The Sarcophagus of King Ahiram (spelled also as Ahirom) is an incredible monument that was unearthed in Lebanon. As its name suggests, the sarcophagus belonged to a king by the name of Ahiram, who was a ruler of the ancient Phoenician city of Byblos (as the Greeks called it, and is now known as Jubayl / Jbeil). This sarcophagus is notable for its bas reliefs, and more importantly, its inscription. The engraved curse is said to be the earliest known example of the fully developed form of the Phoenician alphabet, hence its great significance.
The Sarcophagus of King Ahiram was discovered in 1923 during an excavation in Byblos. During that excavation, which was led by the French archaeologist Pierre Montet, nine tombs belonging to the Phoenician kings of Byblos were discovered. These tombs were exposed as a result of heavy rains that caused the collapse of parts of a hill. The tombs were cut directly out of the rock, and it was in tomb V that Ahiram’s sarcophagus, which is made of limestone, was found.
King Ahiram, Ruler of Byblos
Initially, the sarcophagus was thought to have belonged to the 13 th or 12 th century BC, due to other artifacts in the tomb that date to this period. This dating, however, was later challenged by scholars who examined the sarcophagus’ inscription. Today, King Ahiram is commonly believed to have ruled over Byblos around 1000 BC. It has been pointed out that King Ahiram is not attested in the known literary corpus of the ancient Near East. His sarcophagus, however, is evidence of this ancient king’s existence. By 3000 BC, Byblos had grown from a little village into a wealthy city thanks to trade. Around the time of Ahiram’s rule, however, Byblos was beginning to decline in importance, losing out to its nearby sister city, Tyre.
The Sarcophagus of King Ahiram has been regarded as a major example of a piece of early Phoenician art. It is known that Byblos had strong trade relations with Egypt. Some scholars even go so far as to consider Byblos as a ‘colony’ of that ancient superpower. Regardless, it is evident that Egyptian culture and religion had a great influence on the people of Byblos, and this can be seen, for example, in their art. King Ahiram’s sarcophagus, however, is interesting, as it displays a reduced dependence on this Egyptian influence. For example, the dress, beard and coiffure of the male figures on the sarcophagus suggest an influence coming from Northern Syrian, rather than from Egypt.
The other, arguably more important, aspect of the sarcophagus is the inscription that was found on it. This inscription was carved above a relief on the upper rim and lid of the sarcophagus. The inscription has been translated as follows:
“A coffin made it [It]tobaal, son of Ahirom, king of Byblos, for Ahirom, his father, lo, thus he put him in seclusion. Now, if a king among kings and a governor among governors and a commander of an army should come up against Byblos; and when he then uncovers this coffin – (then:) may strip off the sceptre of his judiciary, may be overturned the throne of his kingdom, and peace and quiet may flee from Byblos. And as for him, one should cancel his registration concerning the libation tube of the memorial sacrifice.”
From the inscription, it is known that the sarcophagus was made for Ahiram by his son, Ittobaal. The rest of the inscription is essentially a curse intended to protect the sarcophagus and its contents from would-be desecrators. This, however, did not deter tomb robbers from looting the tomb in antiquity. Nevertheless, the sarcophagus was left in the tomb for archaeologists to discover in the future. It has also been noted that 19 of the 22 letters that make up the Phoenician alphabet are present in this inscription, and is at present the earliest known example of the fully developed form of the Phoenician alphabet. Today, the Sarcophagus of King Ahiram is kept in the National Museum of Beirut in Lebanon.