The ancient graveyards of Lebanon have yielded an astonishing
number of magnificent sculptured marble sarcophagi the world
has ever seen.
On March 2, 1887 on a land being used as a quarry northeast
of Sidon, a workman accidentally uncovers a tomb shaft about
twenty feet square sunk to a depth of some fifty feet in the
sandstone. Overcome by fear, he flees to Sidon and returns with
the Reverend William King Eddy, an American missionary born in
Sidon. They make their way through Sidon's dark streets and orange
groves to the site. In the flickering candlelight Eddy realizes
at once that this is not an ordinary burial but a discovery of
great importance. At his feet lies Sidon's royal necropolis.
Lowering themselves by ropes down the shaft they land in front of a burial
chamber. As the opening into the chamber is narrow and the ventilation poor,
their candies flicker and nearly go out. Both men become dizzy and faint.
Thick mud on the floor impedes their progress. Water drips from the roof.
Eddy cannot believe his eyes.
Before him in the musty gloom stands a most unusual sarcophagus, the cover
of which is of one
piece of marble in the form of a large arch. From the four ends
project lion heads. On the front end of the lid stand two figures
facing each other with uplifted wings, with the body of a beast
and the head of an eagle. At the rear are two similar figures,
with the body of a bird and a human head. Eddy is standing in
front of what is later called the "Sarcophagus of the Lycian".
The sarcophagus is made of marble from Paros. Traces of color
of various shades of red, ochre, brown and blue persist. One
long side depicts a hunting scene. Two chariots drawn by four
horses each bear down on a lion. Two young hunters stand in each
car. The horses prance and leap in the air, of the eight, only
the last one to the left has a hoof on the ground.
The second long side displays a boar hunt. A wild boar attacks
a group of horsemen, the horses rear and prance. They bear a
striking resemblance to the horses on the Parthenon reliefs,
with their small heads held erect, broad chests and loins. Five
hunters raise their spears to strike the boar. They stand in
two groups, three to the left and two to the right.
The shape of the sarcophagus, the sculptured reliefs of the
sphinxes, the fanciful scene of the lion hunt, the mythological
scenes side by side with scenes from daily life (the boar and
lion hunts) resemble the funerary monuments of Lycia.
Groping their way warily in the
murky darkness of the tomb, the two men encounter a second sarcophagus
in the form of a Greek
temple. In the flickering candlelight they gasp in amazement.
The lid represents the roof of the temple, the body of the sarcophagus
represents a sanctuary surrounded by a portico with eighteen
exquisitely sculptured statues about three feet high standing
between columns. The statues are of beautiful workmanship. All
are of women expressing grief in various ways, hence its name,
the "Sarcophagus of the Weepers".
The most famous, however, is the
of Alexander", a monumental work of art. This large pedimented
work measures over eleven feet, is of Pentelic marble and weighs
about fifty tons. Eddy is dazzled by its size and beauty. Alexander
the Great appears in both battle and hunting scenes. The warriors
on the sarcophagus are of two kinds. The first, mostly on horseback,
have blue eyes, scarlet cloaks, blue tunics, crested helmets
and carry shields and long straight swords.
The other type of combatant wears a peaked hat and a cloth
wrapped about the head covering both cheeks, mouth and chin.
They seem to be the vanquished and the battle scene appears to
be one between the Greeks and the Persians. Alexander enters
the battle with his spear held high ready to attack a fallen
Persian. He wears a lion skin on his head like the god Heracles.
In the hunting scene Alexander rides forward with his cape
flying behind him. On his head he wears the Macedonian diadem.
A horseman has been attacked by a lion. The horse is rearing
while the lion fastens its teeth in the horse's shoulder. The
terror of the animal is evident, his nostrils are dilated with
Another impressive marble burial
case from the royal necropolis has been named the "Sarcophagus of the Satrap".
The sculptured reliefs on the sides depict scenes from the life of an oriental
by his attendants, possibly a satrap of Sidon.
Many other beautiful sarcophagi
lie in different burial chambers in this "City of the Dead".
News of the sensational discovery travels to Constantinople
and reaches the ears of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, A special mission,
headed by Hamcly Bey, Curator of the Imperial Ottoman Museum,
is despatched at once to Sidon to make the necessary arrangements
to remove the sarcophagi. This proves to be a difficult task
as the precious sarcophagi, big and heavy, are covered by fragile
carvings. Furthermore they lie in deep subterranean chambers
to which access is difficult.
A horizontal tunnel is hastily cut through the hillside into
one of the burial chambers. The sarcophagi are hauled with ropes
and rolled through the tunnel to the outside and into the light
of day after more than two thousand years in the tomb. There
they are encased in wrappings and put into wooden crates under
the close supervision of Hamdy Bey. To preserve the coloring,
the workmen wear gloves and stuff cotton wool behind each of
the sculptures. A temporary railway through the groves to the
seashore is made and a special wharf constructed on piles extending
into the sea.
In one burial chamber lies a massive black basalt sarcophagus
containing the mummy of Tabnit, a sixth century B.C. king of
Sidon. He is the father of Eshmunazar, whose sarcophagus was
found earlier at another necropolis south of Sidon called Magharat
Abloun, and had created a sensation. The king of Sidon must be
handled with great care for on the sarcophagus lid an inscription
in Phoenician letters casts a malediction on whosoever should
disturb his remains. Hamcly Bey writes half seriously, half in
"I was prepared in a way
to be cursed by the elderly priest-king whose sepulchre I opened with no
scruples and whose
body I carried off in a vulgar box of zinc. May interest in science
be an excuse for my audacity and thus appease the shades of the
All is ready and a special ship, the Assir, sails from Constantinople. A
large hole is cut in its side. The sarcophagi are rolled over the tracks to
the wharf, hoisted up to the side of the ship and placed in its hold for the
long journey to Constantinople.
What was the fate of the royal necropolis which yielded such
valuable treasures? A terse report in the American Journal of
Archaeology in 1890 provides the answer:
"The admirable necropolis
from which were taken these magnificent sarcophagi which the Museum of
from Sidon (Saida) three years ago, has been annihilated. For
the rock in which were these beautiful sepulchral vaults . .
. the very rock, has been brutally torn up and transformed into
stupid masonry . . . That grandiose subterranean Museum, which
earthquakes, and the devastations of conquerors and centuries
of barbarism had respected, has been effaced by the criminal
stupidity of a miserable gardener of Saida."
On June 21, 1890 the following
notice appears in the Athendeum: "The wing of the new archaeological museum which is intended
for the housing of the sarcophagi from Sidon and other places
is ready and will be presently opened to the public." And
there they can be admired to the present day.
The largest collection in the
world of white marble anthropoid sarcophagi lie side by side in a long
impressive row in Beirut
National Museum. The term "anthropoid" comes from the
Greek word anthropos meaning "man" because this type
of burial case in particular closely follows the form of the
After death, the ancient Egyptians believe, the body has to
be preserved and protected from harm. Hence mummification is
practiced in Egypt and cedar oil from Lebanon is used for embalming.
Thus close commercial and religious ties develop between Egypt
and the port cities of Lebanon.
Coffins during this early period
are designed in the shape of a house or that of a mummy. The former gives
the dead a substitute
for his dwelling, the latter provides a "reserve" body
for the afterlife. On some of the early wooden mummy cases "magical
eyes" are painted on the sides near the head. It is believed
that their magical power allows the dead man to look out. In
no time stone anthropoid sarcophagi become popular with the well-to-do
in the old World.
In 1861 six white marble anthropoid sarcophagi are discovered
south of Sidon at Magharat Abloun, an ancient burial ground,
by Ernest Renan, the French scholar sent by Napoleon III, Emperor
of France, to make a survey of the archaeological sites of Phoenicia.
These marble burial cases are different from others. The body
indeed follows the contours of the Egyptian mummy case, but the
head is sculptured in the Greek style with wide staring eyes
and an elaborate hair-do. Each one is different from the other.
Today we can look upon them with amazement and come to recognize,
one by one, a number of notables, both women and men, who lived
in Sidon during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.
Who was responsible for what appears
to be a typical "Phoenician" invention? There must have been
a school of skilled sculptors in Sidon who developed this particular art
form. Let us go back
in Time to the workshop of a busy sculptor living in the outskirts
of Sidon and put our imagination to work.
Sedek is his name. He has ten apprentices. Each one is more
clever than the other. All of them are eager to work under his
skilled direction and thus become master sculptors.
Sedek has traveled to Egypt as a youth to become better acquainted
with the art of carving stone. He has also traveled to Greece
and has marveled at the genius of Greek sculptors. He is deeply
impressed by the way they apply paint to sculptures to make them
more lifelike. He is determined to follow this technique at home.
Sedek returns to Sidon and decides to introduce a new style.
instead of the expressionless, standard, heavy-lipped face seen
up to this time on Egyptian mummy cases, why not carve out the
features of each person who one day will occupy the sarcophagus?
In other words, why not make an attempt at individual portraiture?
The idea is appealing and spreads like wildfire throughout
the city. The wealthy Sidonian usually orders his sarcophagus
during his lifetime. It takes many months, sometimes years, to
do one properly.
So one by one the notables of
the city make their way to Sedek's workshop to order a "personalized" sarcophagus.
One day a rich merchant, a giant of a man, walks into Sedek's
workshop. He almost fills up the room. He has come to order his
sarcophagus. Of impressive proportions and height and with a
heavy jaw, the merchant is very conscious of his looks. To the
point that when recently the six teeth of his lower jaw get loose
and are about to fall out, no doubt he was afflicted with pyorrhea
alveolaris, he is greatly alarmed, He consults the city's dentist.
This clever man fashions a gold appliance consisting of a fine
24 gauge wire of pure gold that he ingeniously weaves around
and firmly binds together the six loose teeth of the merchant's
lower jaw. The weight of this appliance, weighing slightly more
than two grams, distributed over six teeth, probably causes little
or no discomfort to our notable of Sidon.
Sedek spends one year carving out the massive marble sarcophagus.
Many a time the merchant walks into the workshop to see how his
sarcophagus is progressing. He is pleased with his likeness,
his prominent jaw, as it portrays him as a vigorous and strong
man. Sedek sculptures the merchant's hair carefully in neat curls
around his head on the sarcophagus lid. Paint is applied to the
hair, the lips, the pupils of the eyes to give a more vivid impression.
The whole effect is very pleasing.
When he dies, our Sidonian notable
is laid to rest in his sarcophagus. A shaft grave and tomb chamber is made
for him in
the necropolis south of Sidon at a locality called Ain el-Helwé
today. At the beginning of this century Ain el-Helwé is
the site of the American Mission School. In 1901 an agreement
is reached with the American School in Jerusalem to explore the
site. At the time no one could imagine that the largest collection
of white marble anthropoid sarcophagi ever discovered lay buried
there in deep shaft graves.
Eleven anthropoids are exhumed, eight more in the subsequent
years. in the largest and heaviest marble sarcophagus, a prominent
jaw to which a gold dental appliance is attached, comes to light
after more than two thousand four hundred years in the darkness
of the tomb! Nearby in the same burial chamber is a marble sarcophagus
of a woman, the merchant's wife.
The sarcophagi are raised from the deep shaft tombs with great
difficulty. Each lid and each bottom is hoisted above ground
by a pulley and then loaded on the back of a waiting camel. The
sarcophagus of the Sidonian merchant measures six feet eleven
and a half inches. The lid weighs approximately half a ton.
When loaded on the back of a kneeling
camel, the camel refuses to rise. It is transfered instead to an ox-cart.
are temporarily lined up in a room nearby. Called the "Ford
Collection" in honor of George Ford, Director of the American
Mission School of Sidon, they are donated to the authorities
in Lebanon and may be seen today solemnly lying in a row in the
basement level of Beirut National Museum.
Due to its geographical position, Lebanon has always served
as a crossroads of cultures, a meeting place of different artistic
influences from the East and West. The Phoenician sculptor and
artisan not only copied the new trends that flooded his city
in his day but also invented new forms and designs to suit his
Thirty-eight stone anthropoids from Sidon, of which twenty-six
are in Beirut National Museum, give us an idea of the genius
and versatility of the city's marble workers. During the fifth
to third centuries B.C. the people of ancient Lebanon were Hellenized,
that is to say they adopted Greek names, dress and customs as
well as the Greek mode of life. During this period it is with
great difficulty that one can distinguish between a Greek and
a native Phoenician.
There are many questions that
remain to be answered today. Were the "Alexander sarcophagus", the "Sarcophagus
of the Weepers", the "Sarcophagus of the Lycian"
and the "Sarcophagus of the Satrap" the work of Greek
sculptors or the work of clever Phoenicians of Sidon, skilled
in Greek techniques of marble work and polychromy? For whom were
these magnificent burial receptacles intended -- a king, a noble,
a satrap? No inscriptions have been found to give us a clue.
Perhaps this is a question that will ever have an answer.