Note: I wrote this article the April 2020 newsletter for my lodge -Richmond Randolph Lodge #19 in Richmond, VA – that I publish as Secretary of that lodge. I thought I should probably post it here. This blog will likely become a place I just dump content that I’ve written for other things.
We know from our ritual that Hiram I, King of Tyre (pictured left) is one of our first three most-excellent Grandmasters who, by his vast wealth and resources, strengthened and supported King Solomon in the construction of the temple in Jerusalem. But who was this Hiram? Where was Tyre? Why was he so rich? Why on earth would this pagan king want to help the King of Israel build a temple?
Where is Tyre?
Geographically, Tyre is a peninsular city in what is today southwestern Lebanon. Its formation is somewhat complicated. There is Palaetrius (“Old Tyre”) and an island called Tyre. According to Heroditus (a Greek historian who visited the place c. 450 BC and learned this from some locals) the mainland Tyre was founded around 2750 BC and at some point in the next thousand years, a ruler of the City-State moved the city to an Island off the coast which became the new Tyre. Today, there is no geographic distinction between the island and the old city. When Alexander the Great was conquering the Persian Empire (650 years after Hiram’s reign) Tyre held out thinking their defenses and natural moat were impregnable. Alexander the Great (in one of history’s best “hold my beer” moments) ordered the old city (Palaetrius) to be destroyed and used the stones to form a land bridge to the island to besiege and conquer it. This land bridge, built in 333 BC remains to this day. Over the years, it has accumulated silt and other debris which have widened it to give this Lebanese peninsula its form.
Why was Hiram so Wealthy?
Prior to Alexander’s terraforming activities, this island kingdom was a part of Phoenicia- several independent maritime merchant-republic city-states that dominated trade in the Mediterannean. These commerce based kingdoms spread their influence by trade rather than by force. The main cash commodity, and the basis for Tyre’s and thus Hiram’s wealth, was a purple dye known as “Tyrian Purple” that was extracted from a secretion of the predatory sea-snails that populated its shores. This dye, unlike others, did not fade in the sun but rather aged and became more brilliant. The extraction process was so involved that it made the dye outrageously expensive and thus a status symbol of royalty in the ancient world. With this snail mucus money, Tyre could patronize Tyrian astronomers to develop better navigational methods for their ships. Because the island city had such limited space, the inhabitants constructed multi-storey buildings. They thus acquired a reputation for being great masons, engineers, metalworkers, and shipbuilders.
Who was Hiram I?
Hiram I succeeded his father Abibaal in 969 BCE and reigned for 34 years. He is credited in written histories with Tyre’s vast growth in the 10th century BCE. Writing 1,000 years after Hiram’s reign, Roman Historian Flavius Josephus wrote that Hiram expanded the urban territory by projects connecting two islands or Reefs via a canal to form a single island. Furthermore, Hiram’s regional cooperation as well as his fight against Philistine pirates helped to develop trade with Arabia, and North and East Africa. Products in transit from throughout the ancient world were gathered into warehouses in Tyre, as its fortifications offered protection for valuable goods stored there on their way to their final destination.
Relationship with Israel and King Solomon
Among the kingdoms that Hiram developed close relationships with was Israel and its King, David. When David built his palace, he contacted King Hiram for assistance from Tyre’s renowned engineers and stonemasons. Hiram sent laborers and cedar to aid in its construction. David had also wanted to build a temple dedicated to God and to house the Ark of the Covenant but since he was dealing with constant war and had enemies on every side he could not accomplish his objective.
David’s son, King Solomon, succeeded his father as King of Israel. With peace pervading his kingdom, Solomon took the plans and materials that David had set aside for the temple and resumed this enterprise. Solomon contacted his father’s friend and ally, King Hiram I of Tyre, for assistance in his great and important undertaking. Solomon requested of Hiram hewn cedar and cypress wood timbers as well as overseers to supervise the workers assembling these parts in Israel.
King Hiram I responded by saying how much he liked David and considered Solomon an “equal” or “brother.” He was happy to help and provide these workers and this timber in exchange for corn “which we stand in need of, because we inhabit an island.”
Solomon “sent him yearly twenty thousand cori of wheat: and as many baths of oil. He also sent him the same measure of wine.” This partnership also ensured Hiram access to the major river and land-based trade routes to Egypt, Arabia and Mesopotamia. The two kings also jointly opened a trade route over the Red Sea, connecting the Israelite harbour of Ezion-Geber with a land called Ophir.
This leaves the final question: “Why?” The answer seems to boil down to a valued partnership. Hiram King of Tyre expanded his empire through commerce and partnerships rather than by force. By befriending Israel, he was able to increase the reach of his trade routes. Economic interdependence also can often breed defensive benefits. What of the question of religion? Hiram I and the Tyrians were polytheistic and largely worshiped a god called Melchart. It’s possible that King Hiram saw the God of Israel as one of many gods so this wasn’t an important distinction for him. At this time, most Mediterranean cultures were polytheistic and different city-states venerated different gods.
I hope this has added some historical context to the Masonic pillar of strength and gives the reader some interesting reading. There is probably a lot more esoteric detail about this partnership surrounding mystery schools, priests, astronomy, and the like that is beyond the scope of this article but that I encourage you to research on your own.
Sources: The geographical history is mostly from Wikipedia articles in which I back checked the sources. The story about Alexander the Great is from any number of biographies on the man. The parts about King Hiram and his relationship with King Solomon and the temple are littered throughout 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles in the Old Testament and in the writings of Josephus Flavius, a Romano-Jewish chronicler in a Book 8 of “Antiquities of the Jews.” (https://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-8.html)