Along the entire eastern coast of the Mediterranean, there is only one inhabited island: Arwad.
Not much more than a dot of rock off the coast of Tartus, Syria, it once dominated a goodly stretch of that coast, ruling the mainland like an offshore castle. War galleys of Arwad fought on the side of the Egyptians, the Assyrians and even the Persians when the tide turned for Greece in the early fifth century bce. More than a millennium and a half later, the island became the last bastion in the entire Levant for the crusading Knights Templar before their final, dramatic expulsion. Though Arwad today is a quieter place, the remains of its massive stone fortifications have many a tale to tell.
In the 1970s, when Syria was at peace, a small group of journalists drove up the coast from Beirut through Tripoli and across the Syrian border. It was a carefree weekend jaunt on a crystal-clear, sunny day. We stopped for a cold seafood lunch at a beach hotel, then headed north to the coastal city of Tartus, where we negotiated passage with a fisherman. He ferried us in his wooden boat that jounced us through the chop as salt spray invigorated our faces. Far above, seagulls swooped, tracking our progress across the channel that for millennia had served as a great natural moat, at times protecting and at times isolating the island that was small enough to appear to float on the sea. About three kilometers west of the port, we reached our destination, a warren of narrow streets and seaside restaurants crowned with a massive fortress: Arwad.
Remnants of ramparts that once circled all but Arwad’s harbor side, these few weathered blocks likely date back at least as far as the Seleucid era that followed Alexander the Great.
It was not unlike other small Mediterranean port towns. Its population ranged between 5,000 and 10,000 depending on the season, all living atop 20 hectares of rock. Fishing, boatbuilding and tourism kept everyone going, as it has for much of the last century, although recently all three have declined with the war on the mainland.
The Greek geographer and historian Strabo wrote that the island he called Arados was founded by exiles from the Phoenician city-state of Sidon. (Arwad’s Phoenician residents are thought to have called their island city Aynook.) Arwad also appears as Arvad, and its people Arvadites, at least twice in the Old Testament, where they are noted among the tribes of Canaan. After Alexander the Great conquered the Eastern Mediterranean in the fourth century bce, coins minted by the islanders bore the Greek legend “Arados.”
Physically, Arwad is a low, barren slab of rock, bereft of arable soil, natural springs or any other water resource, some 800 meters from northwest to southeast and about 500 meters wide. Always densely settled, its multi-story buildings gave rise to its sobriquet, “five-story city,” and its inhabitants in Strabo’s Roman-ruled times (when the island was called Aradus) lived in “houses of many stories,” the geographer tells us.
Bereft of resources, it was Arwad’s strategic position along the Levantine coast that made it attractive to the powerful. In Karnak, Egypt, on the seventh pylon at the Temple of Amun-Ra, hieroglyphics from the early 15th century bce chronicle Pharaoh Thutmose iii’s victories during his fifth campaign against the northern Syrian city-states, which included the island of Arwad.
Near the center of the island protrude