How Alexander the Great used Holocene morphogenesis to capture Tyre

There’s a lotta anthropology goodness surfacing on the internets today, and I’ll try to share some of the ones that sparked my interests. The first is an application of archaeology, specifically geoarchaeology, in solving the mystery on how Alexander the Great conquered the island of Tyre.

I’m assuming everyone knows who Alexander the Great was. In the first half of the year 332 B.C., Alexander was preoccupied in capturing the Phoenician city Tyre, the naval base of the Persians. Alexander’s engineers are reported to have built a 1,000m long walkwayMap of Alexander the Great’s Walkway to capture Tyre that allowed him cross the seas and seize the offshore island. The legend goes as follows,

“[The walkway is] said to have been at least 200 feet wide. It was constructed from stones and timber from the old city of Tyre on the mainland…

For a while the Tyrians laughed at Alexander’s project. At first they would row boats across the channel and harangue tArtistic Depiction of Alexander’s Siege on Tyrehe Macedonians. Their laughter turned to concern when they saw the walkway was going to be completed. The Tyrians ignited a barge and drove it into the first walkway. The towers on the walkway caught fire and several of Alexander’s men lost their lives. Alexander gave orders for the work to continue, and that the walkway itself should be widened and more protective towers be built.

Alexander was able to obtain ships from Sidon, Greek allies and Cyprus to form a blockade around Tyre. When the walkway was within artillery range of Tyre, Alexander brought up stone throwers and light catapults, reinforced by archers and slingers, for a saturation barrage. Battle engineers constructed several naval battering rams which smashed through the walls of Tyre. Though courageous, the Tyrians were no match for Alexander’s troops. Over 7,000 Tyrians died in the defense of their island. In contrast, only 400 Macedonians were killed.”

So the problem with this story is that archaeological evidence of this walkway hasn’t yet been found! If he had his engineers build it, it would have been a phenomenol feat. We’d at least see something preserved in the archaeological that indicates there was once a path that Alexander used to raid Tyre. Anything really… the stones that paved the walk way would be a place to start but I’ll even take artifacts that showed evidence of infrastructure needed to build it. And that’s exactly what has stumped some classical archaeologists for quite sometime, there’s practically zilch to show there ever was a road made to connect to Tyre.

A new PNAS publication aims to solve this mystery by providing a three-phase geomorphological hypothesis on how Alexander’s engineers used a Holocene sand spit to their advantage. This paper is titled, “Holocene morphogenesis of Alexander the Great’s isthmus at Tyre in Lebanon,” and here’s the part of the abstract that matters,

“Settled since the Bronze Age, the area’s geological record manifests a long history of natural and anthropogenic forcings. (i) Leeward of the island breakwater, the maximum flooding surface (e.g., drowning of the subaerial land surfaces by seawater) is dated 8000 B.P. Fine-grained sediments and brackish and marine-lagoonal faunas translate shallow, low-energy water bodies at this time. Shelter was afforded by Tyre’s elongated sandstone reefs, which acted as a 6-km natural breakwater. (ii) By 6000 B.P., sea-level rise had reduced the dimensions of the island from 6 to 4 km. The leeward wave shadow generated by this island, allied with high sediment supply after 3000 B.P., culminated in a natural wave-dominated proto-tombolo within 1–2 m of mean sea level by the time of Alexander the Great (4th century B.C.). (iii) After 332 B.C., construction of Alexander’s causeway entrained a complete anthropogenic metamorphosis of the Tyrian coastal system.”

So there you have it, folks. Alexander’s engineers used roughly 8,000 years of geomorphology to good use. They didn’t necessarily slave away and toil on filling in land. Instead they took a natural geological feature and exploited it.

This application of geoarchaeology, in solving this historical war-time mystery, is another example of how anthropology has been applied as well as how it has integrated geological sciences in explaining this event in human history, behavior, and engineering. It shows how archaeological questions can also be answered without having artifacts right there in front of one self.

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