The Phoenicians

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

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

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[i] P. 78

[ii] P. 40

[iii] P. 105