Ancient History & Civilisation

THE RISE OF THE CITY OF MELQART

By the tenth century BC, however, the balance of power among the Phoenician cities had begun to change, for Tyre, under the dynamic leadership of its kings Abibaal and then Hiram, was in the ascendant. Chronic water shortages had been solved by the boring of deep water cisterns into the island rock, and Abibaal had laid the foundations of expansion through astute diplomacy and political awareness.20 With Egypt still in a period of sustained decrepitude and Assyria and Babylonia also in decline, a new power had emerged in the form of the recently united Jewish kingdom of Israel–Judah. Hiram was quick to realize the potential to outstrip the other Phoenician cities, and sent an embassy to the victorious Israelite king David, with gifts which, of course, included cedarwood.21An alliance with Israel was all the more desirable because its territory bordered the narrow hinterlands of Tyre and of other Phoenician cities, effectively cutting them off from the lucrative interior trade routes that led eastward.

When Solomon succeeded David to the Israelite throne in 961 BC, Hiram followed up his father’s initial diplomatic work by sending another delegation to congratulate the new king. The overtures appear to have paid off, for Tyre and Israel signed a commercial agreement which contracted the former to supply timber and skilled craftsmen to work on two new magnificent buildings in the city of Jerusalem: a temple to the Israelite god, Yahweh, and a royal palace.22 Hiram sent large numbers of his subjects to fell cedars and cypresses on Mount Lebanon, while other skilled Tyrian craftsmen dressed stone for the temple in the quarries, before it was transported to Jerusalem.23 Solomon had also commissioned Cheiromos, a caster of mixed Israelite–Tyrian parentage, to create intricate gold, silver and bronze decorations for the temple.24

In exchange, as well as a payment of silver, the Israelites would deliver annual provisions of over 400,000 litres of wheat and 420,000 litres of olive oil–a great boon for Tyre, with its limited territory.25 The original treaty ran for twenty years, and at its conclusion (marked by the completion of both structures) a new pact was signed. In exchange for a large cash payment of 120 talents of gold, Solomon sold Tyre twenty cities in the Galilee and Akko plain, an area famous for its agricultural production.26 Tyre now had the hinterland which it needed to consolidate its position in the Levant.

There were other benefits too. Commercially, this deal not only gave Tyre privileged access to the valuable markets of Israel, Judaea and northern Syria, it also provided further opportunities for joint overseas ventures. Indeed, a Tyrian–Israelite expedition travelled to the Sudan and Somalia, and perhaps even as far as the Indian Ocean. Unsurprisingly, when the fleet returned laden with cargoes of gold, silver, ivory and precious stones, this lucrative enterprise was repeated. In the early decades of the ninth century BC, Tyrian–Israelite relations would be further strengthened by the marriage of the daughter of King Ithobaal I of Tyre, the infamous Jezebel, to the new king of Israel, Ahab.27

The innovative Hiram also ushered in other radical changes in Tyre. Phoenician religious belief and practice were part of a wider Syrio-Palestinian tradition that encompassed much of western Syria and the states of Israel, Judah and Moab.28 As adherents to a polytheistic religious system, the Phoenicians worshipped a wide range of deities, although there does appear to have been some kind of hierarchy. At the head of the Phoenician divine pantheon were El and Asherah, while the god Baal, in numerous different manifestations, played the chief executive role in a subordinate but more active day-to-day capacity.29

Religious ritual was a central part of the public and private life of the Phoenician cities. The great temples of the gods were the richest and, after the palace, the most powerful institutions in the Near East. They were huge corporations in their own right, employing not just priests but also a host of other professions. Some even had temple barbers for supplicants who wished to offer up their hair as a gift to a particular deity, and temple prostitutes, whose earnings supplemented the income of the temple. This concentration of power and wealth meant that tensions naturally existed between the temples and the other main power structure in the city, the royal palace. Indeed, it seems that a desire to bring the temples to heel lay behind the royal decision to replace the traditional chief deities of Tyre with a new god, Melqart (his name meaning ‘King of the City’), who would rule over their pantheon with his consort, the goddess Astarte. According to one ancient source, in order to guarantee the success of his religious putsch, Hiram had the temples of the old Tyrian gods demolished and built magnificent new sanctuaries for Melqart and Astarte. Although the latter part of this account is probably correct, it is unlikely that the religious revolution was quite so drastic as to have required the destruction of the old Phoenician pantheon.

These changes signified not the demise of the old gods, but rather a significant readjustment of the Tyrian religious landscape. Indeed, it appears that El continued as the chief deity of Tyre, and that the three storm gods Baal Shamen, Baal Malagê and Baal Saphon maintained their seniority. However, Melqart was now the undisputed divine patron of the royal house. Thus he was a ‘political’ god, who acted both as figurehead and as vehicle for the aspirations of the king. The idea may have been imported from the Phoenician city of Byblos, where Baalat Gubal (‘the Lady of Byblos’) had long been worshipped in a similar manner.30

Through the worship of Melqart, the king could portray himself as the bridge between the temporal and celestial worlds, and the needs of the heavenly gods could closely correspond with the political exigencies of the palace.31 The king even introduced an elaborate new ceremonial to celebrate the annual festival of Melqart.32 Each spring, in a carefully choreographed festival called the egersis, an effigy of the god was placed on a giant raft before being ritually burnt as it drifted out to sea while hymns were sung by the assembled crowds. For the Tyrians, as for many other ancient Near Eastern peoples, the emphasis fell upon the restorative properties of fire, for the god himself was not destroyed but revived by the smoke, and the burning of the effigy thus represented his rebirth. To emphasize the importance of the egersis in maintaining the internal cohesion of the Tyrian people, all foreigners had to leave the city for the duration of the ceremony. Afterwards the king and his chief consort would take the roles of Melqart and Astarte in a ritual marriage which guaranteed the well-being and fertility of the king, as well as his legitimate authority. Indeed, the ceremony went far beyond ritual pageantry and role play. It strongly suggested that the king was nothing less than the living embodiment of the great Melqart.33

Hiram does not seem to have been alone in his desire to stamp royal authority on the religious identity of his city. At Sidon the king appears to have promoted the role of the deities Eshmoun and Astarte as the guardians and protectors of the royal dynasty, and took up with his immediate family the role of chief priests of their cults.34 It was also surely no coincidence that Eshmoun, like Melqart, was closely associated with fertility and the cycles of death and regeneration.35

Over the centuries, Melqart became increasingly dominant in Tyre, to the extent that he was often given the title of Baal Sôr, divine ‘Lord of Tyre’, and was even feted as the original founder of the city. When the Greek historian Herodotus visited the great temple of Melqart at Tyre in the fifth century BC, the priests told him that the temple had been built 2,300 years before, at the same time as the city’s foundation.36

Indeed, in a later Greek story that might have much older Phoenician origins, it was related that the site of Tyre had once consisted of two rocks called the ‘Ambrosian stones’. They were uninhabited aside from a solitary flaming olive tree on which perched an eagle and a beautifully crafted bowl. Completing this strange spectacle was a serpent coiled around the trunk and branches. Despite the grave potential for disaster, a peaceful status quo remained in force, with neither the snake nor the eagle attempting to attack the other. Likewise, the blazing olive tree and the creatures which inhabited it were, miraculously, never consumed by the fire. Furthermore, the bowl never slipped and fell from the branches, despite the billowing maritime gales. In contrast to the state of suspended animation that existed on them, the Ambrosian stones themselves drifted rootless around the waters of the Mediterranean. Inspired by the god/hero Melqart, who had come to them in human form, the inhabitants of the mainland built the first ever ship: ‘a new kind of vehicle to travel on the brine . . . the chariot of the sea, the first craft that ever sailed which can heave you over the deep’ to take them to the itinerant rocks.37 There they landed, and, as instructed by Melqart, the future citizens of Tyre captured the eagle and sacrificed it to Zeus, splattering its blood on the rocks. Henceforth the Ambrosian stones were anchored to the seabed and wandered no more. The citadel of Tyre was then built on them, with a temple for the worship of Melqart.38 Herodotus, in his account of the temple, described how it contained twin pillars–one made of pure gold and the other of emerald, perhaps representing the flaming olive tree–which gleamed brightly in the dark of the night.39

In this strange tale, the importance of Melqart to the people of Tyre was reflected not only in his role as the founder of their city, but also by his gift of the first boat, which gave them the means to cross the great expanse of the Mediterranean. As the sea was the key to Tyre’s prosperity, and at times to its very existence, it was logical that maritime success be attributed to the god who had, in the city’s mythology, enabled naval travel.40 Moreover as Tyrian political influence increasingly extended outside Phoenicia, so did Melqart’s visibility. During the ninth century in northern Syria, where Tyre had extensive commercial interests, we find a local potentate erecting a monument to the god and depicting him wearing a horned helmet and brandishing a battleaxe.41

The long-term effectiveness of Hiram’s policies became clear in the consolidation of Tyrian influence among the Phoenician cities, to the extent that Sidon came under Tyre’s control.42 Indeed, some scholars have argued that a separate Phoenician identity was formed precisely in this period, the product of a powerful Tyrian–Sidonian axis in the southern Levant, and of the subsequent use of the names Pūt and Ponnim for its cities and peoples. It is at least clear that, as Tyre’s commercial influence grew, so it became an important hub for joint ventures involving Phoenicians from other cities along the Levantine coast.43

Tyrian commerce was further strengthened by Phoenician advances in navigation and ship construction, which greatly expanded the geographical range and speed of trading operations. The first of these innovations was the use of the Pole Star (which came to be known as the Phoiniké) as a navigational tool allowing sailors to travel on the open seas at night. The second involved a series of revolutionary developments in shipbuilding. The keel and the practice of coating the wooden planks of the ships’ hulls with bitumen tar so that they remained watertight were both Phoenician inventions. The Phoenician name for merchant ships in Greek (gauloi) later also took on the meaning of bathtubs, on account of the ships’ huge bulbous hulls. These boats were the perfect marriage between maximum storage space and speed. Despite their size, they were, thanks to their single huge square sail and teams of oarsmen, deceptively nimble, and in good weather conditions they could cover up to 40 kilometres per day.44

By the early decades of the ninth century BC Tyre, under the leadership of Ithobaal I, had established itself at the centre of an impressive trading network which took in much of Asia Minor, Cyprus, Armenia, the Ionian Islands, Rhodes, Syria, Judah, Israel, Arabia and the Near East.45 A new artificial southern harbour was also built to handle the huge volume of goods that passed through the port. It was named the ‘Egyptian’, for the slumbering giant Egypt had at last woken from its long-term economic stupor and, seeing a new commercial opportunity, the Tyrians had brokered a new alliance, which resulted in a resumption of large-scale trade.46

Since at least the tenth century BC, a common modus operandi for Phoenician merchants in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean was the establishment of enclaves among the indigenous communities with whom they traded. Over time these commercial contacts developed into more permanent relationships, with evidence of the setting-up of unguent-bottling factories on the islands of Crete, Rhodes and Cos.47 Some settlements in the region also start to show signs of a more established Phoenician community, such as Kommos in southern Crete, where the remains of a particular type of tri-pillar Levantine religious shrine, probably dating to the early ninth century BC, have been discovered.48

It has generally been assumed that the existence of locally made copies of Near Eastern styles of pottery and metalware in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean–commonly known as the ‘orientalizing’ phenomenon–indicates what was originally the work of immigrant Phoenician smiths and potters and their indigenous apprentices. 49 However, it is clear that the Tyrians in particular had, by the end of the ninth century, begun to develop a new set of relationships with the overseas lands with which they traded.

Cyprus had long been linked with the Levantine cities and had been an established part of the eastern Mediterranean trade route since the second millennium BC, mainly on account of the rich copper deposits that were located in the island’s interior.50 The first Tyrian colony was at Kition, on the site of a previously abandoned mercantile settlement. The paucity of Greek pottery and other luxury foreign goods found by archaeologists at Kition shows that it was not set up as a typical trading hub. Other Cypriot ports, such as Amathus, were already fulfilling that function. The primary aim of the settlement was to give the Tyrians access to the rich copper reserves of the Cypriot interior, which could be then smelted and shipped back to Tyre, from a site that would provide its Phoenician settlers with a fertile hinterland for agriculture. Unlike previous overseas commercial enterprises, where Levantine traders and craftsmen had lived within, and under the protection of, the indigenous communities with whom they conducted business, Kition and other Tyrian colonies were treated as Tyrian sovereign territory and were administered by a governor who reported directly to the king.51 It is clear that the Tyrian king was prepared to protect his interests on Cyprus even with force if necessary. When the inhabitants of Kition rebelled against Tyrian rule, Hiram swiftly sent troops to crush the revolt.52

However, there were also more subtle means of control at the Tyrian kings’ disposal. Of particular importance was the promotion of the cult of Melqart at Kition, with a substantial temple being dedicated to the god and his celestial consort, Astarte, on the ruins of a late-Bronze Age sanctuary at the end of the ninth century BC.53 The long-standing importance of Melqart to the citizens of Kition is attested by the fact that the god still appeared on the coinage of the city 400 years later.54

While such monuments serve as ample testament to the growing power and assertiveness of Tyre, the visit of Ashurnasirpal II and his army, far from being an isolated event, signalled that the epoch of relative independence for the Phoenician cities was coming to an end, and over the ensuing decades the Levantine coastal cities would find themselves under increasing pressure from Assyria. To ensure their political autonomy, and perhaps even their survival, they would once more return to their traditional role as chief procurers for a potentially threatening neighbour.

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