The Island of Arwad

“And the Arvadite, and the Zemarite, and the Hamathite: and afterward were the families of the Canaanites spread abroad.” Genesis (X, 18)

Arvad: (Phoenician/Biblical), Arados: (Greek), Aradus: (Latin), Arwad: (Arabic), Ezziré: (Local Arwadi/Tartoussi Dialects)

So it was told that St. Paul built the first church honoring the Virgin Mary on a hill facing the magnificent island (in today’s Tartous) and left by sea. He rested for a while (undetermined period) in Arvad, before finally setting sails to Rome.

As I approach Tartous from the east, the sense of urgency reaches a higher plateau. The smell of the sea greets me with the westerly breeze. I can lick the salt off my lips but I am still ill at ease. I need to see it with my own eyes. Just as I pass that final obtrusive hill… There it is Arwad the eternal island floating regally in the endless blue.

Arwad is the sole inhabited island in Syria. It’s roughly rectangular in shape, measuring 800 m x 300 m. To get there, one boards a ferry from the little Mill Port (Marfa’ Al-Tahoun) in Tartous. The 2.5 km distance usually takes from 15 to 20 minutes in a traditional motor-boat Arwadi Felucca. Over recent years, the island has become one of the best known tourist destinations in Syria for the locals. Busloads of school children and visitors from all over Syria park by the little harbor on the esplanade (Cornish) of Tartous. Their primary destination is the small open seafood restaurants on the island. To appreciate the true history of Arwad, a sightseer should avoid weekends and national holidays. The place is simply too damn crowded then.

The Canaanites were the first to settle in the island in the second millennium. Later, it was taken by the Pharaoh Tuthmosis III during one of his military campaigns in Syria. The Phoenicians would then make it their main base for a series of settlements on the Lebanese-Syrian coast extending all the way to Jableh to the north (25 km south of Lattakia) and almost to Homs eastward (to Husn Suleiman). Along with Tyre (Sour) in south Lebanon, Arwad was best known for its seafaring and highly skilled people who truly ruled the waves of the Mediterranean. In the fifth century BC, Arwad succumbed to the Assyrians and the Achaemenid Persians. The Arvadites fought along the Xerxes at the battle of Salamis-Herodotus VII in 480 BC. As the troubled history of this long fought-over land continued, the island retained some political independence during the reign of King Gerostratos in 333 BC when he offered his allegiance to Alexander. It would later lose this special status when it sided with Pompey in the civil war of 46 BC, and, later in 41 BC when the envoy of Mark Antony sent to demand the return of Cleopatra’s brother was burned alive by the islanders. During the Roman rule, the role of Arwad as the leading center was further eroded and prominence was gradually given to Tartous. The last crusaders to leave the east, the Templars, made their final exit from Arwad in 1302.

It is difficult to fathom the extraordinary history of Arwad after a couple of hours visit to this fascinating island. What went wrong? What war, what calamity had befallen this little spot, one of the earliest cradles of the Phoenicians. After surviving millennia of successive civilizations and hordes of conquerors almost intact, Arwad succumbed to wicked and, at best, idiotic official meddling to become one of the worse touristic* nightmares in Syria. I don’t have to rely on old black & white pictures to remember the splendor of its past even. I only have to go back in memory to when I was a young lad growing up by the sea. Arwad was a gem. We would go, a whole bunch of kids, by ferry to the island to enjoy the crystal blue water and the diving for oysters and sea urchins. Afterward, we would all gather on an outcrop of rocks protruding from the sea at the southeastern corner of the island, sharing our raw loot and hungrily scoffing it together.

Arwad is a slum. The General Department of Antiquity has declared the whole island a historic site. That would have been nice if they knew what the hell they are talking about. The department’s only significant and terribly detrimental accomplishment was to put a ban on any form of construction. The islanders could not even restore their own deteriorating homes. Window shutters would fall down, parts of walls would crack and the idiot bureaucrats would still insist that this preventive measure is preserving the island architectural heritage. All development has been frozen for the last 25 years without any alternative plan of action. So in their endeavor to preserve the stone, they did irreplaceable social and economic damage to the, roughly 5,000 inhabitants who remained hostages to the whims of a bureaucratic department. Those Arwadis who left and settled in Tartous went on to become among the richest. Their inherited seafaring dexterity led them into acquiring the lion’s share of the modern Syrian merchant fleet. The economy of Tartous is, again, striving thanks to the Arwadites.

As I was growing up, Arwad (Ezziré as we so affectionately call it) has always been an omnipresent fact of life. I had never seen a sea without it. I still look for my island whenever I’m standing on the shore of a strange sea or ocean. The majestic blue crown does not look right without its jewel. The sea is not a sea without Arwad.

* The word touristic is one of the most abused words of the English language by Official Syria. A hotel is touristic, a restaurant, a tent, a public bath, a secluded beach, even a toilet is touristic. When I read this word in a brochure or an advertisement describing a place, I immediately know, without the shadow of a doubt, that someone did something entirely stupid to the place and fucked it up so bad. Touristic: beware of this word!

To view more pictures of Arwad and of Tartous, please visit my Flickr Page.


Karin said…
You describe that so beautifully and vividly that I can literally see it in front of my eyes and hear the soft splashes of the little waves on the shore!! What I can't understand is why the Department of Antiquities is not keen to preserve this jewel - in a way the cut the branch they are sitting on as certainly many more tourists would frequent the island, were it in a better shape!
I can well understand your love for this little island which is out there, nostalgic, reassuring, the "rock in the sea"!
Beautiful post Abufares, as always!! :-)
Anonymous said…
Dear Abu Fares El3azeem,
Thanks again for a great post.
1. Although this blog is not a history or educational blog, I wonder if it is possible to site at the end of it, some of the references you used for the information presented about the old history of Ezzire.
2. Your blog always taught us to look at the bright side of everything, no matter how little and small this side might be. So here is one good thing about the construction laws you mentioned concerning Arwad:
Taking into consideration all the corruption and favoritism that have prevailed and is prevailing in Syria, had the government actually allowed a small window for restoration and building works, the Big Sharks would have used all their might to use it and destroy the island. One big example of what I am talking about is Old Damascus. A small window of allowing restorations of old houses for **TOURISTY*** purposes only, ended up having more than one hundred restaurant destroying the city and its atmosphere.
So maybe one day, we will look back at that preservation law of Arwad and we will thank god for it because, although it did not develop the island forward, it just kept it were it was thirty years ago. This is half-good comparing that many other beautiful historical places were sent a hundred years backward.
But I don’t know the situation on the ground right now, maybe I am wrong

Zarube boy
Abufares said…
Hi Karin

It's a fact that the more you work the more mistakes you are likely to make. Of course, the opposite is perfectly true. By doing nothing at all, a bureucrat will not commit any mistake to tarnish his clean sheet. No credit, no blame, that's how many people choose to live their lives.
Abufares said…
Dear Zarube Boy

It's my mistake that I've forgotten to give credit at the end of the post, sorry for that. However, in a couple of previous posts, I emphasized that I primarily use:
"Monuments of Syria An Historical Guide", by Ross Burns - I.B. Turis Dummar Publisher. (Revised Edition 1999)
as an excellent reference book on historical Syria. I've read quiet a few and it's my personal opinion that this one is the most concise, accurate and fun to read.
As to the sad state of the island of Arwad and your comparison with the old city of Damascus, I would completely agree with you if the matter was that simple.
When someone declares and inhabited area historical and freezes and development and/or restoration this someone should present the alternative (i.e. doing the necessary preservation and restoration work). In the case of Arwad it's an exact example of : "Ma Bir7amak Wala Bkhali Ra7met Allah Tenzol 3leik". The Ministry of Culture has received over the years a dozen or more offers to finance the restoration of Arwad by different international organziations (mostly European). They would always meet and sign protocols and their personnel would enjoy going to the seminars in Europe and make promises to the Europeans first and to the island second and more importantly. But, in the end, nothing has been done. Arwad is on a very low priority status. Sometimes we would hear of "big names" wanting to invest and turning the whole island into a huge recreational center with hotels and related bullshit. This is not what is required at all. There are people who live there. It's their home. Either the government gets off their backs or do what's need to be done to maintain Arwad as a livable place not as a filthy musuem.
Thank you for dropping by my friend.
Ascribo said…
What an outstanding post Abufares...

I always enjoyed visiting Arwad. In fact, it was the place where I learned how to swim. I used to feel proud when I see tourists visiting Arwad (I mean real tourists, not bunches of people trying to escape the 25 S.P. fare!) But not anymore. Now, I would say: Come on, watch how history can be destroyed...
Abufares said…
I know your affection for the island.
It is sad that whatever we held dear is turning mediocre right in front of our own eyes.
Even in a confined space (an island) without the possibilty of a canceric expansion, we somehow managed to fuck it up.
Karin said…
I just looked at your Flickr-page and saw not only "Ezziré" and the sea, but as well Tartous and the neighbourhood - and simply love it!
You're really living in a GORGEOUS neck of the woods!! I didn't know there is THAT much archaeology in and around the city ...
GREAT Abufares ... really GREAT!! :)
Abufares said…
Hi Karin

Tartous (the city and the district) is a great destination for the archeologist amateur or professional. There are over a dozen castles of crusader (and earlier heritage). There are Canaanite, Roman, Bizantine, Phoenician, Islamic Arabic and Ottoman ruins everywhere you go.
I hope to be able to show you around one day.

Popular posts from this blog

For the Love of Shanklish

Live and Let Live

Pillow Talk