The sea fortress. It is built upon a rocky island 80 meters away from the coast and it is connected to the main land by a stone bridge built of nine arches.
The Crusaders built the fortress in 1228, on the remains of a Phoenician shrine dedicated to the God Melkart. Later, in 1253, King Louis IX of France added a main hall to the fortress. In 1447, during the reign of the Mamluk Sultan Jukmuk, Prince Julban Moâidy renovated the fortress and especially its western tower.
The fortress is considered to be one of the most beautiful fortresses on the Mediterranean coast. Its entrance is decorated with lions sculptured in the stone, and it has a small mosque built by Al Ashraf Khalil Bin Kalawoun, and renovated by Prince Fakhreddine.
We are still in Sidon, or Saïda to give it its modern name, having visited the castle on the sea, the Great Mosque, the bazaars, the archæological sites, etc.. However, much remains to be seen. There are two edifices on the ouskirts of the city, not far from the port, namely Khan El Franj (the Franks) and Khan Roz. These were the hostelries in the past where travellers and merchants lay down their wares.
Khan El Franj is in the form of a large square. “Massive and majestic, it stands as the most noticeable monument on the shore front of Sidon. Its construction is commonly attributed to Emir Fakher El Din II in 1610.”
Gérard de Nerval said of it, “This French Khan is a town in itself. In all Syria we have not seen one which is of greater importance.” It is reached through a monumental porch open on the north side under a gallery of arches surrounding a square courtyard where rises a great basin of water still there. The depots are all at ground level. The merchants sold their wares where they stood and then carried on to other destinations.
Importations from Europe were exchanged for ones from the Indies. One can easily understand the importance of this French Khan on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. In this way the town of Sidon was flourishing. It was a vital centre where consuls, travellers, merchants, researchers, manufacturers, historians, scholars and clergy would meet each other in this khan, a place of hospitality and intercourse. “It was the centre of social and commercial activities in Saïda down to the nineteenth century. In turn residence of the Consuls of France, then of the Franciscan Fathers, and then an orphanage for girls under the care of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, it has now been restored and shelters the centre of the French Cultural Mission for South Lebanon.” Here there are many activities arranged of a cultural or humanist nature, talks, exhibitions, concerts, meetings, shows of crafts, and so on.
It is now destined to provide premises for a museum and exhibition halls in order to play its part in the life of the town and to safeguard our heritage.
The Great Al-Omari Mosque
Lebanon, land with six thousand years of history and civilization, land of peaceful co-existence of eighteen religious communities, land of warm welcome, freedom, hospitality and lights. Here each religious group follows the dictates of its particular faith, its liturgy and forms of prayer without restriction. All along there have been good relations between them, between religious sheikhs, monks, hermits and others, with regular contacts and exchanges.
Churches and mosques rise side by side and are scattered everywhere. Saïda, the Sidon of old, stands on the coast of Lebanon some fifty kilometers or thirty miles south of the capital Beirut. Its long history is resplendent with glory and grandeur. Its land and all that lies buried beneath it bear witness to its antiquity and to its cultural, scientific, social and humanistic evolution, with the town, the Citadel, the ancient port, the bazaars, the buildings, the mosques and the churches.
The Great Mosque of Al-Omari situated close by the seashore, south-west of the old bazaars, is a solemn place of prayer. It is an impressive rectangular edifice put up to the memory of the second caliph Omar ben al-Khattab, and is certainly the grandest mosque in Saïda and the most spacious and beautiful.
It was built in the 13th century close to the Citadel on a small hill overlooking the sea. According to tradition it was a church at the time of the Crusaders or perhaps the hall of a hospice of the Knights of the Order of St. John. It has been restored several times, once leaving part of it covered with a red-tiled roof which gives the building a picturesque appearance. A simple and elegant minaret rises above the building, in relief against the luminous sky of the Orient. There was a partial restoration in 1820 using old materials following part destruction that was the result of a storm.
On the northern side there is a fountain for ablutions. The openings, both doors and windows for ventilation, are simple and attractive. Saïda, or Sidon, as it was then known, was a holy city which drew to itself all the believers in the days of the Phoenicians.
When one visits this most ancient of cities, the Great Mosque is a place to see, study and contemplate.
Joseph Matar - Translation from the French: K.J. Mortimer