Vol. XXXVIII No. 8 — August 1960

Tyre, the City of the Rock

Charles O. Bierkan, PDDGM

This Short Talk Bulletin is the work of Brother Charles O. Bierkan, P.D.D.G.M. (Connecticut) and a member of Philosophic Lodge of Research, Hartford, Connecticut.

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No city, apart from Jerusalem, holds a greater interest for Masons than Tyre, once the capital of ancient Phoenicia, a city that is closely bound up in the story of the building of the Temple of Solomon. From this ancient seaport came much of the material used in the building of the Temple; and from it came that skillful artist who was responsible for the most beautiful work on the Temple and served as one of the three grand masters. Much of what we admire in him we find in the character of that city whence he came.

Tyre is a very old city. Unlike many ancient cities, its site has never been lost, its original location never in doubt. The Sumerian city of Ur was only a name in modern times, until its site was discovered in the middle of the nineteenth century. Troy, the fabled city of Homer, was rediscovered by the German, Heinrich Schliemann, in 1870, near the Hellespont in Asia Minor. He also discovered the site of Mycenae, a city some sixty or seventy miles west of Athens, which had once been the center of a thriving civilization. Engaged in war, ravaged by ruthless enemies and the deteriorating effects of time, these once proud capitals had returned to the dust of the earth, their sites unknown for generations. The proud city of Tyre never disappeared quite so completely.

The ancient country of Phoenicia was small, running about one hundred and twenty miles north and south, and averaging twelve miles in width, from the ramparts of the Lebanon mountains on the east, to the blue water of the Mediterranean Sea on the west. It was just north of Galilee. There was not enough arable land to allow the development of an agricultural economy; the inhabitants at an early date turned to the sea, becoming the ancient world’s greatest sailors and explorers. Its cities became trading and manufacturing centers of wide and favorable reputation.

Phoenicia emerged as a power to be reckoned with after the decline of the early Mycenaean civilization, and particularly the power of Crete. The Phoenicians began to sail widely throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, even, it is believed, to Britain. When their first voyage to the British Isles was made we shall probably never know, but at a very early date they imported black tin from Cornwall. To protect their trade monopolies they kept their discoveries a secret, a fact that operates to the disadvantage of modern historians.

The founding of Tyre occurred at an unknown date. Sidon, north of Tyre, and midway between it and Byblos, may be older; but even the ancient scribes did not know, and the question has never been settled. According to the early historian Josephus, Tyre was founded about two hundred and forty years before the building of King Solomon’s Temple, which, if true, would make it considerably older than Jerusalem. Isaiah referred to it as “a city whose antiquity was of ancient days.” The city is mentioned in Egyptian papyri of the 14th and 13th centuries B.C.

The original town was founded on the mainland, and at an early date was called Palae Tyrus, or Old Tyre. The great rock in the harbor attracted the residents as an ideal spot for a citadel, and for the placing of arsenals, storehouses, manufacturing establishments and the like, because of its easily defensible nature. And so, shortly after the establishment of the old city, the rock was occupied.

Tyre emerges from myth to historical reality during the reign of Abibal, the predecessor of that Hiram whose commercial relations with Solomon are so well known. Hiram became a powerful figure, enlarging and improving the city and its excellent harbor, making into a port of first quality this place whose name would excite poets and historians of many a generation to come. Ship building became a major industry; we know that Hiram built a fleet for Solomon and furnished sailors for him. In 1 Kings 9:26-28, we read,

And King Solomon made a navy of ships in Ezi-on-geber, which is beside Eloth on the shore of the Red Sea, in the land of Edom. And Hiram sent in the navy his servants, shipmen that had knowledge of the sea, with the servants of Solomon. And they came to Ophir, and fetched from thence gold, four hundred and twenty talents, and brought it to King Solomon.

At this time the cedars and fir trees of the mountains in the eastern part of Phoenicia apparently constituted the chief item of wealth of the little country, of which Tyre had emerged as the capital. In 1 Kings, in the fifth chapter, we find that

Hiram gave Solomon cedar trees and fir trees, according to all his desire. And Solomon gave Hiram twenty thousand measures of wheat for food, to his household, and twenty measures of pure oil, thus gave Solomon to Hiram year by year. (1 Kings 5:10-11)

Into this quotation we can read the commercial status of Phoenicia: rich in lumber, poor in agricultural products.

Later, as Tyre grew in importance as a trading center, she obtained iron, tin, lead, and silver from Spain, where she had established colonies at a very early date. Tin was also obtained, as previously mentioned, from Cornwall in southwestern Britain. Tin was especially valuable to the ancients because of its use in making bronze. Copper was known by man before the dawn of history; but copper is soft. Bronze was discovered to be much more durable. It was made by adding one part of tin to nine parts of copper. It was the most important metal until the Age of Iron; but bronze continued in common usage for many years. Some of Tyre’s wealth may be attributed to the manufacture of bronze.

From Africa the Phoenicians obtained ivory, gold, and ostrich feathers; from Arabia came incense and spices. These items the Phoenicians were able to sell easily throughout the Mediterranean region. Other imports were raw materials from the East that went into the manufacturing plants of Tyre and Sidon, whence came the famous Phoenician glassware, carpets, and artifacts of gold and silver that found a ready market all over the known world.

The Phoenicians established trading posts all over the western Mediterranean, on the north shore of Africa, in Spain, the Balearic Islands, and even on western Sicily. Their little settlements were going concerns at a time when the western Mediterranean was an unknown territory to the rest of the world. For generations the Phoenicians controlled shipping in the Mediterranean Sea. Of course, as their wealth and influence grew, other nations cast covetous glances their way.

Assyria, which was rising in its merciless power, tried to capture the little country. The Assyrian kings, Assur-nasir-pal II and Shalmaneser III, collected tribute from the Phoenician cities, but did not conquer them; and Tiglath-Pileser III had little better luck. Sennacherib, one of the most ruthless conquerors of all history, overran all of Phoenicia except Tyre; but that city, perhaps because of its strategic location, was able to fend off all Assyrian attempts to take her. In this she was lucky, because the Assyrians were not compassionate toward their conquered enemies. One of their kings left this moving description of his treatment of a conquered city: “With battle and slaughter I assaulted and took the city. Three thousand warriors I slew in battle. Their possessions I carried away. Many of their soldiers I took alive; of some I cut off hands and limbs; of others the noses, ears, and arms; of many I put out the eyes. I devastated the city, dug it up, in fire burned it; I annihilated it.” Tyre, for the time being, escaped such a fate.

With the Babylonians she was not so fortunate. Nebuchadnezzar, who in the capture of Jerusalem had accomplished what Sennacherib had failed to do, lay siege to Tyre for thirteen years. Finally the inhabitants of the beleaguered city bought him off by heavy tribute. The annual payments continued for a number of years, during which time the Temple of Solomon was destroyed and the Jews taken into exile in Babylonia. One of the Hebrew writers, in describing the resistance of Tyre, which he admired, said, "Every head was made bald, and every shoulder peeled.” Babylon, thriving on conquest and tribute, became the richest and most imposing capital of its day. But when it was overthrown, it sank into decay, fulfilling the prophecy of the Old Testament, "The wild beasts of the desert with the wolves shall dwell therein, and the ostriches shall dwell there: and it shall be no more inhabited forever.” (Jeremiah 50:39)

Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, now appeared on the stage of history. He attacked Croesus, King of Lydia, and overthrew his kingdom. Then he conquered Babylonia in 539 B.C. His treatment of Babylon’s enemies was exemplary. He returned the Jews to Jerusalem and encouraged them to rebuild the Temple. He released Tyre from the annual payment of tribute and rebuilt other cities in Phoenicia. Tyre and Sidon became leading Persian seaports, enjoying favorable relations with the king. Tyre became an important naval center, a base for the great Persian fleet. It also regained its position as a leading trade center, and began to furnish the Mediterranean world once more its manufactures and its exotic Oriental imports.

Persia and Greece were hostile to each other for generations, but not until Greece had lost her freedom to Alexander of Macedonia was the power and prestige of Tyre threatened. Then, about 335 B.C., Alexander began the realization of his dream of world conquest. By 332 B.C. he had administered two sharp defeats to the Persian monarch, Darius III, at the Battles of Granicus and Issus, and was ready to overthrow Tyre.

He demanded the peaceful surrender of the city, which the proud inhabitants refused. Then he began a methodical siege. To reach the rocky island, with its battlements over a hundred feet above the waves, he constructed a causeway a half-mile long. Over this he moved his siege machinery and men. The assault lasted seven long months, but finally the city fell. Fifteen thousand Tyrians escaped, many of them migrating to distant Carthage in North Africa, Tyre’s most famous colony. Thirty thousand inhabitants Alexander sold into slavery, and multitudes were slain. He burned the city and tried to destroy it completely.

Alexander went on to Egypt, which he had little difficulty in conquering. He founded the city of Alexandria, which he hoped would succeed Tyre as the commercial capital of the Mediterranean world. Subsequently he invaded the Persian Empire, capturing everything in his way, not turning back until in India, on the banks of the Ganges, his weary homesick soldiers refused to go any farther. Reluctantly he returned to Babylon, which he made the capital of his far-flung empire, and here in 323 B.C. he was stricken with fever and died. He designated no successor, except to say that “the strongest” amongst his generals must take over, on behalf of his infant son. The generals disputed and fought among themselves, and within a few years the great Alexandrian empire was broken into three parts: the kingdom of Ptolemy in Egypt and North Africa, the kingdom of Seleucus in the east, and the kingdom of Antigonus in Macedonia.

Meanwhile, fugitives from Tyre had returned to their ruined city, and without interference began to rebuild it. The Romans, sensing its value as a market place, rather encouraged its growth. Marc Antony, in his infatuation over Cleopatra, the ruler of Egypt, tried to give her Tyre as a present. This was one of the causes of civil war between Antony and Octavian, which resulted in the deaths of Cleopatra and Antony, and the subjugation of Egypt by Rome.

A brief mention of Tyre in the Gospel according to Matthew 15:21 indicates that at least on one occasion Jesus visited the city, and the Apostle Paul was there more than once, according to the Book of Acts. Tyre had a Christian community at an early date, which lasted until the seventh century, when the Saracens conquered the city. It remained under Muslim rule until 1192, when the Crusaders retook it.

At the time of Christ, Tyre had a population of about one hundred and fifty thousand; but during its Muslim occupancy the population declined. It was recaptured from the Christians in A.D. 1291, by which time its day of glory had passed.

Two factors brought to an end the great period of its history: its capture by the Muslims, and the discovery of an all-water route to the Orient around the Cape of Good Hope. For many years, even centuries, trade with the East had been carried on over recognized caravan routes. Such journeys were hazardous; the caravans were always in danger of being robbed. Only the enormous profits to be gained from a single trip kept the trade going. The discovery of an all-water route enabled merchants to avoid the dangers of the land routes. Of course, before the ocean route had been in use very long, pirates made their appearance; but apparently the danger from freebooters was somewhat less than that from land robbers.

Under Muslim domination, Tyre suffered as a trading center because merchants from the western Mediterranean were not welcome. Thus these two factors operated together to dim the glory that was Tyre’s. Today, all that remains on the once busy site is the village of Souro, belonging to Lebanon, a little seaport exporting wool, tobacco, and cotton.

This, in brief, is the history of a great city. Consideration must also be given to the bases of its greatness.

Unlike many ancient cities, such as Nineveh and Babylon, Tyre did not live on the blood of other cities and other peoples. In his Recessional, Brother Rudyard Kipling wrote:

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

He probably selected those two names for the sake of rhyme and meter. Certainly no two cities of ancient time were less alike.

Nineveh, capital of Assyria, was decorated with the loot of a captured world. One of the gracious monarchs once sought to cover its walls with leather, made from the tanned skins of his human enemies. Even the great library of Nineveh, a royal collection discovered by archaeologists a few years ago, consisted to a large degree of volumes stolen from other countries. It was a city of royal robbers, no less, and when it fell there was a great rejoicing throughout the world. A Hebrew prophet cried out, “This is the joyous city . . . that said in her heart, I am, and there is none beside me: how is she become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down in! Every one that passeth by her shall hiss and shake his hand!” (Zephaniah 2:15)

The city of Tyre, on the other hand, was built primarily on trade and commerce. It was never known as a blustering bully of a city. It grew rich, of course; it may have been guilty of sharp practices on occasion, but it did not live on the misfortunes of others.

Mention has already been made of all but one of the chief items of trade at Tyre, but this last is the most important, the so-called Phoenician or Tyrian purple. Had Tyre possessed no other claim to wealth and fame, her purple dye would have sufficed.

Purple is the color of royalty, because in ancient times it was hard to obtain and considered very desirable. At an early date the Tyrians discovered that from the shell of the murex, a small shellfish, they could obtain a dye purple in color, although some authorities claim the color was nearly scarlet. In any event, the color caused a greater sensation in the ancient world than a new Paris creation would in the modern; and the manufacture of the dye, a closely guarded secret, brought wealth and prestige to Tyre.

Some years ago, archaeologists examining the ruins of Tyre came upon a number of round cavities cut in the limestone. The cavities varied in size from that of an ordinary cooking pot to a giant one, seven feet in diameter and eight feet deep. This discovery was apparently a dye-making establishment, or a place where the dye was applied to the cloth. The cavities were perfectly smooth on the inside, and remains of heaps of shells around them gave a clue as to their use.

The greatest drawback to the manufacture of this dye from murex was the volume of raw material needed. It took a large quantity of shellfish to produce a little fluid. Then this fluid had to be condensed to one-sixteenth of its volume by a steam process. Moreover, the dye material was tricky to handle. The juice of the murex is said to be milky white at first. Under the influence of light it changes to lemon yellow, then to greenish yellow, green, violet, and red. The length of time the unprocessed fluid was exposed to light governed the color and shade that could be obtained. It was a business requiring great care and skill, and the product was correspondingly expensive. Some authorities state that in the year A.D. 300 wealthy Romans were paying the equivalent of fifty thousand dollars for a single pound of purple silk.

The Phoenicians were, understandably enough, always looking for new products that might be worked into their dyeing business. As a result of their explorations, they found what they wanted in the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa. The items were a dyer’s lichen and the dried resin of the dragon tree, known as dragon’s blood. Cabinet makers are familiar with this product, because it is used today as a coloring agent in furniture stains. The Phoenicians discovered that it made a very fine purple dye. They kept the source of this material a closely guarded secret for many years, but Greek documents uncovered by modern archaeologists have given us the exciting story in part — unfortunately only in very small part!

About 530 B.C. a Tyrian admiral named Himilco sailed to the British Isles on a trading expedition. The same year another admiral, Hanno, undertook another exploration and trading voyage through the Strait of Gibraltar, and then south along the African coast. He had a fleet of sixty galleys with fifty rowers each. The fleet was equipped with stores and personnel to set up a string of colonies. He apparently sailed as far south as the Gulf of Guinea, and observed a great volcano of Mount Cameroon, which was then active and which, because, of its fiery appearance at night, he named “The Chariot of the Gods.” Hanno planted at least six colonies on the African coast, all of which maintained contact with Tyre, and in later days with Carthage, until that city’s destruction by the Romans.

That other Carthaginians or Phoenicians visited the Azores sometime in the third or fourth century B.C. is rather well established. A number of Carthaginian and Cyrenaic coins dating from the fourth century B.C. have been found in ruins of those islands. Paul Herrmann, in his interesting and valuable work on discovery, Conquest by Man, has given considerable space to the importance of the explorations and settlements of the Phoenicians, practically all of which were in connection with trade, not with conquest for the mere lust for power.

Tyre is a city worthy of admiration by Masons. Its sailors travelled far and wide, perfecting, if not inventing, the art of navigation. Its craftsmen worked diligently and received their wages according to Masonic principles. When attacked, they defended themselves bravely and resolutely; but they did not go about seeking a fight.

From the ancient city of Tyre came the materials and the skilled craftsmen that made possible the building of King Solomon’s Temple. And from Tyre came, as one of the grand masters for the building of the Temple, a Widow’s Son, whose character has done more than any other man’s to shape the reputation for nobility and integrity that is the proud heritage of every Master Mason.

The Masonic Service Association of North America