Excavations continue in the ground inside the archaeological site of the Ashmoun Temple on the banks of the Awali River, south of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, after the General Directorate of Antiquities announced new discoveries inside the temple.
The Lebanese Ministry of Tourism was of the opinion that the new discoveries in the Temple of Echmoun will contribute a lot of care and attention from those involved to this archaeological site, despite the general conditions and the state of collapse in the country.
The excavations in the Temple of Echmoun have revealed many valuable artefacts, the most important of which are those inscribed with Phoenician scripts which provide valuable information about the history of the site and ancient Sidon.
Lebanon celebrated an important cultural heritage event at the archaeological site of the Temple of Echmoun, represented by the inauguration of a project to restore the remains of the temple’s mosaic, which was completed with a grant from the US Ambassadorial Fund for Cultural Conservation.
Former Lebanese member of parliament Bahia Hariri praised the achievement of such a project because of its importance in preserving the cultural and historical heritage of Sidon and Lebanon in general. She said: “This historic place is a great heritage and wealth for the region and a source of pride.” This site takes its place in religious and national tourism.
She added: “This work is an important step, especially since those who carried out this project can keep up with the delegations and explain to them the importance of mosaics and the existing antiquities. Today is a big day for us and for the region and for this region to be on the tourist map for Lebanon and the world.”
In the context of the Lebanese interest in the archaeological site of the Ashmoun Temple and the recovery of the looted artifacts from the site, Lebanon has finally received from New York three artifacts that were stolen from the Temple of Echmoun in the southern coastal city of Sidon. in 1981 during the Lebanese civil war that broke out between 1975 and 1990. The restoration is thanks to the cooperation of the American authorities, according to the documents of the Directorate General of Antiquities.
The artifacts arrived inside wooden boxes at the shipping section of Beirut International Airport amid security measures, and the first piece stolen is a 2,400-year-old piece of marble known as the “Bull’s Head,” worth about two million dollars, and the second piece is a marble bust of the body of a man without a head and feet, he holds in his right hand a small animal, worth eight million dollars.
As for the third piece, it is an almost complete statue of a man, which was confiscated by the American authorities late last year from a Lebanese house living in New York, and its value is three hundred thousand dollars. A source in the Lebanese Ministry of Culture said that the recovered pieces are on display in the National Museum in Beirut.
The Lebanese Ministry of Culture made efforts to recover the three looted artifacts, as the Metropolitan Museum in New York informed Lebanon that Soraya had loaned the “bull’s head” to the museum, and then the museum management noticed that this piece on the list of lost antiquities from Lebanon in 2014.
God of healing among the Phoenicians
The Temple of Echmoun is located 3 km northeast of Sidon, near the Awali River, in a place known as Bustan al-Sheikh. This temple was dedicated to the cult of Echmoun, the Phoenician god of healing.
This site is characterized by the fact that it still preserves its foundation stones to this day. It is one of the unique sites in Lebanon that has preserved its general structure and geographical location.
The temple sanctuary consists of a large courtyard bounded by a large terrace wall built of limestone. This wall supports a large platform on which stood a Greek-style marble temple dedicated to the god Echmun. The sanctuary is distinguished by the presence of a series of cisterns fed by canals that take water from the Asklepios River, whose present name is the Awali River, and from the sacred spring known according to the Phoenician texts as the “Idlal” spring , withdraw. These water facilities were used for healing and purification purposes, practices that characterize the cult of Echmun.
The Phoenicians knew special religious rituals, so they built great temples for their gods to ask for mercy and forgiveness, and to heal from diseases, and they practiced rituals closely related to their culture and beliefs, especially those that in the temple was held. the god Echmoun, the Sidonian god of healing.
Tomb of the Young God
According to the Phoenician legend, as told by history books, Ashmoun is a young man of Beiruti origin who loved hunting. One day the goddess Astarte fell in love with him, so she pursued and harassed him to win his heart, but to escape from her, the young man mutilated his body and died. But Astarte did not succumb to fate, so she brought her lover back to life and endowed him with divine attributes. The town of Qabrshmoun in Mount Lebanon is also said to still preserve the remains of the burial of the young god, and the story of his death and resurrection made him a god of cosmic fertility and greenery who dies and comes back to life every year become .
As the god of healing, the figure of the Phoenician Echmoun merged with the figure of the Greco-Roman god of medicine, Asclepius. Both are closely related to snakes, which are raised in temples and play a role in curing some diseases. Near the temple of Eshmun is a gold leaf engraved with the image of Eshmun, the god of healing, holding a staff around which a snake was coiled, Next to him was the image of Igea, the goddess of health. Therefore, today the image of the snake wrapped around the stick is used as a symbol of medicine, as is the god Eshmun.
It is also said that the origin of the word ashoun comes from “oil”, which had therapeutic and ritual functions in the ancient Near East. Therefore, Eshmun is “the one who anoints,” that is, the one who heals.
Echmoun was foremost among the gods of Sidon, prompting them to build the temple on this site near a water spring, because water played a major role in the ritual ablutions associated with healing.
The site was occupied from the 7th century BC to the 8th century AD, and although it was originally built by the Sidonian king Eshmune Azer II during the Achaemenid era (529-333 BC) to celebrate the city’s wealth and restore its status , the Sidonian king and King B’ashtart Witten and the Sidonian kings The later expanded the temple complex much later, and the expansion of the temple continued for many centuries, during which the city of Sidon and its surroundings moved from independence to foreign domination , which the temple a treasure of different architectural and decorative styles.
The archaeological site of Ashmoun Temple is today a complex that includes the ruins of many archaeological landmarks, each with its own characteristics and structural elements, as they were built in different periods.
Access to the site is via the ceremonial Roman road, which is surrounded by marble columns. The ruins of a pyramid-shaped building appear, dating from the sixth century BC, that is, from the period when Sidon was subject to Babylonian political and cultural influence. It is possible to climb the stairs to see a general view of the site with all its details.
And distributed on the site a number of ponds that were used to collect water, to be used in ritual ablutions or washing or immersion of the sick.
In addition to the great temple, there is another temple that was added to the complex in the third century BC, and only a frieze is left on which are carved ritual scenes, hunting scenes and others depicting children playing. Nearby are the remains of a shrine dedicated to the goddess Astarte. Inside the building there is a semi-square stone throne flanked by two winged lions known as the throne of Astarte. Next to it is another frieze, on which are carved scenes of a man trying to catch a large rooster, knowing that the sacrifice of a rooster was a ritual of the cult of Echmun.
To the left of the Roman ceremonial road you can see the floor covered with mosaics representing the four seasons and the remains of the Byzantine church built on the site, as well as two broken column bases of white marble that look like wheels , and they are set in a field of yellow flowers, and the cylindrical decorations appear finely carved on the front plinth. .
The oldest monument on the site of the Temple of Echmoun is a pyramid resembling a ziggurat, including a ramp to reach the water sources. It was built during the period of the Babylonian rule of Lebanon (in the period 605- 539 BC). The temple was adorned with a tiled pool and a large stone throne, carved from a single block of Egyptian style granite.
The sanctuary of the Temple of Eshmun was subjected to an earthquake in the fourteenth century BC, and this was the first blow to the temple, causing the destruction of the marble structure that crowned the platform. The temple was not rebuilt afterwards, but many chapels and temples were reassembled and included in the temple grounds. The temple remained a place of pilgrimage in the ancient world until the advent of Christianity, when the worship of Echmoun was forbidden and a Christian church was built on the site of the temple across the Roman street. The remains of the mosaic floors are still present on the site. Another earthquake struck the Sidon region around AD 570; Antoninus of Byzantium (an Italian Christian pilgrim) described the city at the time as having some parts of it in ruins. Years after the disappearance of the cult of Echmoun, the temple area was used as a quarry. In 1900, while excavating the site of the Temple of Echmoun, treasure hunters discovered randomly carved inscriptions on the temple walls. This discovery intrigued Theodore Macready, curator of the Istanbul Archaeological Museums, who investigated the temple between 1901 and 1903.
The site is particularly important in archaeology, as it is the best-preserved Phoenician site in Lebanon, and was added to UNESCO’s provisional list of World Heritage Sites in the cultural category on 1 July 1996.
But during the civil war in 1975 and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the site of the temple was neglected, and it disappeared under vegetation due to the excessive growth of the forest in the area.
Ancient treasure hunters searched the area of the Temple of Echmoun during the civil war, but at the request of Maurice Chehab, Director General of Antiquities in Lebanon, Maurice Dunand moved more than 2,000 artifacts from Sidon to an underground chamber in Byblos Castle moved, which is about 30 km away, kilometers north of Beirut. In 1981, the warehouse was looted and around 600 artefacts and sculptures were stolen and smuggled out of the country. At a conference in Beirut in December 2009, Rolf Stacke, former director of the Institute of Classical Archeology in Basel, confirmed the successful identification and recovery of eight statues from the looted antiquities and returned to the Lebanese National Museum.