The ancient city of Byblos, about 25 miles up the coast from Beriut, is one
of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. According to
Phoenician tradition it was founded by the god El, and even the Phoenicians
considered it a city of great antiquity. Although its beginnings are lost
in time, modern scholars say the site of Byblos goes back at least 7,000 years.
Ironically, the words "Byblos" and "Phoenicia" would not
have been recognized by the city's early inhabitants. For several thousand years
it was called "Gubla" and later "Gebal", while the term
"Canaan" was applied to the coast in general.
It was the Greeks, some time after 1200 B.C., who gave us the name
"Phoenicia," referring to the coastal area. They called the city
"Byblos" ("papyrus" in Greek), because this commercial
center was important in the papyrus trade.
Today Byblos (Jbeil in Arabic) on the coast 37 kilometers north of Beirut, is a
prosperous place with glass-fronted office buildings and crowded streets. Within
the old town, medieval Arab and Crusader remains are continuous reminders of the
past. Nearby are the extensive excavations that make Byblos one of the most
important archaeological sites in the area.
The Chalcolithic Period (4,000-3,000 B.C.) saw a continuation of the same way
of life, but brought with it new burial customs where the deceased were laid in
large pottery jars and buried with their earthly possessions.
By the beginning of the Early Bronze Age (about 3000 B.C.) Canaanite Byblos had
developed into the most important timber shipping center on the eastern
Mediterranean and ties with Egypt were very close. The pharaohs of the Old
Kingdom needed the cedar and other wood for shipbuilding, tomb constructions and
funerary ritual. In return, Egypt sent gold, alabaster, papyrus rolls, papyrus
rope and linen. Thus began a period of prosperity, wealth and intense commercial
Several centuries later Amorite tribes from the desert overran the coastal
region and set fire to Byblos. Once the Amorites had settled in, the city was
rebuilt and Egypt again began to send costly gifts to Byblos. Treasures from the
royal tombs of Byblos show the great wealth that flooded the city.
Around l200 B.C. a wave of the so-called "Sea Peoples" from the north
spread to the eastern Mediterranean, and some settled on the southern coast of
Canaan. These seafarers probably contributed their skills to the maritime
society we know today as Phoenicia.
About this same time the scribes of Byblos developed an alphabetic phonetic
script, the precursor of our modern alphabet. By 800 B.C., it had traveled to
Greece, changing forever the way man communicated. The earliest form of the
Phoenician alphabet to date is the inscription on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram
Throughout the first millennium B.C., Byblos continued to benefit from trade in
spite of Assyrian and Babylonian encroachments. Then came the Persians who held
sway from 550-330 B.C. The remains of a fortress outside the Early Bronze Age
city walls from this period show that Byblos was a strategic part of the Persian
defense system in the eastern Mediterranean. After conquest by Alexander the
Great, Byblos was rapidly hellenized and Greek became the language of the local
intelligentsia. During this Hellenistic Period (330-64 B.C.) residents of Byblos
adopted Greek customs and culture. Both the Greek language and culture persisted
throughout the Roman era which was to come.
In the first century B.C. the Romans under Pompey took over Byblos and other
Phoenician cities, ruling them from 64 B.C. to 395 A.D., In Byblos they built
large temples, baths and other public buildings as well as a street bordered by
a colonnade that surrounded the city.
There are few remains of the Byzantine Period (395-637 A.D.)in Byblos, partly
because construction was of soft sandstone and generally of poor quality.
Byzantine stones were also quarried for later buildings. During this era the
city became the seat of a Christian bishopric.
Under Arab rule beginning 637 A.D. Byblos was generally peaceful but it had
declined in importance over the centuries and archaeological evidence from this
period is fragmentary. In 1104 Byblos fell to the Crusaders who came upon the
large stones and granite columns of the Roman buildings and used them for their
castle and moat. With the departure o the Crusaders, Byblos continued under
Mamluke and Ottoman rule as a small fishing town, and its antique remains were
gradually covered with dust.