The earliest known occupation of Byblos dates from the 5th millennium BC, when the first settlers fished and tended their animals here. This was the era of early agriculture and the remains of cultivated grains have been found at a partially excavated site on the promontory, whose tools and primitive weapons are now at Beirut’s National Museum. Also found at the site are chalcolithic terracotta storage jars, dating from around the 4th millennium BC, inside which inhabitants used to bury their dead.
By the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, the city-state of Byblos had been colonised by the Phoenicians and become a significant religious centre. The temple of Baalat Gebal, probably built on the site of a sacred grotto, was famous throughout antiquity. Close links with Egypt encouraged the city’s cultural and religious development, with its temple receiving generous offerings from several pharaohs. As Byblos flourished, it evolved its own personal hybrid style of art and architecture – part Egyptian, part Mesopotamian, and later showing some Mycenaean influences.
Around 2150 BC, however, the Amorites, a hardened Semitic-speaking people, invaded the city and ruined much of its well-ordered layout and prosperity. This is the period from which the underground royal tombs, and the Obelisk Temple dedicated to Resheph, god of burning and destructive fire, date.
The Amorite occupation ended in 1725 BC with another invasion, this time by the warlike Hyksos from western Asia, who arrived with horses and chariots, hurling javelins and carrying lances, all new to the people of this region. The Egyptians, also suffering from a Hyksos invasion, soon retaliated and from 1580 BC claimed the Phoenician coast. A long period of trade and development followed, during which the kings of Byblos were subservient to their Egyptian masters. Many Egyptian customs were adopted, with temples and burial chambers decorated in the Egyptian style.
The linear alphabet, perhaps the most significant achievement of the Phoenicians, was also developed during this period. Thought to have originated in Byblos, it was invented as a more practical way of recording trade transactions than the cuneiform script, and quickly spread throughout the civilised world.
The Egyptian-dominated period of prosperity, however, did not last and between 1100 and 725 BC Byblos was eclipsed by Tyre as the most important Phoenician city-state. It then became a pawn in the power struggle between the Greeks and Assyrians (725–612 BC), eventually being ruled by the Assyrians and then the Neo-Babylonians.
Following the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great in 539 BC, Byblos was regenerated as a trading link to the east under the Persian Empire. During the Hellenistic period, unlike Tyre, the city voluntarily became an ally of Alexander and continued to flourish under its own royal dynasty.
When the Greek Empire waned and the Roman Empire waxed, Byblos concentrated its trading efforts to the west. From 63 BC onwards, the Roman Empire became a market for Phoenician goods and the city boasted lavish public architecture and suburban farming developments. Unfortunately, with an ironically modern twist, Byblos had sowed the seeds of its own downfall by not regulating the pace of deforestation – and now the very resource that had made this boom town wealthy was suddenly in short supply. But when the Roman Empire split into east and west in AD 395, Byblos allied itself to Constantinople and became increasingly important as a religious centre. Pagan religion gradually gave way to Christianity and the city became the seat of a bishopric under Emperor Diocletian, protected by the Eastern Roman Empire until the Islamic invasion in 636.
Under the Muslims the focus turned eastward and Byblos’ sea port dwindled into insignificance along with the city’s defences. Byblos, by now known as Jbail, was left vulnerable. During the Crusader offensive, which began in 1098, Jbail fell to Raymond de Saint-Gilles, Count of Tripoli. Despite resuming trade with Europe, the city never regained its former power. Subsequent struggles between Crusader and Muslim forces continued until August 1266 when Emir Najibi, lieutenant of the Mamluk sultan, Beybars, laid siege to the town.
The next few centuries were relatively uneventful; the Turks took control of the city in 1516 and Byblos passed into insignificance until Ernest Renan, a French historian and philosopher, began to excavate the site in 1860. Excavations came to a standstill during the civil war and are nowadays still slowly ongoing.