From Beirut to Saida one follows a charming coastline. After passing Damour, with its plain full of banana trees stretching as far as the eye can see, one sees Sidon and its fortress rising above the horizon.
Some five kilometers north of Sidon we turn to the left. We go along the left bank of the river Awali to a point several hundred meters from the highway where there is an abundance of orange and loquat trees, and from there enter a grove known as Bustan el-Sheikh. Here there are the remains of a temple dedicated to Aesculapius, with ancient ruins that bear witness to our glorious past.
A large open-air sanctuary dating from the seventh century before Christ stands there, one constructed by Eshmounazar II. This was a Phoenician temple dedicated to Eshmoun, god of Sidon and patron of medicine and healers. A retaining wall of the time of King Bodashstart (5th century), successor of Eshmoun (6th century), holds back the hillside.
The cult of Aesculapius-Eshmoun lasted several centuries here, influenced by the Greeks, Romans and Byzantines. There is a Roman colonnade, a Byzantine church and mosaics, and so on. Around the sanctuary, where worshippers prayed after purifying themselves at a neighboring spring, there are votive statuettes and inscriptions. One can see statuettes of children, shops bordering the sanctuary, the nympheus or sacred spring, the throne of Ishtar and the caduceus, the symbolic serpent surmounting a staff.
People used to come and bathe here to restore their health, and took part in the ceremonies and processions, using torches and incubatory beds.
Aesculapius was the Roman name for the Greek god Asclepios, son of Zeus (Roman Jupiter) and god of health. The site has suffered much with the passing of time, from earthquakes, excavations and looting. Little remains: the Byzantine mosaics representing the four seasons, and the nympheus and throne of Ashtart carved out of a solid block of granite and flanked by two sphinxes.
According to legend, Eshmoun was born in Beirut and grew up there. Ashtart fell in love with him but Eshmoun did not reciprocate. He committed suicide after mutilating himself. Ashtart came upon him and restored him to life by giving him a divine nature. He became the god of fertility and of healing. His serpent entwined around a staff found on a gold plate forms the caduceus, symbol of the medical profession.
The origins of the cult of Aesculapius are to be found in Thessaly, from where it spread south to Asia Minor and beyond. His temples, where sacrifices were offered, are to be found throughout the Greek world. The temple of Eshmoun, just north of Saida (Sidon) is a place to visit.
Joseph Matar - Translation from the French: K.J. Mortimer
- Eshmoun, Aesculapius or Asclepios: >> View Movie << (2006-04-01)