The Temple of Melqart, Amrit, Modern Syria
Legend has it that two large rocks, known as the Ambrosial Stones, drifted about aimlessly in the Mediterranean Sea. Atop one of them was an olive tree. The tree burned with a fire that never went out. Nor did it consume the tree. Perched on one of its branches was an eagle. On another branch was a beautifully crafted bowl. A snake coiled around the tree’s trunk. And there, the eagle, the bowl, and the snake stayed in perfect harmony with no wind nor wave perturbing any of the rock’s inhabitants. No animal attacked the other, the flame never went out, and the bowl never fell. Some folks on the shore would watch this spectacle day in and day out.
One day, a man, whom these folks did not know, came to them. He showed them how to build a boat. In this new vessel, he took them out to the rocks. When they landed, the man commanded the people to slay the eagle and spread its blood all over the rocks. Suddenly, they stopped moving. It was here, on these two rocks, out in the middle of the ocean, that the city of Tyre was born.
Once upon another time, the man was walking his dog along Tyre’s shore. The dog found a murex shell with the mollusk still alive inside. He bit it and cracked the shell, and a purple fluid oozed out of it. And it was this liquid that made the Tyrians famous and which allegedly gave Phoenicia her name.
By giving the Tyrians the knowledge of shipbuilding, the foundation of their city and the purple dye that made them famous, the man became Malik Qart, the King of the City. He became Melqart, the patron god of Tyre.
For the Tyrians, Melqart was also the god of continual renewal and rebirth.
Every spring, the season of renewal, the King of Tyre would decree that foreigners leave his city. It was time for the ritual of egersis to begin, and the city needed to be purified. Every spring Melqart had to die and had to be reborn. Priests of the cult of Melqart set his effigy on fire, put it on a raft, and sent it adrift into the Mediterranean sea. While the effigy Melqart burnt and died, the smoke rising from his ashes ensured that the spirit Melqart arose into divinity.
As the smoke raised Melqart’s spirit to divinity, the King of Tyre received this Melqart’s soul into himself. He became a biological manifestation of Melqart on earth. And his Queen became the goddess Astarte. Together, the physical Melqart and Astarte re-enacted their marriage, to welcome the spring, to embrace the season of renewal and rebirth. This ritual, in the minds of the Tyrians, ensured that their city would be safe for the coming year.
Melqart was not always at the top. For years before the Tyrians made Melqart the symbol of their city, El was king and Asherat was his queen. El’s right-hand man, the guy who ran the show, was Baal. Nor was there just one founding myth. Another myth claimed that after being defeated by the Philistine king of the city of Ascalon, it was the Sidonians who founded Tyre a year before the sack of Troy.
These were the days when the palace and the temple were two separate power spheres. The temples did not rely on the royalty for their legitimacy. The temples earned their keep themselves. Priests commissioned barbers who’d cut a mendicant’s hair for a fee so that he could offer it up to the god of his choosing. The priests also had a “rate schedule” from which a mendicant could select an animal for a fee, which the priests would then sacrifice in the name of the appropriate deity. The priests also employed ladies who were willing to offer themselves up for the pleasure of others for a fee. Having a stream of self-generated revenue meant that the priesthood was free to do whatever it wanted, including challenging the power of the king.
But the Tyrian king, Hiram the First, decided to change all that. He wanted to curb the temple’s power. In fact, he desired to co-opt it and make it his own. Melqart and Astarte were somewhere on the lower rungs of the Middle Eastern pantheon. But Hiram decided to prop them up. He destroyed all the other temples and favored the one to Melqart and Astarte, by renovating and expanding it. He also gave more currency to the myth that made Melqart the founder of Tyre. Their elevation to being patrons of the Royal House of Tyre made Melqart & Astarte bona fide political gods. The King of Tyre was Melqart on earth and was now Tyre’s connection to the heavens. And to entrench his and his dynasty’s authority over Tyre, he invented the ritual of the egersis, though the substance of this ceremony wasn’t unprecedented.
The death by immolation and symbolic rebirth of a king was a hallmark of Middle Eastern pagan religion. In certain Middle Eastern quarters, kings were burnt to death to ensure the safety and survival of a city, especially when faced with inevitable destruction. Students of Near Eastern mythology may recall something else that symbolized the burning and rebirth of royalty; a mythological bird possessed of a purple or crimson-red hue. It was said to live a long life, sometimes up to fourteen hundred years. It died by burning itself to death and was then reborn out of the ashes that remained. It represented kings and royalty. It was called the Phoenix.
The word “Phoenix” is a derivative of the Greek word “Phoinike.” The Greeks also used “Phoinike” to refer to the Phoenicians. No one knows what the word “Phoinike” means. Some scholars suggest that the word “Phoinike” refers to the color purple or crimson-red. Because the Phoenicians acquired fame through the use of the purple-dyed wool cloth, the Greeks used this to refer to them as “Phoinike.” And this is also why the Phoenix is called the Phoenix. Some have suggested that it was the other way around. The Phoenicians were called Phoinike. And the purple-dye acquired the name from them. And then the Phoenix obtained its name from the name of the purple dye.
But if the ancients already referred to the Phoenicians as the “Phoinike,” then why did they come to be called that in the first place? At this point, we return to royalty. Menander of Ephesus, as quoted by the famous Romano-Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, compiled a list of Tyrian kings. The first king he listed was called “Phoinix.” Perhaps the people got their name from their king. And maybe, it is also on account of this king that the color purple became associated with royalty. Phoinix was a king. He gave his name to his people, the Phoinike. The people produced a purple dye, also called Phoinike. Thus, purple became the color of royalty. That is also why the royal bird that immolates itself and is reborn from its ashes was called the Phoenix.
What is Phoenicia? And who are the Phoenicians?
Today, the term “Phoenician” applies to a set of city-states situated roughly in what today is Lebanon. The classical Greco-Roman authors, however, considered the entire Levantine coast, from modern Suez, up to the Gulf of Alexandretta, to be “Phoenicia.” The classical authors also referred to the inhabitants of this land as Sidonians, even though Sidon was just one city among many. In the language of the Phoenicians themselves, however, this region was referred to as Canaan.
We only know them to be Semites of some sort, but other than that, their origins are a mystery. Herodotus places their roots on the shores of the Red Sea, while some other accounts put them in the Persian Gulf.
Though bound loosely by similar religious and linguistic traditions, it is unlikely that the Phoenicians thought of themselves as Phoenicians. Even when under threat from outside, some city-states cooperated with each other, while others did not. Not only would there be a sense of “separateness” among city-states, what clouds the issue of their “national identity” further, is the likelihood that they did not consider themselves ethnically, culturally, religiously or linguistically separate from their neighbors. Hebrew and Phoenician are similar languages. As are Aramaean, Assyrian, Akkadian and all other Semitic languages. All shared in the common religion of the land, with the god, El, at the top and the goddess, Asherah, at his side. In short, while a certain core “Phoenicianness” might be identifiable, it is fraught with ambiguity.
But everyone agrees on one thing. The Phoenician was a Semitic sea trader if nothing else. Neither culture, nor religion, nor language, nor territory defined the Phoenician. What distinguished him from everyone else was his maritime trade.
Hiram the First was the quintessential Phoenician. He combined the three themes of royalty, religion and maritime trade within himself. Hiram wasn’t facetious when he reformed Tyre’s religion. His reforms were part of a conscious plan. In Hiram’s day, the times were a-changing, and Hiram wanted to make sure that they changed the way he wanted them to.
Hiram ascended the throne of Tyre towards the beginning of the tenth century BC. Most of what we know about Hiram comes from the Old Testament. For those who’ve read the Old Testament, the story should be familiar. The Kingdom of Israel was ascendant at this time, too. And Hiram thought it in his best interests to ally himself with the Israelites, rather than challenge their rise.
Solomon, the King of Israel, wanted to build his Temple for the worship of the one true god, Yahweh. And to that end, he needed materials. He entered into an agreement with Hiram that called for the provision of cedar wood, quarried stones, copper and a host of other materials. It also called for artisans who would build the temple for Solomon. In exchange, Solomon supplied Hiram with 400,000 liters of wheat and 420,000 liters of olive oil annually. The agreement ran for 20 years and came to an end upon the completion of the Temple.
This partnership didn’t end there. There were joint ventures into what today are Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan. They traded in ivory, gold, silver and other precious metals. And those familiar with the Old Testament know that this partnership continued even after Hiram’s and Solomon’s deaths, exemplified by the marriage of the Tyrian King Ithobaal’s daughter Jezebel to the King of Israel, Ahab.
The long-term effect of this partnership was that Tyre had access to the trading routes coming out of Mesopotamia and Arabia, in addition to the seaways they had already mastered.
But things weren’t always this way.
Two centuries earlier, civilization, as it had then existed, came to a grinding halt. The Mycenaeans, the Hittites, the Mittani, and a host of other nations. All turned to ashes. Egypt barely survived. Egypt’s empire, begun in the fourteenth century BC by Thutmose III, frittered away. Barely a century later, the city-states of Phoenicia were out of her clutches.
Scholars are still debating what happened. Why, all of a sudden, did the entire Near East just devolve into anarchy? To even begin to answer this question is a daunting task. Like most things of this nature, this Late Bronze Age Collapse, was the result of a confluence of different causes: foreign invasions, local revolts, migrations induced by climate change and famine. Ultimately, we may never know why. Whatever the story, we aren’t worried about it now. What concerns us is that this Late Bronze Age collapse was the first domino to fall that lead to Tyre’s eventual ascendancy.
Egypt was a voracious consumer of cedar wood from the Levantine mountains. She needed wood to build ships, but had no trees of her own that could produce wood specifically for shipbuilding. Fifteenth-century Egyptian annals record that she had been procuring cedar wood from Phoenicia for centuries. Before Egypt’s imperial days and during them, the Phoenician city of Byblos was the beneficiary of Egypt’s graces. Woodcutters from Byblos ventured into the Levantine mountains, chopped down the trees, hauled them back to the port at Byblos, where the Egyptians loaded them onto their ships and sailed them back to the Nile Delta. The Egyptians rewarded their clients at Byblos with gold from Punt, today’s Horn of Africa and Sudan. This trade made the people of Byblos filthy rich.
But, prosperity always comes to an end. With the Late Bronze Age collapse previously established trade networks, too, collapsed. And with Egypt’s loss of control over its Phoenician territories, the cedar wood trade, also, trickled down to nothing.
In the period before the Late Bronze Age Collapse, trade was a royal affair. If a nation was short on something, there were no private merchants who sailed to other lands, procured the needed items and sold them in their own countries in the marketplace for a profit. Instead, trade missions were essentially diplomatic missions, conducted by royal officials representing the king. If the king wanted something, he sent his representative to other lands to procure it. This royal official struck deals with the royals of other nations. In return, he offered gold, silver, or other precious metals or stones. These missions were treated like embassies and expected full legal and commercial protection from the host countries.
Naturally, authorities kept this “trade” tightly controlled. At this point in history, there was no such thing as capitalism. With the Late Bronze Age Collapse, however, this state-controlled trading came to an end. With all of the major international players out of the picture, there were no imperial neighbors to appease with payments of tribute and no commercial rivals to share in the markets that were now open to them. It was time for the Tyrians to play ball.
Though the trading itself had mainly ceased, the Tyrians remembered the trade networks, which were just ripe for exploitation. Following Egypt’s loss of Phoenicia, private Tyrian merchants began plugging themselves into them. Initially, they were limited mainly to the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. But over the course of a century, the Tyrians expanded them to include Crete, Libya, the Cyclades, Rhodes, Cyprus, and Greece.
The Tyrians were the first people in history to invent the “family firm.” They did so specifically for personal enrichment through commercial exploitation. The Kings of Tyre saw an opportunity here. They could make a lot of money by lending to these “family firms,” and charging them interest. Sometimes, the kings even became sleeping partners in these ventures. They provided the initial investment and expected, in return, a cut of the profits. Patriarchs of these “family firms” even found themselves as advisor’s on the King’s council.
The Tyrians manufactured luxury goods such as carved ivory, with raw ivory coming from Africa. They procured various metals and built workshops for the production of bronze vessels, gold jewelry, etc. And they used these luxury goods as a currency to obtain gold, silver, and other precious metals from other nations. They traded in gems, olive oil, wine, and even pottery. But most of all, they sold the famous purple-dyed cloth.
The Phoenicians had been masters of the sea since before the time of their vassal-hood under Egypt. By that time they had already developed the curved hull ship which had allowed them to ship bigger and weightier loads at a faster pace than any other vessel had allowed before. Despite these advances in shipbuilding, seafaring was done exclusively by day, and ships would stop for the night because at night you couldn’t see where you were going. Not being able to sail at night also meant that you’d cruise along the coast and not on the open sea. So you knew where you were and where you were going.
But by Hiram’s time, the Tyrians were already using Stella Polaris, Pole Star in English, as a navigational aid. Coincidentally, the Greeks used the word Phoinike to refer to Stella Polaris as well. Using Stella Polaris for navigation not only allowed the Phoenicians to travel by night, but also allowed them to sail on the open sea. They also added keels to their ships for better maneuvering and coated their hulls with tar to make them waterproof. With a massive square sail and oarsmen to run their boats, they were now capable of achieving speeds of up to forty miles in a single twenty-four hour period.
As a result of their mercantilism, the Tyrians found themselves everywhere in the Mediterranean. And, as both the literature and the archeology are witnesses, wherever they went, they left their mark. According to the Greco-Roman literature, Lixus, on the African side of the Straits of Gibraltar, was Tyre’s most ancient settlement. Its foundation date is unknown. Opposite Lixus, on the Spanish side of the Straits, was Gades, said to have been founded in 1110 BC. The founding of settlements at the Western-most edge of the Mediterranean sea makes it seem as though the Tyrians were marking the end point of their trading route before beginning to colonize its coastal stops. After Gades, came Utica in 1101 BC, founded at the mouth of the River Medjerda in modern Tunisia, supposedly founded by colonists from Gades. Subsequently, a number of the African colonies followed: Hippo, Hadrumetum, Sousse, Lepcis Magna. Soon, colonies appeared in Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, the Balearic Islands, Malta, Crete, and Cyprus. It’s unclear how many of these colonies were direct Tyrian settlements and how many were founded by other Tyrian colonies.
Before archeology became fashionable in the nineteenth century, historians accepted this textual tradition without question. The early nineteenth century was a time when the Phoenicians were considered the originators of everything. They “invented” the alphabet and also “outshone the Greeks” in their maritime prowess. A scholar even claimed that Homer learned his geography for “The Odyssey” from a Phoenician text on the instruction of navigation, as well as from a log belonging to a Phoenician sea captain.
But archeology soon burst that bubble. Excavations in the Aegean world revealed the Mycenaean civilization to be equally, if not more original and vital. Not content with the new data, some Phoenicio-philes suggested that Mycenaean culture had been spurred on by the Phoenicians, without any hard evidence whatsoever. However, when archaeologists could not date a single one of the Phoenician sites mentioned above back to the dates specified in the literature, expert-opinion soon took a 180-degree turn. Some even suggested that the Phoenicians didn’t even begin their efforts colonizing the Mediterranean until the seventh century, almost a hundred years after the Greeks started theirs.
Further archeology, however, has made things a lot clearer. With every new find, either the archaeological dates creep ever closer to the years mentioned in the literature, or further explanations emerge that otherwise reconciles them. While the dating provided in the historical record cannot be blindly accepted, it is not out of the realm of possibility either.
The earliest sailors were just traders who merely required safe anchorages on their way along their trading routes. Every single Phoenician site found is on some islet or peninsula. This placement indicates that the primary concern of the Phoenicians in the selection of an anchorage was the safety of their boats. On the shore, they only constructed huts and other structures of convenience. Being made of wood and leaves, the traces of these buildings would be wiped out just by the passage of time. Thus, the “early dates” mentioned in the historical record may not necessarily be referring to the actual founding dates of proper colonies but to the years when sailors first used particular sites as anchorages.
This explanation is consistent with how the literature describes this early mercantile activity. It represents the Tyrian ships as hotels, shops, and warehouses, implying that most of the living arrangements would be aboard their boats. During the day, sailors would conduct their business on the beaches. At night they would venture back to their ships. In this manner, they would stay at a spot for a long time, sometimes even up to a year. Other accounts provide descriptions of camps of wooden huts, with spaces of up to 500 men.
Though not historically attested, the next stage in the evolution from a small anchorage to a full colony would have been to convert the anchorage into a semi-permanent harbor. Older boats would have been stripped down to construct or repair docks or warehouses. There would also have been a wooden palisade to protect the proto-colony and its inhabitants from wild animals and hostile natives.
The early stages of a Phoenician site’s evolution just described, suggest that the purpose of Tyrian seafaring was not colonization per se. The development of fully fledged colonies was in response to other factors. With the presence of locals amenable to trade, a site would evolve from an anchorage to a trading station. The archeology indicates this evolution through the presence of stone structures, housing pottery from all around the region.
Proximity to a natural resource would ensure that the site evolved into an industrial town. Some settlements were dedicated exclusively to the production of the purple dye close to coasts with known populations of the dye-producing mollusk. Proximity to a precious metal mine would induce the development of smelting workshops. The settlers would either procure the ore from the locals or would mine it themselves. They would, then, smelt the ore at their workshops, before shipping the ingots back to the homeland.
Even though the use of stones in architecture would be pervasive at this stage in a site’s evolution, domicile arrangements would not yet be necessary. In fact, a town couldn’t support any families unless the surrounding hinterland provided ample amounts of food, either through the supply of wild game or by sustaining agricultural production. Housing wouldn’t appear until a site crossed a certain size threshold. Beyond this limit, structures like bazaars, temples, plazas, town halls and other harbors would manifest. Some colonies went all the way and added fortified walls and forts.
And all this development was spurred on by Hiram. The Tyrians in general and Hiram, in particular, were entrepreneurial people. When they saw an opportunity, they took it. It was their entrepreneurship that allowed them to take advantage of the new circumstances following the Late Bronze Age Collapse. It was their tenacity that allowed them to take their shipbuilding to depths that no one had ever seen. Their lust for wealth and genius in shipbuilding opened doors for them in places only known in legend. With older technologies, they were just able to expand their trading networks to the islands in the Aegean sea. With new powerboats at their disposal and the aid of the Stella Polaris, they extended them to regions no one in the Middle East had yet seen. They planted anchorages and trading posts all over the Mediterranean. It’s almost as if Tyre was reborn from the ashes of the world burnt down by the Late Bronze Age Collapse. Just like the Phoenix. Just like Melqart.
And, wherever they went, with them went Melqart. The Tyrian King was the King of Tyrians everywhere, not just in Tyre. For Melqart was not only the patron god of the city of Tyre but also the god of Tyre’s colonial project. The founding of a settlement could not happen without the aegis of Melqart. That is why he is Malik Qart, the King of the City.
In the next episode, we will take a look at the regions that the Tyrians colonized. We will also observe how Tyre’s relationship with those around her forced the Tyrians to turn their simple anchorages and trading posts into more permanent settlements, paving the way for the birth of her illustrious daughter, Carthage.
- Miles, Richard. Carthage Must Be Destroyed. London: Penguin Books, 2010 (Buy from Amazon, Buy audiobook from Audible)
- Picard, Gilbert-Charles and Collette Picard. The Life and Death of Carthage. Translated by Dominique Collon. New york: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1968 (Buy from Amazon, also here)