Ancient Phoenicia

By Ethan Gelber with the BikeAbout team
Cedars of Lebanon
The Phoenicians were also blessed with the bounty of the forests in the mountains of Lebanon. They never hesitated to trade for their abundant pines, firs, and cypresses, as well as their fabulous cedars of Lebanon, some of the world's most famous trees. Capable of reaching heights of over 120 ft (with trunks almost 40 ft in diameter), with a fragrant and durable wood, the cedars of Lebanon have been sought after since the third millennium BC. It is these trees that according to the Old Testament were offered by Hiram, king of Tyre, to Solomon for use in the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, in the last 1500 years, these precious cedars have been used mostly as fuel (during the Middle Ages), simply destroyed (by the 19th century Ottomans), or used by the British to build the railroad between Tripoli and Haifa. Today, there are only a few groves left, located high in the hills above Tripoli, Lebanon.

Although Tyre began as a settlement smaller and less influential than its nearby neighbor, Sidon, it eventually surpassed all other Phoenician cities in prominence. Trade flourished here as colonists from Tyre dropped their anchors in ports far and wide (and most significantly at Carthage) and returned with the promise of a regular flow of goods.

Tyre, originally and principally built on a nearby coastal island, was like all the trade centers of Phoenicia a prize for land- and prestige-hungry invaders. Despite the hardship of dealing with foreign domination, Tyre was often prosperous. Ezekiel's Biblical description of Tyre suggests a city of great wealth and, in fact, for many generations, the royal families of later Levantine Phoenicia had their courts at Tyre.

It should come as no surprise that even Alexander the Great considered it so worthy of capture that in 332 BC, after destroying the mainland neighborhoods, he maintained a seven-month vigil before the island quarter's gates. It took using the rubble from the mainland as the material for a massive causeway (2600 feet long and up to 900 feet wide) to force the hand of the island holdouts. This causeway served as the foundation for the permanent corridor that still connects the island, now a peninsula, to the mainland.

Present-day Tyre in southern Lebanon has suffered economically and physically from the fighting in southern Lebanon, as well as looting and pollution. Fortunately, thanks to UNESCO and the World Heritage Centre, action is being taken to protect and preserve the excavations, some of which have already been damaged. Uncovered remains are from the post-Phoenician Greco-Roman, Crusader, Arab and Byzantine times, and include the largest Roman hippodrome ever discovered (used for chariot races and with seating for 20,000 people), a second-century colonnaded street, Roman baths, a Roman-Byzantine necropolis, and the ruins of a Crusader church. Any traces of the Phoenician city were either destroyed long ago or remain buried under today's city.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »