Introduction to the Phoenicians

[This was meant to be introduce series of articles expanding in detail upon the themes evoked here, but I haven't managed those articles, so this one has been reworked into a standalone piece]

We know very little about the Phoenicians, compared to what we know about the Greeks, Egyptians and other ancient people. Nevertheless there is much information to be shared, and at least as much disinformation to be done. The Western world owes more than it will ever know to the Phoenicians, but there are many reasons why this archaeological truth has remained contained (and my own research has shown that there is virtually no real info to be found on the 'net: the same half-baked "facts" are recycled from site to site while the updated, in-depth research remains restricted to specialized publications.)

Why we know so little

As the papyri containing Phoenician writings did not survive the humid Lebanese weather, the only literary sources available are the Bible (biased against pagans), Greek texts (cast in the mold of elitist Greek thinking) and Assyrian texts (speaking of conquered lands). These already biased texts, as well as the earliest archaeological evidence, were first analyzed by the anti-Semitic and Eurocentric scholars of the 19th century, who refused to accept that the Greeks were not at the root of their civilization. The influence of this regrettable attitude can still be felt, and one needs to make the effort of consulting serious works to get a feel for the real picture. My intention is to restore a reasonably accurate image of the Phoenicians based on reliable evidence, and to give credit where it's due without falling into the opposite extreme of "phoenicomania".

Components and early history: What exactly does "Phoenician" refer to?

When a site has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years, it can be very difficult to find traces of its earliest inhabitants. For this reason it is not certain exactly when the first humans came to dwell in the land that is now Lebanon, that we will refer to as Canaan for the time being – a territory including today's Lebanon and Palestine. The earliest known settlement is located in Byblos and dates from the end of the Neolithic, c. 5,000 years BC. It existed for at least a millennium before the appearance of copper marked the beginning of the Eneolithic era c. 3800 BC. The inhabitants of Canaan belonged then to an ethnic group that ethnologists call Mediterranean due to the fact it occupied the islands and shores of the Mediterranean sea. This group would be a basis for the earliest civilizations of the Western part of Asia, but we know nothing of their language.

Around 3200 BC this civilization disappeared suddenly, not in the sense that the populations disappeared, as is sometimes erroneously imagined, but that its primitive practices were abruptly and thoroughly replaced by much more elaborate techniques, its hut villages overcome by a fully developed urban culture. As this is the period that sees the sudden entrance of Egypt and Mesopotamia onto the scene of history, it is clear that the drastic changes were not limited to Canaan, but affected the entire region. This general leap in progress can only have been brought about by input from the outside, in other words an important migration that brought new technologies to the Middle East. These invaders possessed urban, military and industrial techniques, and above all, copper technology, so that they came in all likelihood from the mining areas of Armenia and the Caucasus – which ties in with the fact the very earliest known traces of urban civilization were located precisely in that region. In Byblia Grammata Maurice Dunand, a major authority on Phoenician archaeology, points out that the book of Genesis may contain the memory of these migrations: after the Deluge, the cradle of the renewed populations of the Orient is none other than Mount Ararat in Armenia, and Noah's descendants are said to "found the cities".

The Northern invaders and indigenous Mediterranean race were not the only components of the Canaanite population. The nomadic Semitic race that roamed the edge of the Levant down to the Arabian peninsula periodically infiltrated the population. Sometimes natural causes made life in the desert too difficult and the migrations became massive. The Semites possessed no material technology to add to the mix, but their language and philosophy ended up dominating both Mesopotamia and Canaan, obliterating all other origins of these countries' populations.

This is what the Greeks would later call the Phoenicians: the mixture of indigenous (Mediterranean), North and Semitic elements on the Lebanese coast. From then on all the way into modern times, other immigrants or conquerors would be absorbed by the dominating Semitic aspect and the ethnic balance was never broken again.
Yet there was no lack of new invasions: the destructive Amorite conquest between 2150 and 2000 BC, then the arrival of the "Peoples of the Sea" c.1200. These Indo-European invaders are mentioned in Egyptian documents as "people from the North coming from all sorts of countries", and by some definitions, the Phoenician period begins with this invasion and ends with Alexander's conquests in 333 AD, after which the culture slowly diluted into Hellenism.

But back to the Peoples of the Sea, whose arrival caused great social upheaval and nearly wiped out the cities mentioned above. Shortly after these events, while the cities were arising again, the Arameans set themselves up in Syria in the areas of today's Aleppo, Damascus and the eastern flank of Mount Anti-Lebanon. The Arameans inland, the Phoenicians on the coast: these two entities were already culturally and linguistically distinct.

It doesn't seem that the Phoenicians ever used a single word to refer to themselves. It was the Greeks who gave them the global name of Phoinix, "red" (for the dye they produced), rendered as Fenkhou in Ptolemaic Egypt. The earlier Egyptians referred to them as Kinahni, the people of Canaan. They themselves used the names Tyrians, Sidonians, Berytians, Giblites, Aradians – the names of their cities. The Phoenician cities never formed a single political entity; they were always fiercely independent but shared their culture, language, art and religion. Each city worshiped its own deity independently from the others and had its own history. Therefore, rather than trying to define Phoenicia as a territory within borders, it is more pertinent to consider it as the land around a string of nuclei cities: from North to South Arwad, Byblos, Beryte, Sidon, Tyr, and Akk├┤.

Language and writing

We don't know whether Canaanite had always been spoken in Canaan or if it had arrived with the Semites, but it was, at the end of the 4th millennium, the lingua franca in the country. Its main dialects were Hebrew, Phoenician and Moabite. However, at the end of the 3rd millennium, Accadian had become the language of commerce and diplomacy, and we know that the people of Byblos learned it in school. Later it would be replaced by Aramaic.

The Phoenician alphabet was developed in this complex ethnic and linguistic environment, where it was meant to write the popular language. Though it did not impose itself without competition, it later attained incomparable status. Read more about its genesis in The Birth of the Alphabet. The invention of the alphabet was naturally followed in Phoenicia by the democratization of teaching. There were not only schools, but also the world's first universities.

(To be continued, hopefully. My research on the ancient history of Lebanon is ongoing and these articles draw upon a large number of publications which I'll do my best to list.)