Shrewd in all but sacrifice

January 19, 2001

In the past and in the present, the Phoenicians have attracted mixed reviews. Their contemporaries paid tribute to some of their achievements - the Greeks admitted that they took their alphabet from Phoenicia, and modern children, when they learn their ABC, are copying a pattern begun in the Near East three and a half millennia ago. But what the Phoenicians did with their alphabet is largely lost. All of their literature has perished, with the exception of a composition ascribed to one Sanchuniathon, which survives in excerpts quoted by Philo of Alexandria. Shaw's Pygmalion may have been a ruler of Tyre, or a god; Shakespeare's Pericles is probably a fiction.

According to classical sources, the Phoenicians travelled extensively into the Atlantic and the Persian Gulf, while Herodotus preserves a tradition that they succeeded in circumnavigating Africa at the request of Pharaoh Necho (610-594 BC). His account has been questioned, but this may be over-cautious since people in the ancient world travelled further than one might suspect. Unfortunately, the bare inscriptions that survive in Phoenician do not allow us more than generalisations about the culture that produced them. Archaeology confirms that the Phoenicians were the traders and the middlemen of the ancient Mediterranean. They established colonies in Cyprus, and then along the shores of North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia and southern Spain. Here, there grew the equivalent of a Phoenician New World, centred on the daughter colonies of Carthage and Cartagena, both of which are Phoenician for "new town".

The sites in the west have given us most information about the organisation of the Phoenician states, since conditions for archaeology in Lebanon have been intermittent over the past 30 years, while the Phoenician sites in Syria remain little explored. Contemporaries may have been impressed by the commercial activities of these cities, but they record with disgust the Phoenician habit of sacrificing children. The liberal in most of us would like to dismiss such stories as misunderstandings or hostile propaganda, but the evidence tends to bear them out, although the exact circumstances in which child sacrifice was permitted are still obscure. For those who like a more torrid treatment of the past, there is always Flaubert's Salammbô to turn to.

There is nothing lurid about Glenn E. Markoe's Phoenicians . Like many peoples of antiquity, the Phoenicians tended to have exotic myths about their origins, but Markoe shows that they were simply the part of the Semitic-speaking peoples of the Near East who dwelt by the Mediterranean seaboard and took to the water in order to survive. Their first rich customer would have been Egypt, and the influence of Egyptian art on the artefacts of Phoenicia is easily traced. The author concludes that the wellbeing of the Phoenician city states was heavily dependent on that of its neighbour. This may well be true of the second millennium BC, when the growth of the Egyptian economy led to demand for the timber of the Lebanon, but by the following millennium, it would seem that the economy of Phoenicia was self-sustaining. Not that the area ever had much political cohesion: Markoe's analogy with the city states of medieval and early Renaissance Italy is a helpful one.

A further reason for the influence of Egypt in the objects produced by the Phoenician states may be, not cultural dependence, but a hard-nosed realisation that Egyptian art was what the Mediterranean market wanted. But Egypt was not the only component in Phoenician art and architecture. The culture of the place thrived on borrowing. Some of the finest creations to come out of Phoenicia reflect foreign traditions, such as the two Alexander sarcophagi from the royal necropolis at Sidon, now in Istanbul. The coins of Tyre originally show a Pharaonic royal falcon with emblems of Egyptian kingship. Later, the falcon is replaced by the Athenian owl, either in a gesture of respect for a trading rival, or as a message of defiance.

In spite of such discerning patronage, much Phoenician art demonstrates that nobody ever got rich by overestimating the taste of the customer, and some of their mass-produced artefacts can charitably be described as poignant. But the Phoenicians' ability to recognise an economic niche continued to serve them, even when they had lost political independence. When the Levantine coast succumbed to the Persian empire towards the end of the 6th century BC, the states of the coast simply reorganised themselves as the maritime wing of the new conqueror's armed forces, and they formed a serious problem for Alexander the Great in his attempt to carry his campaign against the Persians from Europe into Asia. Alexander's siege of Tyre illustrates the bitterness that had built up over centuries between the Greeks and their old competitors. Inasmuch as Phoenicia was ever an independent entity, the destruction of Tyre marks the end of it.

The book's gazetteer of sites is a valuable guide to the work that has been done on the sites of the mainland. It also indicates how much remains to be done before we can come to terms with this enigmatic people.

John Ray is reader in Egyptology, University of Cambridge.


Author - Glenn E. Markoe
ISBN - 0 7141 2095 2
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 224

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