Sidon's Edible Behemoth
|Sidon||33 33 45.93N|
35 22 09.49E
|The crowded heart of the old town is now being opened up for excavations.|
For many years we reported in our lectures on archaeology that while the Phoenician city of Tyre had been excavated, its sister city of Sidon remained unexplored because the modern city was built on top of the ancient one. This meant that the only excavations possible were within the confined space of someone's back yard - and in a crowded eastern city back yards were both rare and tiny.
The process that has turned the attractive and distinctive cities of the world into high-rise clones of each other has now reached Sidon and swathes of narrow alleys and ramshackle tenements are being swept away and replaced by tower blocks and concrete supermarkets. We deplore the loss of character inseparable from the process but we rejoice that before development takes place the archaeologists are being let loose on the cleared ground and spectacular discoveries are being made courtesy of the British Museum, the British Academy and various Lebanese organisations.
The most recent discovery is the kitchens of a large building - possibly a temple or a royal palace - and, best of all, the rubbish dump outside the kitchen.
The kitchen was, of course, kept in a tidy state right up until the building was destroyed or abandoned. The archaeologists found nothing except the outlines of the walls and a few kitchen implements like grinding stones that were too heavy or too worn to be worth removing. It is only when you have some beneficent catastrophe like a volcanic eruption or the recent mud slide in the Philippines that a building is found complete with all its contents.
A rubbish dump, however, is a different thing. There the happy archaeologist can find broken pottery to his heart's content; out-moded oil lamps, broken implements, discarded tools, and, of course, the bones of the hippopotamus that formed the centre piece of the royal banquet.
This last item has come as somewhat of a surprise to the archaeologists. The rubbish dump did, of course, contain plenty of bones of chickens, sheep, oxen, goats and wild boar, the staples of the non-vegetarian human diet. There were, however, a number of exotic species present, including several bear, a lion and the now extinct aurochs. Clearly in 2,500 BC the forests of the Lebanon yielded rather more than the cedars for which they were famed.
For some strange reason archaeologists are happiest when invoking ritual and religion and the British excavators are busy devising a ceremonial explanation for the presence of the hippo bones. It does appear to be a fact that in Egypt there was a ritual spearing of a hippopotamus by the pharaoh which was seen as a victory of good over evil, but Sidon, of course, is not Egypt and there is no indication that the Phoenicians had any such mythology.
Personally the fact that hippos wreak considerable damage to crops and are a very real danger to fishermen seems sufficient explanation for the animals being hunted. The fact that one hippo could provide a bounteous feast for up to a thousand guests is a further reason for supposing that royalty rather than your average peasant would be involved in the butchering and distributing of such a large animal.
What is more interesting is the fact that hippos were present so far north. The Biblical book of Job contains references to "behemoth" and "leviathan" and expositors have long suggested that these words refer to the hippopotamus and the crocodile respectively and are garbled accounts of near-mythical animals from far distant Egypt. It now appears that the Palestinian author of the poem may have had to go no further than the nearest river to observe the subjects of his muse sporting in the water or sleeping on the riverbank.