Lebanon Through the Ages Part I: Ancient Lebanon

 Skrevet av R. Scott Peoples - Publisert 23.10.2007 kl. 01:27 (Oppdatert 29.11.2007 kl. 15:02)

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Like Poland, Korea, and Turkey, Lebanon seems geographically predestined for historical agony. Whether they happened to find themselves next door to the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, or Alexander the Great, the people of this ancient land have long known what it means to have overtly hostile neighbors – and to live amidst battlefields nearly as old as history itself.

In this first part of a series on the war-plagued history of the country where the smell of cedar may hang in the air, but just as likely the smoke of smoldering cities, the story begins with the ancient civilication of the Phoenicians.


Actually, before we get to the cedars, we have to talk about snails.

The Spiny Dye-Murex, and its cousin, the Banded Dye-Murex, are marine snails that live in a very specific location: In the Eastern Mediterranean, off the coast of the Canaanite settlement that became the city of Tyre. The people who lived there (they seem to have called themselves “Kena’ani,” which translates to “Kinahna” in Akkadian; thus, “Canaan”) found that if they gathered up hundreds of thousands of the snails, and squeezed from each a single, small drop of yellowish goo, they could create a purple for dyes that fetched its weight in silver at Colophon [in Asia Minor]," according to 4th-century BCE historioranter Theopompus. And while ya love his name, even Theopompus was a two-millennium Johnny-come-lately to the snail dye trade: there is evidence of it having been extracted and processed on Crete in the Middle Minoan period (20th-18th c. BCE).

Now, I don’t want to turn this into science lecture on snails, but the story of the dye is central to the ancient history of Lebanon. Ever since Herakles' dog discovered the pigmentational properties of Murexes by chomping on a bunch of them while walking along the coast of the Levant, everybody in the Ancient Med had dug the dye, and they were willing to pay handsomely for it. The people of the coastal settlements of Lebanon thus turned to the sea for adventure and profit. As early as 2800 BCE, trade routes existed between the Old Kingdom pharaohs of Egypt and the people of Tyre, Sidon, and other coastal towns like Beyrus (later a/k/a Beirut),

Weird Historical Sidenote: When you think about it, what this means is that the first trade routes going out of Lebanon were as ancient to the philosopher Plato as the old Greek is to us – now that’s ancient!

The First Foreign Incursions and Expansions

The dye named them and made them rich, but the land of the Canaanites provided much more than snail juice for its inhabitants. Olives and grapes grew in sufficient quantities for export, and considerable trade was done in the famed Lebanese cedar, forests of which covered the mountainous inland regions. Gubla (later Byblos, from whence the word “Bible” is derived; now Jubayl) first got the trade deals going with pharaohs, and by the time the iron-weapon-wielding Hyskos stormed into Lower Egypt in the 16th c. BCE, Lebanon’s economy was pretty wrapped up in the affairs of the Nile. These Hyskos, with their chariots and their composite bows and their battlefield fortifications, have obscure origins, but the names of their gods make them sound like a related group of Canaanites.

The cities of coastal Phoenicia suffered while the Egyptians were under foreign domination, but the Hyskos were driven out by Ahmose I in the 15th c. BCE. The Theban prince and his chariots got to the Sinai and just kept on going. He conquered Syria, and added Lebanon to the newly reinvigorated Egyptian Empire, but by the 12th c. BCE, that empire had weakened to the point that the Lebanese were able to cast of the yoke of sphinxly oppression and regain their independence. For the next 300 years, the independent kingdoms of the Levant enjoyed a golden age of expansion, trade, and wealth.

The Greeks, with at least a hint of jealousy, named the sea traders “Phoinikies” (“purple”) after their dye, which led history to remember them as the Phoenicians. Their cities would eventually send trading vessels throughout the Mediterranean world, and as far away as the tin mines of Britain. They founded colonies throughout the Aegean and as far away as Carthage, where the Romans would call them Punici and history would name the horrific triumvirate of Punic Wars after them. They also made significant achievements in navigation and introduced the concept of a standardized phonetic alphabet to cultures throughout the ancient world.

Weird Historical Sidenote: Put another way, if you’re reading these phonetically spelled words of mine (and I know you are!), you have a Semitic Canaanite Mediterranean sea trader from 3000 years ago to thank for it.

[Source: http://www.krysstal.com/writing_phonecian.html]

A Tough Neighbourhood

Assurbainapal II was an Assyrian conqueror in the 9th century BCE; it was he who brought the idea of military occupation and general enslavement from his homeland in northern Iraq to the shores of the Mediterranean and the edge of the Iranian Plateau. His successors - including some guys who get prominent billing in the Bible, like Tiglath-peleser III and his son, Sargon II - took Babylon and finally Israel. At the Battle of Rafa in 720 BCE, Sargon eliminated the last holdouts against Assyrian domination and extended the iron grip of his rule across the whole of the Fertile Crescent.

Weird Historical Sidenote: Yeah, that Rafa – the one in the Gaza Strip, on the Egyptian border. Also the site of a huge battle in 217 BCE between a couple of Alexander the Great’s would-be successors. Funny how the names of these places just keep cropping up, isn’t it?

The Assyrians were a tough bunch. Sargon’s son, Senacharib, was murdered by his own sons, and the empire promptly fell into civil war as they argued about who would take the throne. In Lebanon, two leaders in Sidon tried to take advantage of the confusion, and the city rebelled. This angered to no end Esarhaddon, the winner of war of succession, and he took drastic measures in first capturing the city, then in making the leaders of the rebellion pay for their insolence:

"Abd-Melkarth," (Esarhaddon) says, "who from the face of my solders into the middle of the sea had fled, like a fish from out of the sea, I caught, and cut off his head . . . Sanduarri, who took Abd-Melkarth for his ally, and to his difficult mountains trusted, like a bird from the midst of the mountains, I caught and cut off his head."

After reducing the city to rubble, Esarhaddon went on to sack Egypt and fight in Qatar, and Assyria reached its apex under his son, Ashurbanipal. Though he’d been handed an enormous empire on a silver platter, Ashurbanipal nevertheless chose to pursue an agenda right out of Darth Cheney’s playbook: squander the treasury at home, while keeping the army constantly at war. It worked just about as well, too: in quick succession, several of Assyria’s outlying vassal states, including an alliance between Tyre and the rebellious vassal pharaoh in Egypt, rebelled against Nineveh. Ashurbanipal’s successors were unable to fend off the wolves created by the Assyrian style of nation-building, and in 612 BCE, an alliance of pissed-off former subjects razed Nineveh to the ground.

A Small, Wealthy Pearl on a Battleground of Titans

The Egyptian pharaoh Necho found himself in an expansionist mood as the dust settled on the Assyrian nightmare. He commissioned his good friends the Tyrians to do no less than circumnavigate Africa (2000 years before the Portuguese), and for a few years tried to lay claim to territories all the way up to the Middle Euphrates. Phoenician allies stood with the pharaoh when Nebuchadnezzar, crown prince of Babylon (near modern Baghdad), came to the city of Carchemish (in modern-day SE Turkey) in 605 BCE to dispute Necho’s claim to ownership of Syria.

From the fragmentary records – and the vision of Jeremiah – it’s pretty clear that the Egyptians got their asses handed to them. After only three years of controlling Syria, Necho was obligated to vacate the area, with Nebuchadnezzar and a resurgent Babylon - whose leaders dearly wanted to step into the power vacuum created by the destruction of Assyria – hot on his heels. It is likely Egypt itself would have invaded and sacked, had not yet another of those fortuitously-timed deaths that seem endemic to this part of the world intervened: Nebuchadnezzar’s father passed away while the he was on the very borders of Egypt, and Necho’s tormentor was forced to return to Babylon to deal with succession issues.

Egypt, Israel, and Phoenicia readied themselves for Nebuchadnezzar’s inevitable return, knowing full well that it was not good to have a Babylonian army coming after you, but determined not to fall under the hegemony of a second, meaner Assyria. A contemporary historioranter, Habakkuk (another great name), describes the Babylonian army thus:

"Lo, I raise up the Chaldæans, that bitter and hasty nation, which shall march through the breadth of the land, to possess the dwelling-places that are not theirs. They are terrible and dreadful; from them shall proceed judgment and captivity; their horses are swifter than leopards, and are more fierce than the evening wolves; and their horsemen shall spread themselves, and their horsemen shall come from far; they shall fly as the eagle that hasteth to eat. They shall come all for violence; their faces shall sup as the east wind, and they shall gather the captivity as the sand. And they shall scoff at kings, and princes shall be a scorn unto them; they shall derive every stronghold; for they shall heap dust, and take it."

Even in the face of – or especially because of – such dire warnings, in 598 BCE, Tyre led a revolt against Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar obligingly gathered up his army and came to lay siege.

Bible Stuff

That old sometimes-rule about the enemies of enemies being friends doesn’t always apply in the Middle East, but the prophet Ezekiel did try to warn Tyre of its impending doom:

“For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: From the north I am going to bring against Tyre Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses and chariots, with horsemen and a great army. He will ravage your settlements on the mainland with the sword; he will set up siege works against you, build a ramp up to your walls and raise his shields against you. He will direct the blows of his battering rams against your walls and demolish your towers with his weapons. His horses will be so many that they will cover you with dust. Your walls will tremble at the noise of the war horses, wagons and chariots when he enters your gates as men enter a city whose walls have been broken through. The hoofs of his horses will trample all your streets; he will kill your people with the sword, and your strong pillars will fall to the ground. They will plunder your wealth and loot your merchandise; they will break down your walls and demolish your fine houses and throw your stones, timber and rubble into the sea. I will put an end to your noisy songs, and the music of your harps will be heard no more. I will make you a bare rock, and you will become a place to spread fishnets. You will never be rebuilt, for I the LORD have spoken, declares the Sovereign LORD.

The city of Tyre consists of two parts: a large, thriving port, and an impregnable island fortress in the harbor just offshore. Nebuchadnezzar was able to take the continental section of the city, but the island proved a much tougher nut to crack: for 13 long years (that’s more than twice the amount of time that George W. Bush has been Preznit) the island held out under a tight blockade, but finally capitulated in 585 BCE. Let’s return to Ezekiel for an account of what came next:

Ezekiel 27

A Lament for Tyre

1 The word of the LORD came to me: "Son of man, take up a lament concerning Tyre. Say to Tyre, situated at the gateway to the sea, merchant of peoples on many coasts, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says:
" 'You say, O Tyre,
"I am perfect in beauty."

4 Your domain was on the high seas;
your builders brought your beauty to perfection.

< snip…long name-dropping account of all the nations that had been friendly trade partners of the Tyrians

27 Your wealth, merchandise and wares,
your mariners, seamen and shipwrights,
your merchants and all your soldiers,
and everyone else on board
will sink into the heart of the sea
on the day of your shipwreck.

28 The shorelands will quake
when your seamen cry out.

29 All who handle the oars
will abandon their ships;
the mariners and all the seamen
will stand on the shore.

30 They will raise their voice
and cry bitterly over you;
they will sprinkle dust on their heads
and roll in ashes.

31 They will shave their heads because of you
and will put on sackcloth.
They will weep over you with anguish of soul
and with bitter mourning.

32 As they wail and mourn over you,
they will take up a lament concerning you:
"Who was ever silenced like Tyre,
surrounded by the sea?"

33 When your merchandise went out on the seas,
you satisfied many nations;
with your great wealth and your wares
you enriched the kings of the earth.

34 Now you are shattered by the sea
in the depths of the waters;
your wares and all your company
have gone down with you.

35 All who live in the coastlands
are appalled at you;
their kings shudder with horror
and their faces are distorted with fear.

36 The merchants among the nations hiss at you;
you have come to a horrible end
and will be no more.' "

The Israelites’ own dealings with Nebuchadnezzar are well detailed in Jeremiah, 2 Kings, and several other books of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament, so in the interest of staying somewhat on-topic, I just point out the irony (considering current world affairs) of the above warnings and laments, and move on to the next phase of ancient Lebanese history.

The Persians Are Coming! The Persians Are Coming!

In the greater span of things, the resurgent Babylonian Empire didn’t last all that long: By the 520s BCE, it was fighting a losing battle for its life against the Persians, who had appeared almost out of nowhere with a mighty leader – Cyrus the Great – at their head. Phoenicia enjoyed a decade or so of complete independence before the Persians extended their dominance over the city-states, but as occupations went, the Persian one wasn’t so bad. Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Cyprus were grouped into one satrapy, with its capitol at Sidon, and the tax-paying Phoenicians were encouraged to keep the trade goods moving. Meanwhile, the hyper-efficient Persians introduced things like metallic coinage, bureaucracy, a planned system of maintained roads, and an information-delivery system much like the Pony Express.

{ad align='right' size='250'}A symbiotic relationship developed between the empire and Phoenicians, who cedar ships were still far and away the best in the Mediterranean. Cambyses could never have taken Egypt in 525 BCE without the Phoenician navy, and they were only too happy to attack their maritime rivals in Greece when Darius decided that the revolt-backing Athenians needed some punishing. Phoenicians went on to play a key role in both Persian invasions of Greece (490 and 480 BCE, resp.), but wound up losing more than they gained when the Greeks decimated their fleet at Salamis. They also drew the line at the Persian suggestion of attacking Carthage, saying that they would not strike at their kinsmen.

The Phoenician city-states were essentially the naval wing of the Persian Empire for more than a century, but as the quality of the rulers declined, the tendency to revolt began to re-assert itself among the seafarers. In 350 BCE, Artaxerxes reportedly brought 300,000 foot soldiers, 30,000 horsemen, and 300 triremes to bear against a rebellious Sidon; even if the numbers of his forces are exaggerated, the results are not – for the second time in its history, Sidon was reduced to ashes, and thousands of people perished in the retributive slaughter.

Enter Alexander the Great

In 334 BCE, Alexander crossed the Hellespont into Asia Minor, and because kicking Persian ass and taking Farsi names almost imeadiately. When he won a decisive battle at Issus (modern Syria), most of the Levant saw a chance at breaking the yoke of Persian domination and so switched allegiances to the upstart Macedonian. Only Tyre resisted, and so once again its fortress island felt the full weight of one of history’s great conquerors bearing down upon it.

The Siege of Tyre was one of the most dramatic in all of ancient history. In eight months, Alexander compelled the enslaved population of the port to disassemble their own city walls and use the stones to build a causeway out to the island. To protect the workers, mighty siege towers were trundled out to the end of the mole, and from them archers engaged with their enemies on the fortress walls. Eventually, Tyre fell before Alexander’s outrageous sense of entitlement, just as would Egypt and Persia itself.

Tyre rebuilt itself quickly after its decimation at the hands of Alexander; it was strong enough to again force a blockade and siege as part of a contest of wills and armies between Alexander’s successors as to who would control the rich ports of Lebanon. Suffice to say that the city, and Phoenicia as a whole, wound up first in the hands of Antigonus, then later in those of the descendents of Ptolemy in Egypt.

Seleucids, Romans, and Byzantines

Starting around 220 BCE, Lebanon once again became a prize between superpowers when Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucids (yet another of Alexander’s legacies) went at it. When the dust settled, the coastal cities were in the hand of the Seleucids, but their control didn’t last long: the Romans, fresh off defeating Phoenicia’s cousins in Carthage, were now on the Levantine horizon. With comparatively little clashing of arms, Rome took control of Phoenicia from the last Seleucid prince in 64 BCE

The Romans weren’t stupid; they knew all they had to do to control Lebanon was give the city-states a lenient degree of autonomy, and make conditions safe for their merchants. This they did: in 67 BCE, Pompey swept the Aegean clean of pirates, and followed up by giving Tripoli, Tyre, and Sidon the status of “free cities,” which allowed them to elect a self-governing council. Even Julius Caesar – who didn’t like much that Pompey did – saw fit not to rescind those particular trading privileges. For next 500 years, the cities of the Levant flourished, even as Rome itself eventually split in two.

Under the emperors of Constantinople, the cities of Beirut, Tyre, and Sidon became important and highly cosmopolitan centers of learning. The renaissance came to an abrupt end during the 6th century CE, however, when earthquakes killed 30,000 people and leveled (among many other things) the Temple of Baalbek and the law school at Beirut. The devastation was compounded by the typical woes of an empire in decline – corrupt government, high taxes, religious dissention, etc. – and the once-great trading cities of the Lebanon coast were a shadow of their former selves when a new wind swept north from Arabia…


Go to Part II or Part III of this article series.


R. Scott Peoples
 is perhaps better known as the resident historian at the liberal American web site Daily Kos, writing under the nom de plume "Unitary Moonbat." For about a year and a half his "History for Kossacks" series has been appearing most every Sunday.

His articles can be found at Daily Kos, Bits of News, Progressive Historians, and Never In Our Names

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