The Island of Arwad
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.