Sidon (or Saidoon) is a vital commercial and administrative center. Its star is a Crusader Castle overlooking the harbor. The old town is still standing with its alleys and its souks (markets) which have maintained their Middle Age features. Its ancient history is obscure not only for lack of archeological excavations, but also for the plundering of its antiquities and ancient monuments at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century. A lot of monuments and antiques from Sidon are displayed along with other antiquities in international museums.
How Do We Reach Sidon?
Sidon is on the coast, at 48 kilometers south of Beirut. As you enter the city at the north side, there is a playground from which you can turn to reach the heart of the city.
The ancient city of Sidon was built on a promontory facing an island attached to the sea. It had a harbor in the south (Egyptian harbor) and a harbor in the north (it is still used today). The remains and antiques in the city date to the Chalcolithic Age, and to the Canaanite period (4000B.C.). They were found in Qalaat el-Muizz (the Earth Palace or the Castle of St. Louis) and in a town called Dekerman (one kilometer south of the city). The word Sidon was first heard in the fourteenth century B.C. through the letters of Tall el Amarna. After some centuries, the inhabitants of Sidon started to pay taxes to the Assyrians. Trade links with Egypt and with Aegean Islands flourished. Because it was rich and prosperous trade-wise, it surpassed all other Phoenician city states; for that, the Greeks named the entire Phoenician coastline, Sidon. Sidon reached its zenith during the Persian era (550 – 332 B.C), when the city supplied the Persian Empire with ships and seamen in order to fight the Egyptians and Greeks and to dominate the Middle East.
The Persians offered the city buildings and a royal park. The kings of Sidon also built a huge temple for Eshmun, the God of the city, 3 kilometers east-north Sidon in the second century B.C. Like Tyre (its neighbor in the South), glass manufacturing flourished in Sidon, and the city was well known for the extraction of the purple pigment from the shells that were scattered all over it seashore.
A small mound formed by Murex shells is still standing along the hill where the Sand Palace lies south of the city; this hill bespeaks the importance of that royal industry that gloried its inhabitants.
However, Sidon paid the price for its prosperity which caused it some troubles. In 351 B.C. the Sidonians rebelled; thus the Persians besieged Sidon. Its inhabitants responded by setting fire to their city; consequently, 40,000 Sidonians died. The city was too weak to resist more, and in 332 B.C. Its gates were opened for Alexander the Great.
During the Hellenistic and Roman Periods, Sidon (the "holy city" of Phoenicia) enjoyed some freedom and minted its silver coins before becoming a Roman city (metropolis) at the beginning of the third century A.D.
Sidon was extremely rich in important landmarks out of which nothing remained except some ruins. In 551 A.D., Sidon was hit by an earthquake which also hit other Lebanese coastal towns and cities. It was a great earthquake, but it did not destroy Sidon. So, Beirut's School of Law was moved to Sidon. After the Arab conquest (636 A.D.), Sidon remained a small flourishing city. And in the Crusade period (between 1110 A.D. and 1291 A.D.), it became a chief town and a barony of the kingdom of Jerusalem.
The Mamluk and then the Ottomans occupied Sidon at the beginning of the 16th century. It regained its splendor and importance in the 17th century during the rule of Emir Fakhr-al-Din II (1572 – 1635), who declared Sidon as His commercial capital in 1594.
The city walls were repaired; baths and khans were built in it; it regained its commercial activity and became the most important center for exchanging business enterprises between Europe and Bar el-Sham (Syria).
The 19th century was an era of great discoveries in Sidon. In 1855, the sarcophagus of King Eshmun'nazar was discovered in Magharat Abloun, east-south the city (today this find is in the Louvre Museum in Paris). Between 1860 and 1861, Ernest Renan underwent his own excavations in the area, and in 1887, Osman Hamdi Bey, the director of the Royal Museum in Istanbul, did the same thing and discovered the royal necropolis and the sarcophagus of King Tabnit as well as four marble sarcophagi (today these are in Istanbul Museum. Between 1900 and 1904, the features of Eshmun Temple and Phoenician inscriptions came to view. Between 1914 and 1939, some French scholars (among whom were Georges Contenau et Maurice Dunand) underwent some archeological excavations too. Just after the independence, the General Directorate of Antiquities started to assume the mission of digging deeply into the history of Sidon.
Visiting the old town starts with the Sea Castle. It is a fortress built by the Crusaders in the 13th century on an island connected to the mainland by a causeway of 80 meters long. Nothing has remained out of the main building except the single northern wall that is near the fortress. The other two walls were destroyed in 1936 by a storm. They were rebuilt as well as the part of the causeway that is near the mainland.
In the repair work, building stones found in the city from the Roman period were used. Among these were Roman columns which seem to be taken from the walls of the Palace that was built over a long period of time, i.e. between 1227 and 1291, the period when it was taken from the Mamālīk by the al-ʾAyyūbiyyūn. Today the repair work of the Mamluk period building is observed, especially the Western Tower. The small mosque that is very near to the Crusade Church dates back to the Ottoman period, before 1840, the year when the British Navy shelled the fortress.
The Castle opens daily from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00p.m.
From 9:00a.m. to 4:00 p.m. in winter
Between the Sea Castle and the Land Castle ("St. Louis" Castle), there stretch old Souks (markets) that have maintained their beautiful buildings and commercial role. Nearby, a repair process is observed as well as small crafts shops. In the old Souk, there are vaulted alleys that are 14 kilometers long.
As you enter el-Shakiriyya market, there is Debbaneh Palace, where a roofed narrow stairway leads to the internal yard of this old building built by Hammoud Family in 1721. The Debbaneh and Saasy Families purchased it in 1800. The General Directorate of Antiquities has declared it a historic building since 1968. The building has maintained its Ottoman Arab architectural features: a reception room, a large sitting room, a main room, a water spring and rooms called "the Divan". The Mamluk influence is manifested in the decorations: upper steps, windows decorated with flower and star shapes, roofs decorated with colored and engraved cedar branches, windows with wooden oriels, and iron laminated lamps. The western influence is clearly seen in the upper stores added at the beginning of the 20th century. In the third storey, there is a room open unto the air called the aviatrix (flying room), overlooking the city.
The Palace is open all days except Fridays
From 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
To the right side of the Debbaneh Palace lies Saint Nicholas Cathedral (from the 18th century). Its present features date to 1690. In 1819, its wall was divided into two parts with the Catholic part now closed.
At the entrance of the Bishopric, there is a room in which Saint Paul rested and where, according to tradition, he met Saint Peter.
On the road leading the Mutran street or the Shakriyya Market southward, you can see the Audi house and the Soap Museum. It is composed of three architectural artistic phases: the Soap factory with its wooden vaults, which had been functioning until 1980; the family house above the soap factory (beginning of the 20th century); and the major part of the building which dates back to the 13th century.
In 1998, Audi Foundation decided to convert the Soap Factory into a modern museum representing the different and various stages of the traditional Soap industry that uses olive oil.
It is open all days except Fridays
From 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Tel.: 07-733353 – 07-753599
To the right side of the Sea Palace lies Khan el Franj or the caravansary. It is one of the many khans or hotels built by Fakhr-al-DinII in the beginning of the 17th century. The rooms in the ground floor served as warehouses and stables; as for the rooms in the second floor, they served as a living quarter for merchants. This Khan with its rectangular interior courtyard and the central fountain surrounded by covered galleries had been the main center of commercial activity in Sidon until the 19th century. It was the residence of the French consul in Sidon and the Franciscan Fathers. Later, it was converted into an orphanage for girls run by St. Joseph Covent of Epiphany. Today, it is renovated and its rooms are used as showrooms.
Behind Khan el Franj, near el-Saray, lies Bab el-Saray Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the city. It was built in the Crusade epoch in 1201 by Sheikh Abou el-Yaman. It has a large dome whose vaults are supported by huge arches. Its minaret is 20 meters high.
Facing Bab el Saray courtyard is el-Nakhleh Mosque, which is an ancient Sufi Zawiya. It has a little minaret cast according to the Moroccan architectural style.
Toward the South lies el Kikhia Mosque. It is the prototype of the Islamic architecture in the Ottoman period. In 1625, it was built by Mahmoud Kitkhuda. It is famous for its six domes.
The "Minbar" is built in white and blue marble stone, and its four columns are decorated with geometrical patterns. In the middle of the yard, there is a drinking fountain, surrounded by the Dervish rooms, which were used as a residence for the Koran readers.
Across el Kikhia Mosque lays the Sheikh Hammam, built in the 17th century by the traveler Abdel Ghani el Naboulsi. It is characterized by its beautiful bath tubs, and is paved with red slabs.
Along the seashore, west-south of the markets, there is the Great Mosque. It is a huge rectangular building, supported by big columns. It was a hospital in the 13th century named after Saint John. Today it is modeled according to the middle Ages style. It was repaired in 1820 after it was destroyed by a storm. The northern part – that includes the water fountain used for ablution – indicates the usage of ancient building components. It was affected and damaged by time; it was renovated in 1983, 1986, and 1989, and received the prestigious Agha khan Award for Architecture.
Beside the Great Mosque lies the el Ward Hammam, built in 1730 by the Hammoud Family, according to an Oriental-Italian architectural style. It is adorned in a refined meticulous way.
South of the markets there is Saint Elias Church, which is one of the oldest churches in Sidon. It had been a soap factory converted into a church in 1616.
At the far Southern side of the city lays "The Palace of Saint Louis". Most probably it was built by the French king Louis IX during the seventh Crusade (1248 – 1254); it was his residential place. It lies on the old hill of Sidon and it overlooks the city. It was erected on the ruins of a Fatimid fortress built by el-Muizz in the 10th century.
The Palace still bears the name of Qalaat el Muizz. The fortress or the palace is today mere ruins bearing some European characteristics. Emir Fakhr-al-DinII did some restoration works in the 17th century. The internal part is semi-circular and it includes the tower. Roman columns are scattered below.
To the South of this Palace you can see the Murex Hill, which is an artificial one. It is around 100 meters long and 50 meters high. It was formed by the accumulation of refuse from the Murex shells which were used in the Phoenician period to extract the purple dye. At the top of the mound, mosaic tiling is found, and it indicates that Roman buildings were erected in the place. Today the mound is covered with modern buildings as well as a graveyard.
The basic Necropolis of Sidon lies beyond the limits of the ancient city. It had still been in use until the late Roman era. Its most important sites are: the necropolis of Magharat Abloun (where the sarcophagus of King Eshmun'nazar II was discovered and which dates back to the 1st half of the 5th century B.C. At present, it is in the Louvre Museum); the royal necropolis of Qayyaa', (above the village of Helalieh). There are the sarcophagi of Alexander, the Marzuban and el Naaihat, all of which are in Istanbul Museum); and the third site is Ain el Helweh to the southeast of Sidon (it includes the valuable anthropoid sarcophagi exhibited at the national Museum in Beirut).
South of Sidon there lays an ancient cemetery known as Dekerman. In this cemetery, there are sarcophagi, valuable objects, inscriptions, sculptures as well as Chalcolithic (4000 B.C.) constructions along with oval huts made of a mixture of clay and straw.