Monday, March 26, 2007

Canaan, Phoenicia, and Philistia

The eastern shore of the Mediterranean has been in­habited since earliest times. Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon remains are found in close proximity to one another in the caves of Mt. Carmel, and agriculture was established on the eastern shore before it was intro­duced to Egypt or Mesopotamia. The climate is benign, with mild winters and enough rainfall to support the Mediterranean triad of crops—wheat, olives, and grapes. The Bible calls it “the land of milk and honey,” but it was also a corridor and at times a disputed fron­tier between the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Its inhabitants never enjoyed the political stabil­ity of the great river empires. The eastern shore of the Mediterranean was from the beginning a world of small, aggressive city-states whose wealth and strategic position attracted the unwelcome attention of stronger powers.
The first Canaanites or Phoenicians, as they were known to the Greeks, spoke a variety of Semitic di­alects and moved into the region during the fourth mil­lennium, superseding or blending with an earlier Neolithic population (see map 1.2). Their first urban foundations, at Sidon, Byblos, and Ras Shamra (Ugarit), date from around 3000 B.C. From the beginning, these and a host of other cities traded actively with both Egypt and Sumer. Their inhabitants were sailors, ship­builders, and merchants who played a vital role in the process of cultural exchange.
They were also skilled craftsmen. Carved furniture of wood and ivory was an obvious speciality, but metal­working was equally important. The Phoenicians ex­ported fine gold and copper jewelry, bronze tools, and weapons over a wide area. Around 1500 B.C. they seem to have invented the process of casting glass around a core of sand. Decorative glassware remained an impor­tant export throughout antiquity, and glassblowing likely was invented by their descendants in Roman
Illustration 1.6
.Egyptian Beliefs about the Afterlife. In this papyrus from the Theban Book of the Dead, the dead man and his wife watch as the god Anubis weighs his heart against a feather and Thoth records the results. The Devourer of Hearts waits at the far right. The writing in the background provides a good example of New Kingdom hieroglyphics.

times. The women of Sidon were known for their re­markable textiles, and Sidon and Tyre were the primary source of the purple dye that symbolized royalty throughout the ancient world. It was extracted with great difficulty from the shell of the murex snail, a crea­ture abundant in the harbors of Lebanon.
Politically, Phoenician towns were governed by a hereditary king assisted by a council of elders. In prac­tice, they were probably oligarchies in which policy was decided by the wealthy merchants who served on the council. Little is known of their civic life or even of their religious practices. The Phoenicians are credited with inventing the first true alphabet, a phonetic script with twenty-two abstract symbols representing the consonants. Vowels, as in the other Semitic languages, were omitted. Their system is regarded as the greatest of all Phoenician contributions to Western culture be­cause it could be mastered without the kind of exten­sive education given to professional scribes in Egypt or Mesopotamia. Literacy was now available to nearly everyone, but because the Phoenicians normally wrote with ink on papyrus, most of their records have perished.
Political crises were common. Phoenicia was in­vaded and at times ruled by both Egypt and the Hittites of Asia Minor. In 1190 B.C. a mysterious group known as the Sea Peoples attacked the Egyptian delta. They were driven out but eventually established themselves along the coast south of Jaffa. They appear to have come from somewhere in the Aegean or western Asia Minor and to have brought with them the use of iron weapons. Little of their language has survived. Their gods appear to have been Canaanite deities adopted on arrival. The Sea People were great fighters and iron-smiths who dominated the iron trade in the Middle East for many years. Politically, their towns of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, and Eglon formed a powerful league known as Philistia or the Philistine confederacy. The Bible calls these people Philistines, and the Ro­mans used Palestine, a term derived from that name, to describe the entire region.
While the Philistines annexed the southern coast, the Hebrews, recently escaped from Egypt, invaded the Canaanite highlands. They fought bitterly with the Philistines, but after establishing a united kingdom of Israel that stretched from the Negev to Galilee, they formed an alliance of sorts with the Phoenicians of Tyre. Both of these incursions were related to broader population movements in the eastern Mediterranean. They coincide roughly with the displacement of the Io­nians in Greece and a successful assault on the western portion of the Hittite empire by the Phrygians, a peo­ple who may have come from the same region as the Philistines. In Canaan proper, both Philistines and He­brews were forced to contend with other peoples push­ing in from the Arabian desert and the country beyond the Jordan.
Canaan was becoming crowded. The newcomers encountered a land that may already have been reach­ing its ecological limits after several millennia of human settlement. The Phoenician cities, already closely spaced, now saw their hinterlands greatly reduced, and with that their ability to feed their people. Led by Tyre, the Phoenicians began planting colonies from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. The first was at Utica in North Africa, supposedly founded by 1101
B.C. In the next three centuries, dozens of others were established in Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia, and Spain. At least twenty-six such communities were in North Africa, the most important of which was Carthage, founded about 800 B.C. near the present site of Tunis.
Like the colonies later established by the Greeks, those of the Phoenicians retained commercial and per­haps sentimental ties to their founding city but were for all practical purposes independent city-states. They did not normally try to establish control over large territo­ries. They served as commercial stations that extracted wealth from the interior in return for goods from the civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean. They were also useful as safe harbors for Phoenician traders.
By the seventh century B.C., Phoenician ships had reached Britain in search of precious tin, and Phoeni­cian caravan routes based on the African colonies had penetrated the regions south of the Sahara. The Carthaginians later claimed to have circumnavigated Africa, and, at the very beginnings of the age of colo­nization, Hiram I of Tyre and his ally Solomon of Israel sent triennial expeditions to Ophir, a place now thought to have been on the coast of India. Wherever they went, the Phoenicians carried their system of writ­ing together with the ideas and products of a dozen other cultures. Though their history was all too often neglected or written by their enemies, they played a vital role in the establishment of Mediterranean civilization.

No comments: