The ancient town of Sidon was settled as early as 4000 BC, or 6800 BC according to some claims. In the Old Testament, Sidon is referred to as ‘the first born of Canaan’, which may have originated from the town’s possible founder, Saidoune ibn Canaan. The word for ‘fishing’ or ‘hunting’ is sayd in modern Arabic.
As early as the 14th and 15th centuries BC, Sidon had a reputation as a commercial centre with strong trade links with Egypt. The city rose in prominence from the 12th to 10th centuries BC, its wealth generated from trading murex, a mollusc that produced an expensive, highly prized purple dye that over time became known as the colour of royalty and was eventually exploited to the point of extinction. Geography helped, too: like many Phoenician cities, Sidon was built on a promontory with an offshore island, which sheltered the harbour from storms and provided a safe haven during times of war.
In common with the other Phoenician city-states, Sidon suffered from conquest and invasion numerous times. In 1200 BC the Philistines destroyed the city and its fleet of trading ships, allowing Tyre to eclipse Sidon as the most important Phoenician centre. Although often under Tyre’s control, or forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians, Sidon recovered its status as a trading centre, only to be destroyed in 675 BC by the Assyrian king Esarhaddon.
The city’s golden age came during the Persian Empire (525–332 BC) when the city was the capital of the Fifth Province, covering Syria, Palestine and Cyprus. Apart from murex, Sidon was famed for its glass-making, which was considered the best in the world. During this period the Temple of Echmoun, about 2km northeast of the city, was built. Inscriptions found there reveal that Phoenician Sidon was built in two sections: the maritime city, Sidon Yam; and the upper part, Sidon Sadeh, which was built on the lower spurs of the Mt Lebanon Range, upwind from the sickening smell produced by the murex dye works.
Sidon also became known for shipbuilding and provided experienced sailors for the Persian fleet. The king of Sidon was admiral of the fleet and successful in campaigns against the Egyptians in the 6th century BC, and later against the Greeks, giving Sidon a degree of independence from its Persian overlords. This lasted until the middle of the 4th century BC, when Phoenician rebellion, centred in Sidon, incurred the wrath of the Persians. Heading a huge army, King Artaxerxes Ochus arrived to beat the Sidonians into submission. According to Greek historian Diodorus, residents locked the city gates, employing a ‘scorched earth’ policy, setting fire to the city rather than surrendering it. More than 40, 000 people died in the ensuing inferno, weakening the city to such an extent that when Alexander the Great marched through in 333 BC, its residents were in no position to resist him and surrendered without a struggle.
Under the Greeks, Sidon recovered and enjoyed relative freedom and a sophisticated cultural life. Later the city came successively under the control of the Seleucids and the Ptolemies. Emperor Augustus, however, put an end to Sidon’s independence when he brought it under direct Roman rule.
During the Byzantine period, the aftermath of the devastating earthquake of AD 551 saw Sidon fare better than most other Phoenician cities, and it soon became home to Beirut’s famous School of Law, which was hastily moved from the wreckage of Beirut. In 667 the Arabs invaded and the city took on the Arabic name Saida, still widely in use today, remaining a wealthy centre, administered from Damascus.
In 1110 Baldwin I, King of Jerusalem, besieged the city and the Sidonians gave up after 47 days of resistance. In 1187 Saladin took the city and razed the ramparts to the ground in an attempt to render it useless as a Crusader base. It failed to deter the Crusaders, however, who hastily recaptured it. Subsequent battles for control saw Sidon passing to-and-fro between the two sides as many as five times, before finally falling to the Mamluks in 1291.
Sidon’s fortunes rose in the 15th century when it became a trading port of Damascus. While the city flourished again in the 17th century under the rule of Fakhreddine (Fakhr ad-Din al-Maan II), who encouraged French merchants to the city to set up highly profitable trading enterprises between France and Sidon, prosperity was temporary. In 1791, the Ottoman pasha of Acre, Ahmad al-Jazzar, drove the French from the town and Beirut took over as the centre of commerce. An earthquake in the 1830s, followed by bombardment during the Ottoman–European campaign to remove Bashir Shihab II, helped ensure the city’s fall into relative obscurity.
In the early part of the 20th century the area around Sidon was developed for agriculture, particularly fruit, evidence of which you’ll see on roads leading to the town. During the civil war Sidon was fought over variously by the Palestinians, Syrians, Israelis, Hezbollah and the Shiite militia Amal, and again suffered greatly, both economically and through human and architectural casualties. In the postwar period, it benefited from being the birthplace of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, whose eponymous foundation channelled huge amounts of money into the city’s reconstruction. Meanwhile other wealthy Sidon financiers such as the Audi and Debbané families are sponsoring the ongoing restoration of the souqs.