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Lush banana plantations line the coastal route from congested Beirut to this ancient Mediterranean port.
TYRE — For $50 a family can take a safe, radio-call taxi from the congested heart of Beirut to the uncluttered ancient waterfront of Tyre, a few miles north of the border with Israel. Lush banana plantations line the coastal route.
People are all around, but only God knows how many there are. Among the many mysteries within which Lebanon veils itself is its population count. A weary, way-worn Beirut newspaperman, a Levantine Hildy Johnson, explains over many cloudy glasses of arak that, because of the religious “confessional” allocation of political power, it is simply too sensitive an undertaking to carry out a census anymore. The last time Happy Days were here so as to make safe an official headcount was 1932, under the French Tricolor and 16 years before proclamation of the Lebanese Republic.
The Lebanese attitude about census-taking follows the Epicurean sentiment of Horace: Tu ne quaesieris, scire nefas, or as it is said in a tawdrier time, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Half an hour south of Beirut is Sidon, where, back in the day, the sainted Louis IX of France constructed a mighty castle and commanded Crusader forces for a few fleeting years. Today, like much else both newer and older in Lebanon, the castle has been blown to smithereens. With its sublime falafel, enchanting souq and caravanserais, this old town is good for a day trip. Sidon has come a long way from Saint Louis, but not in the right direction. It has not a single hotel worth an overnight stay.
Forty minutes further down the coast, past both Lebanese and United Nations military checkpoints, we arrive on a gravel beach fronting the Mediterranean in urban Tyre, at an old Ottoman structure framed solidly from gold-hued limestone. During the 19th century, in what seems a mischievous design of the viziers and dragomans, the building housed a maternity hospital on the first floor and in the basement a women’s prison. This year, beautifully restored and decorated, it opened as Yara Palace, a boutique hotel and restaurant. The former prison is a bar catering to the South Korean, Italian, and Tanzanian military men serving with UNIFIL.
UNIFIL stands for United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, but keep in perspective what “interim” might mean to the Tyrian mind. While working on his Histories, Herodotus traveled here in the 5th century B.C. for an on-site inspection. The locals told him their city at that time was about 2,300 years old.
The Western literary imagination is attracted to Tyre because it swirls amid the turbulent confluence of Biblical history and prophecy, Homeric and Virgilian epic, Ovidian mythology, and imperial extravagances of luxury and vindictive warfare. Tyre is the birthplace of real or fabulous personages including Cadmus, Europa, and Dido, the latter of whom colonized Carthage as others were to plant the Tyrian standard in Mediterranean ports as far west as Cádiz. The men who sailed with Columbus and colonized the Americas were descendants of long-ago colonists from Tyre.
With its expensive purple dye made from a local mollusk, the murex, Tyre was the center for the Versaces and Givenchys of the ancient world. Paris took Helen of Troy here on a shopping expedition to drape in sumptuous fabric the frame and face that launched a thousand ships.
King Hiram of Tyre was an ally and trading partner of Jerusalem’s King Solomon. Hiram sold Solomon the cedar timber for the great Temple.
The Jerusalem-Tyre relationship was rocky then as now. The old Hebrew prophets inveighed against the wealthy city and its neighbor, Sidon, as hotbeds of heathenism and vice. Jezebel, a Tyrian princess (and Dido’s great-aunt) who married Israel’s King Ahab, came to an unhappy end.
Egypt’s pharaohs many times made war against Tyre. Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar battered Tyre in the 6th century B.C. Some 250 years later, Alexander the Great already had established effective mastery over the entire Levant when he demanded to offer sacrifice at Tyre to its principal god, Melqart. Alexander maintained that he himself was divine because, he said, he was a descendant of divine Herakles, of whom Melqart was only an avatar. The Tyrians didn’t cotton to that.
When diplomacy failed, Alexander mounted a costly siege whose success resulted in the slaughter of thousands of Tyrians, deportation into slavery for the survivors, and ruin of the splendid city. Modern historians say there was no strategic rationale for Alexander’s destruction of Tyre and its people. The impulse for the genocide was something like the rage of a deranged, spurned lover. Is “education” the answer to war and the world’s other problems? Consider that the Macedonian sociopath had for his personal tutor the serene and rational Stagirite who wrote the Nicomachean Ethics.
When Jesus walked up the short road from Galilee to Tyre, preaching to the people and driving a demon out of a local woman’s daughter, he saw what Nebuchadnezzar and Alexander had done to the place, fulfilling the prophecies of, inter alia, Amos, Ezekiel, Zechariah and Jeremiah. He instructed his disciples to say to Galilean towns that rejected them and their preaching: “It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment, than for thee.”
Tyre, its glories, and its devastations have inspired much English-language poetry, not all of it great. The shakiest entry in the Shakespeare canon is Pericles: Prince of Tyre, a weak work slapped together in a regrettable collaboration between the Bard and some London hacks from a mediaeval tear-jerker, Apollonius of Tyre. The Gnostic Necromancer Simon Magus and his paramour Helen of Tyre, who lived just after the time of Jesus, are themselves the figures of fascinating legend. Longfellow was obsessed with Tyre, but being no Dante with Paolo and Francesca, he spoiled the story of Simon and Helen in a tedium of moralistic stanzas — “pious gurglings,” as Mencken put it.
On the other hand, some fine romantic poems inspired by the Greco-Roman past, without referencing Tyre specifically, capture its atmosphere. When Keats tells us what he perceives with his mind’s eye on first looking into Chapman’s Homer, it is something resembling Tyre.
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