Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Ancient Phoenicia under threat

Al-Ahram | 14 – 20 September 2006 Issue No. 812

Nevine El-Aref looks at the UNESCO’s efforts to rescue Lebanon’s historical sites following the Israeli-Hizbullah ceasefire

Click to view caption
The Roman city of Baalbek with its colonnade temples

Like other countries of the Middle East, Lebanon has a heritage almost as old as the earliest evidence of mankind. Its geographic position as a crossroads linking the Mediterranean Basin with the great Asian hinterland has conferred on it a cosmopolitan character and a multicultural legacy.

At different periods of its history Lebanon has come under the domination of foreign rulers, including Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans and French. Moreover, its mountainous terrain has provided it with a certain protective isolation, enabling it to survive with an identity all of its own.

Lebanon first appeared in recorded history in about 3000 BC as a group of coastal cities and a heavily forested hinterland. It was inhabited by the Canaanites, a Semitic people whom the Greeks called “Phoenicians” because of the purple dye they sold. These early inhabitants referred to themselves as “men of Sidon”, referring to their city of origin, and called their country “Lebanon”.

Because of the nature of the country and its location the Phoenicians turned to the sea, where they engaged in trade and navigation.

Each of the coastal cities was an independent kingdom noted for the special activities of its inhabitants. Tyre and Sidon were important maritime and trade centres; Gubla (later known as Byblos and now as Jubayl) and Berytus (Beirut) were trade and religious centres. Gubla was the first Phoenician city to trade actively with Egypt and the Pharaohs of the Old Kingdom (2686- 2181 BC), exporting cedar, olive oil and wine, while importing gold and other products from the Nile Valley.

This is why Lebanon’s cultural heritage is made up of vast vibrant monuments that span several ages of antiquity. They include military fortresses, religious edifices, hippodromes, archways, palaces, columns and towers. Among the most well known archaeological sites are the Jupiter Heliopolitan Temple, the Bacchus fluted columns tower and the great mosque in Baalbek, the Crusader fortress in Sidon, the Roman Hippodrome and archway in Tyre, Beiteddine Palace, the St John baptistery and the Crusader castle in Byblos.

Throughout history, Lebanon’s treasured monuments and artefacts were subjected to looting, war and earthquakes, which drastically threatened their stability. In attempt to preserve such unique but fragile monuments from danger, Baalbek, Tyre, Byblos, Anjar in the Bekaa Valley and Qadisha Valley in northern Lebanon have been listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List of monuments in danger.

However, although both Lebanon and Israel have signed the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the 1972 Paris Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural Heritage, Tyre and Baalbek were recently subjected to rigorous Israeli bombardments during the recent conflict in Lebanon. Fortunately no damage occurred, but the bombardments which targeted adjacent areas provided a real threat.

Such action has infuriated the Lebanese Minister of Culture Tareq Mitri who, shortly after the war broke out, sent a desperate plea to UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura asking his immediate intervention to stop the situation before a catastrophe occurred. In his plea, Mitri urged Matsuura to intervene to bring an end to the bombardments threatening the World Heritage sites of Baalbek and Tyre by applying the UNESCO convention for the protection of such sites in times of war. “The intensive bombardments are targeting areas immediately adjacent to these sites. Already, fragile ancient structures are being threatened by repeated explosions, and they risk being hit directly,” Mitri wrote in his letter.

Concerned about recent events in Lebanon, Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), also wrote to Matsuura expressing his profound concern over archaeological sites in Lebanon. In his letter, of which Al-Ahram Weekly has obtained a copy, Hawass called for a meeting to be held in Cairo at the Arab League premises to rectify this unacceptable situation, inspect the stability of the targeted monuments and find a solution to repair any damage.

Ali Radwan head of the General Union for Arab Archaeologists in Cairo, backed Hawass and asked all Arab countries to condemn Israel’s actions against Lebanon’s historical sites.

“During the war on Lebanon, the Israeli bombardments may have devastated buried historical centres, traditional architecture, ancient bridges, hilltop castles and mounds with archaeological potentials,” Hawass told the Weekly.

In response, UNESCO promised the Lebanese government that it would take all necessary measures to prevent harm coming to Lebanese cultural sites. It also informed the Israeli government about Lebanon’s concern regarding its monuments.

Matsuura set up a special meeting of UNESCO’s Middle East Task Force to discuss the crisis and issued an urgent call to protect heritage sites in both countries of conflict, emphasising that the heritage site of Tyre was under threat.

Following the ceasefire, an archaeological mission is inspecting historical sites in Baalbek and Tyre as well as Byblos, which was affected by the oil spill from a power station hit in an Israeli attack in mid-July. The mission will adopt a plan to determine how to help recovery efforts.

“In view of the situation in the field, it is now possible for UNESCO to start assisting Lebanon in its early recovery efforts, particularly with regard to cultural heritage and education,” Matsuura announced.

BAALBEK: LOCATED some 86km east of Beirut, Baalbek, with its colossal structures, is one of the finest examples of Imperial Roman architecture at its apogee. In 1984, when the UNESCO committee declared it a World Heritage Site, it expressed the wish that the protected area include the entire town within the Arab walls, as well as the southwestern extramural quarter between Bastan Al-Khan, the Roman site and the Mameluke mosque of Ras Al-Ain.

Soaring high above the Bekaa Valley, the Baalbek temples were built on an ancient hill site that dates back at least to the end of the third millennium BC. Little is known about the site during that period, but there is evidence that in the course of the first millennium BC an enclosed court was built on the hill. An altar was set in the centre of this court in the tradition of Semitic high places. During the Hellenistic period, the Greeks identified the god of Baalbek with the sun god and the city was called Heliopolis, or the city of the sun.

In 15 BC Heliopolis was made a colonia by the Roman Empire and a legion was stationed there. Work on the shrine lasted over a century and a half, and was never completed. Emperors in their turn enriched the sanctuary of Heliopolitan Jupiter. Nero built the tower-altar opposite the Temple of Jupiter, Trajan added the temple’s forecourt, with a pink granite porticos brought from Aswan in Egypt. Antoninus Pius built the Temple of Bacchus, the best-preserved of the sanctuary’s structures. It is enriched with refined reliefs and sculpture. Septimus Severus added a pentagonal Temple of Venus.

The dedication of the present temple ruins, the largest religious building in the entire Roman empire, dates from the reign of Septimus Severus whose coins first show the two temples. The great courts of approach were not finished before the reigns of Caracalla and Philip in commemoration, no doubt, of the dedication of the new sanctuaries. Today only six Corinthian columns remain standing. Eight more were disassembled and shipped to Constantinople under the orders of Justinian to decorate his basilica of Hagia Sophia. The greatest of the three temples was sacred to Jupiter Baal, (“Heliopolitan Zeus”), identified here with the sun, with whom were associated a temple to Venus and a lesser temple in honour of Bacchus (although it was traditionally referred to by Neoclassical visitors as “Temple of the Sun”). Thus three Eastern deities were worshipped in Roman guise: thundering Jove, the god of storms, stood in for Baal-Hadad; Venus for Astrarte; and Bacchus for the Anatolian Dionysus.

Jupiter-Baal was represented locally as a beardless god in long scaly drapery, holding a whip in his right hand and thunderbolts and ears of wheat in his left. Two bulls supported him. In this guise he passed into European worship in the third and fourth centuries AD. The icon of Helipolitan Zeus bore busts of the seven planetary powers on the front of the pillar-like term in which he was encased.

When Christianity was declared an official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 AD, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine I exerted all his efforts to curbing the Venus cult by building a basilica. Theodosius I erected another occupying the main court of the Jupiter temple and with a western apse, as was Christian practice everywhere. The vast stone blocks of its walls were taken from the temple itself. Today nothing of the Theodosian basilica remains.

After the Arab conquest in 636, the temple was transformed into a fortress which the newcomers called the Qalaa. Afterwards Baalbek felt successively to the Omayyad, Abbasid, Tulunid, Fatimid and Ayyubid dynasties. It was sacked by the Mongols in about 1260 but later enjoyed a period of stability and prosperity under Mameluke rule.

TYRE (SUR): The ancient Phoenician city of Tyre jutting out into the Mediterranean in southern Lebanon has a long and illustrious history. In ancient times it was the most important city of the Phoenicians, amassing great wealth and power from the export of purple dye. In the first century AD it was the home of a Christian community visited by St Paul, and it became a major stronghold of the Crusaders in the 12th century. Today, Tyre is the fourth largest city in Lebanon and is the nation’s major port. Tyre is a popular destination for tourists and houses many ancient sites including the hippodrome which was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1979, before the city itself was listed.

Tyre appears on inscriptions as early as 1500 BC, but the fifth century BC geographer Herodotus claims it was founded long before that in about 2700 BC. The residents of Tyre were leading merchants in the ancient world and the city was unique for the production of the rare purple dye known as Tyrian purple, which in many ancient cultures was reserved for royal use.

Tyre was often attacked by Egypt, and later by the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar (586–573 BC). Later still it fell under the power of the Persians. In 332 BC the city was conquered by Alexander the Great after a siege of seven months.

A Christian church was founded in Tyre shortly after the martyrdom of St Stephen in Jerusalem. St Paul, on his return from his third missionary journey, spent a week in conversation with the disciples there. According to Irenaeus of Lyons, the female companion of the Gnostic magician Simon Magus came from Tyre.

Tyre was captured in 1124 during the First Crusade and became one of the most important cities of the Crusader kingdom, being part of the royal domain. The city was the seat of the archbishop of Tyre, who reported to the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

After the fall of Jerusalem to Salaheddin in 1187 the seat of the kingdom moved to Acre, but coronations were still held in Tyre. In 1291 Tyre was retaken by the Mamelukes. It then passed to Ottoman rule until it became part of the modern state of Lebanon after World War I.

Tyre offers an impressive array of excavated ancient ruins which are spread across three separate archaeological areas. Sights include the remains of a Roman necropolis with several freestanding stone tombs, a Roman triumphal arch, bathhouse, aqueduct, and cardo (street), and a Byzantine mosaic floor from an ancient church.

Tyre’s hippodrome, its 20,000-spectator chariot racing arena, of which a significant amount survives, is unique in being built of stone instead of the more usual brick. Remains from other periods also unearthed at Tyre include those from the Byzantine, Arab and Crusader eras, but it is the Roman ruins that are most numerous and impressive. The sights of modern Tyre include a colourful souq (market), a double-domed Shia mosque and the Christian quarter, the seat of the Maronite Bishop of Tyre and the Holy Land.

One comment on “Ancient Phoenicia under threat

  1. Pingback: Vidi « Archaeoastronomy

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