Sidon, Lebanon

The largest city in south Lebanon, Sidon is a busy commercial center with the pleasant, conservative atmosphere of a small town, located on the coast 45 km (28 miles) south of Beirut, known today as the fishing center of Lebanon and famous for its Arabic sweets' stores, which make up most of its markets. There is evidence that Sidon was inhabited as long ago as 4000 BC, and perhaps as early as Neolithic times.

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, especially during the 12th to 10th centuries BC. As with most ancient city-states in the region, it has seen quite a number of conquests in its time, as evidenced today by its Roman ruins and the Crusader castle that overlooks its harbor, among many other historic buildings. Later came the Mamluks and the Ottomans, and finally in the 17th century the unprecedented Fakhreddine II, who seems to have left his trace all over Lebanon and beyond, but made Saida (its Arabic name) his home and the seat of his government.

Sidon's most important enterprise in the Phoenician era was glass-making, which was considered the best in the World thus conducted on a vast scale, and the production of purple dye, which has ever since been synonymous with royalty, was almost as important. The town also became known for shipbuilding and provided experienced sailors for the Persian fleet. The King of Sidon was admiral of the fleet and successful in campaigns against the Egyptians in the 6th century BC, and later against the Greeks, giving Sidon a degree of independence from its Persian overlords. This lasted until the middle of the 4th century BC, when a Phoenician rebellion, centered in Sidon, incurred the wrath of the Persians.

Old Souqs

Located between The Sea Castle and The Castle of St. Louis stretches Saida's old town which easily rivals its counterparts across the region. A 5 minutes walk from The Sea Castle will get you into the extraordinarily well preserved winding streets of the picturesque vaulted souq which retains its ancient origins while functioning as an actual market where locals still go to buy household goods. You'll find bakers and sweetshops, green grocers and butchers, and a whole host of other goods, including, of course, souvenirs. Be sure to ask for a tour of the absolutely stunning early 18th century Debbaneh Palace, accessible via a staircase in the dark heart of the souq. At the end of the souq, you'll find Saida's famous Soap Museum, another must-see.

The Sea Castle

Visible from the corniche as one pulls into the center of Saida, The Sea Castle was built by the Crusaders in the 13th century on top of a Phoenician temple and is connected to the mainland by a delightful causeway across the water built by the Malmuks. 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.

Temple of Eshmun

Temple of Eshmun is situated 2 kilometers northeast of Sidon in a lush valley of citrus groves on the Awwali River, known locally as "Bustan Esh-Sheikh". This Phoenician temple complex, dedicated to the healing god Eshmun, is the only Phoenician site in Lebanon that has retained more than its foundation stones. Building was begun at the end of the 7th century BC, and later additions were made in the following centuries. Therefore, many elements near the original temple site were completed long after the Phoenician era, including a Roman-period colonnade, mosaics, a nympheum, and the foundations of a Byzantine church. Legend has it that Eshmun was a young man from Beirut who was hunting in the woods when Astarte saw him and was stricken by his beauty. She harassed him with her amorous pursuit until he emasculated himself with an axe and died. The grieving goddess revived Eshmun and transported him to the heavens where she made him into a uranic god.