Half-buried in undergrowth beside Lebanon’s Awali River lies the world’s best preserved Phoenician site, the Temple of Eshmoun. The guardian sits proudly in his hut, expecting anything but visitors – the FCO Travel Advice website has ringed Sidon in potentially dodgy ‘orange’ in recent months. Erratically signposted and hard to find, the site sits on the northern outskirts of Sidon, and a visit involves crossing the city’s first checkpoint. But everyone seemed friendly enough despite their guns, when I passed through a couple of weeks ago.
Known locally as Bustan Al-Shaikh, the Orchard of the Shaikh, the state of this 7th century BC site, surrounded by citrus groves, is shockingly neglected. A visit to the semi-swampy areas of the temple, with its ritual basins, bulls-head shrines and sacred pools, is like hacking your way through the Amazonian jungle. Your reward is to sit on the gigantic Throne of Astarte, Phoenician goddess of fertility,carved from one monumental piece of granite, flanked by sphinxes and hunting reliefs. Her consort, Eshmoun, was a Beirut hunter whom she transformed into a reborn healing god, later identified by the Greeks with Asklepios, god of Medicine. A gold plaque found here carried the snake coiled round a staff motif that still serves today as the symbol of the medical profession.
Even more shocking is the evidence of looting that clearly took place during the 15-years of the Lebanese Civil War. Whole sections of later Roman mosaic floors, including the beautiful Four Seasons mosaic, have been stolen, the missing sections now replaced with a plaster mix. After hostilities ended, and Israel retreated from southern Lebanon, UNESCO in 1996 inscribed it on the World Heritage ‘Tentative’ list, a bit late, as everything small worth lifting has gone. Thankfully the Throne of Astarte is protected by its sheer size, as it would require a crane to lift it.
Echoes of Syria again? Its remarkable Phoenician site of Amrit south of Tartous has a similar sanctuary with sacred pool and central altar. Beside it is a large rock-carved stadium, site of the world’s first competitive sports games, predating the Olympics by several centuries. What will Amrit look like by the time Syria’s civil war has ended?