The prophet Ezekiel only began to thunder against Tyre, that great Phoenician city, towards the beginning of the 5th century B.C., but Tyre was already very old and doubtless worth thundering against long before Ezekiel.
Herodotus reckoned the city was founded in 2750 B.C., but you don't hear a great deal about Tyre until the 14th century B.C. when Ikhnaton, the radical pharaoh of Egypt, ignored it.
The king of Tyre was only one of the princes dependent on Egypt who cried again and again for help, but to no avail. The borders of the empire were crumbling, but Ikhnaton was busy with his beautiful new capital and most likely, the beautiful Nefertiti and was no good at running empires.
"There is no wood, no water, no straw, no place for the dead," complained the king of Tyre, besieged, to the pharaoh. The pharaoh (whose palace was notable for quite remarkable sculpted glazed tiles on the stair risers, and much else) apparently never got round to providing assistance for threatened Tyre.
Perhaps it made no great difference, for the old city has been besieged again and again, her walls battered down (though she withstood 13 years of siege by the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar) and her people massacred.
Well. Here in town is Mme. Maha Chalabi, born in Tyre and determined to see it excavated and preserved. She is secretary general of the Unesco International Committee for the Safeguard of Tyre.
Flinging her red hair through a sudden motion of her head, Chalabi said she had organized a festival of performances in Tyre in 1972, and then the fighting in that part of the eastern Mediterranean started, so she sought UNESCO help, since the arts festival was endangered. Her husband, now a citizen of Lebanon, is from Iraq, a banker. Madame's family have lived in Tyre for only 600 years, she said, but she nevertheless feels deeply rooted there.
The ancient city was destroyed by the Arabs in 1291 and nothing happened after that except the precious marble was carted off to other cities (the king of Sidon was extremely annoyed that the tremendous polished red granite columns of the Crusader Church at Tyre were too big for him to move) and weeds grew up.
A few huts appeared among the ruins, and in the 18th-century houses started appearing once again, and now there is a small modern city on the ancient site. a
In 1860 Renan, the orientalist, arrived from France to start digging the ruins. He uncovered a beautiful mosaic pavement (promptly hauled off to the Louvre in Paris) from the Byzantine period, and found various Roman columns and sarcophagi. The city of Hiram, however (Hiram, the king who provided Solomon with the cedar and much else for the temple at Jerusalem) lay too deeply covered for Renan to find.
In the 1920s and again in the 1930s there were digs. In 1947 systematic digging began under the aegis of the Lebanese government. Already a surprising amount of the Roman city has been recovered, so the visitor can see fine columns and arched entrance gates.
But Chalabi says the fighting and skirmishing between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israeli forces has been a terrible threat to the site. Some damage has been done, but nothing irreparable. The United Nations is considering what it can do to preserve the ancient site as an open city, off limits to warring factions.
Even in the past people often dug as deep as 30 feet to recover valuable marble and other materials from the Roman Tyre, and although the Lebanese government was strict, later, about the theft and export of antiquities from the ruins, the present military confusion has meant that controls are weak over the traffic in general loot.
"Tyre is not a city of monuments so much as a city from which we could learn so much about how people lived in ancient times. The alphabet was invented here, the one we use today. The sailors of Tyre were the first to sail the open sea, the first to found colonies beyond the limits of the known world -- Cadiz in Spain, for instance. Tyre was famous for its royal purple dye, made from shellfish in the waters off Tyre, and famous for its beads and cloth.
"It was a merchant city.[Ezekiel gives a whole catalogue of the peoples who came to Tyre to trade.] The terrible thing would be if the site were lost before archeologists were able to learn from what is still buried."
It's a book not yet read, and Chalabi fears it will be snatched away before it can be read.
"Dido was always my hero when I was a little girl," she went on. Dido was a queen of Tyre, or should have been, but fierce family infighting deprived her of her place. She was terribly ingenious, and had her husband's tremendous treasure of gold stored secretly on ships, following his murder by the Tyrian king. Then she boarded the ship herself with lots of bags of sand. She had the bags thrown into the sea, crying loudly that she was throwing her husband's gold treasure back to him in the land of the dead.
The worthless sand disposed of, she sailed to Africa where she bought land and founded the city of Carthage. The men of Cartage, ever after, felt closely bound to Tyre and used to send vast sums of money to Tyre. Hannibal, the great enemy of Rome, was one Carthaginian who traced his descent to one of the Tyrians who fled Tyre with Dido.
But of course, there is no end to the lore of Tyre. A book, "Tyre Through the Ages," by Nina Jidejian, contains some of it. Mme. Chalabi has plenty more in her head. It is her view -- her strong view -- that the Olympic Games actually were instituted in Tyre, not Olympia.
Ezekiel, in his fulminating against Tyre:
"Thine heart was lifted up because of thy beauty; thou hast corrupted wisdom by reason of thy brightness. I will cast thee to the ground . . ." (Ezekiel 28:17)
The last thing Mme. Chalabi wants is to start any religious argument -- there are enough in her part of the world already -- but you can harldy expect her to endorse the prophet who says of her city:
"The merchants among the people shall hiss at thee; thou shalt be a terror, and never shalt be any more," and "I will make thee a terror and thou shalt be no more: though thou be sought for, yet shalt thou never be found again."
With all respect to the prophet, Tyre is found. The problem is not to lose it.