Ruins: Sidon and Tyre

Trip Start Jan 06, 2006
Trip End Sep 02, 2008

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Flag of Lebanon  ,
Sunday, February 19, 2006

Before I left home, I read Harold Lamb's _The Flame of Islam_. It's a history recounting the close of the Crusades of the Near East. Two of the important Crusader cities, Sidon and Tyre figured prominently on my list of places which I wanted to see in Lebanon.

Both cities were founded by the Phoenicians long before either you or I was born. The Phoenicians were great traders and they made alliances with the ancient Egyptians more than 3000 years ago. Alexander the Great captured both cities, and then the Romans came along and did the same. Suffice to say many armies came through these important Mediterranean ports ere the Crusaders did.

In the 12 and 13th centuries, the cities were sacked by both Muslim and Christian armies, Tyre being one of the last Crusader strongholds in the Levant. But since the crusades, relatively little warfare happened in the area, apart from the colonizations of the 20th century (the British and the French got involved). And then of course the Lebanese civil war.

Beyond innumerable military defeats, these cities were also known for producing purple dye and soap. The purple dye was an interesting phenomenon - it was made from a sort of seashell and it wasn't the best dye out there. Purple clothes were very popular in the days of the ancients whom I listed above. Therefore, these cities excelled in producing a sort of ancient knock-off!

I saw Sidon first. The city I saw extends itself inland from the orignial port and bustling old city. There is a souq (market - but people also live there) with narrow, arch covered alleys. The souq has at least one falafel stand with particularly tasty products.

I was in the souq on a Sunday, so because school was out, people from every generation were in the street. Old men did their thing (as old men virtually everywhere do), groups of boys stood about here and there, and I watched as one conversation of a bunch of elementary school lads broke into a bit of a boxing match. Both combatants were leery of doing anything but throwing long range jabs and kicks (at least while I walked by). The souq was closing up and one merchant piled his stall completely full of crates of vegetables. Along the cobblestones ran the blood that was squeegeed out of butcher shops.

Meters away from a modern port, where huge chunks of marble were being unloaded from trucks onto ships, stood the entry booth to the Crusader's sea castle. A little jetty made of stone arches led to the it. If I knew a diminuitve word for castle, I would use it because castle is a bit of an overstatement. It comprises little more than two towers and a wharf.

The crusaders built it according to their style of construction - round Roman and Greek columns stick out from the other limestone blocks. They sort of yell out "we deserved better than to be bits of a wall." But near the jetty, in shallow water, lie dozens more columns from some ancient edifice. But I figure, better there in the water than in the boat with those other chunks of marble. I don't know where they are going, but I have an idea: as I drove into Lebanon from Tartous, I saw along the sea road to Tripoli, that Lebanese authorities were piling those chunks of marble to build a wall to keep the sea off the road.

Conversely, the Roman columns of Tyre are leading happier existences (for inanimate objects, they are at least doing what a long dead architect designed them to do) for, in Tyre, there are 3 wonderful and large fields of ruins that have been spared development into urban complexes. I shall certainly try to post photos because site #2 (that's actually its name) has a promenade of columns which line a 150 meter long ancient road which leads towards the beach. Once upon a time, there was a bazar and a port where there is now sea. Standing on the beach, I could just see a bit of the tide lap at some hand-shaped stones which surely made some wall long ago.

Tyre also has a large hippodrome (a Roman race track). It was perhaps 300 meters long, and even if all that is left of it is a bit of the stands at the far end, the field is clearly marked and the middle wall of the track has been more or less put back together. The middle wall was something special, because instead of the gentle arches of the modern race track, racers on the Romant track had to make a U turn every half lap! It made for entertaining races - imagine how amusing it would be if race cars crashed every lap and there was no caution flag!

The site, also spared development, is so big that the locals can't be bothered to walk around it. Ten storey appartments line the field on two sides, and to make crossing it convienent, locals have pulled aside sections of the fence, and now there are walking paths through the fields. This convienent system also makes things easier for the tourist on the path less travelled so all at once I found myself at the foot of the hippodrome without an entry ticket. The sun set and I walked a lap.

I caught the bus back to Beirut without seeing any crusader ruins in Tyre. Apparently there was a remnant of a church but I walked right by it. Funny to think how the Krak de Chevaliers is still in such great condition, and that there is virtually nothing left in these two important cities. Obviously there are some explainations, but standing in Tyre or Sidon, and seeing what I could see, I might be forgiven for thinking that Lamb's history might as well be fiction.
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