The Phoenicians May Have Given Europe and Ancient Israel Their Alphabets, but They Left behind No Literature

September 20, 2017 | Josephine Quinn
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According to most experts, both the Hebrew and the Greek alphabets (from which the Latin alphabet was derived) were based on that used by the ancient Phoenicians, who lived in what is now Lebanon. While fragmentary inscriptions in Phoenician have been discovered throughout the Mediterranean, only recently have archaeologists found a substantial trove of complete texts in the Cypriot city of Idalion. Josephine Quinn comments on what’s in them, and what isn’t:

The new documents were found in a fortified palace complex on Idalion’s western acropolis, and they all date to the 4th and 5th centuries [BCE], a period in which Idalion was under the power of the Phoenician-speaking kingdom of Kition to its south. . . . [T]he material preserved at Idalion is almost all administrative—sets of accounts relating to palace bureaucracy and the organization of agriculture. . . . There are also intriguing glimpses of personal life: a fragment of a letter, and some texts about religious and social rituals. . . .

One thing missing at Idalion is literary texts. This may seem surprising, given the rich trove of mythical texts found at Ugarit [a Syrian city whose residents had developed a writing system a few centuries before the Phoenicians], as well as the contemporary example of the Hebrew Bible and the development in Greece in the same period of the great Homeric epics. . . .

One striking characteristic of the literature produced by Israelites and Greeks is that it often celebrates their identity as a group larger than a city-state, participating in joint expeditions and events over long distances—from the Israelite exodus from Egypt, to the Greek army attacking Troy, to the verses that celebrate victories at pan-Hellenic competitions. The Phoenicians, living in separate city-states with no common political or cultural identity, may simply have had no need for such tales.

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