Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Every city in Lebanon can rightfully claim to be one of the oldest in the world. Tyre is no exception.
Consider this: The name “Tyre” is of ancient Greek origin, which is old enough. But that’s actually the new name for the city. In Arabic it is still called “Sour,” which comes from the original Phoenician name.
According to Herodotus, Tyre was founded around 2750 B.C. A city that ancient overflows with stories, more stories than I can learn, let alone tell.
But at least a couple of stories about Tyre stuck with me from my trip to Lebanon.
A pair of interconnected stories — two episodes of the same tale, if you will — indicate the foundational role that Tyre played in the rise of Western civilization.
First, there is Zeus’s abduction of Europa. Everyone knows the story: Zeus was enamored with beautiful Europa, and he transformed himself into a white bull and approached her in that form. Europa played with the bull and finally tried to ride it. The bull then ran with her to the sea and swam to Crete, where it transformed back into Zeus. Europa subsequently became the first queen of Crete and the mother of King Minos. And eventually Europeans named their whole continent after her.
Everyone knows this story, but most don’t remember — I certainly didn’t until I heard it again in Lebanon — that Europa was a princess of Tyre. Herodotus later tried to rationalize the Greek myth about her abduction by Zeus as a garbled retelling of an actual kidnapping by Greek sailors of an aristocratic Phoenician woman. But the story also seems like a metaphor for how much Europe owes its culture to the Middle East.
Episode two of this story is explicitly about exactly that. After Europa’s abduction, her brother Cadmus, prince of Tyre, went looking for her in Greece. While there he founded the city of Thebes. Much more importantly, according to Herodotus, Cadmus brought with him the Phoenician alphabet, the oldest alphabetic writing system in the world. The Greeks adapted it to suit their own language, producing the Greek script. All other European writing systems ultimately derived from the same source. It was therefore the influence of Tyre that brought all of Europe out of illiteracy.
For all of Tyre’s contribution to Western civilization, in the Bible the prophet Ezekiel relays a curse from God against it in terms that are more than a little harsh:
[T]he Sovereign Lord says: I am against you, Tyre, and I will bring many nations against you . . . From the north I am going to bring against Tyre Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses and chariots, with horsemen and a great army. He will ravage your settlements on the mainland with the sword; he will set up siege works against you, build a ramp up to your walls and raise his shields against you. He will direct the blows of his battering rams against your walls and demolish your towers with his weapons. His horses will be so many that they will cover you with dust. Your walls will tremble at the noise of the warhorses, wagons and chariots when he enters your gates as men enter a city whose walls have been broken through. The hooves of his horses will trample all your streets; he will kill your people with the sword, and your strong pillars will fall to the ground. They will plunder your wealth and loot your merchandise; they will break down your walls and demolish your fine houses and throw your stones, timber and rubble into the sea. I will put an end to your noisy songs, and the music of your harps will be heard no more. I will make you a bare rock, and you will become a place to spread fishnets. You will never be rebuilt, for I the Lord have spoken, declares the Sovereign Lord.
Ezekiel 26:2–14, NIV.
A couple hundred years after Ezekiel relayed God’s genocidal message, Alexander the Great actually did demolish the old city of Tyre, which had been one of the first countries to resist him on his eastward path of conquest. But of course, contrary to Ezekiel’s words, Tyre has been rebuilt over and over again, and it remains a thriving city today.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."