The Whale, Jonah, and Jiyeh

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The Mediterranean Sea hides amongst its waves stories told and retold, waters so rich in history that would quench any thirsty storyteller on its salty shores. Such is the story of a small coastal town 23 km south from Beirut with a 7km sandy beach named Jiyeh. When the monk Godard visited the village during the 1900s, he described Jiyeh as a town fenced and surrounded by palm trees, and cactus plants.

In Phoenician times it was known as Porphyreon and was a thriving natural seaport, which still functions today. The town was known to be the largest station on the coastal road between Akka and Antakia, between the 4th and 7th century B.C, containing houses built of several rooms and paved mosaic floors. It also contained narrow streets equipped with sewage and drainage system into the sea. It played a significant role in the local economy, on the one hand providing for the city of Sidon and, on the other, mediating the exchange of goods with rural settlements scattered across the mountainous hinterland.

Many invaders passed through Porphyreon such as Tohomtmos the Egyptian who landed his soldiers on its natural seaport in order to fight the North. Alexander the Great relaxed on its shore preparing for the attack on Tyre. St Peter and St Paul also walked through Jiyeh several times.

The most elusive story of all though, is that of the prophet Jonah, who is said to have landed on its sandy shores when he was spat out by the whale. Mosaics from old churches were found showing the whale vomiting Jonah to land. This land is known as Ras Nabi Younes, which means the Land Inlet of Prophet Jonah.

The Story of prophet Jonah/ Younes goes as follows:

God asked Jonah to go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against its wickedness. But Jonah ran away from the Lord and went to Joppa (presently known as Yafa) where he found a ship going to the port of Tarshish in order to flee from the Lord.

Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, which created a violent storm around the ship threatening to break it. The crew was afraid and threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. Then the sailors cast lots to find out who was responsible for the calamity. The lot fell on Jonah and they asked him who he was, where he came from. Jonah told them that he was running away from God.

As the sea was getting rougher, the sailors asked Jonah what they should do to make the sea calm down. Jonah told them to pick him up and throw him into the sea and it would become calm because it was his fault that the storm came upon them. The sailors took Jonah and threw him overboard and the sea became calmer.

The Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah where he spent three days and three nights praying and repenting. “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah unto dry land.”

Later Jonah went to Nineveh and preached its people who repented and believed in God.

Jonah is also significant in Islam as his story is mentioned:

God forgave Jonah out of His mercy and kindness for the man, and because he knew that Jonah was, at heart, one of the best of men. Therefore, the fish cast Jonah out onto dry land, with Jonah in a state of sickness. God caused a plant to grow where Jonah was lying to provide shade and comfort for him. After Jonah got up, fresh and well, God told him to go back and preach in his land. As the Qur’an says:

But We cast him forth on the naked shore in a state of sickness, 
and We caused to grow, over him, a spreading plant of the gourd kind.
And We sent him (on a mission) to a hundred thousand (men) or more.
And they believed; so We permitted them to enjoy (their life) for a while.

— Qur’an, chapter 37 (As-Saaffat), verse 145–148

Locals built an oratory dedicated to him, known as Maqam of nabi younes, which still stands until today. The site and the buildings on it date back to the Byzantine era, at the time of Kings. Mosaics depicting the story of the Prophet Jonah and the giant fish in the Old Testament have been found in churches dug from underground. Until this day, the poles and columns inside the site of the prophet are marked by the Byzantine Cross with the star. Now a mosque, the Nabi Younes mosque, the shrine also has a vestige of old Porphyeona monolithic column with a late Roman or Byzantine Corinthian capital. Inside the shrine is an old mihrab and a small chamber holding one of the several supposed tombs of Jonah.

Until this day, underneath the sands of Jiyeh hide scattered ancient ruins giving evidence of human activity dating as far back to ancient times from Phoenician to biblical times, to the Middle Ages and sailors to this day use the name Jonah to personify someone who brings bad luck.

In Jiyeh lies a Byzantine Shrine that turned into a church that turned into a mosque, one religion after another claiming this little piece of land as its own, memorializing it with  layers of civilization, of history, and stories that is beneath every corner of our Land.

Next time you are in Jiyeh, pay careful attention to the sea breeze as it carries tales of long gone times of fear, hope, repentance, sacrifice, love, and acceptance. This sea, polluted as they have left it, has much to say to those who listen.

To my Lebanon, this wholly land and its diversity…


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