With Voyages to Antiquity now featuring the Western Mediterranean, guest lecturer David Price-Williams looks at the archaeology of the many sites around the islands and inlets of Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Southern France, Spain and the like.
If you consult the guide books, you’ll find that many of the important ancient coastal cities are described as being ‘Phoenician’ in origin, though in truth there seems at first sight to be little evidence for that. In any case who were the Phoenicians? Where did they come from, what happened to them, and what legacy could they possibly have left for us today?
Well, to start with, they didn’t call themselves ‘Phoenicians’. That was the name the Greeks gave them; ‘the Purple People’ – they were famous for making a vivid purple dye from a special shell-fish which grows on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. They were actually Canaanites, the very same western Semitic peoples who have had such a bad press in the Old Testament. In the 9th Century BC they migrated from the cities of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, Arwad and Ugarit, along the coast of what today is Lebanon and southern Syria and set up trading colonies all over the Mediterranean.
They were expert sea farers, sailing in their ships made from Lebanese cedar to trade all the way west as far as the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) and out along the Atlantic coast of Spain and Morocco. In fact, Herodotus, the father of history, says they even sailed down the Red Sea, circumnavigated Africa and returned through the Straights to the Mediterranean again. He quotes a tantalizing fact that as they sailed westwards they said they’d seen the sun in the north at mid-day.
Be that as it may, they certainly created important trading posts around the shores of the western Mediterranean. Their new capital was of course Carthage, in present-day Tunisia, but they also established many other cities along the coast of North Africa, in Malta and Gozo, in western Sicily like the island of Motya near Marsala, at Nora, on the south coast of Sardinia next to Cagliari, on the island of Ibiza, and at Malaga and Cadiz in Spain. They were not only trading in dyes of course, but in metals, textiles and a host of agricultural products such as olives.
And we do find evidence of their presence in the western Mediterranean, most obviously at Carthage, but fragments of their cities have survived elsewhere too, and most importantly, there are a number of Canaanite inscriptions that have been discovered in which they speak to us of their illustrious presence. One of the most important of these is the Nora tablet from Sardinia, dating from about 850 BC, which actually talks about the ‘shardenu’, the Sardinians. There are also inscribed funerary monuments from Motya in Sicily which mention the gods of the ancient Canaanites such as Ba’al.
But their trading expertise was as nothing to the real contribution they have made to the world at large, because it’s the Canaanites that have given us the Alphabet that we use today. Herodotus tells us that in his ‘Histories’ as well, when he states:- “The Phoenicians introduced a number of accomplishments to the Greeks of which the most important was writing, something until then unknown to them.” They’d created their alphabet as early as the 12th century BC as a quicker and easier means of writing words than using awkward hieroglyphs or other clumsy syllabic signs. They just used the first letter of a word, a total of twenty-two in all, and stuck them together to make sentences. ‘Aleph’, the bull’s head, was their letter A, which if you turn it upside down looks just like one, or ‘Beit’, the house, their letter B, with its two rooms! And of course, that’s what we still call this system of writing, the ‘Alphabet’, the ‘Oxhead House’.
The Greeks most likely borrowed this system of writing when they colonized eastern Sicily in the 8th century BC and where they came into contact with the Phoenician cities along the western edge of the island. The Phoenician alphabet doesn’t need vowels; there had ways of forming these sounds by using consonantal vowel letters. The Greeks weren’t so comfortable with this short-hand and they had to add more vowel signs to make it more comprehensible.
Culturally it was a triumph, of course. Most people world-wide now use the alphabet. But alas, archaeologically it was a disaster. They began to use pen and ink on paper, or parchment which, unlike the previous system of writing on baked clay or stone, has rarely survived the passage of time.
So what happened to the Phoenicians? They were comprehensively defeated militarily by the might of Rome during the Punic (Phoenician) Wars so that with the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC they totally disappeared from the record books. But, as you read this, you can appreciate that their memory lives on in the written word. And as you cruise with Aegean Odyssey, you might just see traces of them in the museums around the western Mediterranean. So spare a thought for the Purple People that enabled you to write using their Oxhead House.
David Price-Williams will be lecturing on board: