Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Phoenicians

Last time I highlighted the influential Greek tongue in the development of Indo-European languages. The biggest influence on ancient Greek had been the earlier Phoenician tongue. It is quite surprising to discover just how much influence the Phoenicians have had and continue to have on our modern world.

The Phoenicians are probably best remembered as navigators. Dominating the Mediterranean for more than five centuries, their initial wealth came from salt. Every Phoenician city stood on the coast and allowed the sea to flood the marshland by means of a series of man-made channels. Subsequently dammed, these were dried by the reliable Mediterranean sun. Compared to processes this was almost labour-free. This salt enabled them to cast their fishing nets much further from shore and keep the catch fresh for much longer.

The Phoenicians would never have referred to themselves as such, for this is a Greek term used to describe the Canaanite towns and comes from the Greek for ‘land of purple’. This is a reminder of the murex-shell dye exported from the region. As with Greece each city state was an independent unit. With little arable land they were forced to trade and built a great number of vessels from the one natural resource they did have – wood.

Not only did the Phoenicians leave us salt and sailing, their writing proved the basis for almost every modern alphabet – the language is held to have been very closely related to Hebrew but whether one is a dialect of the other or the two have an unknown common ancestor is disputed.

A culture with a wealth built on salt enabled their vessels to travel great distances and bring back wonderful and rare spices, the most valuable of which was pepper. The two are inseparable on 21st century tables and yet ironically it was pepper which devalued salt. Another link between the Phoenicians and the modern era is that of climate change. A few years of extreme weather destroyed half the salt marshes and abnormally heavy rains ruined the cycle of evaporation. They never recovered and eventually even the most famous of them all, Carthage, was no more.

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