Ultimate Ancient Healing Site
Hidden between citrus groves and near Sidon’s Awali River (historically referred to as Asclepius River) and is a remarkable ancient site. It is indeed the best-preserved Phoenician site in Lebanon and after the end of the Civil War, was rehabilitated and inscribed to the World Heritage Site tentative list.
Not that easy to find, as signage is erratic, it’s worth coming all the way and standing on top of the massive blocks of stone, overlooking the Bustan el-Sheik citrus groves and imagining what the site was like in its heydays.
The site was dedicated to Eshmoun, the god of healing. The myth of Eshmoun was related by the 6th century CE Syrian philosopher Damascius and 9th century CE Patriarch of Constantinople Photius. According to them, Eshmoun, a young man from Beirut, was hunting in the woods when the goddess Ishtar saw him. Struck by his beauty, she harassed him with her amorous pursuit until he emasculated himself with an axe and died. The grieving goddess revived Eshmoun and took him to the heavens where she transformed him into a uranic god, giving him divine powers and the knowledge of nature’s deepest secrets. He then becomes, in the old mythology, the principle God of the Kingdom of Sidon and the male figure that is always affiliated with Ishtar. In old mythology he is referred to as the healer god and always portrayed with a scepter and a snake coiled around it – the symbol of many pharmacies still today.
Although originally constructed by Sidonian king Eshmounazar II during the Achaemenid era (c. 529–333 BCE) to celebrate the city's recovered wealth and stature, the temple complex was greatly expanded by Bodashtart, Yatan-milk and
later monarchs. Due to the continued expansion that spanned many centuries, through periods of alternating independence and foreign hegemony, the sanctuary features a wealth of different architectural and decorative styles and influences.
Among the sites to look out for are: The Building with the Children friezes, The Empty throne of Ishtar, a temple with votive figures, and the Tribune. The site effectively was a spa, featuring ritual ablution basins, filled with water diverted from the nearby Awali River and the Ydll, a sacred spring.
The sanctuary site has yielded many artifacts of value, especially those inscribed with Phoenician texts, providing valuable insight into the site's history and that of ancient Sidon. With the rise of Christianity, the site’s significance declined, alterations and additions were made to it for which limestone blocks were used. According to Elsa Ghoussoub’s study undertaken for the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, the absence of tombs around the temple vouches for the fact that the cult of Eshmoun was not linked to death. This cult disappeared with the construction of a Byzantine church. Nonetheless, the waters continued to draw the crowds to the Temple until the beginning of the Muslim Era.
It was only in the 20th century that the site was rediscovered and extensive excavations took place. Given its location, on the northern periphery of Sidon, it escaped damage during the Civil War and the Israeli occupation.
*At the time of SoBeirut’s visit, there were no guides on site or explanatory signboards to inform and orient visitors.