On the Trail of the Phoenicians – Sidon
One of many things that makes the Middle East worthwhile is the sense that you’re walking in history, amid names and places that are embedded deep in your cultural DNA.
But to see Tyre and Sidon, the ancient cities of the Phoenicians? To me, that’s like reaching Xanadu.
Even if almost all that remains of their culture is their legends, like their huntress goddess Astarte and her lover Adonis, whose blood still turns the river by the caves of Jeita red each spring.
Now, my degree was in Latin, Ancient Greek and Philosophy, a discipline I suspect may be in decline now young Brits actually have to pay for their studies.
And Tyre was the home of Tyrian purple, the dye made from the murex shell that coloured the cloaks of Roman emperors, tinted the curtains of Solomon’s temple and draped Helen of Troy.
Dido was born here, before she founded Hannibal’s Carthage and fell so destructively in love with Aeneas, the ancestor of the folk who razed Carthage to the ground.
Sidon was home to Jezebel, the “harlot”; Paris and Helen spent their honeymoon there.
Jesus withdrew to the cities of Tyre and Sidon; ancient prophets called down curses on them; Nebuchadnezzar razed them to the ground.
All in all — and, you should, by now, know how very, very much I love Lebanon travel — to be on the trail of the Phoenicians was exciting.
With these high hopes, though, Sidon (Saïda in Arabic) was… well, a letdown.
Honestly, with its dinky little Crusader sea castle, its beautiful Old Town, its palaces, its restored Ottoman inn and an absolutely fabulous soap museum, Sidon should have been wonderful.
And would be, if we visited again.
As it happens, the circumstances were less than ideal. I was feeling most atypically vomitous, the first time in years this has happened to me without mixing beer, red wine and dark spirits, or being pregnant. (For the record, I hadn’t, and I’m not.)
And, without wanting to whine overly, Lebanese roundabouts are difficult enough to negotiate when you’re not being sick in your mouth at the precise moment the guy who’s parked on the roundabout pulls out in front of the guy in front of you and someone else decides to cut the crap and take the shortcut (clockwise) to his exit.
There are, I think, five of the suckers in Sidon.
Further, of the two non-horrid affordable hotels in town, one was closed and the other’s manager was out of town.
Now, I like a nice hotel as much as the next person, but paying for one simply to worship the porcelain god in relative comfort was… well, less than ideal.
Moving swiftly on… We were in Sidon for the Temple of Echmoun, the Phoenician god of healing, which boasts the best-preserved Phoenician ruins in the world.
These are them:
Yeah, the square thing.
That’s the base of an enormous temple, long ago cannibalised by waves of incomers.
Which doesn’t, IMHO, vaut le voyage. Or even le hotel.
Tyre, on the other hand?
Now, Tyre is somewhere I could easily spend a week.
And if it weren’t for my parallel parking skills, we would never have discovered its joys…