Sidon is of immense antiquity, but few remains of the ancient city have survived the ravages of time and man. There is evidence that Sidon was inhabited as long ago as 4000 B.C., and perhaps even earlier, in Neolithic times.
It was twice destroyed in war between the 7th and 4th centuries B.C., and again during the earthquake in the 6th Century A.D. Like most Phoenician cities, Sidon was built on a promontory facing an island, which sheltered its fleet from storms off the sea, and became a refuge during armed incursions from the interior. It surpassed all other Phoenician cities in wealth, commercial initiative, and religious significance. At the height of the Persian Empire (550-330 B.C.) Sidon provided Persia, a great land power, with the ships and seamen it needed to fight the Egyptians and Greeks. This vital role gave Sidon and its kings a highly favored position during that period.
The Persians maintained a royal park in Sidon and it was then that the Temple of Echmoun was built and became an important place of pilgrimage. The cult of Mithra survived here even after Constantine the Great sought to wipe out paganism. The Mithraeum of Sidon escaped destruction because the followers of Mithra walled off the entrance to the underground sanctuary. Evidence supports the belief that the sanctuary may have been beneath the foundations of the present Greek Catholic Arch bishopric.
Glass manufacture, Sidon's most important enterprise, was conducted on such a vast scale that the very invention of glass has often been attributed to it. Exceedingly vigorous, too, was the production of purple dye for garments of royalty, as attested by Murex Hill, a huge mound of remains of the shellfish Murex trunculus from which the dye was obtained. Sidon was also famous in ancient times for its gardens and its twin-basin harbor.
Like other Phoenician capitals, Sidon suffered the depredations of a succession of conquerors. At the end of the Persian era, unable to resist the superior forces of the emperor Artaxerxes III, the desperate Sidonians locked their gates and immolated themselves in their homes rather than submit to the invader. More than 40,000 died in the flames. Shortly after, in 333 B.C., the decimated city was too weak to oppose the triumphal march down the coast of Alexander the Great, and sued for peace. The city had the status of republic in the early days of Roman domination (64 B.C. - 330 A.D.) before passing into the hands of the Byzantines and, in 667, of the Arabs.
In 1111, Sidon was besieged and stormed by the Crusader Bald win, soon to become King of Jerusalem. Under Frankish rule, it became the chief town of the Seigniory of Sagette and the second of the four baronies of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In 1187, the city surrendered to Saladin, but was re-occupied by the Crusaders in l287, later passing into the hands of the Saracens. The Templars recaptured it briefly before abandoning it for good in 1291 after the fall of Acre to the Mameluk forces.
In the 15th Century, Sidon was one of the ports of Damascus. It flourished once more during the 17th Century when it was rebuilt by Fakhreddine II, then ruler of Lebanon, although he was obliged to fill in Sidon's harbor out of fear of the Turkish fleet. Under his protection and with his encouragement, a number of French merchants set up profitable business enterprises in Sidon for trade between France and Syria, Sidon still being considered the chief port of Damascus.
By the beginning of the l9th Century, Sidon had sunk into obscurity. It became a part of geographical Lebanon, as it now exists, after the First World War when the Ottoman Empire, in which Sidon was administered as part of Greater Syria, was divided into spheres of influence by the allies. Lebanon then became a French mandate until the country gained its independence in 1943.
Classical literature abounds in references to Sidon. It is mentioned in the poems of Homer. Virgil, in the Aeneid, speaks of Dido, Queen of Carthage, who was Sidon-born. In the Bible, it is referred to as the most ancient of the Canaanite coastal cities (Genesis: 10:15,19). This is where Jesus cast the devil out of the Canaanite woman's daughter (Mark 7:24-30). St. Paul was permitted to land here on his way to Rome as a prisoner "to go unto his friends to refresh himself" (Acts 27:1-3). In the lst Century A.D., the Greek geographer Strabo wrote that Sidon rivaled Tyre not only in size and fame but also in antiquity. Literary and scientific publications of the 19th Century, which looked upon Phoenicia as the precursor of all civilization, described it as the cradle of the humanities and the arts.
Sidon today is the third most important Lebanese city, and the seat of government for the district of Southern Lebanon. The residential section of Sidon continues to spread beyond the citrus orchards and banana groves which once marked the limits of the city. The old section of Sidon as seen today is believed to have developed at the end of the Crusader period, ancient Sidon having been larger in area and probably extending north to where the Temple of Echmoun stands.
The Sea Castle:
The Sea Castle is a fortress built by the Crusaders in the early 13th Century on a small island connected with the mainland by a fortified bridge. The present bridge is of later date. It was one of many castles along the coast which the Crusaders built to protect the harbors and to ensure the safe landing of men and supplies from Europe.
The fortress now consists primarily of two towers connected by a wall . In the outer walls, Roman shaft columns were used as transverse trusses, a feature common to many fortifications built on former Roman sites. The west tower is the preserved of the two; the east tower has lost its upper floor. A further part of the castle was added during the celebrated visit of King St. Louis to Sidon. In the basement there are two cisterns.
Old prints of the fortress show it to be one of great beauty, but little remains of the architectural embellishments and sculptures that once graced its ramparts. The destruction of all the sea castles was ordered after the fall of Acre to the Mameluks to prevent the Crusaders from again establishing footholds on the coast.
A rest house and restaurant on the water-front offers good food and refreshment at reasonable prices.
The Sea Castle overlooks the north channel harbor, now used only for fishing boats, Fakhreddine having filled it in the 17th Century to deny entry to the Turkish fleet. The remains of the harbor do not go back beyond the Roman area.
In Phoenician times, the north channel harbor was the safest of the four harbors of Sidon. It was protected on the east by a line of natural reefs, and on the north by a mole built upon the rocky bottom to shelter it from the winds. Port facilities consisted of an inner harbor which protected the ships in winter and an outer harbor that was used in summer. An ingenious system of flushing to prevent silting attested to superior technology of the Sidonian master-builders. The force of the waves was used to create a current of water flowing from the outer basin into the inner basin, thence through an outlet into the sea. When the wind rose, filtered water was forced through a channel into the inner basin, flushing the sandy sediment-accumulating there from the outer basin - back out through the narrow entrance, where another current carried the sediment seaward. Apparently this system was unique to Sidon, for it has not been observed in other Phoenician seaports.
The Souks and Khan el Franj:
Not far from the Sea Castle, a short distance from the wharf, is the picturesque old vaulted souk of Sidon - which dates back to an age when most inhabitants dwelt in the area between the city walls and the harbor - and Khan el Franj, one of the many khans built by Fakhreddine II during his region to accommodate merchants and goods. Here as elsewhere the khan was traditionally a large rectangular courtyard with a central fountain, surrounded by covered galleries.
Entrance to the khan is through a small postern cut in the nail-studded main gate. Beyond is a cloistered court around which were the shops and dwelling places for traders. The khan (from the Persian word for "inn") was the center of economic activity for the city. Later, in the 19th Century, Sidon's khan housed the French consulate, a school, a convent, an inn and a small museum displaying local artifacts.
The terrace affords a clear view of the harbor and the Sea Castle.
Sidon is famous for a variety of local sweets that can be seen being prepared in the shops of the old souk as well as in the newer parts of the shopping area. The particular specialty of Sidon in known as " Sanioura ", a very delicious crumbly cake that melts in the mouth.
The Great Mosque:
Towards the south from the souk, on the way to the Castle of St. Louis, is the Great Mosque. The mosque has replaced the Church of St. John of the Hospitalers. The four walls of this great rectangular building date back to the 13th Century.
The palace of Fakhreddine was formerly situated on the terrace to the east of the Mosque.
The Castle of St. Louis:
The Castle of St. Louis was erected by the Crusaders during the Frankish occupation of the city, on what is reputed to have been the acropolis of ancient Sidon. Remains of a theater have been recently found there also. The French King, Louis 1X , better known as St. Louis, appears to have spent a long time here, and this is perhaps why the castle is attributed to him. The citadel was probably completely demolished, then rebuilt by the Arabs.
To the south of the citadel is a mound of debris called Murex Hill. A talus of crushed murex shells along the western slope can still be seen. This artificial mound (100m. long by 50m. high) was formed by the accumulation of refuse from the purple dye factories of Phoenician times. The small shell of the murex was broken in order to extract the pigment that was so rare it became the mark of royalty. Mosaic tiling at the top of the mound suggests that Roman buildings were erected there when the area was no longer used as the city's dumping ground. Part of the hill today is covered by the cemetery of the Moslem Shiite community of Sidon.
The Necropoli of Sidon:
Sidon differs from other Phoenician cities in that its rich necropoli were almost completely pillaged by clandestine excavators during the 19th Century. Most of the works of art are now to be found at the louvre, the Topkapi Archaeological Museum in Istanbul, and other museums in Europe.
The three main cemeteries of Sidon lie beyond the ancient city limits and were in use from the end of the 6th Century B.C. to the late Roman and early Christian eras. These are the necropolis of Magharet Abloun, the royal necropolis of Ayaa in the rocky foothills below what is now the village of Helalie, and the necropolis of Ain el Helwe to the southeast. None are open to visitors.
The famous sarcophagus of Echmounazzar II was discovered in a small recess in the Necropolis of Magharet Abloun in 1855 and was transported to the louvre soon afterwards. It was the first sarcophagus of a Phoenician king to be found, and it carried the most important Phoenician inscription yet discovered, that which records the building of the Temple of Echmoun.
A large collection of sarcophagi from Sidon can be seen at the National Museum in Beirut. The most outstanding is the ship sarcophagus, so called because of a bas-relief representing Roman trading vessels of the early Christian era.
Two types of sarcophagi were used simultaneously in Phoenicia. One was built in the shape of a house. The other, the anthropoid, was modeled after the human body. The largest find of anthropoid sarcophagi recorded was at Ain el Helwe, while the royal necropolis at Ayaa has yielded the most important group of marble sculptured sarcophagi yet found in Lebanon. Among these was the sarcophagus erroneously called the Alexander Sarcophagus ( on display at the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul ) which is a striking example of sculpture and polychromy in the Greek style.
Even before the Hellenistic age, the influential position of Sidon in Persian times attracted scholars and artists from the Aegean region. Local artisans were trained by them and were thus influenced by Greek artistic forms.
The Temple of Echmoun:On the way back to Beirut, at the right of the bridge on Nahr el Awali, near the city limits of Sidon, is a spot known as Bustan el Sheikh where the most important Phoenician temple has been found. This , the Temple of Echmoun, goes back to the Persian period ( 6th Century B.C. ) when Sidon was at its zenith. Additions were made to the temple in following eras and it remained a sacred shrine place of pilgrimage well into the first centuries after Christ.
Lebanese Ministry of Tourism; some changes applied.
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