Alexander the Great knew that if he were to embark on his great project, the conquest of the Persian Empire, he would first need to secure his flanks near the Mediterranean. This meant the bringing of Syria and Egypt under his control; and to this end he moved south after subduing Asia Minor.
This southward move brought him into contact with the ancient Phoenician cities along the coast: Sidon, Tyre, and Aradus. These semi-independent principalities had never coalesced into a nation proper; they jealously guarded their commercial liberties from each other. This lack of unification would prove to be a tremendous weakness when faced with an external enemy. Sidon had once revolted against Persian control, and none of her neighboring Phoenician cities had helped her, preferring to see her destroyed in the hope that they themselves might profit commercially from the ruin of a competitor.
Alexander would make good use of these weaknesses. As his army moved south from Asia Minor in 333 B.C., he met a delegation from the city of Tyre. Alexander told them he wished to visit Tyre’s temple to Hercules and pay his respects there. This, however, the Tyrian leadership was unwilling to accept. Perhaps they believed that Alexander’s very presence in the city would cause it to fall irretrievably into his orbit. They wanted to preserve their independence at all costs.
Tyre at this time was actually an island city. It was situated on an island off the Mediterranean coast, and felt secure and safe in this disposition. The city walls were high and thick, and a squadron of eighty triremes protected the island from incursions. They felt confident enough to refuse Alexander admission to the city: they told him he could offer sacrifice to Hercules on the coastline.
This response infuriated Alexander. He resolved to take the city by force. But he had other reasons for doing so that had nothing to do with personal insults. He knew that the hostile Phoenician navy could not be allowed to roam the Mediterranean while he was engaged in his Persian adventure. The Phoenician cities had to be reduced and brought firmly under his control.
The siege of Tyre presented formidable engineering obstacles. How does one take an island fortress? The city was more than a mile from the coastline. All of Alexander’s victories had until this time been won on land; this was an entirely different form of warfare. But he was a military genius, and would find a creative solution.
His plan was to annex the island to the mainland by building a causeway, or mole, that would connect the two. The water was shallow enough near the coast; but as it got closer to the island, it became much deeper. As the mole progressed, the Tyrians sent out ships at all hours to harass the workmen. Alexander tried to guard the causeway with his own ships, as well as with guard-towers along the length of the mole.
The clever Tyrian engineers sent unmanned vessels filled with flammables to disrupt work on the Greek causeway. The ships would crash into the mole and set structures there on fire. Many of these succeeded, and slowed progress to a crawl. Alexander’s solution was to out-work his enemies. He widened the causeway so that it could fit more men and protective towers. He brought in more ships (almost 250 in total) to guard the work and prevent the enemy from attacking the mole.
With this great naval force he was able to block the Tyrian harbors (see map). The causeway was also now almost complete. Alexander brought in large siege engines to contend with Tyre’s 150-foot high walls. He had to remove huge stones that were in the water near the city’s walls; this was done by towing them away, but the task cost him much time and effort.
The blockade of Tyre’s two harbors eventually brought results. Eventually Alexander’s engineers were able to breach the city’s southern walls. Into this gap he poured in as many “hypaspists” (elite infantrymen) as has he could spare; and soon the attackers were fighting their way into the city.
The city’s fighting remnants made a brave final stand at a place called the Agenorion. They were cut down to a man; nearly 8,000 perished. The remainder of the population (about 30,000) were sold into slavery; but Alexander spared the king, whose name was Azemilco. The reluctance to shed royal blood was a shrewd decision on Alexander’s part, and was a pattern he would follow in other conquests.
This was how Alexander took the city of Tyre.
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