Tyre’s origins date back to around the 3rd millennium BC, when the original founders are thought to have come from Sidon to establish a new port city. Tyre fell under the supremacy of the pharaohs under the 18th Egyptian dynasty, from the 17th to 13th centuries BC benefiting from Egypt’s protection and prospering commercially.
Towards the end of the 2nd millennium BC, Tyre became a kingdom ruled by Abibaal. His son, Hiram I, ascended the throne in 969 BC and forged close relations with the Hebrew kings Solomon and David. Hiram sent cedar wood and skilled workers to help construct the famed temple in Jerusalem, as well as large amounts of gold. In return he received a district in Galilee that included 20 towns.
Under Hiram’s reign, Tyre flourished. Hiram changed the layout of the city – he joined the offshore island (the older part of the city) with another small island and linked it to the mainland via a narrow causeway, and his ties with King Solomon helped develop trade with Arabia and North and East Africa. Such was Hiram’s success that the Mediterranean Sea itself became known as ‘the Tyrian Sea’, and Tyre its most important city.
After Hiram’s 34-year reign ended, however, Tyre fell into bloody revolution, even as it continued to expand its trading links. The city paid tribute to the Assyrians but remained close to the Israelites and was ruled by a succession of kings. The most famous woman of ancient Tyrian legend was Princess Elissa, also known as Dido. Embroiled in a plot to take power, when it became clear that she’d failed Dido seized a fleet of ships and sailed for North Africa. She founded a new port on the ruins of Kambeh, which became known in time as Carthage, near modern-day Tunis. This became the seat of the Carthaginian empire.
The rise of Carthage gradually saw a corresponding fall in Tyre’s fortunes. Weakened as a power, the Tyrians sued for peace when the Assyrians conquered the Levant and became their vassal state, but when Assyria’s power weakened, Tyre rebelled against its overlords. Assyrian attempts to keep Tyre in line led to periods of war throughout the 7th and 6th centuries BC.
With the fall of the Assyrians in 612 BC, Tyre was peaceably controlled by the Neo-Babylonians until 586 BC, when it once again rebelled, leading to a 13-year siege by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. The inhabitants stood firm behind the high walls of the island-city and the siege failed.
More successful, however, was the campaign of Alexander the Great. In 332 BC he marched along coastal Phoenicia exacting tribute from all its city-states. Tyre, in time-honoured tradition, resisted and prepared for a long siege. The city was considered impregnable, but Alexander began building a sea bridge to reach the city, under a constant hail of missiles from the Tyrians. Meanwhile, on the mainland, Alexander’s engineers were constructing 20-storey siege towers, the tallest ever used in the history of war. After several months these great war machines lumbered across the land bridge and the battle for Tyre began in earnest.
Running low on supplies and morale, Tyre finally fell after seven months and Alexander, enraged at the dogged resistance of the Tyrians, allowed his troops to sack the city. The city’s 30, 000 citizens were massacred or sold into slavery. This destruction heralded the domination of the Greeks in the Mediterranean. Alexander’s legacy lives on in Tyre, as the land bridge he created became the permanent link between the old city and the mainland, and Tyre became a peninsula.
The city eventually recovered from its devastation and, after a period of Seleucid rule following Alexander’s death, became autonomous in 126 BC. In 64 BC, Tyre became a Roman province, then the capital of the Roman province of Syria-Phoenicia.
Later Tyre became one of the first Lebanese towns to adopt Christianity and was the seat of an archbishopric, with 14 bishoprics under its control. In the Byzantine period, flourishing silk, glass and murex industries, producing the prized purple dye, saw the city prosper.
The Arabs took the city in AD 635, and its prosperity continued. The Umayyad caliph, Mu’awiyah, transformed the city into a naval base and it was from here that the first Arab fleet set sail to conquer Cyprus.
With the arrival of the Crusaders, Tyre’s future was to become less assured. By paying tribute in 1099, the city avoided attack as the Crusaders marched on Jerusalem. It narrowly survived another Crusader encounter (1111–12), when King Baldwin placed it under siege for nearly five months, finally giving up after some 2000 of his men had been killed. Twelve years later Tyre was not so lucky. People from other coastal cities had fled to Tyre when the Crusaders started to take the Middle East in 1124. After a siege of five and a half months, Tyre’s defences collapsed and the Christian army occupied the city and the surrounding fertile land.
The Crusaders rebuilt the defensive walls and Tyre remained in Crusader hands for 167 years, until the Mamluk army of Al-Malik al-Ashraf retook the city in 1291. At the start of the 17th century, Fakhreddine attempted to rebuild and revitalise Tyre, but without much success. Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Tyre was included in the French Mandate of Greater Lebanon, and then incorporated into the Lebanese republic.
Once the State of Israel was established in 1948, Tyre’s precarious position close to the sealed border further marginalised the city, which was already sidelined by Beirut and Sidon. Along with the rest of the South it suffered greatly during the drawn-out civil war, and Israel’s long occupation of the adjacent border area left the city depressed long after the 1991 cease-fire. In recent years, the city has slowly begun to recover, but it suffered further setbacks in 2006 when the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah wrought new damage and left Beirutis – who, until then, were beginning to repopulate its hotels, beaches and restaurants – once again afraid to venture so far south. Currently Tyre is in the midst of yet another period of reinvention and renewal, attempting to struggle back to its feet, as it has done – successfully – for centuries.