The sanctuary consists of an esplanade and a grand court limited by a huge limestone terrace wall that supports a monumental podium which was once topped by Eshmun's Graeco-Persian style marble temple. The sanctuary features a series of ritual ablution basins fed by canals channeling water from the Asclepius river (modern Awali) and from the sacred "Ydll" spring; these installations were used for therapeutic and purificatory purposes that characterize the cult of Eshmun. The sanctuary site has yielded many artifacts of value, especially those inscribed with Phoenician texts, providing valuable insight into the site's history and that of ancient Sidon.
The Eshmun Temple declined and fell into oblivion as Christianity replaced paganism and its large limestone blocks were used to build later structures. The temple site was rediscovered in 1900 by local treasure hunters who stirred the curiosity of international scholars. Maurice Dunand, a French archaeologist, thoroughly excavated the site from 1963 until the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. After the end of the hostilities and the retreat of Israel from South Lebanon, the site was rehabilitated and inscribed to the World Heritage Site tentative list.
Eshmun was the Phoenician god of healing and renewal of life; he was one of the most important divinities of the Phoenician pantheon and the main male divinity of Sidon. Originally a nature divinity, and a god of spring vegetation, Eshmun was equated to Babylonian deity Tammuz. His role later expanded within the Phoenician pantheon, and he gained celestial and cosmic attributes.
The myth of Eshmun was related by the 6th century AD Syrian philosopher Damascius and 9th century AD Patriarch of Constantinople Photius. They recount that Eshmun, a young man from Beirut, was hunting in the woods when Astarte saw him and was stricken by his beauty. She harassed him with her amorous pursuit until he emasculated himself with an axe and died. The grieving goddess revived Eshmun and transported him to the heavens where she made him into a uranic god.
From a historical perspective, the first written mention of Eshmun goes back to 754 BC, the date of the signing of the treaty between Assyrian king Ashur-nirari V and Mati'el, king of Arpad; Eshmun figures in the text as a patron of the treaty. Eshmun was identified with Asclepius as a result of the Hellenic influence over Phoenicia; the earliest evidence of this equation is given by coins from Amrit and Acre from the 3rd century BC. This fact is exemplified by the Hellenized names of the Awali river which was dubbed Asclepius fluvius, and the Eshmun Temple's surrounding groves, known as the groves of Asclepius.
In the 9th century BC, the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II conquered the Lebanon mountain range and its coastal cities. The new sovereigns exacted tribute from Sidon, along with every other Phoenician city. These payments stimulated Sidon's search for new means of provisioning and furthered Phoenician emigration and expansion, which peaked in the 8th century BC. When Assyrian king Sargon II died in 705 BC, the Sidonian king Luli joined with the Egyptians and Judah in an unsuccessful rebellion against Assyrian rule, but was forced to flee to Kition (modern Larnaca in Cyprus) with the arrival of the Assyrian army headed by Sennacherib, Sargon II's son and successor. Sennacherib instated Ittobaal on the throne of Sidon and reimposed the annual tribute. When Abdi-Milkutti ascended to Sidon's throne in 680, he also rebelled against the Assyrians. In response, the Assyrian king Esarhaddon laid siege to the city. Abdi-Milkutti was captured and beheaded in 677 BC after a three-year siege, while his city was destroyed and renamed Kar-Ashur-aha-iddina (the harbor of Esarhaddon). Sidon was stripped of its territory, which was awarded to Baal I, the king of rival Tyre and loyal vassal to Esarhaddon. Baal I and Esarhaddon signed a treaty in 675 in which Eshmun's name features as one of the deities invoked as guarantors of the covenant.
Sidon returned to its former level of prosperity while Tyre was besieged for 13 years (586–573 BC) by the Chaldean king Nebuchadnezzar II. Nevertheless, the Sidonian king was still held in exile at the court of Babylon. Sidon reclaimed its former standing as Phoenicia's chief city in the Achaemenid era (c.529–333 BC). During this period, Xerxes I of Persia awarded king Eshmunazar II with the Sharon plain for employing Sidon's fleet in his service during the Greco–Persian Wars. Eshmunazar II displayed his new-found wealth by constructing numerous temples to Sidonian divinities. Inscriptions found on the king's sarcophagus reveal that he and his mother, Amashtarte, built temples to the gods of Sidon, including the Temple of Eshmun by the "Ydll source near the cistern".
As two series of inscriptions on the foundations of the monumental podium attest, construction of the sanctuary's podium did not begin until the reign of King Bodashtart. The first set of inscriptions bears the name of Bodashtart alone, while the second contains his name and that of the crown prince Yatan-milk. A Phoenician inscription, located 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) upstream from the temple, that dates to the 14th year of Bodashtart's reign, alludes to water adduction works from the Awali river to the "Ydll" source that was used for ritual ablution at the temple.
The first hit to the Eshmun sanctuary was by an earthquake in the 4th century BC, which demolished the marble temple atop the podium; this structure was not rebuilt but many chapels and temples were later annexed at the base of the podium. The temple site remained a place of pilgrimage in the ancient world until the advent of Christianity, when the cult of Eshmun was banned and a Christian church was built at the temple site across the Roman street from the podium. Remnants and mosaic floors of the Byzantine church can still be seen on the site. Another earthquake hit Sidon around 570 AD; Antonin de Plaisance, an Italian Christian pilgrim, described the city as partly in ruins. For years after the disappearance of the cult of Eshmun, the sanctuary site was used as a quarry, Emir Fakhr-al-Din used its massive blocks to build a bridge over the Awali river in the 17th century. The site later fell into oblivion.
Between 1737 and 1742, Richard Pococke, an English anthropologist, toured the Middle East and wrote of what he thought were ruins of defensive walls built with 3.7-metre (12 ft) stone blocks near the Awali river. When the French orientalist Ernest Renan visited the area in 1860, he noticed that the Awali bridge abutments were built of finely rusticated blocks that originated from an earlier structure. He also noted in his report, Mission de Phénicie, that a local treasure hunter told him of a large edifice near the Awali bridge.
In 1900, local clandestine treasure hunters digging at the Eshmun Temple site haphazardly discovered inscriptions carved onto the temple's walls. This discovery stirred the interest of Theodore Macridy, curator of the Museum of Constantinople, who cleared the temple remains between 1901 and 1903. Wilhelm Von Landau also excavated the site between 1903 and 1904. In 1920, Gaston Contenau headed a team of archaeologists who surveyed the temple complex. The first extensive archaeological excavation revealing the Eshmun Temple remains was undertaken by Maurice Dunand between 1963 and 1975. Archaeological evidence shows that the site was occupied from the 7th century BC to the 8th century AD.
During the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon, the temple site was neglected and was invaded by vegetation overgrowth; it was cleared and recovered its former condition after the Israeli withdrawal. Today the Eshmun sanctuary can be visited all year round and free of charge, it is accessible from an exit ramp off the main South Lebanon highway near Sidon's northern entrance. The site holds a particular archaeological importance since it is the best preserved Phoenician site in Lebanon; it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List's Cultural category on July 1, 1996.
In literature, the temple of Eshmun figures in Nabil Saleh's 2009 novel, The Curse of Ezekiel as the setting where Bomilcar falls in love and rescues princess Chiboulet from the evil design of one of the temple's priests.
A number of ancient texts mention the Eshmun Temple and its location. The Phoenician inscriptions on the sarcophagus of Eshmunazar II, a Sidonian king, commemorate the construction of a "house" for the "holy prince" Eshmun by the king and his mother, queen Amashtart, at the "Ydll source by the cistern". Dionysius Periegetes, an ancient Greek travel writer, identified the Eshmun temple by the Bostrenos River, and Antonin de Plaisance, a 6th century Italian pilgrim recorded the shrine as near the river Asclepius fluvius.Strabo and other Sidonian sources describe the sanctuary and its surrounding "sacred forests" of Asclepius, the Hellenized name of Eshmun, in written texts.
Located about 40 kilometres (25 mi) south of Beirut and 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) northeast of Sidon, the Eshmun Temple sits on the southern bank of the modern Awali river, previously referred to as Bostrenos or Asclepius fluvius in ancient text. Citrus groves, known as Bustan el-Sheikh (Arabic: بستان الشيخ, the grove of the Sheikh), occupy the ancient "sacred forests" of Asclepius and are a favorite summer picnic location for locals.
Architecture and description
Built under Babylonian rule (605–539 BC), the oldest monument at the site is a pyramidal building resembling a ziggurat that includes an access ramp to a water cistern. Fragments of marble column bases with Torus moldings and facetted columns found east of the podium are also attributed to the Babylonian era. The pyramidal structure was superimposed during Persian rule by a massive ashlarpodium constructed from heavily bossed limestone blocks that measured more than 3 metres (9.8 ft) across by 1 metre (3.3 ft)thick, which were laid down in courses 1-metre (3.3 ft) high. The podium stands 22 metres (72 ft) high, runs50 metres (160 ft) into the hillside, and boasts a 70-metre (230 ft) wide façade. The terrace atop of the podium was once covered by a Greco-Persian style marble temple probably built by Ionic artisans around 500 BC. The marble temple has been reduced to a few remaining stone fragments due to theft.
During the Hellenistic period, the sanctuary was extended from
the base of the podium across the valley. To the east base of the
podium stands a large chapel, 10.5 by 11.5 metres
(34 × 38 ft), dating to the 4th century BC. The
chapel was adorned with a paved pool and a large stone throne
carved of a single block of granite in the
Egyptian style; it is flanked by two sphinx figures and
surrounded by two lion sculptures. The throne, attributed to the
Sidonian goddess Astarte, rests against the chapel wall, which is
embellished by relief sculptures of hunting scenes. The once
important Astarte basin lost its function during the 2nd century AD
and was filled with earth and statue fragments. The west base
contains another 4th century BC chapel—centered around a bull
protome topped capital—that remains preserved at the National
Museum of Beirut.
Widely known as the "Tribune of Eshmun" because of its shape, the altar of Eshmun is a white marble structure dating to the 4th century. It is 2.15 metres (7.1 ft) long by 2.26 metres (7.4 ft) wide and 2.17 metres (7.1 ft) tall. Unearthed in 1963 by Maurice Dunand, it stands on a limestone socleplated with marble blocks that rest against a retaining wall. The altar is adorned with Hellenistic stylerelief sculptures and is framed by decorative moldings, one of which divides the altar into two distinct registers of symmetrical composition. The upper register portrays 18 Greek deities, including two charioteers surrounding the Greek god Apollo, who is depicted playing a cithara (a type of lyre). The lower register honors Dionysus, who leads his thiasos (his ecstatic revenue) in a dance to the music of pipe and cithara players. The Tribune is displayed at the National Museum of Beirut.
Northeast of the site, another 3rd century BC temple stands adjacent to the Astarte chapel. Its 22-metre (72 ft)façade is built with large limestone blocks and displays a two-register relief decoration illustrating a drunken revelry in honor of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Among the temple reliefs, one shows a man attempting to seize a large rooster which was the common sacrificial animal for Eshmun-Asclepius.
The Eshmun Temple complex comprises an elaborate hydraulic installation channeling water from "Ydll" spring that is made up of an intricate system of water canals, a series of retaining basins, sacred ablution basins and paved pools. This system demonstrates the importance of ritual ablutions in Phoenician therapeutic cults.
Later vestiges date from the Roman epoch and include a colonnaded road lined with shops. Of the large marble columns bordering the Roman street only fragments and bases remain. The Romans also built a monumental staircase adorned with mosaic patterns that leads to the top of the podium. To the right of the Roman road, near the entrance of the site stands a nymphaeum with niches where statues of the nymphs once stood. The floor of the nymphaeum is covered by a mosaic depicting the Maenads. Across the colonnaded road, facing the nymphaeum, are the ruins of a Roman villa; only the villa's courtyard has survived along with the remains of a mosaic depicting the four seasons. To the right of the processional Roman staircase stands a cubic altar, also of Roman construction. Other Roman period structures include two columns of a great portico leading to pools and other cultic installations.
Eshmun's cult enjoyed a particular importance at Sidon as he was the chief deity after 500 BC. Aside from the extramural sanctuary at Bustan el-Sheikh, Eshmun also had a temple within the city. The extramural Eshmun Temple was associated with purification and healing; ritual lustral ablutions were performed in the sanctuary's sacred basins supplemented by running water from the Asclepius River and the "Ydll" spring water which was considered to have a sacred character and therapeutic quality. The healing attributions of Eshmun were combined with his divine consort Astarte's fertilizing powers; the latter had an annex chapel with a sacred paved pool within the Eshmun sanctuary. Pilgrims from all over the ancient world flocked to the Eshmun Temple leaving votive traces of their devotion and proof of their cure. There is evidence that from the 3rd century BC onwards there have been attempts to Hellenize the cult of Eshmun and to associate him with his Greek counterpart Asclepius, but the sanctuary retained its curative function.
Artifacts and finds
Apart from the large decorative elements, carved friezes and mosaics which were left in situ, many artifacts were recovered and moved from the Eshmun Temple to the national museum, the Louvre or are in possession of the Lebanese directorate general of antiquities. Some of these smaller finds include a collection of inscribed ostraca unearthed by Dunand providing rare examples of cursive Phoenician writing in the Phoenician mainland. One of the recovered ostracon bears the theophoric Phoenician name "grtnt" which suggests that veneration of the lunar-goddess Tanit occurred in Sidon.
A number of fragmented votive life-size sculptures of little children lying on their side and holding a pet animal or a small object were also recovered at the temple site; among the best known of these is a sculpture of a royal child holding a dove with his right hand; the boy's head is shaved, his torso is bare and his lower body is wrapped in a large cloth. The socle of this sculpture is inscribed with a dedication from Baalshillem, the son of a Sidonian king to Eshmun, which illustrates the importance of the site to the Sidonian monarchy. These votive sculptures appear to have been purposely broken after dedication to Eshmun and then ceremoniously cast into the sacred canal, probably simulating the sacrifice of the sick child. All of these sculptures represent boys. A31.5 × 27 cm (12.4 × 11 in) limestone bust of a Kouros dating from the 6th century BC was found at the site, but unlike the archaic Greek kouroi this figure is not bare.
Among the notable finds is a golden plaque showing a snake curling on a staff, a Hellenic symbol of Eshmun. and a granite altar bearing the name of Egyptian Pharaoh Achoris uncovered in the Eshmun sanctuary. This gift attests to the good relations between the Pharaoh and the kings of Sidon.
The repute of the sanctuary was far reaching. Cypriot pilgrims from Paphos left marks of their devotion for Astarte on a marble stele inscribed both in Greek and Cypriot syllabary at Astarte's shrine; this stele is now in the custody of the Lebanese directorate general of antiquities.
Treasure hunters have sought out the Eshmun Temple since antiquity; around 1900 artifacts bearing Phoenician inscriptions from the temple site found their way to Beirutine antiquities markets where they stirred the interest of the Ottoman authorities and prompted a series of archeological digs. During the civil war, upon a request from then Lebanese director general of antiquities Maurice Chehab, Maurice Dunand moved more than 2000 artifacts from Sidon to a subterranean chamber at the Byblos crusader castle, 30 kilometres (19 mi) north of Beirut. In 1981, the depot was looted and around 600 sculptures and architectural elements were stolen and smuggled out of Lebanon. Rolf Stucky, ex-director of the Institute of Classical Archeology of Basel affirmed during a conference in Beirut in December 2009 the successful identification and return of eight sculptures to the Lebanese national museum.