Sidon (Liban): Sifting through the city's deadly history

Among its ruins, Robert Fisk joins an archaeological dig that could transform our understanding of Lebanon’s bloody past

Source -


The British Museum excavation team work in Sidon  - Getty Images

Across the ruins of ancient Sidon, Matt Williams darts like one of the stick-like figures on the Mycenaean pottery he and his Lebanese and British colleagues have discovered. He bounds across bedrock, clambers along the medieval wall of Sidon, his hands gesticulating at still-damp wells and Roman columns inserted into Crusader walls. “This is the most exciting excavation I’ve ever worked on in my career,” he says. “And it will have been the best excavation I will ever work on in the future.”


A 5th Century BC pot depicting mounted warriors with swords, discovered during the Sidon excavations - Getty Images

If dog owners look like their pets, Matt Williams can look slightly like the warriors he has helped unearth, or perhaps the 500 BC shard of Hermes receiving a “supplicant”. Hermes was a messenger of the gods and the god of roads and commerce – of which there are plenty in Sidon – as well as cunning and theft, of which the freelance British archaeologist from Cambridge is innocent. With his Lebanese companion Enas Saleh, who has spent 15 years on this wonderful site in the very centre of old Sidon, Matt Williams has spent a mere six years digging through the cult life and feast days and violence of the peoples who live in what is still, from time to time, a dangerous city.

Since the Lebanese department of antiquities owns this bit of history – it originally lay under a Christian school demolished more than a century ago – there are no legal problems, no property claims, no developers hustling for an early end to archaeological discoveries. Thus, and this is the reason for Williams’ excitement, the diggers and trowels and cleaners and historians can work their way from the oldest levels of Sidon – Chalcolithic, early, middle and later Bronze Ages and the Iron Age up to the Persians, the Romans, with their pavements and drains and walls, and the rampart foundations of the medieval Crusaders. It’s all there.


A clay artifact dating back to the Early Bronze Age  -  Getty Images

And lest you think this is academic waffle, just listen to Matt Williams when he describes the Crusaders’ human remains, buried hastily in a mass grave beneath the medieval walls sometime around 1250. Some of the Crusaders had been beheaded. “There was some kind of attack and they probably died fighting,” he says. “There were chop marks and blade marks on the bones and they were plopped into small graves, 15 of them, in a shallow ditch at the bottom of the 13th-century walls.” Of their deaths in battle, we know no more.


Relics found at the archaeological site in Sidon  -  Getty Images

Sidon was then part of the theoretical “Kingdom of Jerusalem”, and the Castle of the Sea – now one of the city’s greatest attractions for the tourists who today rarely dare to come here – was only built in the late 1220s. Saladin was long dead and the Knights Templar were still clinging onto the Lebanese coast in 1280, their seafront fortresses placed a day’s sailing apart, since the hinterland was now in “enemy” hands. These Crusader castles were the ancient equivalent of Donald Rumsfeld’s notorious “lily-pads”, walled military bases to protect the forces of Western “civilisation” against the armies of barbarians (terrorists) outside.


A skeleton is discovered during the excavation (Getty)

The reality of such dark history is illustrated in the magnificent little exhibition beside the site. The British Museum’s photograph of the Crusader remains is ominous and dark brown – half of the bones are now at Bradford University which has a centre for ancient pathology, the rest packed in boxes above the site – but also on display is a copy of an early 14th-century drawing of Saint Louis (the original is at the Metropolitan Museum of New York) burying the bones of Crusaders in Sidon. While the goodly and crowned saint is reverentially piling skulls in a sack, the stench is so awful that three of his assistants are covering their mouths with their hands and a cloth.

In any event, the Mamluks gobbled up Sidon in 1291, the Templars finally abandoning their sea castle on 14 July, and by the time Ibn Batutah arrived around 60 years later, Sidon was smothered in fruit trees, exporting figs, raisins and olive oil to Egypt. But this is, in a sense, “our” Western history. Sidon’s real past began two millennia earlier and spread through both legend and literature. This was the birthplace of Dido of Carthage, which supplied cedar wood for the temple of Jerusalem, and which Homer describes in the Iliad as the city whence Peleus sought his prize for a foot race, a silver bowl: “for its loveliness it surpassed all others on earth by far, since skilled Sidonians had wrought it well and Phoenicians carried it over the misty face of the water…”