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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope


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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Monday, September 04, 2006

Alexander the Great in Lebanon

The Middle East has a history of strife dating back thousands of years, and the current violence and instability is only the most recent episode. When one reads the history of the region in ancient times, one realizes that in many ways the political situation there has not changed much - only the technology of violence has. Alexander the Great invaded the Middle East in the fourth century B.C. and subdued the inhabitants after a relentless and often vicious campaign. Brutal battles at Tyre and Gaza, names infamous today, gave the best army in the world tenuous control over the area at a huge cost in human life. Sound familiar?
Alexander crossed the Hellespont from Macedonia in 336 BC and invaded the Persian Empire in what is now modern Turkey. He met and defeated the Persian army under Darius at the battles of the Granicus River in the spring of 334 and at Issos in November 333. At that point, rather than pursue Darius into Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) leaving a hostile Persian fleet and its mainland allies behind him, he turned south and entered what is now modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. The ensuing Macedonian victories at the sieges of Tyre and Gaza resulted in complete Macedonian domination of the region. By the time of his death at the age of 32 in 323, Alexander ruled most of the known world.
After the surrender of the northern cities of Byblos and Sidon, the king of Tyre, Azemilcus, met Alexander in January 332 and offered to obey his instructions. Alexander told him that he wished to sacrifice to Herakles in the main city temple during the feast of Melqart, the chief city god. The rulers of Tyre considered this an intolerable affront and declined - Alexander then commenced a lengthy siege. The Macedonians built an enormous causeway 200 ft wide from the mainland to the island fortress in the harbour, and rolled out enormous siege engines to batter down the 150 ft thick walls. At the same time the Macedonian fleet blockaded the harbour. At one point in the siege, the Tyrians hauled some Macedonian prisoners onto the battlements and in view of the attacking Macedonian army, cut their throats and threw their bodies into the sea. Eventually the Macedonian army gained control of a section of the wall and the defenders retreated to the shrine of Agenor, the city’s founder. Most of the defenders were slain at the shrine, and the Macedonian army then sacked the city, killing some 8 000 residents. Alexander then had about 2 000 others crucified on the beach as a warning to the inhabitants of the area against further resistance. Another 30 000, including most of the women and children, were sold into slavery.
After the victory at Tyre, Alexander moved down the coast to Gaza. The city was heavily fortified and garrisoned by an army of mercenary Arabs who were well supplied for a lengthy siege. The ruler, Batis, believed that the town was impregnable and refused to surrender. Alexander invested the city in a siege that lasted from September to November 332. The Macedonians used tunnels to undermine the walls and brought the siege engines from Tyre to batter down the fortifications. Alexander was the object of an assassination attempt by a Gazan deserter who surrendered and then attacked him with a concealed sword - an attack which he successfully dodged. Later he suffered a serious wound to the shoulder from a Gazan catapult. After three unsuccessful attempts to force a breach in the wall, the Macedonians entered the city on their fourth try. Every Gazan under arms was slain and the women and children were sold into slavery. Alexander had Batis dragged around the walls behind a chariot in retaliation for the attempted assassination.
From Gaza, Alexander then went on to conquer Egypt, and then turned east to finish off Darius at the battle of Gaugamela in October 331. This victory left Alexander as the ruler of the entire Persian empire - a kingdom which did not survive his death in 323.

1 comment:

Andrew Mason said...

I think the real issue is the fact that the Middle East has only ever known moments of comparative tranquility when it is held under the sway of a multi-ethnic empire, be it the Egyptians, the Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians and Medes, Hellenes, Romans, Arabs, Franks/crusaders, Turks, England/France. A "pax" has always been imposed on the volatile area, and usually by a foreign power. Not that I am advocating this today.