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Lush banana plantations line the coastal route from congested Beirut to this ancient Mediterranean port.
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When Poe compresses into a few lovely lines images of barks of yore, a perfum’d sea, the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, and “regions which are Holy Land,” he evokes a place at the intersection of the Phoenician, Homeric, Attic, Alexandrine, Augustan, and Biblical worlds: Tyre.
Poe dedicates his great lyric “To Helen.” The moonbeams-and-magnolias herd of historians maintains that this poem was inspired by Poe’s adolescent crush on an antebellum Hannah Montana, 14-year-old Jane Stanard of Richmond, Va. Stranger things have happened, but the Stanard Version slights Poe’s classical education and the fact that his poetic artistry at its best is gently allusive, not leadenly didactic (as is Longfellow’s dreadful doggerel about Tyre). This may kill my chances of ever lunching again at the Garden Club of Virginia, but somehow I think it is common sense to discern in the poem allusions not to schoolgirl Jane of the Old Dominion, but to two great literary Helens of Older Dominions.
Our hotel proprietor tells us that the beach in front of us is where Saint Paul landed when he visited the Christians of Tyre in 58 A.D. Across the gravel lane from the hotel, my wife and I take thick Turkish (oops, Greek… no, make that Lebanese) coffee with the Greek-Catholic Melkite Metropolitan Archbishop of Tyre at his residence. He sits beneath a recent photograph of himself with Pope Benedict, whose primacy he recognizes. It is a weekday, and he has just celebrated the early morning Divine Liturgy with the Archbishop Emeritus and another priest…and six members of the laity.
“There are 500 Christians remaining in Tyre,” he tells us.
“Five hundred Christians and two Archbishops?” asks my wife. Perhaps too much perked up by the Archbishop’s brew, she exclaims, “Why, this is a place where you almost can have your own personal Archbishop!”
“Actually there are four Archbishops,” continues the prelate. “There’s also a Maronite Archbishop and there’s a Greek Orthodox Archbishop.” Each resides beside his little cathedral within a three-block radius in the warren of mediaeval streets in Tyre’s old Christian Quarter. The abundance of Archbishops in Tyre has something to do with its antiquity as a Christian community and the multitude of Christian rites in the region.
The roadsides of the region of Tyre and Sidon now are festooned everywhere with iconic portraits, sometimes side by side, of two men of magnificent rank and luxuriant facial hair, Sheikh Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Col. Harland D. Sanders. The juxtaposition undercuts the preoccupations of the Amriki who worries Why do they hate us? while making more apt the conundrum, in the land of perfect mezze, Why do they love our fast food? From the images of Hezbollah’s chubby chieftain it appears he seldom tarries long without a repast of potatoes mashed brutally in the Colonel’s ineffable gravy, Southern home-style biscuits, and KFC Original Recipe Chicken.
Ezekiel warned Tyre and its gods of his God’s angry threat: “They shall make a spoil of thy riches, and make a prey of thy merchandise: and they shall break down thy walls, and destroy thy pleasant houses: and they shall lay thy stones and thy timber and thy dust in the midst of the water. And I will cause the noise of thy songs to cease; and the sound of thy harps shall be no more heard. And I will make thee like a naked rock; thou shalt be a drying place for nets; neither shalt thou be built anymore.”
With a glance toward the vast remains of ancient streets and buildings submerged under the clear Mediterranean waters just off the city’s shore, it’s plain to see the prophecy came true. But after Alexander’s extermination of the original Tyrians and perhaps a kind of prophetic statute of limitations, new inhabitants began to build again and make music. As I stumble through the sprawling necropolis and Roman hippodrome, recordings of steam calliope carnival tunes blast from the boom boxes of a crowded Palestinian refugee camp hulking over the site. Is Bruno Anthony from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train lurking behind the next Phoenician ossuary?
In the many villages of the Tyrian outskirts, expensive new dwellings, Mideast McMansions, rise on the hills. These are showplaces, built for proud visits home by Shi’a traders who make their fortunes in West Africa. The high probability of more military conflict, alleviated a bit by the lesser chance the owners will be home when it happens, does nothing to slow the construction boom.
Back in the center in an open-air workshop on the wharf where Hiram shipped his cargoes, an old man with an adze fashions aromatic cedar into a full size, seaworthy Phoenician ship, a bark of yore. His young assistant says the connoisseurs who commission their sailing ships pay them very good money. He adds that the stout cedar planks stacked at water’s edge are imported from Canada. Overharvested Lebanese cedar is an endangered species.
In a little place around the corner, next door to the municipal hoosegow, a man serves snacks and pours Almaza Pilsener from a tap. He lives in the ancient stone tower a block away. By night he is the lighthouse keeper of Tyre. He tells us with a quiet smile that more than once during the past three bellicose decades, he deliberately shut off the light to cause Libyan gun-runners and their consignments to dash against the shoals and join ambitious Phoenician, Greek and Roman projects in watery oblivion.
In front of a carpenter’s shop, a porphyry column, sundered from its vertical role perhaps as long ago as Alexander’s siege, lies prone in a bed of dust and coarse gravel. In Washington or Los Angeles it would be a prized piece for exhibition at Dumbarton Oaks or the Getty. In Tyre, it is cheaper than Ready Mix and rebar, and so it performs humble service as a parking block, or as the British would say and spell it, “tyre stopper.”
With keen aesthetics and keener pragmatism, Tyrians live according to a teleology that made sense to Alexander’s tutor: Function follows form.
(Mr. Duggan began writing for The American Spectator many and many a year ago. Since the summer of 2009, he has lived and worked as a writer in the Middle East, in a kingdom by the sea.)
Photos: Lucía Landa de Duggan
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