A History of the Ancient & Classical City of Tyre and Its Commerce

From its founding in 2750 BCE to the Byzantine era, Tyre stood as a beacon of civilization and commerce in the Levant.

Oct 17, 2022By Greg Beyer, BA History and Linguistics, Diploma in Journalism
history city tyre lithograph
The port at ancient Tyre, colored lithograph by Louis Haghe after David Roberts, 1843, via Wellcome Collection

 

Few cities in the world can boast a history as lengthy and as storied as the city port of Tyre, which resides in modern-day Lebanon. Throughout thousands of years, the city has changed hands, witnessing the rise and fall of cultures, kingdoms, and empires, from the bronze age to the present day.

 

The Founding of Tyre

history city tyre melqart
A votive statue of Melqart, Tyre’s founding deity, via World History Encyclopedia

 

According to legend, the city was founded around 2750 BCE by the Phoenician deity Melqart as a favor to a mermaid named Tyros. Legends aside, archeological evidence corroborated this time period and discovered that people were living in the area hundreds of years before.

 

Tyre was not, however, the first city founded by the Phoenicians. Tyre’s sister city of Sidon existed beforehand, and there was a constant rivalry between the two cities, especially over which one represented the “mother city” of the Phoenician Empire. Initially, the town was located solely on the coast, but the population and the city grew to encompass an island off the coast, which was later joined to the mainland by the armies of Alexander the Great two and half millennia after the city’s founding.

 

The Egyptian Period (1700–1200 BCE) & the Discovery of Murex

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One of the species of murex sea snails that defined the history of Tyre, via Citizen Wolf

 

By the 17th century BCE, the Egyptian Kingdom had grown to new heights and eventually encompassed the city of Tyre. In this period of economic growth, trade and industry in the city of Tyre boomed. Of particular note was the manufacture of a purple dye extracted from murex shellfishes. This industry became the hallmark of Tyre, and the Tyrians honed their industry into an expert art that was a closely guarded secret. As such, Tyre had a monopoly on arguably the most expensive thing in the ancient world: Tyrian purple. Because of its high value, the color became a symbol of the wealthy elite throughout the ancient world.

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During the Egyptian period, there was also strife as a rival empire, the Hittites, sought control over the city. The Egyptians did manage to defeat the Hittites who besieged Tyre and fought the Hittites to a standstill at Qadesh nearby, which resulted in the first recorded peace treaty in human history.

 

Tyre’s Golden Age

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An Assyrian relief depicting a Phoenician boat transporting cedar logs, 8th century BCE, via World History Encyclopedia

 

For every Middle Eastern and Mediterranean civilization, the years around 1200 to 1150 BCE heralded a great shift in power known today as the Late Bronze Age Collapse. It was likely this event that saw Egyptian power in the Levant wane. Tyre, as a result, ended up free from Egyptian hegemony and spent the next few centuries as an independent city-state.

 

The Tyrians, originally a Canaanite people (who were, in turn, Phoenicians), became the dominant power throughout the Levant and the Mediterranean at this time. It was normal at the time to refer to all Canaanites as Tyrians and the Mediterranean Sea as the Tyrian Sea.

 

Tyre built its power through trade rather than conquest and was instrumental in restoring Middle Eastern civilization after the Late Bronze Age Collapse. They had developed a mastery of navigation over the seas with their knowledge of astronomy, allowing them to ply their trade throughout the entire Mediterranean. Doing so, they also set up trade posts throughout the Mediterranean, many growing into independent city-states in their own right.

 

history city tyre trade routes
Phoenician trade routes throughout the Mediterranean, via Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

Because of their maritime trade network, the Tyrians had access to many trade goods. Of particular importance was copper from Cyprus and cedar wood from Lebanon which helped build the Temple of Solomon in the neighboring Kingdom of Israel, with whom Tyre had a close alliance. The linen industry also became prominent as a complement to the murex dye industry.

 

The Old Testament also references trade with Tyre during the reign of King Hiram (980 – 947 BCE). The legendary land of Ophir (unknown location) traded with Israel through Tyre. From Ophir, Tyrian ships brought in gold, precious stones, and “almug” trees (1 Kings 10:11).

 

During this time, the Tyrians also developed valuable skills in high demand across the civilized world. Their island city was cramped, and the Tyrians required tall buildings. As a result, Tyre became famous for its expert masons, as well as its metalworkers and shipwrights.

 

The End of Independence, Multiple Overlords, & the Hellenistic Period

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A Tyrian shekel depicting the founding deity of Tyre, Melqart, c. 100 BCE, via cointalk.com

 

During the 9th Century, Tyre and the other Phoenician areas in the Levant came under the control of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which was a resurgent power that came to control a vast area across the Middle East. These areas included lands from Asia Minor (Turkey), Egypt, and Persia. Tyre’s influence and power were preserved, and although a subject of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, it was allowed nominal independence for a time. Tyre continued with its activities as usual, establishing the city of Carthage in the process.

 

Successive Neo-Assyrian kings, however, eroded Tyre’s independence, and although Tyre resisted, it lost control over its possessions. Of great importance was the breakaway of Cyprus. Nevertheless, Tyre’s dye industry continued, as the important product was always in high demand.

 

Eventually, in the 7th century BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire collapsed, and for a short seven years (612 to 605 BCE), Tyre prospered. This tiny period of peace was broken when the Neo-Babylonian Empire went to war with Egypt. Tyre allied itself with Egypt, and in 586 BCE, the Neo-Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II besieged the city. The siege lasted thirteen years, and although the city did not fall, it suffered economically and was forced to concede to the enemy, agreeing to pay tribute.

 

From 539 BCE to 332 BCE, Tyre was under Persian rule as part of the Achaemenid Empire, after which the Persians were defeated by the armies of Alexander the Great, and Tyre came into direct conflict with the forces of Alexander. In 332 BCE, Alexander laid siege to Tyre. He dismantled the old city on the coast and used the rubble to build a causeway across the sea, connecting the mainland to the island city of Tyre. After several months, the besieged city fell and came under the direct control of Alexander’s empire. As a result of the action, Tyre became a peninsula, and it has remained so to this day.

 

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The Siege of Tyre depicting the causeway being built, from the book Ancient Siege Warfare by Duncan B. Campbell, via historyofyesterday.com

 

After Alexander’s death in 324 BCE, his empire fractured, leaving several successor states to take its place. Tyre changed hands frequently over the next few decades before spending 70 years under the control of the Ptolemies of Egypt. This came to an end in 198 BCE when one of the successor states, the Seleucid Empire (which stretched from the Euphrates to the Indus), invaded westwards and annexed Tyre. However, the Seleucid Empire’s grip on Tyre was weak, and Tyre enjoyed a great amount of independence. As it had done throughout most of its existence, Tyre minted its own coins. It also grew wealthy over expanding trade on the Silk Road.

 

The Seleucid Empire’s dominance waned as the empire suffered succession crises, and in 126 BCE, Tyre regained full independence. Tyrian commerce dominated the Levant, and Tyrian coins became the standard currency across most of the region.

 

Tyre Under the Romans & the Byzantines

 

In 64 BCE, Tyre became a subject of Rome. Under Roman rule, the city was granted much independence to carry out trade as usual. Murex and linen industries thrived. The Romans also introduced a sauce derived from fish called “garum,” the production of which became a major industry in Tyre. If the dye industry didn’t cast enough of a stench over the city, the new garum factories were sure to do so. Needless to say, Tyre must have smelled of rotting fish all year round.

 

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Roman ruins in Tyre, via Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

Tyre flourished under Roman rule, and the city profited greatly from Roman building projects, including a five-kilometer (3.1 miles) long aqueduct and a hippodrome. The scholarly arts and sciences also flourished during this period, and Tyre produced many philosophers such as Maximus of Tyre and Porphyry. Tyre was also upgraded to the status of a Roman colony, and Tyrians were granted Roman citizenship with the same rights as all other Romans.

 

Tyrians also suffered, however, due to religious conflict. As Christianity grew in the new millennium, it created a schism in the Roman Empire. In the 3rd and early 4th centuries AD, many Tyrian Christians were violently persecuted for their beliefs. In 313 AD, however, Rome became officially Christian, and two years later, the Cathedral of Paulinus was constructed in Tyre and is considered the oldest church in history. The church was lost to history until 1990 when an Israeli bomb hit the city’s center. While clearing away the rubble, the foundations of the structure were revealed.

 

In 395 AD, Tyre became part of the Byzantine Empire. During this time, a new industry arrived in Tyre: silk. Once a closely guarded secret of the Chinese, the method of its production was unraveled, and Tyre benefited greatly from the addition of silk production to its industries.

 

A series of earthquakes in the early 6th century destroyed much of the city. As the Byzantine Empire slowly collapsed, Tyre suffered with it, enduring wars and strife until the Muslim conquest of the Levant in 640 AD.

 

The City of Tyre Today

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Modern Tyre, via lebadvisor.com

 

Tyre shaped the course of human civilization from the very beginnings of civilization through the Middle Ages. It did so through trade, the production of valuable goods, and the hardiness of its maritime culture, founding outposts and cities that would grow into great empires.

 

The end of the Byzantine Empire was certainly not the end of Tyre. The city and its industries persisted as they always had, long after the ruling kingdoms and empires evaporated into the history books. The future would bring periods of war as well as prosperity and peace at regular intervals right up until the present day.



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By Greg BeyerBA History and Linguistics, Diploma in JournalismGreg is an academic writer with a History focus. He comes from South Africa and holds a BA from the University of Cape Town. He has spent many years as an English teacher, and he currently specializes in writing for academic purposes. In his spare time, he enjoys drawing and painting.