Tyre and the Poets - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Tyre and the Poets

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.

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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