A Treasured Mystery

Simone Fattal

The Mediterranean of the Phoenicians:
From Carthage to Tyre
November 6, 2007 - April 20, 2008
Institut du Monde Arabe

Phoenician history and art are the dual subjects of an exhibit that took place a year ago in Paris at the Institut du Monde Arabe starting in November 2007. A two-day symposium organized by the UNESCO Foundation for the Safekeeping of Tyre and the Institut du Monde Arabe preceded the exhibit’s opening.

During the symposium, Leila Badr, head of the American University of Beirut’s Archaeological Museum, entreated the audience, scholars and politicians alike to restart professional digs in Tyre. More often than not, because of the chaos prompted by the many wars in the region, digs are done for individual profit and then the re-discovered objects are privately sold. The objects are lost to science, and the digs leave environmental destruction in their wake. This call must have been heard for a new symposium will take place this November in Beirut from November 5 to November 9 , 2008. It is the first ever symposium of that importance to take place in Lebanon. Forty-two scholars from the U.S., Lebanon, Cyprus, Europe will give papers on the interrelations in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze and Iron Ages. A book will be published “Networking Patterns of the Bronze and Iron Age Levant,” edited by Claude Doumit Serhal, herself an archeologist digging with a British team in Sidon.

The world of the Phoenicians can be found throughout the Mediterranean, and many of their treasures are rediscovered in places other than their country of origin. Sardinia, Cyprus, Italy, Spain, Tunisia are all cities they founded or utilized as commercial outposts, stops along the Phoenicians’ expansive sea routes.

Who were the Phoenicians? Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet, head researcher at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) and the Collège de France proposes the following answer: “Phoenician” is a Greek appellation for the people who came from today’s Syria and Palestine, and who were the Canaanites.

The origin of the word is uncertain. One theory proposes that the Phoenicians were named for their famous purple dye of Murex – a color of utmost importance since it was the color of royalty (and royalty alone in the later Roman and Byzantium Empires). Another theory posits that the name is derived from phenikias, which means “palm tree” in Greek, a tree that flourished throughout the region. What we do know is that these Canaanites referred to themselves as inhabitants of their cities, i.e. as Tyrians, or Sidonians. They ruled a string of important, wealthy and independent city-states along the coast which were loosely related by trade, religion, culture and language, but not united in a single political entity.

According to the classical historian Herodotus, their region spread from the gulf of Alexandria (Iskenderoun) to Al ‘Arish on the Sinai peninsula. The Phoenicians worked in Egypt and widely exported their goods: jewelry, ivory, glass, metal vessels. They were masters of maritime commerce in the Mediterranean – intrepid navigators, successful merchants, always opening new outposts for commerce, but not in an attempt to build empires.

Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” celebrated their skills as artisans. For example, when King Menelaus wants to offer a noble visitor the most precious gift in his kingdom, he presents to him a silver vessel from Sidon, exquisitely crafted and embossed with intricate motifs. French scholar Victor Bérard devoted two volumes of work to the sole subject of the instances in which the word “Sidon” appears in the Homeric poems. Phoenician amphorae carried oil, grain, wheat, spices such as cumin and saffron, dried grapes, dried grape seeds, purple dye, incense and myrrh to Greece and Italy. Some say they traveled as far as England and Scotland and even to Argentina. In the exhibit at L’Institut du Monde Arabe, an exquisite clay statuette of a young man holds an amphora on his shoulder as though a wing.

The Phoenicians’ greatest achievement, however, was the invention of the alphabet. While this creation went through a long process of transmission, we know the first alphabet appeared in Ugarit (Ras Shamra, Syria) in the 13th century B.C. A piece of clay dating from that time lists the letters of the alphabet. Beginning as an alphabetical cuneiform, it transformed over time into a linear writing, one that went from right to left, as would the various languages of the region: Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, etc. That first alphabet disappeared, to reappear in Byblos two centuries later.

This later text, inscribed on bronze, refers to the property of a certain Zaccour (a family name still existing in present-day Lebanon) living in the Bekaa. Other texts have also been found, mainly correspondence from Amarna (Egypt) or Mesopotamia concerning commerce. Scholars have found the only literary texts in the archives of Ugarit. The Phoenician language was also the precursor to the Greek alphabet and to the ancient language of Crete.

Classical mythology tells us that it is Cadmos, King of Sidon, who brought the alphabet to the Greeks while searching for his sister Europa, who had been abducted by Zeus. It also traveled by land through the Phrygians, the inhabitants of a region in present-day Turkey between Greece and the Levantine coast. The golden age of Phoenicia occurred between 1100 B.C. and 332 B.C., when Alexander’s conquest destroyed Tyre.

Almost two millennia later, an archeological find on Malta helped modern-era scholars to decipher the Phoenician language. Abbot Barthelemy, a Frenchman, found a column of marble in 1792 inscribed with both Greek and Phoenician wordings. This marble cippus, appearing to rise out of an acanthus flower, is the first treasure that meets us in the exhibit. In 1855, almost a century after this revelatory discovery, the first sarcophagi of a king of Sidon, Eshmunazar, was uncovered (perhaps the namesake of the village of Ishmoun in Lebanon’s Chouf Mountains?). Shortly thereafter, Napoleon the III sent explorer Ernest Renan to Syria with the purpose of searching that coast. Renan opened four dig sites at Arwad, Gebeil, Sidon and Tyre.

The art of the Phoenicians is composite, heavily influenced by the Egyptians, with additional elements added. The artisans were so skilled that they themselves were exported for their work: creating dyes, weavings, glass, pottery and jewelry and “trinkets,” beads made of clay or glass.

The many artifacts on view at the exhibit include the stunning anthropomorphic sarcophagi made of marble imported from the Greek island of Pharos. Those on display represent various regions of the Phoenician world. The viewer can also admire the famous Punic statuettes of bronze and gold from the Museum of Beirut, or gold necklaces and diadems on loan from the Museum of Rome.

Visitors will find many intriguing objects, such as the painted and incised shells which likely contained cosmetic powders – created in such a way to make them easy for travel. Other objects of interest include innumerable seals, vessels, coins, masks, women deities in their sanctuaries, amphorae, etc. 

One disquieting find has been the infant cemeteries near Carthage. Pictures of these tombs, found in Tunisia, are displayed upon the walls. One cannot help but wonder who these children were. Human sacrifices?  Simply stillborn children? Archaeology has not yet revealed an answer.

Considering that Lebanon is the home of the most fabled of the Phoenician cities: Byblos, Tyre, and Sidon, one found himself drawn to the history of modern-day Lebanon. We hope that their troubled history is something of the past and they are entering a new phase of reconciliation and prosperity.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vols. 13/14, nos. 58/59 (2007/2008)
Copyright (c) 2007-2008 by Al Jadid

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