30 November 2023
A Phoenician temple buried in the archives
Published online 2 October 2013
A Phoenician temple site buried 40 years ago upon the outbreak of civil war is found by archaeologists.
If archaeology is a process of uncovering what has been lost to history, then the discovery of an ancient temple from the Phoenician civilization that thrived over 3,000 years ago in Tyre, Lebanon, is a fine example of that.
Forty years ago Lebanon's director of antiquities Emir Maurice Chehab found a large building during a dig under a Roman settlement. But two years later civil war erupted, and the excavation was abandoned as the fighting intensified.
The temple was long forgotten and all that remained after Chehab's death in 1994 were rumours of its existence. When excavation began in 2012 clearing the overgrown reeds at the site, Leila Badre, head of the Archaeological Museum of the American University of Beirut (AUB) and chief excavator, thought she would find an undiscovered archaeological tells, not a temple.
"I had no idea I was going to find a site that was already excavated," says Badre. The only record she had of the Tyre temple's existence is a three line entry in the archives of the department of antiquities at the ministry of culture. "[Chehab says] he found a big building with a long wall. But he didn't say it was a temple".
In ancient times, Tyre was not as important as neighboring Sidon, but it has been settled for thousands of years. The patron god of Tyre, Melqart, was worshipped in Syria, Carthage and as far away as Spain.
Chehab wrote a history of Tyre, but his writings on the temple — if they exist — have not been found. They could be stashed away somewhere in the archives, or like many documents, could have been destroyed during the war.
The temple is one of the few Phoenician temples in existence. Badre says that although excavators have needed to repair damage such as a collapsed altar, the site is the only Phoenician temple preserved well enough to reveal a temple's full flooorplan. "Eshmun temple [in neighbouring Sidon] is a huge fantastic temple, but only part of the podium is found," says Badre.
Work on the site remains difficult, and Badre needs more time to determine which layers originate with the temple, and which come from other periods. As no artefacts were found at the site, Badre presumes any artefacts were removed when it was first excavated but no records exist.
She reckons the temple was built in the 6th or 5th centuries BCE — known as the Persian era — when Persians occupied the land. Without more evidence, a precise date will be difficult to determine.
The style of the temple resembles other Phoenician temples such as Amrit in Syria, with at least one wall decorated with a frieze of Egyptian gorges. A feature of the temple is unknown elsewhere: there is a fireplace next to the altar, thought to be used for burning animal sacrifices. Fireplaces are more commonly located in a courtyard.
"This is the first time we've seen such an installation inside a temple," says Helen Sader, the chair of the department of history and archaeology at AUB, who is not part of the excavation. "But we have to know more about the installations at the altar to know what sort of sacrifices were made there."
To make more sense of it all, Badre and the other archaeologists hope to find Chehab's notes and even some of the objects that originated with the temple. "Some plans that Emir Maurice [Chehab] had drawn could be hidden somewhere in the archives," Sader said. "We have to hope for that."
A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Chehab hid his excavation intentionally. This has been corrected.