Phoenician Tyre: From drawing conquerors to enticing visitors
Tyre, Lebanon - In ancient times, the Phoenician city of Tyre, in modern-day southern Lebanon, was coveted by great conquerors from Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar to Alexander the Great for its riches, prosperous port and thriving trade. Today, its ruins figure on UNESCO’s World Heritage list and its sandy beaches are a big summer attraction for tourists.
Tyre, 90km south of Beirut, was known throughout the Mediterranean as the “Queen of the Seas” and boasts vestiges from an amalgam of civilisations, including Phoenician, Roman, Greek and Byzantine, in addition to remains from the Crusaders’ period and Fatimid and Ottoman rule.
Churches dating to the early years of Christianity, including the ruins of the first church in the Orient, in the Christian Quarter of the city, are popular among worshippers. “They are places visited regularly by pilgrims from Lebanon and abroad for prayers and for admiring old relics, including icons, crucifixes and Bibles,” said Deputy Roman Catholic Patriarch Johan Haddad.
The Christian Quarter, in the heart of ancient Tyre, was built on a peninsula. It is also appreciated for its old buildings lining narrow alleys, displaying a mixture of Lebanese, Ottoman and French architecture. Many houses overlooking the Mediterranean have been restored and turned into restaurants, motels and boutique hotels to cater to a growing number of visitors.
The seaside Al-Fanar Hotel, which was refurbished to provide modern services, is often fully booked in July and August, when Lebanese expatriates flock back home to spend time with their families.
“In addition to groups of foreign tourists and visitors from the Arab Gulf countries, a big number of Lebanese immigrants from the US, Canada and Australia spend time in Tyre during the summer, where they enjoy the beach and traditional Lebanese cuisine,” said Al-Fanar owner Raymond Salha.
Restaurants offering international cuisines, including Italian, Spanish, French and Asian, are also thriving, catering to members of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which was reinforced with contingents from European and Asian countries, especially Italy and Spain, after the 2006 war with Israel.
With UNIFIL headquarters in Naqoura, 38km south of Tyre, many personnel spend holidays and weekends in Tyre. “Restaurants and hotels (in the Christian Quarter) are quite popular among UNIFIL officers and troops who feel safe spending time and enjoying food, drinks and nightlife,” Salha said.
During the summer months, up to 70 kiosks and tents line Tyre’s sandy beaches, offering fresh seafood platters for people enjoying a day in the sun.
Apart from recreation activities and sports, such as water skiing and surfing, Tyre’s archaeological sites also used to attract significant numbers of visitors, noted Ali Badawi, from the Directorate of Antiquities in charge of the city’s archaeological sites.
“On average, Tyre received no less than 25,000 visitors annually, mostly coming in organised tours that included both Lebanon and Syria. But their number dropped extensively, to almost null, after the outbreak of the war in Syria (in 2011),” Badawi said.
“Tourism in Tyre has become almost limited to local tourists. Sometimes you have foreigners visiting with the company of Lebanese friends, in addition to UNIFIL personnel interested in history and archaeology. But the impact of the situation in the region and in Lebanon on Tyre tourism is quite evident.”
The slowdown in tourism has not discouraged the Directorate of Antiquities from maintaining restoration works and excavations at the sites.
“Work is also ongoing for the inauguration of a new museum in summer in which Tyre’s Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine, Greek and Islamic era antiquities will be displayed, including objects from the Phoenician cemetery and the temple, which were discovered recently, and from the 10th-century Fatimid mosque found under the ruins of the Crusaders’ church,” Badawi pointed out.
“The Tyre museum’s collection will be as important as the pieces displayed at the National Museum of Beirut. Visitors will then have the chance to immerse in history and culture,” he added.
Tyre’s world-renowned ruins are mainly in two locations. The “seaside site” on the peninsula and the “mainland site” in El Bass district at the city’s entrance. The latter includes the landmark Arch of Triumph and the Hippodrome, one of the largest hippodromes of the Roman period, which is second in size after the Circus Maximus in Rome and is still in good shape.
In the middle of the Hippodrome, there are the walls of the Crusader Hippodrome Church, which is covered with signatures and pictures of boats and shields drawn by early Christian pilgrims.
The “seaside ruins” dating to the Phoenician, Roman and Byzantine periods are most famous for the Grande Allee, a 160-metre long and 11.8-metre wide road bordered by a colonnade and paved with mosaics and marble slabs, and the baths, built over parallel arches which shade them from the heat.
Modern-day Tyre has much to offer to entice visitors, but not conquerors.