The ancient city of Tyre

The foremost place gained by Tyre was retained until the final downfall of the Phoenician cities. Tyre became to the other towns almost what Rome was to Italy. At least, she was their acknowledged leader, and her name was extended by the Greeks to all the region around. Our modern name Syria is probably only a softened form of Tyria, or the lands of Tyre. The worship of Tyre's special deity, Melkarth, and Phoenician Hercules, became the most wide-spread religion in the ancient world. His shrines dotted the Mediterranean and were planted by colonists even beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. The mountains on either side of Gibraltar were named the Pillars of Melkarth, or, as the Greeks called them, the Pillars of Hercules; for the legends of Melkarth, his labors, and his wanderings, were ascribed by the Greeks to Hercules, their own similar deity.

In the absence of any complete Phoenician history, the first ruler of Tyre of whom we have definite knowledge is that Hiram, or Huram, of whom the Bible tells as a contemporary of David and Solomon. From other sources we learn that Hiram came to the throne about 980 B.C. as a youth of nineteen, and ruled for nearly forty years. We should not think of him merely as the ally of the Hebrew kings, sending them cedars from Lebanon for the construction of their temple and palaces. It seems clear that the Hebrews looked up to Hiram and his Phoenicians with admiration as a more cultured race. Hiram despatched to Jerusalem a numerous body of Phoenician artists and overseers, who directed almost every step of Solomon's buildings. Hence, both the art and architecture of the Hebrews were chiefly Tyrian.

Indeed Tyre, and to some extent its sister towns, must have been more like modern cities than were any other places of antiquity. Not only did Tyre have its open plaza and its squares of public buildings, it had also some approach to "sky-scrapers." The limited ground space of all the Phoenician cities had caused the inhabitants to build their houses high. In Tyre especially these reached to "many stories." Then there were the wharves, the ships, the clerks counting and making written tally of cargoes, the constant coming and going of hustling merchants, the air of enterprise, of eagerness for adventure. Truly an inhabitant of any one of our American seaport cities would have found himself much at home in ancient Tyre.

King Hiram was, like all his people, a trader. His alliance with Solomon included an agreement by which Hiram was permitted to build ships and make voyages from Solomon's port upon the Red Sea. This opened to Tyre the new regions of the Indian Ocean; and the profits of one single expedition sent out jointly by the two kings netted them an amount equal to four million dollars each. Even our merchant princes of today can scarcely match these princely traders of the past.

Moreover, King Hiram was himself a builder. He enlarged the island portion of Tyre by filling in the shallower regions of the sea around, and this new land he laid out in squares of palaces and temples. He constructed also an open plaza like those of Italian cities, whereon his people might stroll in the sun or gather for important occasions.

While the splendor of Solomon's kingdom faded with tragic swiftness, that of Tyre lasted through many centuries. The Biblical book of Ezekiel has a long and eloquently poetic passage in which the prophet paints this wealth and gorgeousness of the celebrated seaport, "that dwellest at the entry of the sea, which art the merchant of the peoples into many isles..... Thou, O Tyre, hast said, I am perfect in beauty." The prophet sketches in detail the marvelous multitude of commodities which Tyre gathers in trade from each of all the lands, summing up with the cry, "When thy wares went forth out of the seas, thou filledst many peoples; Thou didst enrich the kings of the earth with thy merchandise and thy riches."

Yet Tyre was not without internal troubles of her own. King Hiram seems to have ruled with a strong and steady hand. But his grandson, who became king soon after him, was murdered by turbulent conspirators, apparently from the lower classes of the citizens. The rebels seized the reins of government and blindly misdirected affairs amid wild turbulence and riot. The patricians fought their way again to power. One ruler succeeded another in rapid succession. At length there was a priestly revolution. Eth-baal, a high-priest of Astarte, slew the reigning king and seized in his turn upon the throne.

In the days of Eth-baal, the story of Tyre touches again upon that of the Hebrews. Eth-baal's daughter was that Jezebel who wedded Ahab, the powerful King of Israel. Jezebel, like her father, was devoted to the Phoenician religion. She introduced the worship of Baal into Israel; and her daughter Athaliah, wedding the king of Judah, carried their faith into that second Hebrew kingdom. The tragedy of these two queens of an alien faith, Jezebel and Athaliah, is fully told in the Bible.

A few decades later Tyre found herself involved, like Israel and Judah, in the fierce Assyrian wars. The early conquests of Babylon and Assyria seem to have passed the Phoenician cities by. These were so sheltered from the east by the mighty cliffs of Mount Lebanon as to be almost inaccessible. Thus none of the earlier ravaging expeditions attacked or plundered them. We find them paying tribute to the Egyptians about 1300 B.C. But this seems not to have been compulsory; it was rather a friendly commercial arrangement, a tax which was one chief source of the Phoenicians' wealth, since in exchange for this payment they were given a freedom, perhaps a monopoly, of foreign trade throughout Egypt.

Tyre was still their leader; for she rose phoenix-like from the destruction caused by Alexander. Only eighteen years after his successful assault we read of the stubborn Tyrians enduring another siege from one of the Greek generals who succeeded to his empire. This time Tyre made profitable terms of peace after holding back the besiegers for fourteen months.

Danger came to her from a more subtle source. Her arch-enemy Alexander had founded in Egypt the city of Alexandria, and this wisely located metropolis became Phoenicia's successful rival for the trade of the East. Whenever in Greek and Roman days we find Alexandria espousing one side of a quarrel, Tyre and Sidon are sure to be upon the other. The days of the "Roman peace" brought prosperity enough for all the merchants. In the fourth century A.D. St. Jerome speaks of Tyre as having become once more the richest and most splendid trading city of the East.

Then came the days of Mahometan conquest and of the European crusade against these "infidel" possessors of the Holy Land. Tyre, the port of all this region, was besieged by Saracens and Crusaders in turn. More than once it was captured; for it was no longer an island inaccessible to foes. The Turks finally became masters of all this land of "Asiatic Turkey" in the sixteenth century. To their barbaric robbery and neglect has been due the final downfall of the Phoenician cities. Says the historian Kendrick, "Neither sieges nor earthquakes have done so much as Turkish oppression and misrule to make Tyre what the traveler now sees," in the words of the Bible, "a rock for fishermen to spread their nets on."

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Read about The ancient city of Tyre in the The Story of the Greatest Nations and the Worlds Famous Events Vol 1

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