Skip to content
Sidon
,Lebanon
,Sumerian
,Third Dynasty of Ur
,Neo,Sumerian
,Akkadian
,Canaanite
,Byblos
,Egyptians
,New Kingdom
,Amarna letters
,Phoenician cities
,Greek world
,Mycenaean, phoenician

The History of Sidon, the Phoenician City

I’d like to introduce you to the ancient history of the fascinating city of Sidon or Saida, as the locals call it. Located today on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean in Lebanon, like most cities of the Levant, Sidon has a very long history. It all likely started in the 4th millennium BC. During that time, the site that would become Sidon was little more than a fishing village, but its residents produced some fine clay pottery. Traces of which were at least a similar style have been found throughout parts of southern Lebanon and northern Israel.

We first hear mention of the name Sidon or Siddun as it’s called in the ancient Canaanite language in Akkadian sources from around 2200 BC. These, though, tell us almost nothing about the city other than the fact that it existed. There is evidence of at least correspondence between Sidon and the government of the kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur since Neo-Sumerian seals have been discovered there. However, it’s Sidon’s relationship with Egypt that is much better attested to in both textual sources and the archaeological record.

Like their Canaanite neighbors in Byblos, the Sidonians as the residents of Sidon are called were a seafaring people who interacted and traded with the various inhabitants of the eastern Mediterranean world, including the Egyptians. While the relationship between the two at least initially was primarily a commercial one, during the Late Bronze Age Sidon was taken over by the pharaohs of Egypt’s New Kingdom and turned into a vassal state. The city is mentioned several times in the famous Amarna letters of the 14th century BC. In those, Sidon serves as one of the pharaoh’s many vassal states whose leaders are often caught up in the rather penny regional politics of the day.

Ancient Mycenaean and Ancient Aegean Trade between Sidon and the Greek-Speaking World

It’s not hard to see why the Egyptians and others wanted to control cities such as Sidon. It and its closest neighbors had become the most prosperous cities in the eastern Mediterranean with all sorts of goods and resources passing through their ports, including silver, timber, olives, precious stones, marble, textiles and a purplish red dye that would later become popular throughout the Greek-speaking world. Many scholars also believe that the Sidonians may have been the first of the Phoenician cities to have had trade contacts with the Greek-speaking world. Homer even mentions in the Iliad how Prince Paris of Troy brought back elaborately decorated robes from the land of Sidon. The accuracy of Homer’s account can’t be verified, but archaeological evidence seems to confirm trade contacts between Sidon and the Mycenaean, Greek and Aegean world, regardless.

The city was known in antiquity for having some of the best metalsmiths and weavers in the eastern Mediterranean. As Sidon’s prosperity grew, so too did its rivalry with nearby Tyre. In letters to the pharaoh, a prince of Tyre named Abdi-Milkuti constantly accused the rulers of Sidon of treachery against the Egyptian crown. He wrote:

Sidon
,Lebanon
,Sumerian
,Third Dynasty of Ur
,Neo,Sumerian
,Akkadian
,Canaanite
,Byblos
,Egyptians
,New Kingdom
,Amarna letters
,Phoenician cities
,Greek world
,Mycenaean, phoenician

“Zimridda, the ruler of the city of Sidon, has written daily to the rebel Aziru son of Abdia-Shirtu, concerning every word that he has heard from the land of Egypt. The one who has raided the land of the king is the king of Sidon.”

Sidon remained a part of Egypt’s empire in Canaan until the fateful Late Bronze Age collapse around 1175 BC, which saw the end of Egyptian domination in the region. While most areas of the Levant seem to have succumbed to the roving bands of migrants collectively dubbed the “Sea Peoples” by scholars, Phoenician cities such as Sidon and its neighbors Tyre and Byblos survived without any destruction. The exact reasons for this aren’t known, but one theory is that such cities, which had been wealthy trade hubs for centuries, simply may have paid off the Sea Peoples to leave them alone.

With Egypt out of the picture, the wealth and commercial influence of cities such as Sidon attracted the attention of the newest growing power in the region, Assyria. Not even a century after the Late Bronze Age collapse, the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser I made his way to Sidon around 1100 BC and, along with nearby Byblos and Arvad, added the city to Assyria’s list of tributary states. However, the Assyrian incursion into the area didn’t last long and the Sidonians stopped sending tribute to Assyria shortly after the end of Tiglath-Pileser’s reign in 1076 BC.

Sidon and Other Phoenician Cities under Assyrian Domination

Sidon and the Phoenician city-states came under Assyrian domination for a second time during the reign of the powerful king Ashurbanipal between 668 and 627 BC. His annals record large amounts of tribute from Sidon and other Phoenician cities. It was an uneasy relationship to say the least, and throughout the next century the Sidonians and others in the Levant constantly rebelled against their Assyrian overlords. Sidon was the focus of a number of military campaigns by later Assyrian kings, including Sennacherib in 704 BC, who reconquered and then replaced Sidon’s king in one of his inscriptions. Sennacherib tells us:

“Luli, king of Sidon, who the terror-inspiring glamour of my lordship had overwhelmed, fled far overseas and perished. The awe-inspiring splendor of the weapon of Ashur, my lord overwhelmed his strong cities, such as great Sidon and little Sidon. I installed Ethba’al upon the throne to be their king and imposed upon him tribute due to me as his overlord to be paid annually without interruption.”

And yet the Sidonians would still not submit, and so Sennacherib’s son and successor, Esarhaddon, decided to put an end to the city’s ability to rebel once and for all by not only destroying much of it and beheading its king Abdi-Milkuti, but also by deporting most of its population to other parts of the Assyrian empire and replacing them with new settlers from the east. Gradually, what had been destroyed in Sidon was rebuilt and the city began to prosper once again, especially after the fall of the Assyrian empire in 610 BC. However, in its ashes came the Neo-Babylonian empire, whose most powerful king, Nebuchadnezzar II, conquered the city much like Sennacherib had and exiled a portion of its population to Babylon. The city itself, though, was largely spared, since it was useful as one of Babylon’s few ports with access to the Mediterranean Sea.

Sidon
,Lebanon
,Sumerian
,Third Dynasty of Ur
,Neo,Sumerian
,Akkadian
,Canaanite
,Byblos
,Egyptians
,New Kingdom
,Amarna letters
,Phoenician cities
,Greek world
,Mycenaean, phoenician

In 539 BC Sidon was absorbed into the empire of the Achaemenid Persian king Cyrus the Great after his conquest of Babylon. Unlike Assyrian and Babylonian rule, the Achaemenids had a rather hands-off approach when it came to running the city. The territory under the city’s jurisdiction was also expanded. Some have made the case that Sidon received such preferential treatment because the Persians needed their ships and contacts with the Egyptians for their invasion of Egypt that took place under Cyrus’s successor, Cambyses II, in 526 BC. Along with other Phoenician cities, Sidon’s navy was instrumental in the Persian king Xerxes’s invasion of Greece in 480 BC, which ultimately ended in disaster.

Theodorus of Sicily, a History of a Revolt in Sidon

For the next 137 years, Sidon remained seemingly loyal to the Persian crown, but in 343 BC all hell broke loose. According to the Greek historian Theodorus of Sicily, Sidon, along with other cities in the region, rebelled against the Persian king Artaxerxes III, though Tyre and Arvad were also involved, and it seems that the Egyptians may have instigated and aided the revolt. It was Sidon’s king Tennes, who acted as the rebellion’s ringleader, though initially he had some success. Tennes grew afraid when he heard that Artaxerxes was sending a force of perhaps 300,000 men, along with 300 ships, to subdue his rebellion. The actual number was probably far less, but whatever it may have been, it was enough for Tennes to write a letter to the great king of Persia with an offer to surrender if his life in the city of Sidon would be spared. Theodorus says that Artaxerxes accepted the offer, but had Tennes killed and Sidon burned anyway. After hearing what had happened in Sidon, Tyre and Arvad surrendered without a fight and resubmitted to Persian rule under which they remained until 332 BC, when Alexander of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great, came to Phoenicia. The historian Arrian writes that the Sidonians surrendered their city to the Macedonian conqueror without a fight.

During the Hellenistic era and the wars that followed between Alexander’s successors, Sidon was ruled at times by both the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties. Despite the back and forth between which dynasty ruled over the city, it became extremely prosperous during the Hellenistic era and world famous for its glassware. Other important and famous works from this period include the Alexander Sarcophagus, the Lycian Tomb, and the Sarcophagus of the Crying Women in 64 BC. The city was brought into the Roman Republic by the great general Pompey who granted Sidon a considerable degree of autonomy during the days of the Roman Empire. Said on reached new heights of prosperity, but by then its Canaanite Phoenician identity had all but vanished. Hopefully, one day we’ll get into the history of Roman Sidon.

Until then, be sure to bookmark our blog and stay tuned for more ancient history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.