How Alexander Turned The Island of Tyre Into a Peninsula

Nov 17, 2020 0 comments

The city of Tyre in southern Lebanon is one of the oldest cities in the world. Originally founded by settlers from the nearby city of Sidon in the 3rd millennium BCE, Tyre became politically independent when Egyptian influence in Phoenicia declined, and later it surpassed even Sidon to become the most important Phoenician trade center and seaport having commercial ties with all parts of the Mediterranean world.

The city is situated on a small bulbous peninsula that juts out from the Lebanese coast for nearly two kilometers. But it wasn’t always like this. Tyre was originally an island with half a kilometer of open water separating it from the mainland. The island was formidably defended with high walls surrounded on all sides that was 45 meters tall at places. Tyre was considered impregnable, having withstood several sieges in the past, including a 13-year siege by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.

Satellite view of the city of Tyre.

Satellite view of the city of Tyre.

In January 332 BCE, Alexander arrived in Phoenicia, having defeated Darius III at the battle of Issus in November 333 BCE. All Phoenician cities, with the exception of the island of Tyre, surrendered to Alexander’s army without a battle. Alexander was aware of Tyre's supposed impregnability, and he knew that city would be hard to conquer without a naval fleet, which he did not have. But subjugating Tyre was important for Alexander, because it was the Persian’s last harbor in the region. 

Alexander decided to use trickery to gain entry. He told the Tyrians that he wanted to make a sacrifice at the ancient temple of the Tyrian god Melqart, whom the Greeks identified with their own god Heracles. But the Tyrians were no fools and they refused to admit Alexander, suggesting that the Macedonian make his sacrifice to Heracles in the temple on the mainland. Alexander then tried to negotiate but the Tyrians executed his messengers and threw their bodies into the sea.

Alexander flew into a rage and became determined to capture Tyre. He ordered the construction of a large causeway (or mole), across the narrow channel towards Tyre, using rubble from demolished buildings on the mainland. The water was shallow, about two meters deep, and work progressed rapidly. But as the mole approached the island, the water became deeper and the seas heavy, and the Tyrians constantly harassed the builders by firing projectiles from the ramparts of the citadel.

The Siege of Tyre. Illustration by Duncan B. Campbell

The Siege of Tyre. Illustration by Duncan B. Campbell

To defend the mole, Alexander constructed two siege towers, 50 meters high, from timber and covered them with rawhides to protect against enemy fire arrows. Like most of Alexander’s siege towers, these were moving artillery platforms, with catapults on the top. He positioned the towers at the end of the causeway, and from the top Alexander’s army were able to return fire. The Tyrians responded by building a fireship. They took an old vessel, loaded it up with pitch, sulphur, and various other combustibles, hung cauldrons of oil from the mast, and set it on fire. Then they ran the burning ship aground the mole, engulfing the two siege towers in flames. Other Tyrian vessels fired missiles at Macedonian builders driving off anyone who tried to put out the fires.

The destruction of the siege towers and parts of the causeway was a huge setback for Alexander, but the young king was determined to rebuild the causeway. He started at once on a second, wider mole that could hold more towers, but on the back of his mind he knew that the siege could only succeed when attacked with a fleet.

The Siege of Tyre. Illustration by Frank Martini

The Siege of Tyre. Illustration by Frank Martini

So Alexander set off for Sidon to fetch his own ships. He raided up and down the coast collecting Phoenician vessels and crews which have previously served with the Persians. Two Phoenician kings, Gerostratus of Aradus and Enylus of Byblos, willfully joined Alexander, perhaps guessing which way the fortunes of war would go. In addition, the Kings of Cyprus sent another 120 vessels to join him. Soon Alexander had a formidable fleet numbering over 250 vessels.

When Alexander arrived with his superior fleet, the Tyrians blocked their ports and barricaded themselves inside. With the ships keeping guard, Alexander resumed building the mole. The Tyrians tried to prevent Alexander’s fleet from approaching too close to the city walls by creating obstacles in the sea with large number of stones hurled over the city walls. Alexander ordered the rocks hoisted out of the water with ropes so that a path could be cleared. The Tyrians then sent divers to cut the anchor ropes of the besieging ships. Alexander responded by replacing ropes with iron chains.

The Siege of Tyre.

Eventually, the mole was extended all the way to the city allowing Alexander to bring his siege engines and battering rams to pound the walls with. A weak spot in the wall was found in the southern end where Alexander’s army managed to crack open a hole. Once his troops forced their way into the city, they easily overtook the garrison, and quickly captured the city. The Macedonian army massacred Tyre’s population, and only those who took shelter in the temple of Melqart were pardoned. Some 6,000 men were killed in action and another 2,000 Tyrians were crucified on the beach. The rest of the population, some 30,000 people, consisting mostly of civilians were sold to slavery. Alexander’s men themselves suffered little casualties, with only about 400 killed.

The construction of the mole completely changed the geography of the coast. For centuries after the siege, the mole became an obstacle to sea currents causing sediments to deposit on either side of the mole, and an isthmus began to take shape. By the time Tyre became part of the Byzantium Empire in the late 4th century, the city was no longer an island, but well connected to the mainland by a wide peninsula. Today, this sandy peninsula is about half a kilometer wide and is heavily urbanized with hundreds of apartment blocks. Tyre’s southern harbor gradually filled with silt and has long since disappeared but the northern harbor is still used and is filled with fishing boats and pleasure craft.

present view of tyre

Aerial view of Tyre. Photographer unknown.

References:
# Marc G. De Santis, Alexander the Great and the Siege of Tyre, Warfare History Network
# Grant, Alexander's Siege of Tyre, 332 BCE, Ancient History Encyclopedia
# Yaacov Nir, The city of Tyre, Lebanon and its semi‐artificial tombolo, 3.0.CO;2-4">3.0.CO;2-4">3.0.CO;2-4">Wiley Online Library
# Wikipedia

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