Viewing a city from above is very different from observing it at ground level. I once had the opportunity of seeing the city of Tyre both from the ground and from the air. Neither experience was by any means ideal, for they both took place during a war and in an atmosphere of stress, though, although one's mind is focused on other things, unless it is extreme, fear does not entirely put a damper on curiosity or observation. I saw the city on the ground while travelling in a long and slow-moving convoy. An acute apprehension of what might be around the next corner did not prevent me from taking in the surroundings: the modern buildings, the battered tower blocks with huge shell holes in their side walls, buildings shattered and pock-marked with bullets, water pouring from burst plumbing, shops with smashed windows, their contents strewn about, no people, but colourful laundry still flapping on clotheslines outside seemingly abandoned apartments, some burnt-out Israeli halftracks on the roadside, a smouldering Lebanese tank and a great plume of smoke rising far off. This was before my interest in the crusades became a profession, and I imagine I would be looking out for and would see some rather different things if I were to repeat the experience today.
The second time, somewhat later, I observed Tyre from high above the city, from the belly of a huge troop-carrier helicopter. The large ramp at the back that opened out for vehicles had been left almost completely down so that we could see through it and below us the shoreline and the sea passing rapidly by. The combination of the tremendous roar of the engine that earmuffs did little to absorb, a long-suffered fear of heights that was quickened by the perilously opened ramp at the back, the swift racing of the shoreline below and my apprehension that despite the seatbelts we might fall through, kept me on edge. Nonetheless, I resisted a temptation to close my eyes, and observed the city and its so distinctive peninsula as we passed over.
Tyre's unique form that I saw through the open ramp was the legacy of Alexander the Great. The city had formerly been partly on the mainland and partly on an offshore island. After taking the landward city, and in order to facilitate his occupation of the island, Alexander had it joined to the shore by constructing a stone causeway, and over the centuries sand had gathered up along the length of this construction forming a broad sandglass-shaped isthmus. This, and the strong fortifications built across it, had provided the city with a very effective defensive system that enhanced the reputation Tyre had possessed even before Alexander's arrival, as almost impregnable.
Tyre retained its prowess through its subsequent and occasionally turbulent history and was still exceptionally well defended when the army of the First Crusades passed by in the late spring of 1099. This might partly explain the apparent reluctance to attack it immediately after the Franks occupied nearby Acre in 1104 although it possessed a port almost as good as that city. The first brief and aborted attack was carried out in 1108. At the end of 1111, a year after Beirut and Sidon were taken, King Baldwin I besieged Tyre. He failed in the effort, raising the siege of four months in April 1112, and this is certainly a tribute to the strength of the city's defences as well as to the determination of its defenders. William of Tyre wrote:
"The king now perceived that every scheme of his own was at once frustrated by a similar scheme. Moreover, he was exhausted by the long-continued labors which for four months and more, at no slight expense, he had wasted before the walls of Tyre. Accordingly, he gave up the attempt, defeated in his purpose. The siege was raised."*
Tyre finally fell with the aid of the Venetian fleet on 7 July 1124, the last coastal city but Ascalon to fall to the Franks and the Italian fleets. The siege had taken about five months. For their aid the Venetians received, other than a third of the city and its territory, the remarkable privileges recorded in the so-called Pactum Warmundi that established them as a powerful independent entity within the kingdom of Jerusalem. A second and even greater display of Tyre's prowess came in the wake of the Frankish defeat at the Horns of Hattin in early July 1187. On that occasion, after the collapse of crusader defences throughout the kingdom, crusader territory, castles and towns fell like dominos to the advancing Ayyubid army. But when he came up against Tyre, the defence of the city was in the capable hands of Conrad of Montferrat. Saladin found it too hard a nut to crack and he quickly abandoned the effort. The defenders immediately went to work on strengthening its defences. When he returned for a second attempt in November, he failed again. Tyre remained the sole coastal city to successfully resist his attacks. The Templar of Tyre later described the city as "one of the strongest cities in the world" and this may have been a fair statement.**
In the destructive wave of Baybars' conquests in the late 1260s Tyre resisted again and when by 1268 most of its territory had fallen to the Mamluk sultan, Tyre still held out. Baybars instead turned to assassination, always a good fallback. He had the lord of Tyre, Philip of Montfort, dispatched by his agents who had disguised themselves as Christian converts. But the city only finally fell to the Mamluks twenty-one years later, when it was abandoned by the representative of the king, a bailli named Adam of Cafran on 19 May 1291. Adam had witnessed the ships abandoning Acre and realised that the entire kingdom's fate had been sealed. After it fell it was, in accordance with Mamluk policy, thoroughly dismantled, and the greatness of Tyre, consequence of its unique form and strong defences finally came to an end. It has never recovered its former eminence.
* William of Tyre, Chronicon, 11.17, A History of Deeds done Beyond the Sea, New York, trans. Emily Atwater Babcock and A.C. Krey, 1943, vol. 1, p.492.
** Paul Crawford, trans., The Templar of Tyre, Aldershot and Burlington, 2003, p. 116.