Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre
THUS Kipling saw the end of Empire.
Nineveh is now a collection of dusty mounds on the Tigris near Mosul, endangered by looting in the lawlessness of modern Iraq, but Tyre survives as a modest port on the coast of Lebanon.
It is also an archaeological site of immense potential importance, a study concludes. The silting up of its ancient northern harbour “means that the heart of the Bronze Age, Phoenician, Greek, Roman and Byzantine ports could be excavated on land, in much the same way as a classic terrestrial dig,” say Nick Marriner, a British archeologist.
Marriner, who has been working with Christophe Morhange of the Université de Provence and his colleagues in their investigation of historic Mediterranean ports, notes in the Journal of Archaeological Science: “Tyre’s ancient northern harbour has been a source of scientific intrigue and debate for many centuries. Many scholars have long questioned whether the modern port corresponds to its counterpart in antiquity.”
Tyre was an island fortress until Alexander the Great took it in 332 BC and built a causeway linking it to the mainland. The island itself is said to have been created by Hiram, King of Tyre, who sent cedars of Lebanon to King David for his palace and to Solomon for the first Temple in Jerusalem. Hiram linked the two Ambrosian Isles to create his city, with the principal harbour on the north.
The French team have sunk boreholes and extracted cores of sediment that reveal the history of Tyre. While some sediment came from the Litani river to the south, there were also cultural contributions. Mudbrick architecture yielded clay particles that sluiced down the streets, agriculture inland led to erosion and runoff, and people dumped rubbish in the harbour.
In spite of this, prosperity remained through the Byzantine period, until after the 6th century AD the deteriorating infrastructure no longer sheltered the harbour: the cores revealed an exposed beach, “a classic feature of all abandoned ancient harbours”. This evidence has been combined with a study of the current urban topography and shows that at its greatest extent in the Bronze Age, the harbour was twice as large as it is today.
A large portion of the former basin lies beneath the present market, and another important area is sandwiched between the modern breakwater and its ancient submerged counterpart: the first French investigators in the 1860s estimated the area of the old port with fair accuracy.
“The palaeogeography of Tyre’s northern harbour has been fashioned since antiquity by geomorphological and mareographic factors,” the team conclude. “Rising sea levels and expanding international trade forced the Phoenicians to build early artificial infrastructure, before the apogees of the Roman and Byzantine periods. Problems of silting were overcome by repeated dredging, with deliberate overdeepen- ing to maintain a navigable harbour.”
The team suggests that a management programme be developed for this important site.