Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Phoenicians: Lebanon's Epic Heritage

Book Review: Phoenicians: Lebanon’s Epic Heritage  by Sanford Holst
(Cambridge and Boston Press 2005)

What a fun ride this was – a 350 page book that was hard to put down and reads like a novel as it was often presented as a characterized history. The Phoenicians were a remarkable people with very unique characteristics as the author discovers and unfolds.

He begins with the earliest archaeological reconstructions from the city of Byblos along the east coast of the Mediterranean. Archaeology reveals the city of Byblos to have been inhabited since at least 6000 BC. At this time fruits and wild grains were abundant in the surrounding area and up in the nearby mountainous areas were great forests of the giant and long-lived Cedars of Lebanon. The trees would later become the wood skillfully made into Phoenician boats and the wood traded at high value to the Egyptian civilization that had no real sources of large timber. The great qualities and quantities of cedar allowed these peoples to develop boat-building and to become great fishermen. Early on the use of the trident, or a stick with several prongs was thought to be an innovation to increase the odds of spearing fish. Then came the development of fishing with nets. The trident is an accoutrement of the Greek sea god Poseidon and the net of the Cyprian version of the Love Goddess Aphrodite, who arose from the sea. Both a sea god and the love goddess were venerated among these peoples.

He mentions some possible early traded commodities other than surplus grain and tools  - pre-Bronze Age obsidian from the area around Catal Huyuk in Anatolia (well-established by 6000 BC), fine linen from Lake Fayum Egypt (made from about 4500 BC), and perhaps smelted copper from Syria (from about 4500-4000 BC). Trade probably began with excess fish. Later things like olive oil and wine were traded and eventually glass bottles. One key item was cloth dyed purple with murex shells from the sea. The Phoenicians were famous for bringing this purple cloth that came to be associated with royalty.

Holst came up with the following Seven Principles of Phoenician Society:

  • peaceful resolution of differences
  • international trade
  • religious tolerance
  • creating partnerships
  • respect for women
  • equality
  • privacy

It is these things he says that allowed this society to be successful and last for a long time. His idea is that the early peoples of the cities of Byblos, Tyre, and Sidon were a tight-knit and continuous tradition with the later and more well-known Phoenician society from around 1500 BC. He makes a very good case for this and it seems sensible. They seemed to have relative independence until raids by the Amorites from Mesopotamia began to plague them in the late third millennium BC. Later they were subjects of various empires but still managed to maintain autonomy and independence mostly due to applying some of the above named principles. At times they were thought to have evacuated people by ship when confronted with attack and destruction as in a sense they ruled the sea and the sea was their home. They built harbors in protected spots, often on island coasts. Staying autonomous and heterogeneous was really an amazing feat for a people without an army. Later when some colonists split off to form the North African kingdom of Carthage they wanted an army and ended up in much confrontation until their eventual demise at the hands of the Romans.

The Phoenicians traded with the Egyptians from an early time bringing giant whole cedars to form the four supports and cross-beam for the oldest discovered temple in Egypt – that of the Temple of Horus at Hierakonpolis inland along the Nile. This was discovered in 1985 and so it places this trading relationship back beyond 3000 BC.  This trading relationship between Egypt and Phoenicia was to last for millennia and as friends and partners they also shared several cultural and religious notions. They also shared much religion and cultural notions with the Canaanites to the north whose main city was Ugarit. Unfortunately the Canaanites were more prone to war and on the route of Babylonian, Assyrian, and later Persian invaders – as well as Amorite tribes. In the early Iron Age the cult of Ba’al and Asherah was powerful and the notion of drunken orgies to increase fertility was practiced – since spilling sperm was synonymous with Ba’al fertilizing the land. Asherah is thought to have been before Ba’al and is equated with Anat and Astarte (and also to Ishtar and Inanna). Among the Canaanites Asherah was militaristic as consort to Ba’al but among the Phoenicians to the south the female patron was Baalat Gebal – Our Lady of Byblos, and she wore no war vestments. She was regarded as Mother Nature and the source of all and perhaps her tender nature inspired the Phoenician commitment to peace. Later they would blend more with the Canaanites when Ugarit became more powerful, even at times referring to themselves as Canaanites. The author suggests that the worshipping of Mother Nature as Baalat Gebal ay Byblos is more or less a continuous tradition of the worship of the Great Fertility Mother at Catal Huyuk and many other early Neolithic sites. She was also venerated as Lady of the Beasts, a protector of animals – and also children. After the Canaanites adopted the worship of Ba’al as male fertility, storm, and war god, the Phoenicians added a consort to Baalat Gabel – Baal Shamem, or Lord of the Heavens. This deity was invoked to allay sea storms and dangers or to help with fertility. In Tyre, Baal Shamem was called Melqart, or Malek qart, and was more of a sea god as well as a storm god. Herodotus is said to have visited Tyre and equated the temple to Malqart to Hercules. They told him that it was founded when the city was founded around 2750 BC. Archaeological digs have conformed this rough date. Aside from these the Phoenicians did not have many deities compared to surrounding cultures. Another deity of interest was Eshmoun, a healer god who may have influence the Greek Asklepios. In any case, the Phoenicians outwardly adopted worship of deities of surrounding cultures as their ideal of religious tolerance was practiced. They kept statues of the Egyptian Goddess Hathor as a deity they seemed to like. Hathor and the Lady of Byblos were seen to be very similar and were effectively joined. Sometimes the Lady of Byblos was called Hathor and at other times Astarte, Anat, or Asherah – depending on who it would serve, but I suspect that privately she kept her own specific attributes – one being peace. As they became a traveling and trading culture it became advantageous for them to be like those they visited although inwardly they probably kept their own practices. The story told by Plutarch of Isis finding the body of Osiris washed up along the shores of Byblos and suckling (with her finger) one of the babe sons of the Queen – shows the great partnership of these people. Apparently the Phoenicians did not make icons as did the Egyptians and Canaanites. They had small stone stele or obelisks called massebah only a few feet high. The author suggests that these came long before the Egyptian obelisks and that this is their origin. Our Lady of Byblos was often represented by an empty throne. Often she was celebrated in outdoor stone temples such as the famous L-shaped temple at Byblos.

The Phoenicians early on became masters of negotiation and diplomacy and this helped them survive without warring. As well, Byblos was protected by the Lebanon Mountains and Sidon and Tyre were protected by the sea. The ethnicity and culture of the Phoenicians and the Canaanites were the most similar and based on that they kept the Canaanites form attacking them. The author notes that their desire for peace was more reasonable than altruistic in that they could not prosper amongst wars. Their trading had made them wealthy and able to lead luxurious and comfortable lives and they had no need to expand or invade. He notes that they fled their cities often when attacked and then later returned. The Phoenicians founded other cities up and down the Mediterranean coast – Tyre, Sidon, Arwad, and later Beirut. The Phoenicians apparently made a harbor at Pharos Island of the Egyptian coast to stage their trade. Lucky for them the Egyptians were skilled only at river travel and would never really master sea travel. They also had an outpost on the copper-producing island of Cyprus and another in the Aegean on the island of Santorini, or Thera, which they effectively controlled. Another was the island of Dia offshore from the large island of Crete.  They also developed colonies on the islands of Malta and Gozo along the coast of North Africa where massive stone temples made with great skill were built and dedicated to a giantess goddess. The author here makes two bold suggestions: that the Phoenicians felt kinship to these people because of their possibly peaceful nature and veneration of the nature goddess and even more bold – that their skilled stone masons were brought to Egypt to design and direct building of the magnificent stone pyramids and other structures of Egypt. He suggests that the Phoenicians helped finance the improvement of the Maltese temples. He makes the interesting observation that the people of Malta and Gozo disappeared from the islands at the same time as the great pyramids began to be built. 

One of the most important parts of Phoenician cities was the Trading House. It was here that trading deals were documented and goods counted and stored. Also here was where the councils met to decide other important matters mostly related to trade. He says that even though they declared that they had kings – likely to satisfy the Egyptians and Canaanites – rule was really by council.

Another bold assertion – but I think well-founded and with much supporting evidence, is that much of the people of Byblos, and some from Tyre, and Sidon left the area after repeated incursions by the Amorites. At first they tried Cyprus but Anatolians had already settled there in abundance.  They decided to colonize Crete which they had been visiting for 1000 years and effectively made a deal with the existing population. They also around this time discovered a circular route around the Mediterranean that allowed them to take advantage of prevailing winds going from Crete to North African coast then to their Pharos Island outpost off of Egypt, back to Lebanon and full circle back to Crete. The key to the author’s assertion is that this is the society that began to form on Crete – the Great Minoan society with their elegant palaces at Knossos and finery and artwork. There is good evidence that the Minoans were led by wealthy Phoenicians although they certainly blended with more numerous indigenous Cretan people and traditions. The Minoans had no army as well and he suggests that the famed double axes from Knossos were a remnant of the indigenous Cretans who fought tribal skirmishes somewhat of the hunter-gatherer type amongst themselves and became more symbolic than anything else. The Phoenicians likely enticed the Cretans to join them as they did others in promising not to attack them – by showering them with expensive gifts. Their superior seafaring technology always kept them at an advantage and gave them a way out. Minoan society thrived for several hundred years without invasion although they did encounter a few damaging earthquakes. The great volcanic eruption forming the center of Santorini/Thera destroyed much there but the Phoenicians left before it fully erupted in the 1600s BC. The art found under the ash is clearly Phoenician/Minoan. Some have equated Thera as the home of the Atlantians. The Minoans developed a king who was also chief priest. Before these palaces were discovered and excavated they were legendary in myths. King Minos of Crete was said to be a son to Zeus and Phoenician princess Europa who he saw in Lebanon and fell in love with her and took her to Crete. The myths about King Minos and the Minotaur killing adventurous Greeks may have served to keep the mainland Greeks from invading. Perhaps this represents the melding of Phoenicians and Cretans in history. Some interesting archaeological corroboration of these ideas are that the city of Tyre was thought to be abandoned around 2000 BC (same time as beginning of Minoan culture on Crete) with people beginning to return around 1500 BC. Both the Phoenicians and the Minoans were said to have dominated sea trade at this time (mostly by the Egyptians) and there was no conflict among them so that is another corroboration. Actually, as in the archaeological discovery of the city of Troy in Anatolia in 1871 based on the writings of Homer, the palaces at Knossos were also searched for and found based on mythology around 1900. The palaces were magnificent with highly detailed artwork and frescoes depicting dolphins and men and women equally excelling at sport such as acrobatic bull-leaping. Much of this was probably contributed by the Cretan peoples as previously the Phoenicians were not great makers of these things. While Tyre and Sidon were abandoned and Byblos had a more scant population the new city of Beirut developed near an underground water source coming from the mountains. He mentions that at this time Byblos was mainly a religious city and so perhaps the Amorites would not seek to attack it. The Amorites ended up taking Babylon and establishing the first Babylonian empire. Beirut became the city to rather clandestinely continue the cedar trade to Egypt. There was a legend of the god Adonis (named Tammuz) taken as a child and cared for by Our Lady of Byblos. She placed him safely in the underworld for safekeeping but as he grew both she and the Goddess of the Underworld fell in love with him and each kept him for half of the year. After he was killed by other jealous gods he was also returned for half of the year by the Underworld Goddess. This story is very similar to that of Inanna and Dumuzi – and Ishtar and Tammuz (even same name). Later the Adonis story was applied by the Greeks to Aphrodite and here is a quite clear progression of the Love Goddess from Sumerian to Babylonian to Phoenician to Greek. Raids by Mycenaeans from mainland Greece were originally beaten back by the Cretan navy and piracy was reduced with help from other trading partners but eventually the Mycenaens won out and took over Crete as the Phoenicians boarded their ships and went back to Lebanon. The next few centuries saw the rise of the Hyksos regime in Egypt and the Hittites in Anatolia and the decline of the Amorites. After this was the little understood invasion of the Sea Peoples in the 1300’s BC. The author makes the rather bold assertion that the Phoenicians aided these people basically by bringing them on their ships. It is thought that they were mainly starving people from northern Anatolia along the Black Sea who wanted to find farmland. Perhaps the Phoenicians thought they would help fix all the shattered empires in the area and since they shared an enemy in the Hittites they could be allies. The Sea Peoples fought successfully and settled until they reached Egypt and were pushed back. The Sea Peoples destroyed Ugarit in 1182 BC and it was never rebuilt. They did not touch any of the Phoenician cities when passing through which corroborates that they were in cahoots. The Mycenaean invasion of Troy may have been in retaliation for attacks against them by the Sea Peoples but after the Trojan wars the Mycenaean empire collapsed. Tribes of Sea Peoples seemed to maintain good relations with the Phoenicians such as one that settled on Sicily. Incidentally another of these tribes settled in modern day Palestine and likely became the Palestinians.

By the 1100’s BC the Phoenicians had outposts and small colonies all over the Mediterranean from North Africa to Siclily to Spain and Morocco and in the Aegian Sea. Since the Sea Peoples also invaded and settled Cyprus the Phoenicians could settle there as well indulging in the rich copper trade for bronze weapons. They built a temple to Our Lady of Byblos there as her worship had been there from 1200 years previous. Here the Greeks recognized the birthplace at the Phoenician colony of Cythera and then on Cyprus of the Goddess Aphrodite who was one and the same as the Great Lady of the Phoenicians. She was never a war goddess and accepted no blood sacrifices. At the same time as the Sea Peoples some tribes moved west from the Mesopotamian city of Ur led by a man called Abraham. They settled inland from Palestine and joined with others and became the Hebrews. They were also friendly with the Phoenicians and it was King Hiram of Tyre who helped them to build the famed Temple of Solomon the King with Lebanon cedars among other materials. After the demise of the Mycenaeans the Phoenicians re-established trading partners in the Aegean and went back to ruling the seas for another 700 years or so. The author suggests that a few hundred years later the Phoenicians influenced the development of the Greek culture that was to rise around 700-900 BC and reach its greatness by 550 BC. Even Herodotus acknowledges the influence of the Phoenicians saying they introduced many arts and also writing that was adopted by the Ionians who ruled Greece at the time. The legend is that Cadmus of Tyre brought writing to the Greeks. Indeed alphabetic writing was developed by Canaanites/Phoenicians/Hebrews based on earlier Egyptian models and also likely influenced by Sumerian- Akkadian-Babylonoian-Assyrian cuneiform writing. The Phoenician or Punic script was documented at Tyre around 1400 BC and was used by all Phoenician traders to record trades. Not long after the Greeks adopted the alphabet from the Phoenicians Homer was able to write down his collections of oral tales from the bardic traditions. Alphabetic writing was important shorthand for a traveling a trading culture that were required to learn many languages and in a position to pass on and gather much knowledge through language. From their colonies in Spain such as Cadiz, the Phoenicians traveled up the Atlantic coast to Wales and Cornwall and their coveted source of tin. Here they would have traded with fairly recent descendents of the people who built Stonehenge and the great Megaliths of Britain.

A story told in Greek myth about Elissa and Pygmalian represents the historical split of some Phoenician factions from Lebanon. Pygmalian was the King of Tyre and she his sister. In 820 BC she took a segment of the Lebanese population and established a settlement in North Africa near an outpost and it became Carthage. Carthage flourished and became quite powerful dominating the Western Mediterranean along with other trading outposts. This was the first Phoenician city built on a hill as previously they were built on preferably hidden islands and lowland seasides. Virgil recorded the tale in the Aeneid. The Lebanese cities were forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians in the 700’s BC but otherwise were left alone although sometimes they joined with Hebrews and Syrians to fend them off. After this it was the Babylonians who demanded tribute and then in 539 BC it was the Persians under Cyrus the Great. Also at this time (700s-500s BC) the Phoenicians of Carthage traded with the cultured and Greek-like Etruscans. The Hellene Greeks invaded Sicily in the 700s BC and the Phoenician component retreated to other islands. The Peloponnesian Wars ensued. The Carthaginian Phoenicians also explored the coastal areas of Morocco and West Africa making observations and a few trading outposts. Rome made a treaty in 509 BC with Carthage, the very year of their independence from the Etruscans.

It was in 600 BC that was recorded a wondrous sea journey partially funded by the Egyptians that brought the Phoenicians all the way around Africa, a journey that took three years and would not be repeated until Vasco de Gama did it in 1497. This comes from the writings of Herodotus but the explanations of the direction of the sun along the tropics is correct to the reality of land and position.

The Persians freed the Phoenician cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos from Babylonian oppression and although they still had to pay tribute to the Persian empire it was an easier relationship. The Persians wanted to attack Carthage but the Phoenicians refused their ships to attack what would have been their own people – though probably unbeknownst to the Persians. During the wars between the Persians and the Greeks the Phoenician navy was used to help the Persians under Darius. The next king Xerxes also utilized Phoenician ships in his invasion but due to heavy initial losses he executed many Phoenician captains which proved to be a mistake. By that time the Greeks had developed a powerful navy. During the time of the Persian Empire a great healing temple to the healing god Eshmoun, a consort to the Lady of Byblos, was built near Sidon that resembled the Asklepian healing temples of Grecian and Anatolian lands. After the Persians had a falling out with the Phoenicians over their losses in Egypt they laid siege to Sidon and many of the Phoenicians may have fled to Carthage as the Persians wiped out many of the rest. Next it was Alexander the Great who came through wiping out the Persians and setting up government at Babylon. When he came to Tyre they made a miscalculation and tried to hold out the siege with their island position and walls but Alexander’s men patiently built a land bridge and took the city with force and killed much of the inhabitants. He probably would have left them alone with only tribute if they had merely surrendered. The Sidonians aided Alexander’s army but later secretly protected the people of Tyre by hiding them on their boats. This was the traditional end of the Lebanese Phoenician society although the cities continued weakened and sea trade continued and some Phoenicians traveled with Alexander to the East and returned him with their ships.  It was Carthage that would now come to the forefront.

Rome was now a significant empire and wanted to extend into the Mediterranean. By 295 BC they had finished the last of the Etruscans although some likely went north into Germanic lands. Rome fought and won the island of Sicily from the Carthaginians. There was peace for a while then Hannibal, the famed general from Carthage attacked a Spanish city under Roman protection and the war was back on. Hannibal marched over the Alps with war elephants and defeated the Roman armies of Northern Italy. Rome went and conquered the Spanish lands then they went to North Africa. Then Carthage negotiated a peace treaty and Hannibal was recalled home. Then Rome won more of their lands and island territories. Finally, a third Punic War was launched where they basically came to wipe out a weakened Carthage. “The Romans reportedly went door-to-door throughout the city slaughtering the inhabitants in what was one of the largest executions of civilians in history prior to World War II.” The rest were made slaves. The cities records were destroyed and the fields sown with salt. It was an utter destruction. Indeed as my son tells me – this was likely one reason for the advertisement of the Roman Army that went something like this: ‘Travel to distant lands, meet strange and exotic peoples, and disembowel them’

After the fall of the Lebanese cities to Alexander it is thought that the Phoenicians adopted Hellenic culture and lost much of their identity as a people although as the author notes, some of the attributes are probably still present among the Lebanese people.

There are three appendices in the book. One is about the ancient art of boat-building. Next is a short history of Egypt. Then there is an interesting account of the legend of the Phoenix which may very well apply to Phoenicia. Many cities destroyed or damaged were never rebuilt but Phoenician cities that suffered such fates often re-appeared fully rebuilt in short time periods. Perhaps this associated them with the Phoenix legend. The bird called the Phoenix is equated to the popular Egyptian Bennu bird and also later adopted in Greece. The author suggests that the legend of the bird bursting into flames every 500 years and then re-emerging was amalgamated with the history of the Phoenician people as the word phoenicia is the plural of phoenix in Greek.

OK – Holst sure can weave a tale and I hope I have told it in concise form conveying the key points in a manner that is readable. It really was a fun and exciting read.

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