Ancient Tyre

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Tyre was one of the oldest and most prominent cities in the ancient Phoenician culture. Dating to 2750 B.C., it was originally two cities, one on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the other on an island a half mile off that coast. The continental city was known as Ushu, Paleotyre, and Old Tyre. Many sources say that people from Sidon settled Tyre.

Phoenician cities map

Tyre was a friend of Ancient Egypt, particularly during the Eighteenth Dynasty. A number of the Amarna Letters are to and from the leaders of Egypt and Tyre. Some of those letters are from Abimilku, the head of Tyre, to the then-pharaoh Akhenaten.

Tyre has links to the Ancient Israelites. The Tyrian king Hiram I, who first ruled in 969 B.C., sent a Cedars of Lebanoncontingent of men and materials to help King Solomon's people build the First Temple in Jerusalem; one of the things contributed were the famed Cedars of Lebanon. The people of Tyre and the people of ancient Israel enjoyed trade agreements during the reigns of both Solomon and his father, King David.

It was Hiram I as well, along with his father, Abibaal, who declared that Tyre had a supreme god, named Melqart. (Previously, the city residents had worshiped the prime couple of Astarte and Baal.) As well, the kings assumed control of the temple treasury, taking power away from the priests.

In addition to the famed wood that Tyrian traders shipped to its neighboring civilizations, the city was known for its purple dye, made from Murex shellfish. The color became known as Tyrian purple and was the preferred color of royalty for clothing.

Like many other Middle Eastern civilizations during this time, Tyre came under the sway of the Assyrians, who demanded tribute in exchange for "peace." A series of Assyrian kings besieged Tyre during the 8th and 7th Centuries B.C., with varying results. Shalmaneser V 724–720 B.C.), Sennacherib (701 B.C.), Esarhaddon (671 B.C.), and Ashurbanipal (663 B.C.) tried without success, as did the famous Babylonian leader Nebuchadnezzar II, whose siege lasted 13 years. It wasn't until the Persian king Cyrus the Great that a foreign leader succeeded in conquering Tyre. Cyrus and the Persians arrived in 539 B.C. and took the city. The Persians maintained control of the previously impregnable city for two centuries.

One exception to this was an occupation by Evagoras, prince of Cyprus, from 392 B.C. to 382 B.C. Persia regained control after that. The people of Tyre organized a series of other revolts against Persian rule, but Persian rule held firm, until the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.

Alexander had marched his men along the Mediterranean coast, seizing cities on the Phoenician coast. One of his main targets was Sidon, the port city that served as the shipyards for the Persian invasions of Egypt and Greece. In 351 B.C., the people of Sidon locked their gates and set fire to the city rather than submit to the Persian leader Artaxerxes. This, of course, made it easer for Alexander to conquer. With all of the other major settlements in the fold, Alexander now had one major obstacle left to his goal of ruling the entire eastern Mediterranean: Tyre.

At first, the powerful city was a mere footnote to Alexander, who wanted to speed his way to Egypt, the far richer prize. He could have ignored Tyre altogether, but he did not. He sent messengers to the city leaders, offering an agreement under which neither side would attack the other. The Tyrians, thinking themselves safe behind their island walls, scoffed at the proposal, killed the messengers, and dumped them into the Mediterranean. Alexander was furious and vowed to take the city by force.

This city was on an island, one-half mile out to sea, and not in any way connected with the mainland. Alexander had brought no navy with him. How could he possibly hope to conquer Tyre? Well, his legendary determination and impatience took over and carried the day.

With the conquest of Sidon, Alexander suddenly had ships. It wasn't a lot, but it was enough to surround Tyre and prevent reinforcements from reaching the island. But the number of ships wasn't enough, either, to transport Alexander's army to the island. What to do? How do you cross a bridge when none exists? Alexander's answer was to build one.

In one of the world's most astounding civil engineering achievements, Alexander masterminded the construction of a 200-foot-wide bridge from the mainland to Tyre. His troops built it—and built it well—all the while defending against attacks from Tyre. The beginning of the projects took place in relative safety; but as the bridge got closer to the island, the work got more and more dangerous. Arrows and stones flew constantly from Tyre's archers. They even sailed a burning barge out to the bridge-in-progress. The resulting fire demolished some of the watchtowers on the bridge and killed several of Alexander's men but only hardened his resolve.

When the city was within artillery range, Alexander let fly with stone throwers and light catapults. That effectively put an end to the long-range Tyrian resistance and allowed the bridge to be completed. Alexander also constructed some naval battering rams, which crushed the walls of Tyre and allowed the Macedonian troops to enter the city. It was a devastating massacre, with the Tyrian death toll topping 7,000. Only 400 of Alexander's men were killed. The king, Azimilik, was spared his life. A full 2,000 men of military age were crucified. The rest of the Tyrians, 30,000 of them, down to the last woman and child, were carted up and taken away as slaves, sold to buyers across the Middle East. Alexander had delivered his message: Defy him and pay the consequences.

Tyre ruins

Two of Alexander's successors, Seleucus I and Ptolemy I vied for control of Tyre for a time. In 126 B.C., when Tyre was again its own master. During this period, Tyre had given aid to Carthage during the Punic Wars and provided refuge for Hannibal for a time.

The forces of Roman arrived on the scene in a big way in the 1st Century B.C. Other areas surrounding Tyre became a Roman province. Tyre, however, kept its status as an independent city.

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