A Phoenician and Byzantine Port: Tabarja

Bruce Condè, 1955 and 1960

The modern leisure harbour in Tabarja, 1995

After leaving Junie Bay on the coastal route to Tripoli, the first village encountered, beside a picturesque little bay and fishing boat harbor, is Tabarja, 28 1/2 kilometers north of Beirut.

How many times have we passed it, en route to Tripoli, or merely to Byblos, saying : " What a beautiful spot. We'll have to stop and visit it some day " ?

But the driver is always in too much of a hurry.

There's only one solution - to take a bus (50 piasters) or a "service" on the Byblos run (75 piasters or 1 pound) and ask to be let off at Tabarja.

There are lots of interesting things to see there in addition to the photogenic little port, surrounded by weathered limestone outcroppings, and in places overhung with vines, but they take searching for.

Triple Church of St. George

The chief attraction from the villagers' viewpoint, of course, is their curious little triple church of Mar Juryus - St. George's. Telescoped one into the other are a 500-year-old -structure, some of whose large Roman stones betray dedication to the cult of an earlier " St. George ", - for we are nearing the Adonis country here - a century-old one and a spacious modern (1953) addition on the east end. Down at the edge of the sea, and reached by descending some roughly-hewn steps is a sea-level enclosure which might have been roofed a few thousand years ago, called St. George's Cave. Sea water is admitted through a rough-hewn channel. As in Junie's Mar Juryus cave, sick infants are brought here by their mothers for immersion in the water of this place in order to receive a supernatural cure through Mar Juryus. This is similar to tying cloth from the infants' clothing to the Sacred Tree at Afka.

Up and down this (south) shore of the bay, on both sides of Mar Juryus' cave, are tanks and circular basins sunk in the rock and filled with sea water at high tides or during storms. Their ancient uses have long been forgotten, and only the remains of abandoned salt pans, carved in the rock and then cemented, are understandable to the townspeople of today.

The Snake Shrine

Out at the end of the bay, and around its southwest point a short distance, is a curious natural phenomenon which the natives think a man-made carving of the ancients - the figure of a long, thin snake (4 1/2 feet long and only 3/8 of an inch wide) which has the appearance of fossilized remains, etched clearly on the flat, white surface of the rock. What they fail to note, a few paces to the north, is that the ancients were equally struck with this phenomenon, which they may have attributed to their gods, for they carved a chamber out of - the living rock there, with a small, almost square votive niche facing the "Snake". To the right are the remains of a small rock-cut ablutions basin, its bottom now fallen. In front of the whole complex, a rock-cut corridor leads down to a deep natural passage to the sea.

Surely this is a strange and hitherto unnoticed place of extremely ancient worship worthy of more scholarly investigation and study.

The rest of Tabarja's antiquities belong to the Greco period, and her history and -name are also connected with that era. St. Paul is said to have set sail, on one of his missionary trips to Europe, from the little antique port and landing near the foot of St. George's church, where there are the grey-and-white stone and mortar remains, called by the towns people "Kasr Mar Juryus" (St. Georges' Palace).

Ancient Mooring post

On the Opposite side of the bay from Mar Juryus is an even more interesting relic of Greco-Roman maritime daYS. It is a section of grey granite column - the only one visible in Tabaria - a little over 3 1/2 feet high, 4 1/2 feet in circumference at the bottom and 2 feet 9 inches around the tapering top. It is seated in a step or socket cut in the rock and embedded in a mortar which seems have fused with the rock. A landing 3 x 14 yards in extent has been cut out of the rock behind this mooring post, connecting with an extension to the northwest where steps apparently went up above the cliff line.

The whole complex is vaguely attributed to the "Phoenicians" by the fisherfolk, who no longer make any use of it, although a boat put in there to give the writer a lift back to the beach, whereupon he snapped the (upper left) illustration of the column as it appears from the sea.

The whole tree-filled wadi back of Tabarja is full of ancient rock cuttings and its sides are honeycombed with sepulchural caves of a peculiar type noted by Renan in 1860.

Tomb's Shaft Entrances

These Greco-Roman vaults are distinguished from most others in Lebanon by their strange type of entranceways, consisting in a square or rectangular opening in the ceiling, over which was fitted a stone slab. Descending vertically into these shafts, persons entering the vaults would find themselves facing, a funeral chamber. This represents, on a small scale, the idea of royal Phoenician burials at Byblos, and may indicate a hold-over of customs of the ancient "people of the Snake" in a later Greco-Roman garb.

Within, the tombs are similar to others of the period. A large one on the hillside, just above the railroad cut and close to the house of Beshara al-Azzi, whose entrance is obscured by fig trees - which seem to perpetuate themselves in the mouths of very many sacred caves, vaults, etc. in Lebanon - measures 9 x 18 feet in its central hall.

This tomb, a description of which may be found in Renan's "Mission en Phènicie" under "Tabarja", has two arched vaults containing two rock-cut sarcophagi each, on the left side, each vault having a measurement of about 9 x 8 feet, with the sarcophagi's narrow side toward the central hall. The north vault, (9 x 9 feet) held three sarcophagi, with a small single-sarcophagus alcove off to its right. But what should have been the right-hand vault of the hall was perfectly empty, with no sign of sarcophagi unless below the floor level or unless they were monolithic stone coffins long removed from the place. Another roughly-cut alcove for one lengthwise (parallel to central hall) coffin was on the right side of the entranceway.

Monolithic Pillar

Another tomb, its entrance also blocked by fig trees and bushes, to the northeast of the al-Azzi house, was of similar proportions but more roughly cut and devoid of any sign of rock-cut sarcophagi. Instead of a partition between the two vaults to the left of the central hall, this tomb had a monolithic pillar, two feet square, which supported rock-cut arches above.

Both of these tombs and three or four others in the vicinity, had their entrance vaults broken down and ordinary cave-like aperatures substituted.

But across the wadi to the south, just below the house of Nasri Nukuzi, is an intact example of the peculiarly Tabarjan ceiling-entrance shafts (illustrated in the lower right photograph).

Most of the readily accessible tombs, their special entranceways broken out, now serve as stables for cattle or as pigsties. A few are well preserved as storehouses, and the now-abandoned one, of the pillar used to be a jail.

Byzantine Name

Tabarja is a prime example of the villages of Lebanon containing minor antiquities and points of interest which require a bit of original investigation, for the guide books are almost blank on the subject. There are other, similar sposts all along the coast, and a few of the most interesting will be described in subsequent articles.

Tabarja's name, by the way, is one of the few non-Semitic place names in the country. It comes from the Greek TAPARXIA, meaning " district headquarters" - as the place no doubt served in Byzantine times. Its ancient Semitic name is as much a mystery as its cult of the "Snake people" in the dim mists of antiquity.

From See Lebanon, Bruce Condè, second edition, Harb Bijjani Press, Beirut, 1960


Created 972205