Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Temple of Eshmun Lebanon: The Forgotten History

The Temple of Eshmun in Sidon, Lebanon, is a neglected Phoenician treasure, echoing the challenges faced by many historical sites in Lebanon.

Temple of Eshmun Lebanon
This photo shows part of the Eshmun Temple in the southern Lebanon port of Sidon. Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP

Dana Hourany

In the bustling city of Sidon, south Lebanon, overshadowed by the iconic Sea Castle built by the Crusaders, lies a lesser-known treasure.

Just a short distance from the city center, where the aroma of banana trees mingles with the sounds of traffic and street vendors, stands the Eshmun Temple.

Hidden from view, its entrance camouflaged by a nondescript house serving as a guard post, the temple’s ancient stones are reclaimed by nature, and covered in overgrown grass.

Dating back to the 7th century BC, this temple was dedicated to Eshmun, the Phoenician god of healing. Despite its age, visitors can still glimpse remnants of its former glory: scattered floor mosaics, the remains of “Astarte’s Throne,” and a chapel surrounding a tranquil pool.

While revered by locals and archaeology enthusiasts as one of the most significant sites from the Phoenician era—a period steeped in mystery and sparse historical records—the Temple of Eshmun has been largely overlooked by the local government.

However, its fate is not unique among Lebanon’s archaeological treasures, many of which suffer similar neglect, gradually eroding over time. This trend deprives the country of valuable knowledge and historical insights. Experts emphasize the urgent need for proactive preservation efforts to safeguard Lebanon’s cultural heritage for future generations but are not optimistic in light of Lebanon’s current financial and political challenges.

A Phoenician Treasure

Located near the Awali River, the temple’s historical timeline stretches from the 7th century BCE to the 8th century CE, hinting at a deep-rooted association with the prominent Phoenician city of Sidon.

Initially commissioned by King Eshmunazar II during the Achaemenid era (circa 529–333 BCE) to mark Sidon’s resurgence in wealth and status, the temple complex underwent significant expansion under subsequent rulers such as Bodashtart, Yatan Milk, and others.

Throughout its development, spanning centuries of alternating periods of independence and foreign domination, the sanctuary evolved, showcasing a diverse array of architectural styles and decorative influences, offering a glimpse into the dynamic cultural landscape of the region.

Chosen for its proximity to a vital water source crucial for ceremonial use, the temple’s location held significant importance. However, the site endured substantial damage in the wake of a powerful earthquake in the 4th century BCE. Despite this setback, subsequent cultures persisted in constructing around this once sacred ground.

In the aftermath of the temple’s destruction, the site retained its sacred status, becoming a revered destination for pilgrims devoted to the cult of Eshmun. During the era of Roman influence, the site saw the installation of several intricate mosaics, notably adorning the principal stairway.

Following the Roman era, the site witnessed the construction of a Byzantine church, adorned with elaborate mosaics depicting the changing seasons.

Eshmun found parallels in Greek mythology as Asklepios, the deity associated with the healing arts. The intertwining of Eshmun-Asklepios with the serpent’s symbolism is thought to have contributed to the universally recognized symbol of the medical profession – the staff entwined with two serpents. Coins depicting the god Eshmun holding a staff entwined with two serpents have been found in Beirut and at the Eshmun temple.

According to legend, Eshmun’s story unfolds in the ancient city of Beirut, where he was a young hunter roaming the woods. Astarte, the goddess embodying war and passion, was captivated by his allure and relentlessly pursued him with her affection. Tragically, overwhelmed by her relentless advances, Eshmun chose to end his life, wielding an axe upon himself. In her sorrow, Astarte revived Eshmun, granting him immortality and taking him as her beloved companion.

Sacred yet Forgotten

The Temple of Eshmun remained hidden until 1900 when it was stumbled upon by treasure looters. Subsequently, official excavations were initiated to safeguard this newfound archaeological treasure. Renowned French archaeologist Maurice Dunand, known for his work at the archaeological site of Byblos, led extensive excavations at the temple from 1963 until the outbreak of the Lebanon War in 1975.

Despite efforts to protect the artifacts, the temple fell victim to theft. In an attempt to safeguard part of the collection, Maurice Chéhab, the director of the DGA, transferred some artifacts to the archaeological site of Byblos. However, due to ongoing political instability and the persistent threat of theft, 600 pieces stored there were stolen in 1981 and subsequently sold on the black market.

Over the years, only a fraction of these stolen artifacts have been recovered. In 2009, nine pieces were located and returned to Lebanon, while four of them were repatriated from the United States in 2018 and are now on display at the Beirut National Museum.

According to Helene Sader, Professor of Archaeology at the American University of Beirut, the Temple dates back to the late period of the Phoenician era, showcasing a blend of influences, offering valuable insights into Lebanon’s history.

“If we can delve deeper into this site, it could unveil significant aspects of its history. However, conducting excavations requires hiring skilled professionals and large funds,” Sader told Fanack.

The Lebanese government faces multiple obstacles in this regard. The economic crisis since 2019 has resulted in the drastic devaluation of the local currency, making it financially challenging for the state to allocate funds. Additionally, Sader notes that obtaining permits for excavations is a long process, often requiring delays due to the current economic situation and bureaucratic hurdles.

“There’s a need for awareness campaigns and engaging local communities in safeguarding these treasures,” Sader emphasized. “It’s not sufficient to merely highlight the site’s importance; we must educate people about its significance and involve them in its protection.”

Sader also draws attention to the dearth of easily available information on this temple and other ancient sites in Lebanon, which prevents tourists from appreciating the character, function, and significance of this structure.

“People visit interesting sites that offer no information explaining what they’re looking at,” she frustratedly told Fanack.

Furthermore, she notes the widespread phenomenon of stones being taken for construction purposes by the locals over the years, a practice not limited to the temple but prevalent throughout Lebanon, slowly eroding the remnants of unguarded and undiscovered historical sites.

The Mysterious Seafarers

Due to the significant financial challenges involved in maintaining and safeguarding archaeological sites in Lebanon, foreign funding has become instrumental, according to Sader.

The archaeological treasures of Baalbek have attracted attention since the late 19th century when the German emperor initiated excavations in the fertile Beqaa Valley. For over two decades, the German Archaeological Institute has led efforts to uncover the wonders of the City of the Sun.

“We need the right expertise for this work, akin to maintaining and caring for one’s home, ensuring everything remains functional and well-preserved,” emphasized the professor.

While Baalbek has garnered international interest and flourished into a primary tourist attraction, the same cannot be said for the Temple of Eshmun. Its discoverer, Dunand, initially overlooked its significance and failed to write about it.

Ali Najem, an MA student in archaeology, highlighted the urgent need for preservation efforts, particularly for the mosaics, frescoes, and etchings that may deteriorate over time.

“Further excavations and studies could unveil the materials used, architectural phases, and influences, each requiring in-depth examination. This is especially necessary for understanding the Phoenician era, as their practices are not extensively documented,” Najem explained.

Uncovering information from sites like Eshmun could greatly enrich Lebanon’s history and humanity’s understanding, Najem emphasized. He notes that Phoenician temples were often situated near water sources, shedding light on the rituals conducted there which, once discovered, could bring a new understanding to the Phoenicians’ beliefs and religions.

This exploration could also unveil Sidon’s role in ancient eras, a history often overlooked even by locals.

In the Old Testament, Sidon is acknowledged as the firstborn of Canaan, tracing its lineage to the original inhabitants of the land.

Emerging around 1200 BCE, Sidon became a significant Phoenician city, renowned for its glassblowing and purple dye production. Throughout its history, it endured various rulers, including Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Crusader, Mamluk, Ottoman, and Fakhr el-Dine Maan II rule.

The Dangers of War

Najem emphasizes that fully-fledged Phoenician sites with intact structures are a rarity in the Middle East, underscoring the significance of safeguarding the temple of Eshmun. Yet, he points out that the southern region of Lebanon is often overlooked for its archaeological richness.

Aside from Sidon, Tyre stands out as another prominent Phoenician city in the south, boasting several well-preserved ancient structures. Additionally, lesser-known but equally important Phoenician sites can be found in Sarafand and Adloun.

The Kharayeb project, a joint initiative between the Italian National Council of Research and the Lebanese University aims to examine the relationship between Tyre’s urban landscape and its rural surroundings to the north.

Another notable site in the south is Beaufort Castle, situated atop a hill in the Arnoun area. Its strategic position has made it a coveted stronghold throughout history. In 1139, King Fulk of Jerusalem captured the site and bestowed it upon the lords of Sidon, who commenced its construction.

However, Sader points out that political instability and the constant threat of conflict in southern Lebanon pose significant challenges for researchers and excavators. Additionally, the tight political control exerted by influential parties in the region complicates archaeological work.

Currently, clashes are ongoing between Israel and Hezbollah in south Lebanon. As per data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), there have been approximately 4,733 border attacks exchanged between Israel, Hezbollah, and other armed groups in Lebanon since October 7, 2023, until March 15, 2024.

Israel initiated around 83 percent of these attacks.

Despite sites such as Eshmun’s temple and Baalbek’s temple complex receiving the “Blue Shield” designation meant to protect cultural heritage from threats like armed conflict and natural disasters, both Najem and Sader doubt its effectiveness in deterring attacks.

“The war simply needs to stop,” Sader asserts. “We can’t predict where the next targets will be, and symbolic protection is insufficient to ensure the safety of cultural and heritage sites.”

Najem echoes this sentiment, emphasizing that the loss of these structures would be a loss for all humanity, not just Lebanon.

Moreover, Najem highlights another threat to the preservation of Lebanon’s cultural and historical structures: the migration of archaeology graduates and professionals due to limited job opportunities in the country.

“Many are relocating to places like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where there’s a growing interest in archaeology and site preservation,” he explained. For instance, in November 2022, authorities discovered an ancient Christian monastery on an island off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, suggesting its existence centuries before the spread of Islam in the region.

As Lebanon grapples with economic struggles and political instability amid the specter of wider conflict, both Najem and Sader understand the waning interest in archaeology within the country. Sader observes a lack of enthusiasm among younger generations, attributing it to a failure of previous generations to instill an appreciation for Lebanese archaeology. However, she acknowledges that when people are struggling to meet their basic needs, it’s challenging to prioritize caring for things beyond survival.

Fanack Water Palestine