He shoulda watched where he stepped….

19 March 2010


What’s a poor writer to do? someone, some day, for some reason, will annotate you: and naturally, being long dead, you won’t be up to defending yourself. And so it is with the writer of a biographical sketch of the 19c American general George McClellan, famous for being so cautious not to lose battles that he would have lost the war had he not quickly been replaced by President Lincoln: our anonymous writer had the misfortune to use what was at the time a fairly conventional phrase — but one that in our own age, less attuned to the classics, got him a dose of annotation right between the eyes. I prolly wouldn’t mention any of this if (a) it weren’t a somewhat out-of-the-way place for this item; and (b) if it weren’t considerably better than the corresponding Wikipedia entry, yet very likely at the cost of half the expenditure of time. Jona, you’ve been there, and will doubtless have further, um, annotations on it all.

Common Errors (5): The Alphabet

12 May 2009
Poster in Paris

Poster in Paris

The Phoenicians are not the ancient world’s most famous nation, but people who know them, are almost always aware that they invented the alphabet. When in 2007/2008 the Institut du Monde Arabe organized an exposition about the Phoenicians, Paris was full with posters asking inviting questions like “Quel visage avait la civilisation qui nous a donné l’alphabet?”

However, it is not true that the Phoenicians invented the alphabet, although the error is venerably ancient. The ancient Greeks already believed it, and made jokes about it. When the sophist Hadrian of Tyre delivered his inaugural address in Athens, he modestly started his speech with the words “Again, letters have come from Phoenicia”.

Still, the alphabet is much older. In 1904-1905, the famous Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) discovered alphabetic inscriptions in the Sinai desert. They were older than anything written in Phoenician. In 1998, his American colleague John Darnell discovered texts that were even more ancient; the inscription from the Wadi el-Hol are, for the moment, incomprehensible, but the oldest we have. They date back to c.1900 BCE.

So, the alphabet was invented in Egypt, was applied in the Sinai, was adapted by the Hebrews and the Phoenicians, who gave it to the Greeks.

<Overview of Common Errors>

The Middle East and Its Pasts

5 November 2008

A Magian. Relief from the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations.

A Magian. Relief from the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations.

As it happens, I was able to visit some of the most beautiful museums of the Middle East in just over one year. About a year ago, I visited the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara; in January, I was in the National Museum in Cairo; and right now, I am in Syria, where I have been to the two national archaeological museums at Damascus and Aleppo.

The Egyptian museum, which offers objects from everywhere in Egypt, was a bit of a disappointment. Oh yes, the objects were beautiful, but I felt dissatisfied, and it took some time until I realized why: because there had been hundreds of objects illuminating the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, but the Late Period had been treated – well, to be honest, it had hardly been treated. Two centuries of Persian domination received one room – not very much, compared to the many rooms devoted to, say, Tutanchamun.

It is the same here in Aleppo. Ther museum has an extremely interesting collection of finds from the Bronze Age: Ebla, Mari, Ugarit, and Tell Halaf are represented with dozens of fine objects, all shown in nice displays with good explanatory signs. Especially the recently redesigned Tell Halaf rooms are splendid. But after the Early Iron Age, it stops. I saw 1 (one) Achaemenid cup from Tell Ahmar, and – except for some coins – no Seleucid finds whatsoever (although Aleppo is a Hellenistic town, once known as Beroea). There is indeed a department of Roman and Byzantine art, but it is comparatively small; and still, this is close to the ‘Dead Cities’ and one of the thirty or so main military settlements of the Roman Empire, the legionary base of Cyrrhus.

This is not to say that Aleppo is a bad museum – on the contrary. We could spend a full day taking photographs, even though we had forgotten to ask for a permit. The director personally arranged that we could do our job, for which I am very grateful – where on earth is a museum director so concerned with the visitors’ well-being?

The point is that the museums of Aleppo and Cairo, or the ministers of education in Syria and Egypt, have chosen to highlight the ‘national’ part of the past, when their countries ruled themselves. There is also a difference: that Egypt’s national past is absolutely monocultural, whereas Syria’s national past is pluriform: the sites I mentioned above were open to influences from Babylonia, Anatolia, and Egypt. The same can be said about the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations: Turkey is a palimpsest of older cultures.

What these national archaeological museums have in common, is that they ignore that part of the past in which the countries had lost their independence. You will find few Assyrian or Persian objects in those museums, although the Greek and Roman periods are not completely forgotten. We may regret this, but at least it is a choice: it is better than displaying everything without any thought at all – any museum must make a selection, always.

Still, I regret that the periods in which these countries were ruled by foreign masters, are so poorly covered. The Achaemenid period – two century – is too important to ignore. Besides, interaction between civilizations is interesting, and it gains significance when it is not just cultural cross-fertilization within a region (so well-illustrated in Ankara and Aleppo), but when a political dimension is added. This is not to say that these museums have not made me enthusiastic, but a different – more relevant – approach is possible.