Sidon, on the coast 48 kilometers south of Beirut, is one of the Famous names in ancient history. But of all of Lebanon's cities this is the most mysterious, for its past has been tragically scattered and plundered.
In the 19th century, treasure hunters and amateur archaeologists made off with many of its most beautiful and important objects, some of which can now be seen in foreign museums.
    In this century too, ancient objects from Sidon (Saidoon is the Phoenician name, Saida in Arabic), have turned up on the world's antiquities markets.
Other traces of its history lie beneath the concrete of modern constructions, perhaps buried forever.
The challenge for today's visitor to Sidon then is to recapture a sense of this city's ancient glory from the intriguing elements that still survive.
The largest city in south Lebanon, Sidon is a busy commercial center with the pleasant, conservative atmosphere of a small town. Since Persian times this was known as the city of gardens and even today it is surrounded by citrus and banana plantations.

A long and glorious history
There is evidence that Sidon was inhabited as long ago as 4000 B.C., and perhaps as early as Neolithic times (6000 - 4000 B.C.). The ancient city was built on a promontory facing an island, which sheltered its fleet from storms and served as a refuge during military incursions from the interior. In its wealth, commercial initiative, and religious significance, Sidon is said to have surpassed all other Phoenician city states.
    Sidon's Phoenician period began in the 12th - 10th century B.C. and reached its height during the Persian Empire (550 - 330 B.C.). The city provided Persia, a great land power, with the ships and seamen  to fight the Egyptians and the Greek, a role that gave it a highly favored position. The Persians maintained a royal park in Sidon and it was during this time that the temple of Eshmoun was built.
    Glass manufacture, Sidon's most important enterprise in the Phoenician era, was conducted on a vast scale and the production of purple dye was almost as important. The small shell of the Murex trunculus was broken in order to extract the pigment that was so rare it became the mark of royalty.

View of Sidon
(19th century engraving)
Like other Phoenician city states, Sidon suffered from a succession of conquerors.
At the end of the Persian era in 351 B.C., unable to resist the superior forces of Artaxerxes III, the desperate Sidonians locked their gates and set fire to their city rather than to submit to the invader. More than 40,000 died in the conflagration.
After the disaster the city was too weak to oppose the triumphal march of Alexander the Great in 333 B.C. It sued for peace and the Hellenistic age of Sidon began.
Under the successors of Alexander, Sidon,
the "holy city" of Phoenicia, enjoyed relative freedom and organized games and competitions in which the greatest athletes of the region participated.    
    When Sidon, like the other cities of Phoenicia, fell under Roman domination, it continued to mint its own silver coins. The Romans also built a theater and other major monuments in the city. During the Byzantine period when the great earthquake of 551 A.D. destroyed most of the cities of Phoenicia, Beirut's school of Law took refuge in Sidon. The town continued quietly for the next century, until it was conquered by the Moslems in 636.
    In 1111 Sidon was besieged and stormed by the Crusader Baldwin, who was soon to become King of Jerusalem. Under Frankish rule, the city became the chief town of the Seigniory of Sagette and the second and the four baronies of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
    Jerusalem surrendered to Saladin in 1187, but it was re-occupied for a hundred years when the Crusader Templars recaptured it briefly. They abandoned it for good in 1291, after the fall of Acre to the Mamluke forces.
    In the 15th century, Sidon was one of the ports of Damascus and it flourished once more during the 17th century when it was rebuilt by Fakhreddine II, then ruler of Lebanon. Under his protection and encouragement, French merchants set up profitable business enterprises in Sidon for trade between France and Syria. By the beginning of the 19th century, however , Sidon was relatively obscure and remained so until the mid-20th century when it developed into an important commercial and agricultural center.

Archaelogical Excavations
    Early French excavations led by Ernest Renan in the late 19th century uncovered the large necropolis of Magharat Abloun outside the city. The royal necropoli at nearby Ayaa and Ain el-Helwe were found shortly thereafter.
    In 1937 Middle Bronze Age tombs were opened in several mountain villages overlooking Sidon and at this time a number of archaeological surveys were conducted in and around the city.

Sidon Today
    The entrance to Sidon from the north is on a wide divided highway lined with palm trees. As you approach, the landmark Crusader Sea Castle and modern port installations are immediately visible. The busy main street is full of small shops of every kind, including patisseries, whose oriental delicacies are stacked in little pyramids.
    Sidon is famous for a variety of local sweets which you can watch being made in the old souk or in shops on the main street.
The particular specialty of Sidon is known as "senioura," a delicious crumbly cookie.
    A growing city with a modern seaport, Sidon is the South's commercial and financial center. In prewar days it was a terminal and a refinery for Tapline, and now its huge storage tanks are used for the import and local distribution of fuel. The commercial port, the third largest in Lebanon, accommodates small freighters. Sidon is also the seat of government for South Lebanon.
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 V I S I T I N G   T H E   S I T E S                                                                          
The old section of modern Sidon developed at the end of the Crusader period. Here the visitor will enjoy wandering along the sea front to the Crusader Sea Castle, and looking around the old souks, “khans” (caravansaries) and other medieval remnants.

The Sea Castle
1 - The Sea Castle
    Is a fortress built by the Crusaders in the early 13th century on a small island connected to the mainland by a causeway. A climb to the top leads to the roof where there is a good view of the port and the old part of the city. 
    Today the castle consists primarily of two towers connected by a wall. In the outer walls Roman columns were used as horizontal reinforcements, a feature often seen in fortifications built on or near former Roman sites. The west tower is the better preserved of the two. 
    Old prints of the fortress show it to be one of great beauty, but little remains of the embellishments that once decorated its ramparts. After the fall of Acre to the Mamlukes all the sea castles were destroyed to prevent the Crusaders from re-establishing footholds on the coast.

2 - A government Resthouse on the waterfront next to the castle offers good food and refreshment. Situated in a restored medieval building, the Resthouse is set in a landscaped seaside terrace.
The interior has vaulted ceilings and medieval decor. There is also a fine patio with a fountain. Open from noon until 4 PM and from 7 PM -12 PM.
3 - The Souks
    Between the Sea Castle and the Castle of
St. Louis stretches the old town. Not far from the Sea Castle is the picturesque vaulted souk of Sidon, where workmen still ply their trades.
On the edge of the souk is a traditional coffee house where male clientele meet to smoke the narguileh (water pipe) and drink Turkish coffee. Fishermen sell their latest catch at the market near the port not far from the souk's entrance.

The Souks

4 - Khan El Franj
    The Khan El Franj is one of the many khans or caravansaries built by Fakhreddine II for merchants and goods. This is a typical khan with a large rectangular courtyard and a central fountain surrounded by covered galleries.
The center of economic activity for the city in the 19th century, the khan also housed the French consulate. Today it is being renovated to serve as Sidon's cultural center.

Khan El Franj
5 - The Great Mosque
    South of the souk on the way to the Castle of St. Louis, is the Great Mosque, formerly the Church of St. John of the Hospitalers. The four walls of this rectangular building (recently restored to their natural beauty) date to the 13th century.
Originally a fortress-like Crusader compound with its own chapel, it is still an imposing structure, especially viewed from the seaside.

The Great Mosque
6 - Qalaat El Muizz or The Castle of St. Louis
    The Castle of St. Louis was erected on the emplacement of a Fatimid fortress during the Crusade led by French King Louis IX, popularly known as St. Louis.
    Built in the mid-13th century, the present state of the castle makes it easy to observe various stages of the restoration carried out in the Mamluke era, particularly work done in the 17th century by Emir Fakhreddine II. At the foot of the hill are a dozen or so Roman columns scattered on the ground.

7 - Murex Hill
    To the south of the citadel is a mound of debris called Murex Hill. This artificial hill (100 meters long and 50 meters high) was formed by the accumulation of refuse from the purple dye factories of Phoenician times. Mosaic tiling found at the top of the mound suggests that Roman buildings were erected there. The hill today is covered by houses and buildings as well as a cemetery.
Broken murex shells can still be seen on the lower part of the hill, but because of extensive construction, it is increasingly inaccessible to the public.

8 - Old Ports
    The ancient Egyptian Port, so called because it faced south towards Egypt, is located opposite the Castle of St. Louis and Murex Hill. An active harbor in Phoenician times, it has silted up over the centuries. Today the north channel harbor is used only for local fishing boats because Fakhreddine filled it in during the 17th century to deny entry to the Turkish fleet. What remains of this harbor goes back to the Roman era.

The Necropoli of Sidon.
    The three main necropoli of Sidon lie beyond the ancient city limits and were in use until the late Roman and early Christian eras. These are the necropolis of Magharat Abloun, the royal necropolis of Ayaa below the present village of Helalie, and the necropolis of Ain el Helwe to the southeast. Located in what are now residential areas, no excavations are in progress at any of these sites.
    South of the city an ancient cemetery known as Dekerman was used until this century. It is also an archaeological site, with an extensive collection of objects, mostly sarcophagi and tombs in situ, as well as fragments, inscriptions and sculptures.
A number of circular Chalcolithic (4000 B.C.) foundations can also be seen here.

If you have time
The Temple of Eshmoun
    At the right of the bridge on the Awali River just before reaching Sidon, is a spot known as "Bustan el Sheikh," site of the Temple of Eshmoun. This important monument goes back to the Persian period (6th century B.C.) when Sidon was at its zenith.
    As the god of healing, Eshmoun was identified with Asklepios, the Greek god of medical arts. Each Phoenician city state had its own gods, and Eshmoun was one of the favorite of Sidon during its golden age, the 6th and the 5th centuries B.C. Additions were made to the temple in subsequent eras and it remained a sacred shrine and place of pilgrimage well into the first centuries A.D.


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