Byblos: An oldest city in the world

Today, we were discussing on some historical places. Byblos came into the discussion. I remembered my visits to this ancient Phoenician port city of Gebal (called Byblos by the Greeks) on the coast of the Mediterranean sea, when I was in Beirut, capital of Lebanon for several months, a few years ago. In fact, Byblos was the first city built by the Phoenicians. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

According to the historian Durant, “Byblos thought itself the oldest of all cities; the god El had founded it at the beginning of time, and to the end of its history it remained the religious capital of Phoenicia.” “Byblos” is Greek for papyrus. Because papyrus was one of the principal articles in its trade, the Greeks took the name of the city as their word for book — biblos. The Bible was named for Byblos as it was known as “the papyrus book.”

Byblos is among the cities listed as candidates for the distinction of the oldest city in the world as it has been continuously inhabited for over 7,000 years. Carbon-dating tests have set the earliest age of settlement at Byblos around 7000 BCE, however it was not officially established as a city until sometime around 5000 BCE.

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HISTORY

It is attractive to archaeologists because of the successive layers of debris resulting from centuries of human habitation. The ruins of many successive civilisations are found at Byblos, one of the oldest Phoenician cities. Inhabited since Neolithic times, it has been closely linked to the legends and history of the Mediterranean region for thousands of years. Byblos is also directly associated with the history and diffusion of the Phoenician alphabet. By 800 BCE, it had travelled to Greece, changing forever the way man communicated.

Ruins in Byblos
Ruins found in Byblos
old seaport
The old seaport

According to the writer Philo of Byblos, Byblos had the reputation of being the oldest city in the world, founded by Cronus. During the 3rd millennium BCE, the first signs of a town can be observed, with the remains of well-built houses of uniform size. This was the period when the Canaanite civilisation began to develop.

The old seaport at Byblos
The old seaport at Byblos

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The city began as a small fishing village called Gebal (Jbeil, in Arabic) while the coastal region of the land, which the Greeks named Phoenicia, was known to the inhabitants as Canaan. By 3000 BCE the little village had grown to a prosperous city through trade. The cedars of Lebanon were highly prized by other countries for use in construction and Byblos became the single most important shipping port for timber to Egypt and elsewhere.

A local fisherman is selling his catch near the castle on the sea-shore.

Byblos was also the first city to perfect ship-building and it is largely due to the craftsmanship of the shipwrights of Byblos that Phoenicians acquired their fame as sailors and “princes of the sea” (as they are referred to in the biblical book of Ezekiel). It was primarily through trade with Egypt that Byblos grew so incredibly wealthy.

Between 1100 and 725 BCE Byblos declined in importance as her sister city, Tyre, grew. After the conquest of the region by Alexander the Great, and the destruction of Tyre in 332 BCE, Byblos again prospered and adopted Greek culture, dress, and language. During the hellenistic period (330-64 BCE) Byblos became most famous for the production of papyrus which would give it its Greek name.

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CASTLE

There is a castle in Byblos, which was built by the Crusaders in the 12th century from indigenous limestone and the remains of Roman structures. The finished structure was surrounded by a moat. Saladin, the first sultan of Egypt and Syria and the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, captured the town and castle in 1188 and dismantled the walls in 1190. Later, the Crusaders recaptured Byblos and rebuilt the fortifications of the castle in 1197.

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With its ancient port, Phoenician, Roman, and Crusader ruins, sandy beaches and the picturesque mountains that surround it make Byblos an ideal tourist destination. It has a old souk (traditional market) which smells of history.

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Old souk (market)
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In a cafeteria in the old souk

FOSSILS

There is also a fossil museum in the souk. The Byblos Fossil Museum (aka Memory of Time) contains fossil collections of sharks, eels, shrimps, squids, rays, coelacanths and flying fish. Most of its collection comes from the nearby villages of Haqel-Byblos, Hjula, and Ennammoura. These three villages have gained international renown thanks to their quarries rich in wonderful marine fossils: fish, crustaceans, starfish, etc. Many of them are dated more than 100 million years old. Being enthused to possess fossils as most of these are available for sale, I bought a couple of these for my personal collections and as a souvenir.

Byblos fossil shop
A fossil shop in Byblos

EPILOGUE

The city is also known for its fish restaurants, open-air bars, and outdoor cafes. How can I miss the taste of fresh fish and the smell of wine? Amazing combo! I enjoyed having fish and wine in one of these restaurants, whenever I visited this city.

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Open air restaurant
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Bab El Mina Restaurant
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Way to the restaurant
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Stopped for lunch: fish and wine … awesome!

I love Byblos and have visited this place thrice. I would love to visit Byblos again!

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