Ancient Byblos ruin, temple of the Obelisks
Ancient Byblos ruin, temple of the Obelisks

The site of ancient Byblos lies on the Lebanese coast about 25 miles north of Beirut. It has been continuously occupied since the late Neolithic Period (c. 5000 b.c.e.), and its tradition claims that it is the oldest city in the world.

The Greeks gave the name Byblos to the site because they imported Egyptian papyrus, or byblos, through the city. The Egyptians called it Kebeny, but the name of the city was Gubal to its inhabitants, and later Gebal. Byblos persists as the name of the archaeological site, but the town’s name in Arabic is Jebeil.

For centuries the location of the ancient city was forgotten until discovered by the French scholar Ernest Renan in 1860. It lay under the town of Jebeil, the walls of its houses containing inscribed stones from the city’s ancient past.

Between 1919 and 1924 Pierre Montet’s excavations revealed the tombs of nine ancient rulers of Byblos. Maurice Dunand succeeded Montet, conducting excavations from 1925 to 1975.

The fourth-century c.e. geographer Strabo described Byblos as a “city on a height only a short distance from the sea.” It had an excellent geographical situation where trade routes from north and south met.

The city was built on a promontory, behind which the mountains of Lebanon came closest to the sea, providing easy access to vast forests of cedar wood and reserves of copper ore. On either side of the promontory were bays that provided natural harbors, the larger one to the south.

On the north side lay the upper town, or acropolis, holding the palaces and temples. The harbors were not particularly large but quite capable of handling the goods that flowed in and out of Byblos. Exports included Canaanite wine and oil and the all-important timber.

Another Bylos ruin in port
Another Bylos ruin in port

The earliest example of the Phoenician alphabet (c. 1000 b.c.e.) is found on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos. Remains from nearly 3,000 years of contact with Egypt survive, including artifacts inscribed with names of pharaohs from all periods.

Trade was disrupted around 2300 b.c.e. by Amorite tribes from the desert invading the coastal plain and attacking Byblos. The city soon recovered and entered on a period of great prosperity that lasted until the coming of the Sea Peoples in the 13th century b.c.e.

The Iron Age (1200–586 b.c.e.) ushered in the Phoenician age of Byblos: the blend of the coastal Canaanites and the Sea Peoples. After 1000 b.c.e. the city was never completely independent of the great powers, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia.

Byblos always put trade first and submitted to its overlords, including Alexander the Great, to whom it surrendered and was spared. After Alexander’s conquest the city slowly adopted Greek culture and language.

The arrival of the Romans in 64 b.c.e. brought three centuries of peace and prosperity to the city, along with the building of temples, theaters, and baths. Byzantine imperial rule brought a Christian bishop to the city, but there are few remains from this period. In 636 c.e. the city passed under Arab rule until taken by the crusaders in 1104.

Around 1215 the crusaders built the Church of St. John the Baptist. In 1289 the city surrendered to the Mamelukes, and in the 15th century Byblos was taken over by the Ottoman Turks, under whose rule Jebeil operated as an obscure fishing port.