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the phoenicians

13 april 2022

What did I know about the Phoenicians before I opened Vadim Jigoulov's recent précis of how, and how much, historians know about them? The alphabet. A vast trading network. Carthage. What I learned on the very first page, though, is that "Phoenicians" itself is a loose catchall term for several ancient peoples of the eastern Mediterranean, who tended not to think of themselves as a unified culture, let alone a nation.

Though really, Jigoulov explains in his Reaktion "Lost Civilizations" volume, there is very little evidence of what the Phoenicians thought about anything. Practically all that is known about them comes from other cultures: from Greeks, from Hebrews. Phoenicians may have invented the alphabet that these great literary cultures adopted, but they wrote very little in it. At least little that was durable. It is possible that their great invention was too successful. Egyptians and Sumerians made extensive inscriptions in stone and in clay, respectively; and Egyptian papyrus survived well in their desert climate. The Phoenician alphabet, well-designed for writing on papyrus, may have produced a literature in that medium, but in the more humid climate of the eastern Mediterranean, Phoenician papyrus dissolved. More to the point, no tradition of copying and recopying of Phoenician texts preserved their traditions in the ways that their neighbors invested great effort in doing. We are left with a few inscriptions, such a scrappy record that Jigoulov doesn't pay much attention to the Phoenician language at all.

Phoenician artifacts were produced under the influence of many empires, and tend to assimilate to the styles those empires preferred: Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, Hellenistic. Though the Phoenicians established a commercial and sometimes colonial presence throughout the Mediterranean world, rivaled only by the Greeks, they were not themselves imperially minded. They remained a loose association of city-states, a sort of primeval Hanseatic League.

Sidon and Tyre were the major players in the Phoenician world, connected by their language, commercial concerns, and cults. But they seem never to have been united, or never for long, by a single state government. Of course, as Jigoulov continually notes, very little is really known about the histories of these cities. Much more could be learned via archeology; but Sidon and Tyre remain major metropolitan areas in present-day Lebanon. Continuous inhabitation over millennia has obscured many sites, and excavating large sections of busy cities is not a practical priority.

The Phoenicians worked in metal and stone, but were pre-eminently woodworkers and exporters of lumber. They were great shipbuilders and sailors – and all this conjunction of wood and water means that again, few traces of their work survive.

And Carthage? Jigoulov argues that the Phoenician colony at Carthage soon grew so powerful and diverged so much from the home cities that with Carthaginians, we're talking about an entirely separate lost civilization. Hopefully they will get a Reaktion book of their own.

Jigoulov, Vadim S. The Phoenicians. London: Reaktion, 2021.