Tyre was a fortified city occupying a small island off the coast of today’s Lebanon. The geography made it inexpugnable and, as Wallace Bruce Fleming describes in his The History of Tyre, an enticing prize for many superpowers over history.
Some scholars believe the capture of Tyre during the Alexander Campaign was strategically unnecessary. Tyre had offered surrender, but had refused Alexander the right to sacrifice in the temple of Melqart during the great festival in February, because only a native king could perform the necessary religious ceremonies. According to Lucius Flavius Arrianus, in his Anabasis Alexandrinus,
Thence he advanced towards Tyre; ambassadors from which city, despatched by the commonwealth, met him on the march, announcing that the Tyrians had decided to do whatever he might command. He commended both the city and its ambassadors, and ordered them to return and tell the Tyrians that he wished to enter their city and offer sacrifice to Heracles. The reason of this demand was, that in Tyre there existed a temple of Heracles, the most ancient of all those which are mentioned in history. It was not dedicated to the Argive Heracles, the son of Alcmena; for this Heracles was honoured in Tyre many generations before Cadmus set out from Phoenicia and occupied Thebes […]
To this Tyrian Heracles, Alexander said he wished to offer sacrifice. But when this message was brought to Tyre by the ambassadors, the people passed a decree to obey any other command of Alexander, but not to admit into the city any Persian or Macedonian; thinking that under the existing circumstances, this was the most specious answer, and that it would be the safest course for them to pursue in reference to the issue of the war, which was still uncertain. When the answer from Tyre was brought to Alexander, he sent the ambassadors back in a rage.
No Persian king had ever made such an outrageous demand, yet Alexander had felt insulted and had insisted.
Modern military scholars believe Tyre was a strategic coastal base in the war against the Persians. Under attack, the Tyrians were forced to recall the ships that had been fighting in the Aegean sea. Since the other Phoenician towns had already recalled their ships after the towns had surrendered to the Macedonians, the Persian naval offensive in the Aegean sea came to an end.
In January 332 B.C., Alexander’s siege began with a blockaded Tyre. To reach the Tyrian walls, the Macedonians needed a bridge.
A recent study shows a leeward wave shadow generated by this island, allied with high sediment supply after 1000 B.C. and a slowdown in sea-level rise that began around 4000 B.C., culminated in a natural sand bank varying between 1 to 2 meters below sea level.
The formation would probably have been known to sailors, for whom it might have hindered navigation. Alexander’s engineers cleverly exploited this shallow proto-tombolo, using the sandbar as a foundation for the bridge. To reach the Tyrian walls, the Macedonians built a 70-m-wide, 1-km-long causeway using timber, stone, and debris of the abandoned mainland city, destroyed by Nebuchenazzar 250 years earlier.
But the Tyrians still commanded the sea and made the construction extremely difficult. Alexander needed ships to protect the construction, and he was lucky, because Aradus, Tripolis, Byblus, Beirut and Sidon had just recalled their navies. When it was ready, he brought his siege engines along it to the walls.
The citizens now fought desperately, and the Greeks were repeatedly driven back. But after seven months the city was running out of food and, after a seven month siege, the town was attacked from three sides: the Phoenician fleet destroyed the Tyrian fleet in the “Egyptian port”; Macedonian ships attacked the walls with siege engines; and marines from Cyprus landed in the “Sidonian port” and forced their way into the city. Tyre fell.
Alexander was so furious that this one city had halted his progress for so long, that he gave the city over to plunder and his soldiers sacked it without mercy. Macedonians lost 400 men, but 8,000 Tyrians were killed in the fighting, 30,000 were enslaved. Alexander indulged in his anger: he ordered 2,000 Tyrians to be crucified on the beach. The king and a few of his retinue were pardoned:
Alexander gave an amnesty to all those who fled for refuge into the temple of Heracles; among them being most of the Tyrian magistrates, including the king Azemilcus, as well as certain envoys from the Carthaginians, who had come to their mother-city to attend the sacrifice in honour of Heracles, according to an ancient custom. The rest of the prisoners were reduced to slavery; all the Tyrians and mercenary troops, to the number of about 30,000, who had been captured, being sold. Alexander then offered sacrifice to Heracles, and conducted a procession in honour of that deity with all his soldiers fully armed. The ships also took part in this religious procession in honour of Heracles. He moreover held a gymnastic contest in the temple, and celebrated a torch race.
More interesting though, the siege of Tyre had a lasting effect: the mole stayed, silted up, and today Tyre is connected to the mainland. Alexander, in his drive to conquer, permanently changed the face of the land.
After the victory at Tyre, the causeway irreversibly changed the flow patterns in the water surrounding the former island: long-shore currents were interrupted, and at both north and south of this causeway two bays were formed, slowly silting up.
Around 7.5 million square feet (700,000 square meters) of new land were created, forming the broad peninsula that can be seen today.
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Almost 800 years later, during the First Crusade in 1111-12, Tyre would be under siege yet again, this time by King Baldwin I. The fighting, which also included siege towers, was chronicled by Ibn Al-Qalanisi, a contemporary scholar from Damascus.