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Phoenicians
Arts and Language

In the end of the Bronze Age there was a great mixture of artistic waves in the coast of Levant and its surroundings. That is why the historian Donald Harden considers the Phoenician art difficult to be understood. Under the influence of Egyptian, Aegean and Hittite arts, the question is: What can be considered truly Phoenician in this mixture of styles?

Many Phoenician works disappeared and the pieces that survived only give us an incomplete idea of the Phoenician artistic tradition, which also comprised decorated textiles and engraved wood that did not endure the action of time. Some findings in the old city of Ugarit are especially significant in this matter. Metal and ivory pieces found in Ugarit are absolutely precious to any study on Phoenician art. Specifically on the ivory work made by Phoenicians, Donald Harden states the following: “From these it will be clear that the Phoenician artist had a good command of his material and a thorough sense of composition in such a way that he was able to put a complicated scene in a small space without giving the impression of having forced it. The way how he shaped the figures was also excellent due to the hardness of ivory. It is very difficult to know if the apparently-religious images had a mere decorative end with no religious purpose. It applies not only to ivory pieces, but also to other Phoenician arts, such as engraved metal bowls.” (HARDEN, 1971, page 190).

Concerning language and writing, the Phoenician contribution to the diffusion of the alphabet is widely known. They were the first people to understand its use, as the writing process was easy and simple, which made their commercial operations and idea-spreading easier.

It is known that the Phoenician alphabet was based in the Semite alphabet and originated Greek as well as Aramaic, Hebraic and Arabic alphabets. The Phoenician alphabet does not comprise symbols to represent vowel sounds. Each symbol represents a consonant. Vowels had to be deduced from the context of the word.

The time and place where the alphabet that we know (a system that allowed faster and easier transcription of the oral language) appeared is still an unsolved mystery. Most likely theories on its creation date the alphabet back to the first half of the second millennium BC in the cities of Ugarit, Tyre and Byblos.

The Phoenician alphabet, which had 21 consonants, is well documented in the monuments of Byblos, such as the sarcophagus of Ahiram. At that time, the form of the letters was fixed, as well as the horizontal direction of writing. According to archaeological evidences, the Phoenician alphabet spread quickly beyond Phoenician borders. Around the 9th century BC, the alphabet has been adopted by many neighbor languages, such as Aramaic, Hebrew, Ammonite, among others.

The Phoenician expansion in the Mediterranean Sea resulted in the export of the alphabet firstly to Cyprus and Crete in 900 BC then one century later to the Western Mediterranean, to Sardinia and to the south of Spain. However, its most significant impact was in Aegean culture, as Phoenicians introduced and adopted the Greek alphabet, a fact confirmed by the size, form and order of the letters in the first Greek texts.

As they had an alphabet, the Phoenicians wrote several texts that unfortunately did not last. Nevertheless, we can mention one of the few Phoenician writers that are known today: Sakkunyaton, whose works tell a Phoenician story and were translated into Greek by Philo of Byblos in the 1st century AD.


Below, a comparative table that shows the development of the Phoenician alphabet



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