Sidon or Saida is the third-largest city in Lebanon. It lies between the city of Tyre and the Lebanese capital Beirut, which are both approximately 25 miles away. Currently, Sidon has a population of over 80,000, however, it has been inhabited since before records began. Although it is now a city, it began as a fishing town, which is what the name Sidon means in the Phoenician language. Sidon was also the name of Canaan and the grandson of Noah, therefore, it is likely the city was named after him.
When the Tribes of Israel were issued land at the end of the book of Genesis, Sidon was apportioned to the Tribe of Zebulun. “Zebulun will live by the seashore and become a haven for ships; his border will extend toward Sidon.” (Geneses 49:13) Being on the Mediterranean coastline, Sidon became a popular port and rapidly grew from a fishing village to a city in a commercial empire.
The Phoenicians arrived in the city in around the time of Joshua (1355-1245 BC) and Sidon quickly became one of their most important cities, potentially the oldest. Craftsmen in the city were famed for producing glass and purple dies, and women were known for the art of embroidery. Evidence for the Sidonians’ skills can be read in the Bible, for example, “You know that we have no one so skilled in felling timber as the Sidonians.” (1 Kings 5:6)
A group from Sidon spread out to colonise another city, Tyre, taking their trades with them, resulting in much competition between the two cities. In the Bible, Sidon is considered to be the “mother of Tyre” as emphasised in a prophecy against Tyre in Isaiah 23: “No more of your revelling, Virgin Daughter Sidon, now crushed!” (23:12)
Sidon was such a powerful city it oppressed Israel along with “the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines … the Amalekites and the Maonites” (Judges 10:11-12), however, it was also conquered many times before Christianity came about. Sidon’s conquerors include Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. Evidence for each invasion has been found by archaeologists in the style of buildings, coins and materials from other places. There is also evidence that the Sidonians worshipped the god Ba’al.
One of the ways Sidon infiltrated itself into Israel was through King Solomon who had many foreign wives. Sidon was one of the nations God had told the Israelites “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods” (1 Kings 11:2), which is exactly what happened. Solomon’s wives led him astray, convincing him to worship their gods, including Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians.
King Ahab of Israel was also guilty of being influenced by the Sidonians because he “married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him.” (1 Kings 16:31) Elijah, who prophesied during Ahab’s reign, travelled to Sidon at God’s instruction: “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” (1 Kings 17:9) While he was there, he performed miracles, including bringing the widow’s son back to life.
Other prophets in the Bible frequently wrote about Sidon, for example, Isaiah, who referred to the city concerning the prophecy against Tyre. Jeremiah mentioned Sidon a least three times, the final during a message about the Philistines: “For the day has come to destroy all the Philistines and to remove all survivors who could help Tyre and Sidon.” (Jeremiah 47:4) Ezekiel also mentioned Sidon during a lament over Tyre as well as a prophecy against Sidon:
“‘I am against you, Sidon,
and among you I will display my glory.
You will know that I am the Lord,
when I inflict punishment on you
and within you am proved to be holy.
I will send a plague upon you
and make blood flow in your streets.
The slain will fall within you,
with the sword against you on every side.
Then you will know that I am the Lord.”
The prophet Joel also speaks of Sidon who is judged for their actions against God’s people. Zechariah prophesies a similar judgement.
Despite these prophecies, Sidon continued to prosper as a great city, although under many different hands. At the end of the Persian era in 351 BC, the Egyptian pharaoh Artaxerxes III invaded Sidon, who was shortly followed by Alexander the Great in 333 BC. In the remains of the Necropolis of Sidon, the Alexander Sarcophagus was discovered, which is now on display at the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul. The tomb featured bas-relief carvings of the triumphs of Alexander the Great.
Following Alexander the Great, the city continued to prosper and, even though it eventually fell under Roman dominion, Sidon continued to mint its own silver coins. The Roman’s built a theatre and many monuments in the city and it is believed Herod the Great, who was the king of Galilee when Jesus was born, visited Sidon. Herod was not the only Bible character from the New Testament to visit the city; “Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon” (Matthew 15:21) from Jerusalem. Whilst there, Jesus healed a demon-possessed girl whose mother had such faith in him. Jesus may also have found some of his followers in Sidon as Mark records, “Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.” (Mark 3:7-8)
The final time Sidon is mentioned in the Bible is in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul, who had been arrested, was being taken to Rome, which was a very long journey. Along the way they “landed at Sidon; and Julius, in kindness to Paul, allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs.” (Acts 27:3)
After Biblical times, Sidon became part of the Byzantine Empire during which time many of the surrounding cities were destroyed in an earthquake. Sidon, however, continued to thrive until the Arabs conquered it in 636 AD. From then on, Sidon was continuously conquered by foreign powers, particularly during the Crusades when it changed hands between Jerusalem, Norway, Egypt and Germany until the Saracens and Mongols destroyed it. Only the walls of the original city remain visible.
Sidon was rebuilt as a fishing town and blossomed under the Ottoman Empire. After the First World War, Sidon became part of the French Mandate of Lebanon, which changed hands to the British during World War Two. Following the war, hundreds of Palestinian refugees arrived in Sidon, swelling the numbers of inhabitants to over 10,000. By 2000, however, the population had risen to 65,000.
Today, the majority of Sidon’s population belong to the Sunni Muslim faith, however, there are a few thousand Christians in the city: Armenian Catholic (0.1%), Greek Melkite Catholic (3.7%), Lebanese Maronite Christians (3.3%), Greek Orthodox (0.7%), Armenian Orthodox (0.6%), Evangelicals (0.4%), Roman Latin Catholic (0.2%), Chaldean Catholic (>0%), Syriac Orthodox (>0%), Syriac Catholic (>0%), Assyrian Church of the East (>0%) and Copts (>0%).
Just for fun, here is a list of the main attractions in Sidon, should you ever find yourself in the area:
· Sidon Sea Castle, built by the Crusaders in the 13th century
· Sidon Soap Museum
· Caravanserai of the French, a 17th-century roadside inn
· Debbane Palace, soon to be opened as the History Museum of Sidon
· The Castle of Saint Louis, built by the Crusaders in the 13th century
· Eshmun Temple, dedicated to the Phoenician god of healing
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon