Last fall, the medical school of Saint Joseph University of Beirut offered, for the first time, a course in a subject not usually associated with the study of medicine: an introduction to written Phoenician, an ancient Semitic language from a region that includes the modern state of Lebanon.
“The first semester has been a real success,” said Maroun Khreich, the professor teaching the course, “and registration has opened for the spring semester.” He said that 35 people enrolled for the first semester, among them medical students, professors and alumni.
Offering the course was the personal initiative of Roland Tomb, dean of the medical school and a man with wide interests: he is a specialist in dermatology but also has a doctorate in philosophy and ethics, and has studied theology and ancient languages.
“A doctor is not a pure scientist,” Tomb explained in an interview with the French-language newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour. “Obviously to be a good doctor you do not need to know Phoenician. … But we are here to train not only doctors but citizens.”
The school also offers elective courses in such subjects as theater, cinema and foreign languages, to give medical students a well-rounded humanistic education.
A course in ancient Phoenician is not simply a scholarly look at a specialized topic in the history of the ancient Mediterranean. In a region dominated by the Greeks and Romans, the Phoenicians play a comparatively small part. Yet from late Ottoman times to the founding of the modern Lebanese state and into the present, the history and culture of the Phoenicians have had a particular significance in forming Lebanese identity, a significance that has shifted and evolved over the years.
Lebanon’s thousand-pound note (worth about $0.66) is a good example of the importance placed on Phoenician in official national imagery. A design on the Arabic-language side of the note shows four alphabets on four lines. From the top line to the bottom, these alphabets are ancient Phoenician, early Aramaic/Phoenician, Nabataean and Arabic. The message here is that there is a continuous line of civilization from ancient Phoenician to modern Arabic.
“We have Phoenician letters on our currency, but nobody knows how to read them,” Maroun Khreich said. “Why don’t we try to understand them? We can at least learn the basics.”
The course gives participants an introduction to reading Phoenician inscriptions, looking at surviving examples of Phoenician in a thousand-year period from the 13th to the third century B.C.E.
Written Phoenician survives in a corpus of about 10,000 inscriptions on stone, mainly on tombs and religious structures found all over the Mediterranean region, from Lebanon to Tunisia and many places in between. No Phoenician literature survives—this partly accounts for the enduring mystery of who the Phoenicians really were.
Rejecting False Claims
The relative scarcity of information about the Phoenicians has resulted in their being seen as a blank page on which a fanciful image can be drawn. Khreich says that one of the objectives of his course is to dispel popular ideas about the Phoenicians that have no basis in truth.
During the Lebanese civil war, for example, Maronite Christian groups claimed that the Maronites were descended from the ancient Phoenicians. They used this argument to distinguish themselves as an ethnic group from other Lebanese. Part of the purpose of the course at Saint Joseph is to reform this idea, Khreich said.
“We want to tell everybody that Christians are not necessarily Phoenicians, and Muslims are not necessarily Arabs. The Phoenicians are a legacy that we have here in Lebanon that we should preserve and promote, regardless of sectarian or religious faction.”
Meanwhile, a new book by Josephine Quinn, an associate professor of ancient history at the University of Oxford, argues that the Phoenicians can’t be seen as a coherent national or ethnic group. A Phoenician would have identified himself as belonging to a town, such as Sidon or Tyre, Quinn writes, but not as a citizen of a nation called Phoenicia.
Quinn’s book, In Search of the Phoenicians, argues that in the ancient Mediterranean, “‘Phoenician’ … refers to a category of people involved in certain recognizable activities rather than to a single ethnic group. For example, in the Homeric poems all traders are called ‘Phoenicians.’”
“Very little is said about the Phoenicians as a group by any Greek author in the archaic or classical periods, other than that, as Homer put it, they are ‘famous for their ships,’” Quinn writes. “In its earliest usage, [Phoenician] was simply a vague term for Levantine sailors who spoke a distinctive language.”
Whoever they were, these seafarers established the colony of Carthage on the coast of what is now Tunisia, a settlement that grew and assumed its own identity in the ancient world.
Khreich said students in his course often ask: Did the Phoenicians invent the alphabet?
The answer is no, says Khreich. The development of an alphabet was a process that lasted hundreds of years. “What the Phoenicians did was stabilize the alphabet,” he says. They established the convention of writing from right to left, and standardized the form and function of letters.
As for the future of Phoenician studies, Khreich said the field would benefit from renewed archaeological work. There is no significant archaeological dig in Lebanon or elsewhere that is dedicated to Phoenician remains, and existing digs have the problem that the layers that might contain significant Phoenician remains have either been disturbed or not studied.
Khreich received his doctorate from the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris; his dissertation was on the history of Tyre from the 12th to the sixth century B.C.E. As a specialist in ancient history who is also Lebanese and teaching in Lebanon, he describes himself as being “like a member of an endangered species.”
While the course in Phoenician at Saint Joseph was well attended, and received publicity, he notes declining interest in the study of ancient history at the other university where he teaches, the Lebanese University. Only a handful of students graduate in ancient history every year, he said. “We lack interest in the humanities and culture in the Arab world.”