unique Phoenician Site in Lebanon
The Temple of Eshmoun, less than an hour from Beirut, is
situated one kilometer from Sidon in a lush valley of citrus
groves in the Awwali River. The site is known locally as
"Bustan esh Sheikh." Whether you visit in spring
when the air is fragrant with blossoms, or early winter when
the fruit is ripe, Eshmoun is special.
This Phoenician temple complex, dedicated to the healing god
Eshmoun, is the only Phoenician site in Lebanon that has
retained more than its foundation stones. Building was begun
at the end of the 17th century B.C. and later additions were
made in the following centuries. Thus, many elements near the
original temple site were completed long after the Phoenician
era, including the Roman period colonnade, mosaics, a
nymphaeun, and the foundations of a Byzantine church. All of
these buildings testify to the site's lasting importance.
Eshmoun can be included in a visit to Sidon,
or made an excursion of its own. Visitors with a sense of
curiosity will find that several hours are easily filled
exploring this ancient Phoenician spa.
History of Eshmoun
Legend has it that Eshmoun was a young man
of Beirut who loved to hunt. The goddess Astarte fell in love
with him, but to escape her advances he mutilated himself and
died. Not to be outdone, Astrate brought him back to life in
the form of a god. It is also said that the village of Qabr
Shmoun, near Beirut, still preserves the memory of the young
Known primarily as a god of healing,
Eshmoun's death and resurrection also gave him the role of a
fertility god who dies and is reborn annually.
As the god of healing, Eshmoun was
identified with Asklepios, the Greek god of medical art. It is
from belief in the healing power of Eshmoun- Asklepios and the
snake that we get the sign of the medical profession that is
now used worldwide. Our modern caduceus, a staff intertwined
with two serpents, is derived from these symbols.
The caduceus can be seen in a gold plaque
of Eshmoun and the goddess Hygeia (Health) which was found
near the temple. It shows Eshmoun holding in his right hand a
staff around which a serpent in entwined. There is also an
early 3rd century A.D. Beirut coin depicting Eshmoun standing
between two serpents.
Each Phoenician city state had its own
gods, and Eshmoun was one of the favorites of Sidon. The site
of his temple must have been chosen because of the nearby
water source which was used in the healing rituals. It was the
custom to offer statues to the god that bore the names of
those who came for healing. The fact that most of these votive
pieces depict children suggests that Eshmoun may have been
regarded as the pediatrician of the times.
During the Persian era, between the 6th and
4th centuries B.C. Sidon was the first Phoenicia city to be
noted for the opulence of its kings, the advanced culture of
its intelligentsia and the excellent reputation of its
industry. The Persian kings held the kings of Sidon in great
regard and granted them many rewards, especially for the
Sidonian fleet's active participation on their side during
their wars against Egyptians and Greeks.
It was a that time that Eshmounazar II, the son of Tabnit I,
acceded to the throne. Inscriptions found on the sarcophagus
of Eshmounazar (discovered in 1858 and now in the Louvre
Museum) relate that he and his mother Amashtarte (servant of
Astarte) built temples to the gods of Sidon. One of these was
the temple of the Holy God "Eshmoun at the source of
Yidlal near the cistern."
The temple of Eshmoun, built by Eshmounazar
II and rediscovered in this century during the excavations at
Boustan esh-Sheikh, was destroyed around the middle of the
fourth century B.C. Although the temple was never rebuilt,
some small buildings, chapels and pools were restored. This
allowed visitors, pagan as well as Christian, to attend the
sanctuary. The site remained popular until the end of the
third century A.D., even though it was largely in ruins and
littered with debris.
For centuries before its excavation, the site of the Temple of
Eshmoun was used as a quarry. Emir Fakhreddine, for example,
used its massive blocks to build a bridge over the Awwali
River in the 17th century. Today only the foundations of this
In 1900, an Ottoman expedition found Phoenician inscriptions
in the area of the yet undiscovered temple. Twenty years later
successful soundings were made on the site and in 1925-26
excavations near the river uncovered the Roman mosaic floor
and several marble statuettes of children dating to the
Hellenistic period (330-64 B.C.). Another inscription in
Phoenician letters bearing the name Eshmoun was found near the
river a short time later.
A few kilometers from the site inscriptions
bearing the name of Bodashtart were found, probably incised on
the occasion on the completion of an important canal system.
Although the land around the site was
purchased in the mid-1940's, serious excavation work did not
begin until 1963.
Visiting the Site
The most imposing ruin at Eshmoun is the temple, or temple
complex (numbers 1-9 on the plan). An overall view of Eshmoun
can be had by climbing the mosaic-covered Roman stairway.
The approach to the temple site is along a Roman colonnaded
road. On the right is a massive capital with four carvings of
bulls' head which go back to the Persian period. They were
placed here at a later date in a shrine set up in the
courtyard of the temple.
The oldest section is a pyramid shaped structure with a short
flight of stairs on its summit and a wall to its right dating
from the 6th century B.C., when Phoenician city states were
under the political and cultural influence of Babylon.
The second and largest podium was built by the Sidonian King
Eshmounazar in the 5th century B.C. and probably enlarged
later by a King Bodashtart whose inscriptions can still be
seen on one of the inner slabs of the massive retaining walls
of the temple.
The site's healing waters were channeled through a canal
system to the sacred basins.
Another temple was added in the 3rd century
B.C. You can still see part of the original frieze
representing worshippers, hunting scenes, and children's
games. Near the far northwest angle of the temple is a
sanctuary of Venus/Astarte, also from the Hellenistic period.
Inside this small area measuring 11x10 meters, is a throne
flanked by two sphinxes which is known as the "Throne of
Astarte." The throne stands on a single block of stone
with a cornice sculptured in the Egyptian style. A frieze,
unfortunately very mutilated, depicts a hunting scene.
A later addition to the temple is a small
mosaic room guarded by a now headless sphinx. An inscription
dates this section to 335 A.D.
To the left of the pool stands a 22
meter-long wall with reliefs of drunken revelry and a man
attempting to seize a large plumed cock. It was apparently
common practice among the Greeks to sacrifice cocks to
During the Roman and early Christian
eras (64 B.C. to 330 A.D.) the site of the Temple of Eshmoun
and its miraculous waters continued to serve as a place of
pilgrimage. Within the Phoenician temple site the Romans added
the processional stairway, basins for ablutions and a
nymphaeum with pictorial mosaics, largely still intact. Worn
statuettes of three nymphs stand in the niches of the
On the left side of the Roman road,
opposite the temple complex, is a courtyard with the remains
of mosaics depicting the Four Seasons.
To the left of the Roman courtyard are the
foundations of a Byzantine period basilica, the last major
period represented at Eshmoun.
The Site Today
There are no concessions or facilities at the site. However,
the visit is just minutes from Sidon where the government Rest
House, located near the Sea Castle, serves meals 12:00 to 4:00
pm and 7:00 to 12:00 pm.