Phoenician Treasures

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Discovered Artifacts, Treasures, and What Remains

Right: "Sarcophagus of Alexander" robbed by the Ottoman Turks, Museum of Istanbul, Turkey

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 so-called "Sarcophagus 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 fear.

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 potentate, surrounded 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 jest:

"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 dead."

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 Constantinople removed 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 human body.

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. The sarcophagi 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 needs.

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.

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