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Lebanon Harboring History
Written by Ralph K. Pedersen   
Friday, 01 April 2011 14:47

How the Phoenicians tamed the sea and created an empire

Image The Phoenicians of ancient Lebanon created the world’s first maritime mercantile empire. Sailing in ships of cedar, they traded throughout the Mediterranean and out into the Atlantic Ocean. Their ships were innovative, influencing ship design for centuries. They were also influential in another way—they were the first to create harbors on the sea.

Harbors are the nexus, or connecting point between land and water. They provide protection from the elements and give merchants access to the goods of the land. At first, harbors were simply places that afforded natural shelter to ships, such as behind an island or next to a peninsula. These suited small watercraft for millennia, but as ships and fleets grew larger in response to greater trading opportunities, harbors needed to adapt. At the same time, changes in the environment, such as rising sea levels, threatened to make natural harbors along the Lebanese coast unusable. By the Iron Age, about 3,000 years ago, the Phoenicians had made the ingenious leap forward by modifying the coastal seascape to accommodate their ships and protect their seaside cities.

Three great harbor cities dominated Lebanon’s ancient sea coast: Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre. Byblos, or Jubail, is perhaps the oldest seafaring city in Lebanon. With remains dating back to the Stone Age, 7,000 years ago, Byblos was the key city in ancient Lebanon linking the resources of the hinterland to the desires and needs of the Egyptians. Sailing in wooden ships, crews and merchants from Egypt came to Byblos to trade for logs of cedar for use in temples, palaces, and to build even more ships. The importance of Byblos in these ancient times is attested not only by ancient texts, but by the temple at Byblos filled with anchors given to the gods in return for safe, and profitable, sea journeys. At about 1200 BC, many of the eastern Mediterranean cities and cultures were destroyed by invaders from the north known as the Sea Peoples. Byblos from this point on was supplanted in importance by the two southern giants Sidon and Tyre.

Sidon was a center of ancient glass making, exporting glass throughout the Mediterranean world. Together with the production of purple dye from the murex sea snail, the city thrived on international commerce. Little remains today of ancient Sidon—much is lost under modern construction—though the ancient harbor remains alive with fishing boats and other watercraft. The harbor at Sidon is, however, more than just a place for boats to call home: it is a testament to Phoenician inventiveness. Modifications to the coastal seascape enabled the Sidonians to keep their harbors functioning for centuries. Such engineering feats included a system of sluice gates carved out of the natural rock to cleanse the harbor of silt carried on the northward flowing current. Perhaps more importantly, protective walls and quays were carved out of the solid rock. The Phoenicians developed this technique to deal with the gradual immersion of natural protective barriers that had served well enough in earlier periods but were now less effective. One way they created these walls and quays was to cut solid blocks on the landward side of rocky outcrop and then stack these blocks on top of the remaining outcrop, thereby creating walls with sheltered quays behind them. Another technique was to cut stone from both sides of an outcrop leaving a solid rock wall standing between harbor and sea.

The rock-cut protective walls in Sidon no longer exist; they were demolished to build a modern breakwater and for the construction of the new harborside road—but the technique can still be seen today to the north of Sidon on Ziri Island. Here a man-made flat platform of cut rock on the protected, landward side of the island was created as a mooring place for ships and is still used as a landing place for boats. Another Lebanese site better illustrates what has been lost at Sidon: at the ancient city of Batroun, massive solid rock walls, several meters high, still stand facing the sea protecting the settlement behind it as well as the entrances to the city’s harbors.

Like Sidon, the harbor city of Tyre has existed since at least the fourth millennium BC. Spanning both an island and a mainland settlement, Tyre was well positioned to be a center of Mediterranean trade and power until it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 323 BC. In deep antiquity the island of Tyre was larger, but over time the sea level rose and the land subsided, thus shrinking it. Over the course of the second millennium BC, Phoenician engineering skills were put to the test once again as it became necessary to secure the island and its harbors from the ravages of the sea. Although much of the ancient harbor and city now lie under modern construction, it is still possible to see some impressive examples of the ancient harbor technology underwater both at the entrance to the northern harbor, where a stone-built jetty of uncertain date was constructed, and at the “Egyptian Harbor” on the city’s southern edge where wall tops outline the now submerged area.

The innovations first seen at Sidon and Tyre were prototypes for what eventually evolved into harbor construction where none had existed before. During the first few centuries of the first millennium BC, Phoenician engineering skills were transferred to colonies in Sicily and most notably to Carthage in Tunisia where a new feat—a superb double harbor—served both commercial and military purposes. The harbor at Carthage enabled the Phoenicians to dominate the western Mediterranean for centuries until the Romans began their expansion out of Italy in the third century BC.

Although the harbors of Lebanon have yielded much information about the capabilities and activities of the Phoenicians, further explorations will undoubtedly reveal even greater insights into the ancient harbors of Lebanon and perhaps to far flung Phoenician ports of call yet to be discovered.

—Ralph K. Pedersen, PhD, teaches nautical archaeology at the Philipps-Universität Marburg. From 2006 to 2008, he was the Whittlesey Chair Visiting Assistant Professor at AUB.

Source: This article first appeared in Winter 2011 edition of Main Gate Quarterly Magazine, published by the American University of Beirut

Last Updated on Saturday, 02 April 2011 03:47

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