13 July 2010

Baal (Louvre, Paris)

After several postings on updated old webpages, I am happy to be able to announce a completely new page: Ba’al, the name or title of one of the main deities of the ancient Near East. He is of course notorious as one of the favorite targets of the Jewish prophets of the Old Testament, but gods named Ba’al are known from Syria and Phoenicia as well.

Ba’al is especially well-known from a series of tablets from Ugarit, which tell the story about his fight against the sea god, his palace, and his temporary defeat in a conflict with the god of death. The god was also venerated in Carthage, had a twin named Bel in Babylonia, is mentioned on the Mesha stela, and is known from countless personal names.

The most famous story is, of course, that about the prophet Eliah, challenging the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. When I was preparing my article, I received a message from a friend who has been there several times, and remarked that the ancient altars, which were apparently still there, had been removed, because conservative Jews might take umbrage over those pagan objects.

The new page is here.


Circumnavigating Africa

2 May 2010

A Phoenician ship on a Phoenician coin

One of the most interesting anecdotes in the HerodotusHistories is the story about the circumnavigation of Africa by a group of Phoenician explorers (4.42). In Aubrey de Selincourt‘s translation:

Africa is washed on all sides by the sea except where it joins Asia, as was first demonstrated, so far as our knowledge goes, by the Egyptian king Necho, who … sent out a fleet manned by a Phoenician crew with orders to sail west about and return to Egypt and the Mediterranean by way of the Straits of Gibraltar. The Phoenicians sailed from the Arabian gulf into the southern ocean, and every autumn put in at some convenient spot on the African coast, sowed a patch of ground, and waited for next year’s harvest. Then, having got in their grain, they put to sea again, and after two full years rounded the Pillars of Heracles in the course of the third, and returned to Egypt. These men made a statement which I do not myself believe, though others may, to the effect that as they sailed on a westerly course round the southern end of Africa, they had the sun on their right – to northward of them. This is how Africa was first discovered by sea.

The last detail is of course the most interesting point: Herodotus’ argument that the story cannot be true, is the best proof that it really happened. In class, I often use this to explain Herodotus’ method: he tells the stories he heard, but he does not always believe it himself. He’s not a simple teller of tall stories, but is sometimes skeptical, and the reader must be extremely alert if he wants to learn – to decode – Herodotus’ own ideas. (Nearly all modern literature about the battle at Thermopylae is irrelevant, because almost all scholars have ignored that it is introduced with the highly significant gnomê, “in my opinion”: Herodotus does not claim that Leonidas’ presumed self-sacrifice is a fact.)

But to return to our Phoenician explorers, it is interesting to know that at this very moment, a group of mostly British sailors is trying to repeat the great voyage. You will find their website here and you can track them here. I must confess that I am a bit puzzled about their route, because they do not stay close to the shore, as the ancient Phoenicians must have done (explanation). I can understand that they wanted to evade the Somalian pirates, so it makes sense that they made a detour to a point even east of the Seychelles, but I am surprised that in the Atlantic, they visited Saint Helena. As a landlubber, I can only think of sea currents, but somehow, it strikes me as a bit inauthentic.

That being said, it is a good thing that archaeology can be presented as an adventure. The real adventure is, of course, intellectual, but our neo-Phoenicians make science accessible and comprehensible in a way that is better than imitating Indiana Jones, as Zahi Hawass does.

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>

Motya and other Mediterranean towns

15 December 2008

A Greek-Phoenician female mask; Museum Villa Whittaker.

A Greek-Phoenician female mask; Museum Villa Whittaker.

Motya is a Phoenician city, situated on a small island in a lagoon in the west of Sicily. The city was destroyed in 396 BCE by Dionysius of Syracuse, but was not really abandoned: archaeologists have found villas from the fourth century. Still, the island had become more or less empty, and remained so until archaeologists started to dig. They found city walls, a port, sanctuaries, and tombs. The finds are now in museums on the island itself, in Marsala, and in Palermo. You can find the first of three pages devoted to Motya here; a satellite photo is here.

I was also occupied with Assos, in the west of Assos. We visited the site in 2004, and later, we saw many finds in the Paris Louvre and the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul. Everything is brought together on this page.

Slonta in Libya is one of the weirdest ancient sanctuaries, as you will see on this page; for a more regular ancient city, go to Roman Cordoba; and for the delighs of rural life, go to Suq al-Awty, which was part of the Limes Tripolitanus.

The regular reader of this blog will have noted that I am still moving pages. I still have 154 pages to go.