PHOENICIANS AND CARTHAGINIANS: THEIR ORIGIN, CANAANITES AND PHILISTINES

PHOENICIANS AND CARTHAGINIANS

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Headman in Carthage
The Phoenicians established a great early civilization. Originating in the coasts of present-day Lebanon and Israel, they developed an alphabet that was modified and adopted by much of the world and were expert sailors and traders. The dominated the Mediterranean, acted as intermediaries between Mesopotamia and Egypt and came close to defeating the Romans. [Sources: Rick Gore, National Geographic, October 2004; Dora Jane Hamblin, Smithsonian magazine, August 1988; Samuel W. Matthews, National Geographic, August 1974]

The Phoenicians spoke a Semitic language like Jews and Arabs. The are associated with Lebanon but little is known of their origin. They fit no clear or racial or physical profile and appear ro be a kind of mongrel race comprised of various groups that lived in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. They came into their own in 1200 B.C. and endured until the razing of Carthage in 146 B.C. The Phoenicians were initially based in what is now Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. They formed a string of colonies and city states that stretched across the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Later they were based in Carthage.

The Phoenicians were known as the Kinanu in Akkadian and the Phoenikes to the Greeks. Both words appear to be a reference to dark red or purple, the color of the much-coveted dyed clothing they produced from sea snails. The Phoenicians did not call themselves Phoenicians. They called themselves names that referred to the cities they were from: Sidoans, Tyrians, Giblites [for Gebal as Byblos was earlier known).

Punic was another name for Phoenician or Carthaginian. Carthage was a Phoenician colony that developed unto a power city state. The Romans called the residents of Carthage: Carthaginians, Poeni or Punic.

Little is known about the Phoenicians because very little actually written by Phoenicians remain. Most of what is known about them was written by their traditional enemies. Other stuff comes from funerary statues, dedications of temples, votive offerings, list of divinities, Egyptian and Mesopotamian records of transactions, Assyrian boasts concerning them, Biblical records, and chronicles from Greek and Roman historians. What the Phoenicians wrote about themselves was written down mostly on papyrus that crumbled away centuries ago. Archeological research of the Phoenicians is hampered by the fact that Phoenician ruins often lie underneath Roman remains on some other ruins, which people do not want to see dug to get at the Phoenician layers underneath.

Book: The Phoenicians by Donald Harden.

Origin and Early History of the Phoenicians

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Carthage head
The Phoenicians were a Semitic-speaking people. Nobody knows who they were or where they came from. Ancient Phoenicia more or less corresponded with ancient Lebanon with extensions north into present-day Syria and south into present-day Israel and was best viewed as a group ports with their surrounding hinterlands and mountains in their backyard and the sea at their door step.

From the best that can be ascertained the Phoenicians were a mix of peoples and states that eventually became a people of their own. They emerged as a significant cultural and political force around 1100 B.C. Early Phoenicians lived in a small area of the coast in present-day Lebanon. The land was good. They had pastures, orchards and vineyards. Looked outwards towards the sea to expand. From the 9th to 6th centuries B.C. they dominated the Mediterranean Sea by extending a string of colonies throughout the region.

In the early 2000s, Spencer Wells, a geneticist at Harvard, and Pierre Zalloua, a geneticist at the American University in Beirut, took blood samples from people in areas where the Phoenicians lived in Lebanon, Tunisia and Spain to gain some insight into where the Phoenicians came from, who they were and what happened to them based on clues that could be gleaned from their DNA.

Wells and Zalloua also were interested in testing a couple of hypothesis. One was that both Muslims and Christians in Lebanon were descendants of Phoenicians. In the civil war era, Maronite Christians claimed they were they descendants of Phoenicians and the Muslims were not. The issue of Phoenician descendant became so divisive that the word Phoenician became taboo and was even absent from Phoenician displays in museums.

Genetic studies indicate that many of the people in Lebanon are descendants of Phoenicians and Canaanites while their impact in North Africa was minimal. DNA evidence indicates that most people that live there are indigenous North Africans and they did not come from the Middle East either during Phoenician era or during the Islamic expansion in the A.D. 7th century. DNA studies in Lebanon also reveal that both modern Muslims and Christians there share common Phoenician ancestors going back more than 5,000 years. On what he surmised about the Phoenician, Wells told National Geographic: “Apparently they didn’t interbreed much. They seem to have stuck mostly to themselves. They were a slippery people. They came, they traded, they left. I guess that only adds to their mystery.”

Canaanites

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Phoenician mask
The Phoenicians were Canaanites and a Semitic tribe of the Middle East, which included the Ugaritic, Phoenician, Hebrews (Jews) and later the Arabs.

The earliest inhabitants of Lebanon according to the written historical record were Canaanites, a Semite people of which the Phoenicians were but one group. They were called Sidonians in the Bible. Sidon was one of their cities.

Artifacts unearthed at Byblos have been dated to 5000 B.C. They were produced by Stone Age farmers and fishermen. They were repelled by Semitic tribes people who arrived as early as 3200 B.C.

Canaanites ousted the Hittites, invaders from present-day Turkey; overpowered the Ugarit on the Syrian coast and drove southward until they stopped Ramasses III, the pharaoh of Egypt. The Canaanites also had encounters with the Hyksos, a people who conquered lower kingdom of Egypt; and the Assyrians.

According to the Bible, the ancient Canaanites, were idol worshipers who practiced human sacrifice and engaged in deviant sexual activity. They reportedly conducted human sacrifices in which children were immolated in front of their parents on stone altars, known as Tophets, dedicated to the mysterious dark god Molech. We have some idea what the Canaanites looked like. An Egyptian wall painting from 1900 B.C. depicts Canaanite dignitaries visiting the pharaoh. The Canaanites have Semitic facial features, and dark hair, which the women wear in long tresses and the men have styled in mushroom- shaped bundles on the tops of their heads. Both sexes wore bright red and yellow clothes---long dresses for women and kilts by the men.

From what scholars have been able to ascertain, the Canaanites were a largely urban people that originated in eastern Syria, migrated southward along the Mediterranean lived mostly between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean in what is now Israel. They never were very strong or established an empire and in fact were often overrun by the great empires of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Anatolia. By around 1100 B.C. they had been absorbed into the Israelites.

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Phoenician mask
Canaanites buried 4,000 years ago were folded up with their arms and legs crossed and placed in burial pots, sometimes wearing a necklace made with gold, rock crystal and carnelian beads. The burial pot and the position of the dead, it is thought, was intended to replicate the position of a newborn in a womb ready to be reborn into the afterlife. At Ashkelon (see Below) Canaanite families placed corpses in burial chambers and kept them there until the flesh rotted off, a process that took several months, then they would bury the bones in recesses and corners of the chambers. Over time the remains of a lot of individuals could get crammed inside. At Ashkelon babies were buried with Egyptians scarabs, magical charms, suggesting, archaeologists say, that they were accorded the status of full-fledged adults.

The Canaanites are believed to have been the first people to possess an alphabet. A 13th century B.C. tablet with column of Canaanite words was found at Ashkelon. Believed to have used to teach scribes languages, the tablet appears to have contained other columns with other languages, perhaps the Semitic cuneiform language of Akkadian and another unrelated tongue, possibly Hurrian or Hittite.

Canaan objects, excavated by archaeologists include an 18.5-inch-long ivory horn with gold bands, circa 1400 B.C., unearthed at Megiddo in present-dat Israel, and a vessel with the Egyptian hawk-god Hyksos, unearthed in Ashkelon.

The desolate Valley of Hinom, just south of the Old City in Jerusalem, is where the ancient Canaanites reportedly conducted human sacrifices in which children were immolated in front of their parents.

Canaanites at Ashkelon

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Around 1850 B.C. Canaanites occupied the coastal settlement of Ashkelon, one of the largest and richest seaports in the Mediterranean in ancient times. Ashkelon was located in present-day Israel, 60 kilometers south of Tel Aviv, and dates back at least to 3500 B.C. Over the centuries it was occupied by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Crusaders. Conquered by the Egyptians and Babylonians, it was probably visited by Samson, Goliath, Alexander the Great, Herod and Richard the Lion-hearted. The presence of all these cultures and historical periods means the site is rich archaeologically but also difficult and complex to sort through. [Source: Rick Gore, National Geographic January 2001]

Canaanite Ashkelon covered 60 hectares. The great wall that surrounded it when it was at its height was an arc over two kilometers long, with the sea on the other side. Just the ramparts of the wall---not the wall itself---were up to 16 meters high and 50 meters thick. The towered wall on top of it may have risen to a height of 35 meters. The Canaanites built a vaulted corridor with arched gateways in the city’s mud-brick north wall. The site’s excavation has been overseen by Harvard archaeologist Lawrence Stager since 1985.

The Canaanites occupied Ashkelon from 1850 until 1175 B.C. Sanger told National Geographic, “They came by the boatload . They had master craftsmen and a clear idea of what they wanted to build---big fortified cities. With plentiful supplies of fresh water, it was a major exporters of wine, olive oil, wheat and livestock. Studies of their teeth indicate they ate a lot sand in their food and their teeth wore down quickly.”

Among the important finds made at Ashkelon were the oldest arched gateway ever found and a silver-plated bronze calf, a symbol of Baal, reminiscent of the huge golden calf mentioned in Exodus, found in 1990 by Harvard archaeologists. Ten centimeters tall and dated to 1600 B.C. the calf was found within its own shrine, a beehive-shaped pottery vessel. Baal was the Canaanites storm god. The statue is now on display in the Israel Museum.

At its height Canaanite Ashkelon was probably home to 15,000 people , quite a large number in ancient times. By comparison Babylon at that time might have had 30,000 residents. The Egyptians considered the Canaanites to be rivals and cursed the Ashkelon kings by writing their names on figurines and smashing them to magically destroy their power. Stager has suggested that the Canaanites perhaps were the Hyksos, mysterious people from the north that conquered the ancient Egyptians, based in the discovery of artifacts in Egypt from the Hyskso period that are identical with those found in Canaanite Ashkelon. Around 1550 B.C. the Egyptians expelled the Hyksos and dominated Ashkelon and Canaan.

Ugarits

Ugarit, an important 14th century B.C. Mediterranean port on the Syrian coast, was the next great Canaanite city to arise after Ebla. Tablets found at Ugarit indicated it was involved in the trade of box and juniper wood, olive oil and wine.

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alphabet table

Ugarit texts refer to deities such as El, Asherah, Baak and Dagan, previously known only from the Bible and a handful of other texts. Ugarit literature is full of epic stories about gods and goddesses. This form of religion was revived by the early Hebrew prophets. An 11-inch-high silver-and-gold statuette of a god, dated to 1900 B.C., was unearthed at Ugarit.

Ugarites and the First Alphabet

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the earliest example of alphabetic writing was a clay tablet with 32 cuneiform letters found in Ugarit, Syria and dated to 1450 B.C. The Ugarits condensed the Eblaite writing, with its hundreds of symbols, into a concise 30-letter alphabet that was the precursor of the Phoenician alphabet.

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The Ugarites reduced all symbols with multiple consonant sounds to signs with a single consent sound. In the Ugarite system each sign consisted of one consonant plus any vowel. That the sign for “p” could be “pa,” “pi” or “pu.” Ugarit was passed on to the Semitic tribes of the Middle east, which included the Phoenician, Hebrews and later the Arabs.

Ugarit, an important 14th century B.C. Mediterranean port on the Syrian coast, was the next great Canaanite city to arise after Ebla. Tablets found at Ugarit indicated it was involved in the trade of box and juniper wood, olive oil, wine.

Ugarit texts refer to deities such as El, Asherah, Baak and Dagan, previously known only from the Bible and a handful of other texts. Ugarit literature is full of epic stories about gods and goddesses. This form of religion was revived by the early Hebrew prophets. An 11-inch-high silver-and-gold statuette of a god, circa 1900 B.C., unearthed at Ugarit in present-day Syria.

The Ugarit alphabet was passed on to the Semitic tribes of the Middle East, which included the Phoenicians, Hebrews and later the Arabs.

Sea Peoples

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Some archeologist and historians believe a mysterious group known as the Sea People---perhaps ancestors of the Minoans---might have migrated to Lebanon around 1200 B.C. and mixed with local Canaanites to create the Phoenicians.

Maria Eugenia Aubet, a leading Phoenician expert at Pempeu Fabra University in Barcelona, told National Geographic: “I think they became friends, Phoenician material culture shows so many elements from the Sea Peoples. The Phoenicians learned from them how to build harbors, moorings, docks, and piers. The Sea Peoples, like the Phoenicians, were excellent navigators---and how they knew the routes west to the rich sources of metals.”

DNA evidence seems to indicate the impact of the Sea People, if they existed, were a cultural and technological group, not a blood group. The geneticist Wells told National Geographic, “The Sea People apparently had bo significant genetic impact on populations in the Levant.”

Philistines

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The great enemies of the post-Moses Hebrews were the Philistines, a tribe that arrived in Canaan from Crete and lived along the Mediterranean coast in cities like Ekron (20 miles southwest of Jerusalem). Delilah was sent by the Philistines to discover Samson's strength. The Philistines themselves killed the Hebrew King Saul. Goliath, the giant slain by David, was also a Philistine.

The Philistines were a seafaring people that settled on the Palestine coast in the 12th century B.C. They brought early Greek culture to Holy Land and are thought to have originated from Aegean region. They were one of about a half dozen or more Sea People that arrived in the eastern Mediterranean in the 12th century B.C. The were expert metalsmiths and similar to Phoenicians in some ways.

In the Bible the Philistines were characterized as thugish destroyers. The word Philistine has come to mean a hedonistic, uneducated person. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a Philistine as a “smug, ignorant, especially middle-class person who is regarded as being indifferent or antagonistic to artistic and cultural values.”

The word Palestine was coined by the Romans and derived from Philistia, or "land of the Philistines." The Bible is the only lengthy written source on the Philistines. The bad rap the Philistines get seems to be based on the fact hat they fought with the Israelites for the better part of two centuries.

Philistines and the Historical Record

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Philistines were referred to by the Egyptians as the People from the Sea. They were defeated by the armies of Ramses II in the 12th century B.C. and later hired out as mercenaries. The historical record on them between 1,000 and 600 B.C. is sketchy. In 603 B.C. they, like the Hebrews, were conquered by the Assyrians. After that there is no reference to them in the historical record.

In the late 1980s, archaeologists discovered the remains of Ekron, a 60-acre walled city with around 6,000 residents before it was destroyed in 603 B.C. Instead of being a civilization of pleasure-seeking ignoramuses, archaeologists found that the Philistines were an industrious, innovative Iron Age civilization that grew rich from selling olives and dying cloth, and developed sophisticated metal tools and olive crushing machines.

The Philistines occupied Ashkelon from 1175 B.C. to 604 B.C. , when the city was sacked by the neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. They dominated four other major cities in the region around the same time. Among the interesting things that archaeologists have dug up in Ashkelon from the Philistine period are a large winery with a storehouse and a burial ground for dogs. A thick layer of charred wood and debris marks the sacking of the city by the Babylonians. In one building the skeleton of a woman---whose skull had been smashed by a blunt instrument---was found. Nebuchadnezzar is said to have destroyed Ashkelon to send a warning to cities in the region of what would await them if they sided with the Egyptians.

On the discovery of a puppy in pot, Paula Wapnish, an animal bone specialist at the University of Alabama, told National Geographic, “We think that somebody killed it and placed it in a pit in the ground.” Team member Brian Hesse added, “The pot has char marks. I think someone was probably cooking the puppy for food but never came back for it.” Stager thinks the puppy was buried in a pot that was already charred to bring good fortune for the building it was buried under.

The artifacts that archaeologists have turned in Ashkelon from the Philistine period shows that Philistines were a very advanced people. While the Israelite were making crude, unadorned pottery, the Philistines were decorating their ceramics with designs similar to those produced in Mycenaean Greece, the civilization that defeated Troy in Homeric legend.

Stager believes the Philistines were Greeks. He bases his arguments on: 1) similarities between the Samson and Delilah story and the myths of Hercules and a Greek myth with a figure that loses it power when its hair is cut; 2) evidence that Goliath wore Mycenaean-style battle gear; and 3) animal bones remains that indicate the Philistines ate a lot pigs, a common practice among the Greeks but not among the Canaanites.

Phoenicians and Modern Lebanon

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Modern-day Lebanese look upon their Phoenician heritage with pride. Although the vast majority of them descended from Arabs, they prefer to refer themselves as Phoenicians as opposed too Muslims, Christians, Arabs or even Lebanese.

Fisherman in Lebanon still chant "El...EEE...sa, El...EEE...sa," which is believed to have originally been and ode to Elisa, the Princess of Tyre (Virgils Dido)

Genetic studies indicate that many of the people in Lebanon are descendants of Phoenicians and Canaanites while their impact in North Africa was minimal. DNA evidence indicates that most people that live there are indigenous North Africans and they did not come from the Middle East either during Phoenician era or during the Islamic expansion in the A.D. 7th century. DNA studies in Lebanon also reveal that both modern Muslims and Christians there share common Phoenician ancestors going back more than 5,000 years. On what he surmised about the Phoenician, Wells told National Geographic: “Apparently they didn’t interbreed much. They seem to have stuck mostly to themselves. They were a slippery people. They came, they traded, they left. I guess that only adds to their mystery.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, Bardo Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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