“”Men go into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by a love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden paths by the ‘lure of little voices’, the mysterious fascination of the unknown. I think that in my own case it was a combination of these factors that determined me to try my fortune once again in the frozen south.”
“Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) is one of the great figures of British history. The Irish-born British Antarctic explorer was calm under pressure, stirringly brave, financially impecunious and hugely loyal — a true buccaneer born into an Edwardian era, when radios, cars and aircraft were making exploration a technological business. Shackleton was not just the end of the line of Captains Cook, Ross and Franklin; he was the last British buccaneer, taking to the high seas in search of unseen shores. He risked his life but was fiercely devoted to the welfare of the men under his command. His boundless optimism (fettered by shrewd calculation) lifted all. To commemorate the death of Shackleton, the Folio Society has published a handsome new boxset. Shackleton’s Antarctica collects The Heart of the Antarctic (1909) (in two volumes) and South (1919) reprinted in full.
“On Shackleton’s first journey south, he served on the Discovery, which was to explore the undiscovered continent of Antarctica over two seasons, from 1901-3. The commander was Robert Falcon Scott. The pair did not get along; Scott’s strict naval discipline and mood swings left many of the team uneasy and discontented….”
The latest addition to the series on lost civilisations by Reaktion Books is a book on the Phoenicians. Phoenician civilisation flourished from roughly 1200-332 BC along the Levant coast, principally along the modern-day Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian/Israeli coast. Vadim S. Jigoulov, lecturer at Morgan State University and Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, provides the general reader with a history of Phoenician history from prehistoric times to its final demise in 332 BC, with the conquest of Tyre by Alexander the Great. Carthage, the great city in Modern Tunisia, was extinguished as a distinct military and cultural outpost of the Phoenicians in 146 BC by Rome in the Third Punic War. Language, art, religion, coinage, trade and seacraft are given their own sections.
The author points out that the Phoenicians did not have a single civilisation but rather a group of poli (city-states) that pursued individual interests and shared a common language, alphabet and culture without a single monarch or central authority. The Phoenicians did not seem to see themselves as a single unified nation and it seems others did mainly for ease of reference, though certain poli had special links with other nations and foreign cities. It may be that the limited area of cultivatable land meant that a growing population had to seek income from foreign travel, hence the rise in maritime activities. (A Phoenician expedition is supposed to have circumnavigated Africa.) The search for resources also drove Phoenicians to found trading and production ports around the Mediterranean. This book outlines the sites of Phoenician population.
The city-island-ports of Arwad and Tyre protected the coast and the mountains provided some protection from the interior of Near Asia. Sidon and Byblos were also significant centres. Phoenicia came into existence due to the exploitation of natural resources of timber (principally cedar), tree resin, olives (and olive oil) and wine. Phoenicia’s access to the sea and its production of raw materials and manufactured goods made it an advantageous tributary. It seems that the Assyrians were content to allow the Phoenicians autonomy once a tribute was regularly paid. (When the Persian Empire rose, a similar pattern continued.) The decline of Assyria apparently drove the Phoenicians to be more active as traders, particularly in the Western Mediterranean and Egypt. The ties were such that Phoenician royalty were sometimes entombed in sarcophagi made in the Egyptian style, as found in the tomb of Tabnit, king of Sidon, early 5th Century BC. Trade with the Greeks and the islands exported Phoenician goods and coinage. Although the Phoenicians did set up coastal colonies, they were not an imperial power. The degree of trade and expertise in maritime travel meant that the Phoenicians were known in the region from an early time.
A chapter on coinage assesses what we can glean from numismatics. For a trading nation, the Phoenicians adopted coinage late, in the mid-5th Century BC – 150 years after the Greeks and Persians. Jigoulov’s estimation is that coinage was adopted from the Greeks to ease transactions between Phoenician poli. Commonly, payment was made in ingots of silver and gold. Coins were more valuable than the raw metals, thus was lighter to use and easier to handle than ingots between citizens of different poli. Other reasons are discussed. The plausible reason that coins were used to pay rowers and mercenaries has been disfavoured because little Phoenician coinage has been found in the Persian interior, suggesting the coins circulated mainly between coastal cities. Experts read the iconography, weights/denominations and distribution to infer facts about the society’s economics and the way the rulers intended to project power, allegiance and deference. A Tyrian coin featured a dolphin and a murex shell. Murex was the crustacean that produced the dye that made Tyrian purple that made the city rich and renowned. Sidonian royals sought to affirm their allegiance to Persia by adopting common standards and symbols.
The Greek alphabet was developed from Phoenician, as the Greeks themselves noted. It is assumed that the widespread use of the easy-to-follow-and-use Phoenician script throughout the Mediterranean Sea region led to its adoption by different peoples. Over 10,000 inscriptions in Phoenician and Punic have been deciphered but longer writings have proved elusive. Disagreement regarding the rate of literacy among Phoenicians continues; writings that have survived tend to be legal or commercial in character. The author suggests that common people may have understood little more than numbers and common signs, with merchants restricting their writing to accounts, records and agreements. Although libraries of Phoenician writings did exist, it seems that these writings on parchment, papyrus or other organic supports have not survived and were not transmitted through copying by other civilisations. Thus, although we have written accounts of the Phoenicians, they come mainly from the Greeks and Romans. References acknowledge the trading influence and maritime accomplishments of the Phoenicians, but tend to characterise this merchant race (as encountered in trade) to be untrustworthy and oath breakers.
On Jewish literary sources (Biblical and non-Biblical) the author writes: “Though not devoid of ideological bias, they nevertheless point out the core qualities associated with the Phoenicians – their skills in maritime navigation, trade and their ability to manoeuvre the political landscape by making treaties with other royals. In treating Tyre and Sidon as independent city-states, the ancient Jewish writings also offer a unique Near Eastern, as opposed to Mediterranean or Homeric, view of Phoenicia and the Phoenicians.”[i] It seems that the Sidonians acted as envoys and delegates between their Persian overlords and the Athenians. Sidonians resident in Athens were accorded special status and exempt from a common tax there.
The gods of Phoenicia had different levels of devotion in different poli. The main gods were: Astarte (or Inanna and Ishtar), consort of Melqart, goddess of procreation and sexuality, most venerated in Sidon; Eshmun, god of healing and well-being; Melqart, god of death and resurrection, worshipped in Tyre; Baal (judge and god of weather and the natural cycle), Baal Shamem (god of seafaring) and Baal Zaphon (god of storms) were sometimes considered separate entities; Baalat Gubal, who was consort of Baal, worshipped in Byblos; Baal Hammon and his consort Tanit (protector of Carthage and guide to sailors), were worshipped in Carthage (potentially through the sacrifice of children). Lack of written records and the brief character of inscriptions mean information on Phoenician religion is sparse. Temples have been overbuilt or converted. Later accounts describe Phoenician priestesses as shaven headed, barefoot and celibate. Common ritual worship included feasts, drinking, processions with musicians and burned offerings. It seems the afterlife was a staple of the religion, with offerings left in tombs to accompany the dead to their afterlife – practices that seem close to those of the Egyptians.
It is thought that there may have been Phoenician influence on the architecture and technical aspects of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, as we are told that Phoenicians provided at least bronze fittings for it. There is also an absence of icons, which suggests that although the Bible mentions worship of Baal and sometimes statues to him, aniconism may have been a feature of Phoenician religion and that this may have influenced the Judaic prohibition of icons.
For a nation of traders, travellers and artisans – a nation with a distinctly diffuse and undirected character – the cultural production of the Phoenicians is difficult to summarise, understandably. Artistically and architecturally, Phoenicia was mixed, with tendencies towards “syncretism, eclecticism and multiculturalism”.[ii] This can be seen in the coinage. “In terms of iconography, Byblian coinage was syncretistic, as it frequently featured Egyptian, Greek, Sidonian and Persian images.”[iii] The borrowings came from the schools of the Greeks, Persians and Egyptians. The destruction of Carthage and overbuilding of other Phoenician poli has eradicated much of the architecture and the literature (whatever that may have comprised of) has been lost. Being in centres of continuous occupation has meant that archaeological sites have been compromised or are now inaccessible.
Phoenician artefacts found abroad are hard to classify as they display multiple influences and iconography. The pottery is often classed as mediocre, comparatively, and it seems that there was a class stratification, with the rich using metal vessels (often imported from Greece and Cyprus) and the poor using crockery that imitated the metal objects. Domestic and ritual vessels were not differentiated. Phoenician glass production was a major contribution to Mediterranean culture and a source of income for Phoenician cities, especially Sidon. Engraved and embossed silver platters and bowls were highly prized abroad but it is unclear where and why these were produced. It may be that the Phoenician style became imitated and diffused, because few have been found at Phoenician sites. Relief carvings in ivory were used for decoration and displayed strong Egyptian influence and apparently went into decline when ivory supplies petered out as Syrian elephant herds were depleted.
Terracotta figurines were cheap and commonly used in Phoenician settlements. Often associated with domestic worship, these figures and reliefs were sometimes crude. Some are decorated with metal insets and overlays. Of all the figurative art, these terracottas are the most original and indigenous of the products of Phoenicians. Several remarkable and powerful masks are reproduced in this book. Local sandstone and limestone is easily eroded, so many statues have not come down intact. Imported Greek marble was used for high-status statuettes and sarcophagi, which show a high degree of craftsmanship (albeit with little originality) and much Egyptian influence.
Overall, The Phoenicians is a clear, up-to-date and balanced assessment of one of the less known great civilisations of the past. It has maps, photographs of objects and recreation illustrations. Suitable for anyone keen to understand the basics, become familiar with current historical debates and comprehend Phoenicia in relation to historical rivals and partners.
Vadim S. Jigoulov, The Phoenicians, Reaktion Books, November 2021, hardback, 248pp, 23 mono/39 col. illus, £15, ISBN 978 1789 144 789
“When anyone speaks of the arbiters of artistic credibility in the rough-and-tumble New York scene of Abstract Expressionism, two names top the list: Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Of “the two bergs”, Greenberg is better known. Now, Debra Bricker Balken, an independent scholar of American Modernism, has written the first full biography of Rosenberg.
“Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978) was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn. The disaffected and aimless Rosenberg drifted through early life. He did not fit in with his preppy peers and studied law apathetically. He was attracted to Marxist thought, but in an intellectual rather than ideological way. Rosenberg started writing in 1929, following a period of illness that confined him to bed.
“Rosenberg’s formidable intellect and breadth of cultural knowledge was complemented by an imposing physical presence. At 6’4” and with a “piercing” gaze, Rosenberg’s striking appearance made him an unmistakeable figure at any gathering he attended. He married May Tabak in 1932 but this did not impair his womanising…”
“Berlin is a young and unhappy city-in-waiting. There is something fragmentary about its history. Its frequently interrupted, still more frequently diverted or averted development has been checked and advanced, and by unconscious mistakes as well as by bad intentions; the many obstacles in its path have, it would seem, helped it to grow. The wickedness, sheer cluelessness, and avarice of its rulers, builders, and protectors draw up the plans, muddle them up again, and confusedly put them into practice.”
Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was one of the most successful journalists of the Weimar Republic, Germany, 1918-1933. He was born in Galicia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, into a Jewish family. He studied at Vienna University before he served in the army from 1916 to 1918. After a spell as a journalist writing for left-wing publications in Vienna, he moved to Berlin 1920. It was there he became one of the highest paid journalists in Germany. Roth continued to work as a journalist, essayist and novelist in Berlin until 1933, when the assumption of power of the National Socialists put in peril the livelihoods and security of Jews. He then moved to Paris, writing up until his death in 1939.
What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-33 and The Hotel Years: Wanderings in Europe Between the Wars are collections of Roth’s journalism, principally set in Germany. The period 1918-1939 was hugely important in European history, thick with the reverberations of the Great War and the rise of major political mass movements. The Weimar Republic is synonymous with the fragility of liberal democracy, the struggle of the population to live in straitened times, political factionalisation, governmental turbulence, female emancipation, manic hedonism and cultural decadence. There was a great flourishing of culture but not all of it healthy, as befitted a period when there was a great loosening of moral standards in the wake of the financial, commercial, military and social standards following the collapse of Germany in the Great War. Roth was witness to elements of this.
What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-33 consists of articles written for three different Berlin newspapers between 1920 and 1923 and then articles in the Frankfurter Zeitung up until his departure from Germany. Roth’s subjects range from the specific to the general. He visits the Jewish quarter in Hirtenstraße, off Alexanderplatz, to observe the street life. The mixture of Western and Eastern Jews catches Roth’s eye, as does the juxtaposition of legal and illegal trade and the fluid boundaries between business and social communication. “It was a hot day. All the doors were open, as were many windows. There was a reek of onions, fat, and fruit, of infants, mead, wash, and sewers.” In a nearby boarding house 120 Jewish refugees from the East are accommodated. They comprise a fraction of the 50,000 Jews from the East who moved following the Great War. He writes of the tension caused by the influence of foreigners. The German authorities face a dilemma: allow these immigrants the right to work and they will not leave (despite being largely unwanted and having few employment skills); if refused the right to work, the immigrants may leave but they may also turn to crime. In a 1933 article, Roth reflects on the rise of the Nazis, stating that their anti-Semitism was simply an extension of Prussian authoritarianism and that Christianity too was an associated target for Hitler’s new regime.
Roth went to dive bars in search of characters and stories. He found shivering prostitutes by the stove, toothless, their pimp nearby with a mouthful of fixed teeth (a treasure chest, not a mouth”). He describes the squalor and air of aimless time-filling in twilight venues with worn out whores, scarred veterans, professional housebreakers and foreign hucksters on the make. There are pairs who work as electric lightbulb thieves. One climbs on the other’s shoulders and unscrews lightbulbs from the entrance lobbies of West End houses. They then sell the bulbs to electricians. The working-class are so poor the burn fallen leaves in their stoves. It reads like Alfred Döblin’s underworld novel Alexanderplatz, Berlin or the satirical prints of George Grosz.
Roth visits a homeless shelter off Prenzlauer Allee. “Naked iron bedsteads, wire-mesh beds for penance. Every homeless person is given a think blanket of papery stuff, which admittedly, is clean and disinfected. And on these beds they sit and sleep and lie, the homeless people. Grotesque-looking figures, as though hauled from the lower depths of world literature. People you wouldn’t believe. Old graybeards in rags, tramps hauling a motley collection of the past bundled up on their crooked backs. Their boots are powdered with the dust of decades. Middle-aged men, with sunburned faces chiseled by hunger and toughness. Young fellows in baggy pants, with eyes that look at you with a mixture of fear and confrontation. Women in brown rags, shameless and shy, curious and apathetic, quivering and resigned. A hundred of them to a room. Women, grown men, and youths kept apart.”
Sometimes the respectable and the underworld mingle. Before the war, steam bathhouses were places for drinkers to rejuvenate themselves in the small hours before a day’s work. By 1920, when they re-opened after the resumption of reliable coal supplies, they became dosshouses for tramps unable to find shelter. “The grotesque spectacle of a hot room at night, containing sixteen naked homeless people, trying to sweat out the soot and coal smoke of a train journey, gives rise to a positively infernal range of interpretations. A series of illustrations, say, to Dante’s journeys in the underworld. […] I don’t know if people in hell look as ridiculous as they do here. […] I have a feeling that the witching hour does something to exacerbate the already intrinsically comical condition of nudity. It’s such a bizarre notion that between midnight and 2 A.M. there are people being steamed.”
The nameless dead are the subject of a vivid passage of description. “These dead people are ugly and reproachful. They look as they did when they were first found, mortal terror on their faces. […] Their death agonies keep their eyes half open, the white shimmers under their eyelids. […] The drowned bodies are puffed up and slime encrusted, they resemble badly mummified Egyptian kings. The crusts on their faces are cracked and split like a poor-quality plaster cast. The women’s breasts are grotesquely swollen, their features contorted, their hair like a pile of sweepings on their swollen heads.”
In less potent pieces, the traffic congestion of Berlin is described, the debate over abolishing trams – something that happened in West Berlin after 1945 but not in the East – is outlined, as are the pleasures of apartment watching from an S-Bahn train window. Many scenes revolve around Kurfürstendamm, the broad boulevard that was the centre of retail, entertainment and café culture in pre-division Berlin. Roth is fascinated by the bustle and human collisions in this street, regarding it with sardonic but affectionate eye. “A restaurant is a little piece of America, a café of France. Of course it looks nothing like New York or Paris, but it awakens a little echo of this or that. In their modesty the places think of themselves as successful copies, but in fact what they are is botched originals.”
There an elegy for Berlin’s last panopticon, which closed in 1923 and its contents and furnishings sold off in auction. The panopticon’s collection of curiosities (stuffed animals, skeletons, minerals, ethnographic oddities) and waxwork figures of notable personages – barely one step above a travelling curiosity show – was no match for the dazzling and daily-changing delights of the cinema theatre. Roth is aware that it is the end of an era. Characteristically, he cannot help noticing the inherent absurdity of the panopticon, even as he regrets its passing. “A wax mass murderer is comical. But a wax Rothschild is also ridiculous. The medium has robbed the one of his gruesomeness and the other of his dignity.” One special curiosity is an account of a variant of the dance marathon spectacles made popular during the Depression. This Berlin variant is the six-day cycle race in a velodrome – an endurance spectacle more than a sporting contest – and it is dated 1925, a full two years after the first period of hyper-inflation afflicted Germany and also before the Great Depression. It is notable that such a humiliating spectacle was held and attended during a time when abject poverty was less prevalent. Perhaps that says something of the national character or the nature of Berlin. Roth observes the packed crowd, the barking of dogs and cries of spectators, the ripples of amusement and aggression in the auditorium. He sees the police preventing crushes and he sees pickpockets working the attendees.
Monotone illustrations – one for each article – shows a photograph (or drawing or poster) from the period, capturing a distinct and brief era in the life of Europe’s most rapidly changing metropolis.
Although based in Berlin, Roth travelled to France, Poland, Italy, Austria, the USSR, Albania and other countries. The Hotel Years: Wanderings in Europe Between the Wars is a selection of articles set outside Berlin. Roth visits the German coasts to document the impact of Hamburg’s Gold Mark currency (a foil for hyper-inflation), immigrants leaving for the USA and the delights of coastal resorts. Roth talks to inhabitants of the Ruhr Valley during mass unemployment and hears of desperation.
There is greater variety in The Hotel Years than in the former book. There are reports of incidents and crimes. Roth tells the tale of Rose Gentschow, a 33-year-old prostitute addicted to morphine, whose modus operandi was to drug and rob clients. She worked Potsdamer Platz, a centre of traffic and commuting. One night she put too much morphine in a mark’s drink and he fell off his bar stool, dead. She put on trial for homicide. Roth does not write the outcome of the trial.
Of Fascist Italy, Roth writes in 1928 that it was a police state, with draconian powers for law-enforcement agencies and mandatory carrying of identity papers. Foreign travel was limited by restricting the number of passports issued and heavy fines for anyone crossing the national border illegally. The category of a “citizen of ill repute” imposed the burden of surveillance and restricted opportunities. Roth does not outline what caused a person to fall into such a status – presumably acting in an anti-Fascist manner – nor does he intimate how common such persons were. All this contrasts with a common view of Fascist Italy as relatively relaxed socially.
The tours of the newly formed USSR are not as enlightening as one might like. There are a lot of tales of Russian train inspectors and customs officials, relying on Roth’s personal encounters. The best of the pieces is when Roth gets away from trains, border guards and ferries and gets into a truly distinct place. That article is set in Astrakhan. Flavoured by an albeit the easily appealing exoticism of the Orient, it is memorable and observant. “To be dressed for Astrakhan means wearing long hooded dust coats, like the horses. In the dimly illuminated night you can see ghosts being driven around by ghostly horses. […] Astrakhan has a technical college, libraries, clubs and theatres. Ice cream under a swaying arc lamp, fruit and marzipan behind bridal gauze. I pray for an end to the dust plague. The next day God sent a cloudburst. The ceiling of my hotel room, pampered by so much dust, wind and drought, promptly fell to the floor with shock. I hadn’t asked for as much as all that.”
Wherever Roth is, he finds a pungent image or crafts a startling phrase. In Tirana, “the women are quiet as wild beasts and unresponsive as the dead.” A sequence of articles cover the experience of staying at a typical hotel and the various individuals who fulfil different roles there: the concierge, the manager, the chef, the waiter, the maid. In a comic sketch, Roth describes the fearful effort of retrieving and replacing a heavy suitcase “that weighed more than I did” on an overhead luggage rack, for the benefit of an elegant woman. All the while he struggled to make the labour look as effortless as possible.
Is the comparison between Roth and George Orwell (as reporter) appropriate? Roth is certainly more a social commentator, humourist and street watcher than analyst or investigator. Hard figures are rarely found in these pieces. They were, of course, written for feuilletons (a newspaper section with commentary, sketches and cultural content rather than current events or hard news) and they have that quality of the eye in the street or the anecdotes of a flâneur, albeit more verifiable and grounded in social context. Roth shares some qualities of lightness, wit and curiosity with Billy Wilder (my review here). Readers may be a touch disappointed at the absence of quoted testimony of subjects and that the accounts are fairly short – mostly 800-2,000 words long. Some will hanker for a longer treatment, as Orwell gives in his books of reportage.
In terms of page count, The Hotel Years is better value, but What I Saw (with its single topic of Berlin and its inhabitants) is more focused as a reading experience and has illustrations, which the former book lacks. Both books have indices. Both books are good reading and recommended for anyone wishing to get a flavour of inter-war Europe, especially the Weimar Republic.
Joseph Roth, Michael Hofmann (trans.), What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-33, Granta, 2003, paperback, 228pp, £9.99, ISBN 978 1 84708 197 1
Joseph Roth, Michael Hofmann (trans.), The Hotel Years: Wanderings in Europe Between the Wars, Granta, 2016, paperback, 268pp, £9.99, ISBN 978 1 78378 128 7
Special thanks to RG and JMA for the donation of these books. To fund a review visit this page.