Tyre, The City of Stone

Nikola Popović

Artwork by Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee

With his arms spread out, the boy is striding, unafraid that he might lose his balance. Now, he is uttering his first words—such as “sea,” “sky,” “plane”—pointing to the clouds floating over the remains of an ancient city, fearlessly discovering the world around him. He is freely walking down these old paths, overgrown with barberry as if he was in his garden, and the sea, the sun, and the moon were his milestones. The Romans built the biggest hippodrome here, after the one they erected in the capital of their empire. Watching my son taking his first steps, I imagine the cavalrymen riding fast, passing below stone arcades to the noises of the crowd, on horses from Asia Minor with manes flowing in the wind—swift chariots. It seems to me that you could expect to hear a horn sound anytime soon; to see the dry sand rising and the people at the grandstand cheering and betting.

Tyre, the Phoenician city, was named after its rock formation, located in the east and built to meet the Romans’ standards. The cobblestone streets, Roman baths, and temple would have lasted longer if they hadn't been affected by winds full of salt. Gray foundations and pillars, with no arches to support, are the only remains of this ancient city. However, the streets are still clearly defined. My son puts his arms around my neck while I carry him on my shoulders as we walk along these streets for the first time. He then places his sweaty palms onto my forehead, pointing to lizards whose skin color adjusts to the color of the sand or a cypress tree swaying in the wind. In Tyre, there are no birds, like in Beirut, because they have migrated from the sea all the way to the Lebanon Mountains. You can only hear the rumbling sounds of the vehicles on the road, leading south to Naqoura, a city located at the border with Israel.

There are many legends dating back to the ancient history of the city that locals have been telling over and over again, changing the characters and events at will. One legend says that Hannibal, one of the greatest military commanders ever, sought refuge in Tyre after losing a battle and being persecuted by the Romans, only to set out soon again. Some people say that he died after he drank poison he’d kept hidden in his ring; or they believe he died of grief over the end of his kingdom’s golden age in the north of Africa. With regard to the Crusade temple, other legends discuss the death of Frederick Barbarossa, questioning the authenticity of a well-known story about the famous emperor, who drowned in a river after he fell off a horse during the Crusades.


In the south of Lebanon, monuments tell tales about luxury, trade, and marine travel, but modern stories are at a loss for words when describing their sublime beauty. Not far away from the ancient hippodrome, there is a refugee camp that, since the 1950s, has been accommodating displaced Palestinians who don’t have citizenship in the country they have lived in for decades. Only the people who first came to Lebanon while they were still children remember orchards in Jaffa or the taste of oranges. At barber or butcher shops and restaurants a few meters away from the last checkpoint, there are maps of Tyre, which appears both close and unfathomable at the same time. Bedouins from Syria who came to Lebanon in search of jobs, even before the ongoing war started, now work in cornfields or banana plantations. They get to work on their motorcycles, wearing white scarfs around their heads that flow like a horse’s mane while the sand rises under their wheels. It’s always warm by the sea, so in the mornings the fields are enveloped in the haze, and whitish clouds of vapor linger over the waves. Among trees with hanging clusters of green bananas, there are a few palm trees and improvised huts with laborers resting outside, blowing thick rings of hookah smoke. These estates belong to sheiks, who enter through stone gates where Hezbollah flags flow in the wind and stone paths lead to their houses.

Along the road, there are portraits of war leaders and soldiers who died with their shoulder-belts on, pictures of weapons, and the sounds of songs of revenge. This area was occupied by the Israel Defense Forces for almost two decades before being taken over by Hezbollah. Shrapnel and grenade marks are still visible in some old cities the Crusaders went through on their way to the Holy Land. Beside a castle that belongs to a Lebanese emir—in the Marjayoun and Hasbaya districts mentioned in the Bible—there are also some abandoned houses left behind by people who fled the country during the war; arcaded balconies, arched dark green window frames, and closed shutters. Only in front of a few are there still some Chrysler and Buick old-timers, with tires that have sunk into the ground. On a clear day, you can see the border from here. However, a truce seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. Migrations are over. Rarely is a native expected to come back to Lebanon. Even the return of displaced people to the Galilee is a long-lasting myth.


During summer, everything comes to life in Tyre, especially a few days before the World Cup. At the port, there are big TV screens fixed to brightly colored walls. The city where the first Mediterranean ships were built is still in the seafaring business, even though traveling by sea is less common now and happens only close to the coast. That’s what Paul says, a fisherman and Christian from Tyre whose picture I’ve seen in a travel guide about Lebanon. He has a long gray beard and is skillful at making fishing nets. If watched from afar, he would seem not to be moving at all. The fisherman has transformed himself into an image, one common to any Mediterranean city and not fixed to either a specific point in time or place.

Here, in the Christian part of the city, where the lighthouse is, Bob, who used to be the captain of a cargo ship but is now an innkeeper, tells stories about the Phoenicians. They named the city, and traveled from this harbor to Africa, building new cities with old names: Carthage, New Tyre. Apart from telling stories about long-distance voyages, the fishermen here also long to set sail on the open sea, where the catch is much bigger. “A boat keeps looking for waves just as fish needs deep water. It seems like it’s been like this forever, Abou Adam,” that’s how fisherman Paul addresses me by Lebanese customs, using my son’s name—“Adam’s father.”

Mentioning my son’s name immediately casts more light on everything. I took him in my arms for the first time only two years ago, while his skin was still pink and his fingers joined together like those of salamanders. I told him that everyone in this world was just waiting for him. Here, in a country that makes you wonder about both the present and the past, we carry our little ones on our shoulders. It’s questionable whether we'll teach them to walk safely, the way our parents taught us. 


The south of Lebanon neither has the charm of Tuscany nor the scent of Dalmatia or Provence. This landscape that is filled up with dust and smoke can be described as something between kitsch and beautiful. A tank has been transformed into a monument. Pictures of soldiers and leaders, even Ayatollah Khomeini, hang above the doors of butcher shops together with sheepskins. In the narrow lines of shade of the vineyard and lemon trees, fruits fall on the road and therefore, by custom, belong to passersby. Sea waves spatter turquoise doors. Fields of thyme turn deep blue with the last rays of the setting sun. If one could erase the unwanted from their view, like with Photoshop, Tyre, Naqoura, and Shama would become pure and simple images, signposts at the side of some old Mediterranean roads.

I've traveled to Tyre with Khalil, a taxi driver, quite frequently, and met up with the soldiers from Italian squads who have been trying for years now to build friendships in a region that has been strife-torn for centuries. While driving a small Toyota along roads that lead through plantations by the sea, Khalil tells me about the years of war, poker games in Beirut basements, and travels to Bulgaria and China, where he used to buy leather for his family shoe business. He speaks as if everything was happening at that moment, describing his encounters with outlaws, blackmail, and how he quit drinking. Whenever he drives along these meandering roads, he tells me these stories but never has time to say what happens in the end, because “we’ve already arrived in Tyre, Abou Adam.”

translated from the Serbian by Jelena Ćuslović

Click here to read another nonfiction by the same author from the Summer 2018 issue.