In the previous post, I argued that this prophecy simply fails at face value. Ezekiel predicted that Tyre would be completely destroyed and never rebuilt, yet that didn’t happen. Tyre experienced a long history of both prosperity and calamity, and today, it’s the 4th largest city in Lebanon. In this post, we’ll examine that history in more detail so we’ll have a good foundation as we study the prophecy.
It’s surprisingly hard to find thorough histories that just focus on Tyre. If you stick to the internet, you typically run across links that have a religious slant, arguing for or against Ezekiel’s prophecy. However, I did find two that were helpful and seemed to not have a heavy bias. This site is primarily a Middle East travel site, but it provides interesting historical facts about many of the major tourist spots in the Mid East, and Tyre is no exception. Another online resource that was very helpful is this page at Livius.org. Livius is a non-profit site dedicated to ancient history, run by Dutch historian Jona Lendering. The best thing about this site is that it provides references to ancient sources for its major points.
Finally, the other source that was especially helpful to me is The History of Tyre, by Wallace Fleming. Like Livius, it’s chock full of references to ancient historical sources, and it seems to be about as thorough a treatment of the subject as one could hope to find.
A Brief History of Tyre
Tyre is quite ancient. Its name means “rock,” which is a fitting name as it’s a rocky island that sat just off the Phoenician coast. Today, it often goes by the name “Sur” or “Sour,” which may seem strange initially, but it’s actually the same exact name that it’s always had. “Sur” is the way Tyre is spelled in Arabic, and in Hebrew it’s “Tzur.” In fact, you can see that spelling by checking an interlinear Bible for the Hebrew translation of this passage.
Herodotus records that the city was founded somewhere around 2800 BCE. There’s been some disagreement over which came first, the island city, or the mainland settlements. This confusion has mostly come from the Greeks calling the mainland settlement “Paleotyrus,” which means “old Tyre.” But more ancient texts refer to this site as “Ushu” or “Sazu.” For instance, “the Tyre of the Amarna letters and of the early Egyptian travelers was clearly the island city. The mainland town was then called Sazu” (Fleming, ch 1). The Amarna letters date to sometime in the 14th century BCE, which is about 800 years before Ezekiel’s prophecy. If Tyre was already known to be the island that far back, then it really leaves no question as to whether his prophecy referred to the island or the mainland. As another scholar put it, “Palaetyrus is now generally admitted to have been merely an outpost of Tyre, and is conjecturally placed by most scholars as near Ras al-Ain” (Maspero, Struggles of the Nations, p. 186). So even if the mainland section is older, there’s no precedent for it going by the name Tyre.
By the time of the Amarna letters, Tyre was already considered quite formidable, not just prosperous (Fleming, ch 1). The Phoenicians were masters of the sea, and Tyre was its most prominent city. Its ships sailed throughout the Mediterranean and even the Atlantic, going as far as the western coast of Africa and even the British Isles. Tyre founded a number of other prominent cities like Citium and Carthage. King Hiram I reigned from 980 to 947 BCE. He undertook a number of projects that enlarged Tyre like filling in the eastern side of the island and connecting the main island of Tyre to the smaller one to the south that was the site of the temple of Melkart.
Tyre continued to grow in prosperity as the centuries unfolded. When the Assyrian Empire came to power in the region, they were unable to take Tyre, but would periodically put pressure on the city to receive submission and tribute.
Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came against Tyre, but was unable to take the city after a 13 year siege. Finally, in 584 BCE, Babylon and Tyre worked out a peace: Tyre gave some hostages and accepted a Babylonian official at court. Following Nebuchadnezzar’s siege, Tyre suffered economic and political turmoil for a while. The long siege had affected its trade, and the city didn’t completely recover until shortly after the Persians took over Babylon in 539 BCE.
The Tyrian navy served Persia in its wars with Greece. Once Alexander defeated the Persian king in 333 BCE, the Phoenician cities submitted to him, including Tyre (Livius). An embassy from the city met him at the coast with a gold crown and various other gifts, proclaiming their submission. Alexander was pleased, but he told the group that the city should make ready for his arrival, for he wished to sacrifice in the temple of Melkart. This put the people of Tyre on guard. They worried that he was looking to occupy the city, and they were used to having a high degree of autonomy under the empires they were subject to.
After deliberation, Tyre sent word to Alexander that they would submit to any request but this one — they would not allow either Persians (their former masters) or Greeks into the city, but that he was welcome to sacrifice to Melkart at the temple in Ushu (Paleotyre), which they said was older (though it probably wasn’t). Alexander was furious. He said if they wouldn’t open their gates to him, he would break them down. But the Tyrians had been besieged before, so they weren’t overly concerned by his threats. Tyre’s walls facing the mainland were 150 feet high and couldn’t be worn down without attack engines. But since it sat half a mile from the coast, there was no firm ground on which to base such siege weapons.
The siege began in January of 332 BCE. Alexander decided to build a causeway across the channel by using the buildings and ruins of Ushu. But the work was difficult, and they were constantly harried by Tyre’s defenders, who would fire arrows and other missiles from the walls and pull pieces of the causeway apart with their ships. After almost 6 months, little progress had been made.
Alexander finally realized that the Tyrian fleet needed to be neutralized if he was to have any hope of success. So he enlisted the other Phoenician navies as well as some ships from Cyprus, and this kept the Tyrian fleet from being able to leave their harbor. Alexander’s troops finally finished the causeway once they were no longer being impeded by Tyre’s fleet, though the siege was by no means a simple feat after this. I won’t go into all the details here, but reading about the ingenious tactics used by both sides is quite amazing. It’s impressive how well the Tyrians were able to hold out.
But finally, the city fell in July of 332 BCE.
The city was in the hands of her enemies; her people defeated but not conquered. Some, having barricaded their houses, and gone to the roofs, threw down stones and other missiles upon the heads of the Macedonian soldiers. Many shut themselves up in their homes and died at their own hands. Many died in the streets. Others barricaded themselves within the sacred building called the Agenorium, and made desperate resistance to Alexander and his soldiers until they were overpowered and killed almost to the last man. There was general slaughter in the streets and squares. The Macdeonians were enraged by the stubborn resistance of the city… A large part of the city was burned. Eight thousand were slain in the conflict. The young men of the city to the number of two thousand were crucified on the seashore by order of Alexander, as a reprisal for the death of the Macedonian prisoners. Thirty thousand were sold into slavery. The Sidonians on board of their vessels gave shelter to many refugees. The king, Azemilcus, and the chief magistrates, with the Carthaginian embassy, took refuge in the temple of Heracles (Melkart) and their lives were spared.
— Fleming, ch 7
Greek Rule and Beyond
“The city did not lie in ruins long. Colonists were imported and citizens who had escaped returned. The energy of these with the advantages of the site, in a few years raised the city to wealth and leadership again” (Fleming, ch 7).
The city flourished under Greek rule, as well as Roman, and beyond. Though it changed hands occasionally as various kingdoms came into power, it remained an important trade and political hub for many centuries. We have many references to Tyre, and it continues to be referred to in terms of beauty, wealth, and power. Throughout this time, Alexander’s causeway grew progressively larger from sediment buildup, until the island became a peninsula.
The city finally hit its lowest point in 1291 AD, over 1500 years after Alexander’s attack, when Sultan Al-Ashraf Khalil defeated Acre and then sent troops to take Tyre. The governor of Tyre, as well as the knights and wealthy people, abandoned the city leaving only those who had no means of escape. The remaining citizens were too frightened to offer resistance, so they opened the gates to the enemy, thinking that would earn mercy. Instead, they were slaughtered, and the buildings of Tyre were destroyed and burned.
The city lay in ruins for centuries after this devastation. There were periods where the population would grow a bit, and even one period where 10,000 soldiers were stationed there, but some other attack or natural disaster would bring it low again. In the 19th century, there were some travelers who passed through and wrote descriptions about its sorry state that were obviously borrowing phrases from Ezekiel’s prophecy. In 1915, there were only about 6500 people living in Tyre, and there were various schools and churches for the residents there (Fleming, ch 11). But throughout the 20th century, the city continued to grow, despite some setbacks caused by conflicts in the area. Today, it is the 4th largest city in Lebanon with over 100,000 inhabitants, it has one of Lebanon’s most vital ports, and it’s become a major tourist attraction (wiki).
In the next post, we’ll look at how Ezekiel’s prophecy matches up against Tyre’s history.