In 332 BC, Alexander the Great set out to conquer Tyre, a strategic coastal base in the war between the Greeks and the Persians. Unable to storm the city, he blockaded Tyre for seven months, but Tyre held on. Alexander used the debris of the abandoned mainland city to build a causeway and once within reach of the city walls, he used his siege engines to batter and finally breach the fortifications. It is said that Alexander was so enraged at the Tyrians' defense and the loss of his men that he destroyed half the city. According to Arrian the Tyrian losses were about 8,000, while the Macedonians lost 400. Alexander granted pardon to the king and his family, whilst the 30,000 residents and foreigners taken were sold into slavery.
Tyre, the largest and most important city-state of Phoenicia, was located both on the mediterranean coast as well as a nearby Island with two natural harbors on the landward side. The Island laid about half a mile from the coast in Alexander’s day, and its high walls reached 150 feet on the east side of the island. There were approximately 40,000 people in the city, though the women and children were evacuated to Carthage, an ancient Phoenician colony. The Carthaginians also promised to send a fleet to Tyre’s aid. As Alexander did not have much of a navy, he resolved to take the city and thus deny the Persians of their last harbor in the region.
Alexander began with an engineering feat that shows the true extent of his brilliance; as he could not attack the city from sea, he built a kilometer-long causeway stretching out to the island on a natural land bridge no more than two meters deep. This mole allowed his artillery to get in range of the walls, and is still there to this day, as it was made of stone. As the work came near the walls, however, the water became much deeper, and the combined attacks from the walls and Tyrian navy made construction nearly impossible. Therefore, Alexander constructed two towers 150 feet high and moved them to the end of the causeway. Like most of Alexander’s siege towers, these were moving artillery platforms, with catapults on the top to clear defenders off of the walls, and ballista below to hurl rocks at the wall and attacking ships. The towers were made of wood, but were covered in rawhide to protect them from fire arrows.
Although these towers were possibly the largest of their kind ever made, the Tyrians quickly devised a counterattack. They used an old horse transport, filling it with dried branches, pitch, sulfur, and various other combustibles. They then hung cauldrons of oil from the masts, so that they would fall onto the deck once the masts burned through. They also weighed down the back of the ship so that the front rose above the water. They then lit it on fire and ran it up onto the causeway. The fire spread quickly, engulfing both towers and other siege equipment that had been brought up. The Tyrian ships swarmed the pier, destroying any siege equipment that hadn’t caught fire, and driving off Macedonian crews that were trying to put out the fires.
This convinced Alexander that he would be unable to take Tyre without a navy. Fate would soon provide him with one. Presently, the Persian navy returned to find their home cities under Alexander’s control. Since their allegiance was to their city, they were therefore Alexander’s. He now had eighty ships. This coincided with the arrival of another hundred and twenty from Cyprus, which had heard of his victories and wished to join him. With the arrival of another twenty three ships, Alexander had two hundred and twenty three galleys under his command. Alexander then sailed on Tyre and quickly blockaded both ports with his superior numbers. He had several of the slower galleys, and a few barges, refit with battering rams, the only known case of battering rams being used on ships. Finding that large underwater blocks of stone kept the rams from reaching the walls, Alexander had them removed by crane ships. The rams then anchored near the walls, but the Tyrians sent out ships and divers to cut the anchor cables. Alexander responded by replacing them with chains.
The Tyrians tried another brilliant counter attack, yet were not so fortunate this time. They noticed that Alexander returned to the mainland at the same time every afternoon for lunch, at the same time much of his navy did. They therefore attacked at this time, but found Alexander had skipped his afternoon siesta, and was able to quickly counter the sortie.
Alexander started testing the wall at various points with his rams, until he made small breach in the south end of the island. He then coordinated an attack across the breach with a bombardment from all sides by his navy. Once his troops forced their way into the city, they easily overtook the garrison, and quickly captured the city. Those citizens that took shelter in the temple of Hercules were pardoned by Alexander, including the king of Tyre. The others, some 30,000 people, were sold into slavery, both because of the length of the siege, and because the Tyrians had executed some captured sailors on the walls.
List of sieges
- 724-720 BC: Assyrian Siege by king Shalmaneser V
- 701 BC: Assyrian Siege by king Sennacherib
- 663 BC: Assyrian Siege by king Ashurbanipal
- 585-570 BC: Babylonian Siege by king Nebuchadnezzar II
- 332 BC: Macedonian Siege by Alexander the Great.
- 1111-1112 AD: By the Crusaders of Baldwin I