The Mediterranean, the body of water that now divides and buffers Europe from the “over there” of Africa and the Middle East, used (many centuries ago) to unite a region. The “Mare Nostrum” of the Romans was a conduit for internal commercial and cultural communication. And for several centuries prior to becoming a Roman lake, the Mediterranean served to knit together a civilizational way of life, legacies upon which “the West”, broadly-speaking, was based.
Knit-together by whom, however, is a question that has been subject to politics since at least the time of the Romans, who considered themselves the inheritors and successors to Greek civilization which had spread directly through the colonies of Magna Graecia and beyond, and indirectly through such early adopters as the Etruscans. But there was, according to Carolina López-Ruiz, another tradition, somewhat earlier and at least as important, that of the Phoenicians, who, she argues, have been unfairly swept under the historical carpet. “Think of the year 700 BC or thereabouts,” she writes in Phoenicians and the Making of the Mediterranean:
you could not travel from Tyre to the Straits of Gibraltar or “Pillars of Herakles” without noticing a remarkable interconnectedness among distant communities. And you could not go on this journey without coming across Phoenician harbors, ships, and towns along almost every step of the way.
Suffice it to say that she makes the case that
a burst of economic dynamism produced a global transformation, with the effect of setting the central and western Mediterranean into direct contact with the Levant… New forms of writing facilitated a growing and dynamic merchant class. Fast, high-capacity sailing boats transported not just goods but people and new cultural models. And at the helms of those boats were, above all, Phoenician mariners, settlers, traders, and explorers… It was these Phoenicians who set in motion the new connectivity networks and to a great degree created a first, truly interconnected Mediterranean.
Some of the relative erasure of the Phoenicians can be traced to the Romans.
Phoenicians and the Making of the Mediterranean is not however the introduction to the people and civilization that the non-specialist reader might wish it to be. López-Ruiz starts in almost medias res, pushing back against the idea, which she claims is prevalent, that the Phoenicians somehow don’t make the grade, at least not compared with the Greeks, even to the extent of claiming that they didn’t even really exist as a people or culture. Some of the dismissals of the Phoenicians she details seem downright tendentious, such as arguing that the Phoenician alphabet, from which all other alphabets from Latin and Greek to Arabic and Hebrew are based, wasn’t a “real alphabet” because it didn’t have vowels:
Qualitative evaluations tend to draw an essential difference between the Semitic alphabets and the Greek and Latin adaptations, literally considered more perfect and “essentially different” from previous versions. This is justified in a rather tautological way, considering a “real alphabet” only a system that works like the Greek (or Latin) alphabet, which allegedly “allows one who does not know the language still to pronounce the words.” (Needless to say, nonnative English speakers may also struggle to read many of its words in an intelligible way, unless they know how the words sound beforehand.)
Some of the relative erasure of the Phoenicians can be traced to the Romans, who didn’t like the Phoenicians much, perhaps with reason: Carthage was the main rival to Republican Rome and at times an existential threat. But as López-Ruiz notes, even the Greeks and Romans gave the Phoenicians credit where credit was due.
Another difficulty is the relative lack of data, especially literature. This doesn’t mean the Phoenicians didn’t have any, just that it was written on perishable materials (such as papyrus rather than clay tablets) and was not, unlike classical Greek works, preserved and directly copied by later civilizations and traditions.
But there is considerable archaeological evidence. The story that López-Ruiz recounts seems quite clear yet the Greeks are still largely given precedence. She puts a post-colonial spin on this: the West likes to think of itself a product of Graeco-Roman civilization and the Phoenicians are, well, not “European” but Semitic. In the relative erasure of the Phoenicians, one might see here a story like that told by Diana Darke in Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe in which most of what Europe consider “it’s” architecture—pointed and trefoil arches, ribbed vaults, spires, stained glass, sunlit spaces—originated in the Middle East and most of that from Islam.
Spain, she says, has done better:
In the far western Mediterranean, Hellenocentric tendencies have had a much smaller grip on the interpretation of this period. The near absence of Greek colonization in Iberia (save a small area in the northeast, stemming from Marseille’s circle) freed this interpretive space for the Phoenicians … In a country whose heritage is marked by centuries of “convivencia” between non-Semitic and Semitic groups (Jews, Muslims) it is perhaps easier (at least now) to imagine cultural contact with Phoenicians in the pre-Roman period … It is slowly sinking in that the Phoenician presence in Iberia lasted for almost eight centuries (950–206 BC), which makes it comparable to the long seven centuries of Arab presence, and this in a territory probably larger than that of Phoenician settlement in Lebanon and northern Israel.
The Phoenicians need a book written for the rest of us.
In between the scholarly debates—much of the book is to some extent a literature review—are sections of considerable interest to non-specialist. The discussion of the alphabet and its origins in early second-millennium BCE Egypt is fascinating, as is her recapitulation of current thinking regarding the Etruscans (they are not, it seems, from Lydia after all).
One thing López-Ruiz has demonstrated is that the Phoenicians need a book written for the rest of us. She’s well-placed to be the one to write it.