanite woman. Since Tyre and Sidon were not part of Israel, the people were non-Jewish and were considered to be “Gentiles.”

Both cities are along the coast of Lebanon and have a long and significant history. They were inhabited from the earliest stages of urbanization, and both were important Phoenician maritime trade centers in the first millennium BCE.  They continued to thrive under Roman, Byzantine, Islamic and Frankish rule, and are commercial and agricultural centers to this day.

Although Tyre and Sidon were neighboring port cities, they were not necessarily allies. Coins minted by both of them in the second century BCE indicate their rivalry—Tyrian coins call Tyre the “Mother of the Sidonians,” and Sidonian coins call Sidon the “Mother city of Tyre!”.

Tyre

Tyre was also famous in the Old Testament period. Hiram, the king of Tyre, provided Solomon with the timber and artisans for building the temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 5:10-18). Under the Phoenicians Tyre was a major seaport and its merchants reached as far as the shores of Spain. The Phoenicians also founded colonies along the Mediterranean including sites such as Carthage and Gades. Tyre was also known for its purple dyed textiles, worn in the ancient world as a mark of royalty. The ancient Tyrians extracted the dye from the Murex, a marine snail that still lives along Tyre’s shores.

But this wealth attracted various enemies. In the sixth century BCE the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Tyre for over 13 years! He failed to conquer the city because part of it was on a well-fortified island. In 332 BCE Alexander the Great also attempted to conquer Tyre. He filled in the causeway between the island and the mainland and was then able to place battering rams against the walled island, and so take it by force. Despite Alexander’s deliberate destruction of the city, Tyremanaged to recover and during the Hellenistic period it flourished again as an independent city. One of the best indicators for the city’s power was their mint, which produced silver coins for the Seleucids, and from 126 BCE Tyre minted its own coins. The Tyrian silver tetradrachms were known for their consistent high level of silver, and so became the official currency in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Annual Jewish temple tax, for instance, was paid with Tyrian shekels.

A Tyrian "shekel". Its obverse depicts the chief deity of the Tyre – Herakles-Melkart. Its reverse depicts an eagle an a club, one of Herakles' attributes

A Tyrian "shekel". Its obverse depicts the chief deity of the Tyre – Herakles-Melkart. Its reverse depicts an eagle an a club, one of Herakles' attributes. Such coins were highly valued in the Hellenistic markets. The priests of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, for instance, insisted the temple tax could only be paid with this currency.

Excavations in Tyre have recovered several structures from the Roman period, such as an aqueduct, a triumphal arch, a necropolis and a large hippodrome. Acts 21:3-7 describes how Paul stayed in Tyre for a while, and prayed with the local Christian community on the beach.

Tyre continued to thrive in the Byzantine period. The first basilica shaped Christian church was constructed in Tyre, and one of the first Christian councils was assembled in Tyre (335 CE). The city also attracted pilgrims during the Byzantine period. The Spanish nun Egeria, for instance, records in 385 CE visiting the “sands of Tyre,” where Paul kneeled to pray. Under Muslim and Crusader rule the city continued to function as a maritime trading center. Since 1918 Tyre has been part of the nation of Lebanon. The old city of Tyre was excavated by various expeditions, and in 1979 UNESCO declared Tyre a world heritage site. Visitors to the city today will find especially impressive the main colonnaded street, which ends with a triumphal arch; the highly adorned stone sarcophagi displayed in the ancient cemetery nearby; and the remains of the large Hippodrome, which could seat up to 20,000 spectators.

The Roman arch spans the main street of Tyre.

The Roman arch spans the main street of Tyre.

Part of a colonnaded building in the city of Tyre built on the former island by the Romans.

Part of a colonnaded building in the city of Tyre built on the former island by the Romans.

An aerial view of the hippodrome of Tyre. © Google Earth

An aerial view of the hippodrome of Tyre. © Google Earth

The residential part of Tyre called Er-Raml (“the sand”), which links to the city’s harbor, is undoubtedly built over the remains of the causeway made by Alexander the great in the 4th century BCE. In fact early 20th century maps clearly show the remains of this causeway.

A 1912 map of Tyre

A 1912 map of Tyre. Note the suggested route of the causeway made by Alexander the Great to reach Tyre from the main land.

Sidon

Sidon lies along the coast of Lebanon, 35 km north of Tyre. It too has a long and rich history. The Persians made Sidon a major port, and built a royal park in the city, as well as a temple for the local chief deity – Eschmun. The city was also known then for its glass and purple dyed textiles. Alexander the Great took the city in 333 BCE and during the Hellenistic period Sidon was known as a sports centre, and its competitions drew athletes from all over the region. The city continued to thrive under Roman rule (64 BCE-325 CE). From in the fourth century CE Sidon had an Episcopal seat, but accounts of the city during the Byzantine period show that the city gradually lost its prominence. Theodosian, in about 530 CE records that “Sidon was the metropolis of Sarepta, but now Sarepta is the metropolis”. Sarepta is a site between Sidon and Tyre, identified with Biblical “Tsarfat” (I Kings 17). Antonius Martyr adds in 570 CE that Sidon is “partly ruined” and that the “people in it are very wicked”.

The present city, named Saidah in Arabic, is a commercial and agricultural center, but it seems this is but a shadow of its glorious past. Its archaeological remains are also scarce. The old city was systematically looted during the 19th century and now dense modern construction prevents any future excavations in the city. It is only in the port that the remains of the Crusader period castle are clearly visible.

The Crusader castle of Sidon

Archaeological remains of Sidon are scarce. The Crusader castle is built on an island near the port connected to the mainland by a narrow bridge.