Women of Phoenicia (1879) by Robert Fowler. Image by Public Catalogue Foundation. Supplied by National Museums Liverpool


Phantasmic Phoenicia

The British, Irish and Lebanese have all claimed descent from the ancient Phoenicians. But ancient Phoenicia never existed

by Josephine Quinn + BIO

Women of Phoenicia (1879) by Robert Fowler. Image by Public Catalogue Foundation. Supplied by National Museums Liverpool

Modern nationalism created history as we know it today: what we learn in school, what we study at university, what we read at home is all shaped by the forms and norms of our nation-states. Modern nationalism took history from the province of the wealthy gentleman amateur, as nationalism’s focus on literacy and organised education professionalised and democratised the past. And in return, history is called upon to justify nationalism itself, as well as the existence of particular nation-states; Eric Hobsbawm once said: ‘History is to nationalism what the poppy is to the opium addict.’ All this gives modern nationalism an extraordinary power to shape – and misshape – the practice and understanding not only of modern history, but even of antiquity.

Take the ancient Phoenicians, enlisted in support of the nationalist histories of Lebanon, Britain and Ireland, and in some cases seriously distorted by them. Despite claims by various partisans of Lebanese, British and Irish nationalism to enlist the Phoenicians as their ancient progenitor, the Phoenicians never existed as a self-conscious community, let alone a nascent nation.

In the aftermath of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire that had ruled the Levant for 400 years collapsed. European powers scrambled to carve up the region in their own, relatively new, model of nation-states, initially under British or French supervision. The French Mandate of Syria included a strip of prosperous Mediterranean ports backing on to the rural highlands of Mount Lebanon, the traditional home of the Maronites, who are Eastern Catholics in communion with the Vatican, and the Druze, whose beliefs combine Islamic teachings with elements from other Eurasian religious traditions. The Maronites and the Druze had a history of warfare and little in common. Nonetheless, since 1861 they had been governed together under the Turks as a separate administrative district from the coastal cities of Beirut, Tyre and Sidon, which were largely inhabited by Sunni Muslims.

In 1919, with all the Ottoman territories on the negotiating table, a group of local Christian, francophone businessmen and intellectuals recognised an opportunity to expand this upland enclave to include the wealthy ports in a new state of ‘Greater Lebanon’. These ‘Lebanists’ emphasised the natural symbiosis between the mountain and the coast: for them, the proposed new country was already a coherent whole; it just needed a distinctive history to justify its political autonomy.

The nation-state might have been new in the Middle East, but the Lebanists knew that nationalist movements needed historical legitimation, a common past on which to build a common polity. A local candidate presented itself: the Phoenicians, the ancient traders who had founded the coastal cities, sailed the length of the Mediterranean and beyond, and invented the alphabet that we still use today. Portraying the Phoenicians as champions of free enterprise, much like themselves, the Lebanists argued that these ancient Phoenician roots gave the Lebanese a Western, Mediterranean-focused identity, very different from the Muslim culture of the broader Syrian region, which they saw as distasteful and uncivilised. It was central to their ideology that they were not Arabs: ‘There are no camels in Lebanon’ as the slogan still goes.

To provide a proper prototype and parallel for modern Lebanon, these Lebanists insisted that the Phoenicians were always a separate, single people or even nation, united by geography, culture, religion and a common identity. As Charles Corm, a charmer and a chancer, as well as Ford Motor Company’s sole representative in Syria, bluntly put it in the July 1919 issue of his short-lived nationalist journal La Revue Phénicienne: ‘We want this nation, because it has always taken precedence in all the pages of our history.’ The argument worked: from 1920, Greater Lebanon was administered as a separate state within the French Mandate. But was it true?

Modern nationalism, which insists both on the political autonomy of a specific territory, and its superiority over others, is a very recent phenomenon. A product of industrialisation, mass communications and the revolutions in France and the United States, it reached its height with the political unification of Germany and of Italy in the later 19th century. However, the language of the ‘nation’ goes back to the medieval period in Europe, along with ideas of national character – lists of ethnic stereotypes were already being collected in 11th-century monasteries – and personal attachments to particular nations that could even encourage notions of genocide.

Some scholars of nationalism have argued that we can even trace similar sentiments back into antiquity. Anthony D Smith’s classic book The Ethnic Origins of Nations (1986) made the case that self-conscious ethnic communities have existed since the third millennium BCE, and that these groups ‘form the models and groundwork for the construction of nations’ in the modern world. While not yet nations in the modern sense, these groups shared cultural and sentimental attachments, a common name, a myth of shared descent, shared historical memories and attachment to a particular territory. One of Smith’s examples was Phoenicia, where alongside ‘a political loyalty to the individual city state’, he found ‘a cultural and emotional solidarity with one’s cultural kinsmen, as this is interpreted by current myths of origin and descent … based on a common heritage of religion, language, art and literature, political institutions, dress and forms of recreation.’

‘Phoenician’ was just a generic label invented by ancient Greek authors for Levantine sailors

All of this, including Smith’s claim, would have surprised the ancient Phoenicians, a disparate set of neighbouring and often warring city-states, cut off from each other for the most part by deep river valleys. They did not see themselves as a single ethnic group or people, the kind that could provide the ‘groundwork’ for a nation. There is no known instance of a Phoenician ever calling themselves a Phoenician, or any other collective term. In their inscriptions, they describe themselves in terms of their individual families and cities. They don’t seem to have had a common culture, either: their dialects fall on a continuum that linked city states across Phoenicia, Syria and Palestine, and the individual ports developed separate civic and artistic cultures, drawing on different foreign examples and relationships: Byblos, for instance, looked more to Egyptian models; Arados to Syrian ones; Sidonian architecture drew on both Greece and Persia; while Tyre cultivated close political and commercial ties with Jerusalem.

‘Phoenician’ was just a generic label invented by ancient Greek authors for the Levantine sailors they encountered in their own maritime explorations. Although some of these Greek writers entertain a mild stereotype of these Phoenicians as rather cunning or tricksy, they never use the term as a description of a distinct ethnocultural community. The historian Herodotus, for instance, talks frequently – and with considerable admiration – about the Phoenicians, but he never gives an ethnographic description of them as he does for other groups including the Egyptians, Ethiopians and Persians.

So Smith didn’t just get the Phoenicians wrong; he got them perfectly backwards. The Phoenicians don’t illustrate the ancient ethnic origins of modern nations, but rather the modern nationalist origins of at least one ancient ethnicity.

The entanglement of the ancient Phoenicians with modern nationalism is a story that began a long way from 20th-century Lebanon. On the island now called Great Britain, the medieval search for national origins came from the start in both ‘English’ and ‘British’ varieties. The English path was first championed by the Venerable Bede in the 8th century, and focused on the country’s Saxon kings; the British course culminated in the 12th-century work of the Welsh scholar Geoffrey of Monmouth, who traced his history of the kings of Britain from Brutus the Trojan, great-grandson of Aeneas. Geoffrey was also the first author to give a detailed account of the exploits of King Arthur, who had supposedly (and briefly) defeated Britain’s Saxon conquerors. These British legends then found a new lease of life after Henry VIII’s break with Rome, since the local Catholic Church was closely associated with the ‘English’ Saxons, who had presided over its importation to the island in the 6th century CE. The Welsh origins of the Tudor kings made the larger British vision of the nation especially attractive in this period, as did their imperial ambitions towards Scotland.

Sometime around the middle of the 16th century, a schoolmaster and minor politician named John Twyne wrote two volumes of Latin Commentaries on Albionian, British, and English Affairs. Twyne presented these commentaries as a lunchtime discussion hosted by John Foche, the last Abbot of St Augustine’s of Canterbury before Henry VIII dissolved that monastery in 1538. Published posthumously in 1590, these commentaries have never been translated, and although highly rated at the time, they are now largely forgotten. This is a shame, as they are very entertaining, and the Abbot makes an intriguing new case to his guests for Britain’s roots.

Dismissing Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ridiculous story of Trojan origins, Foche declares that Albion, the son of the god Neptune, first settled Britain, then founded a race of cave-dwelling Giants in the land to which he gave his own name, Albion. More recently, however, the first foreigners to reach this island were the Phoenicians, attracted by Cornish metals. His evidence for this claim includes the ‘Punic dress’ still worn by some women in Wales, as well as that region’s ‘Punic huts’; furthermore, the Abbot explains, the famous British custom of body-painting with woad was clearly an attempt by the Phoenicians to regain some of the colour they had lost over many generations out of the sun. The idea of descent from Phoenicians was ingenious: by dismissing the old Trojan hypothesis, Twyne provided a new national history for the new Tudor dynasty, one that he was careful to associate in particular with Tudor Wales, and one that gave Britain more civilised and heroic ancestors than descent from what he has Foche call ‘an unknown and obscure refugee’.

The Phoenicians themselves, though, are hazy for Twyne, who simply repeats what he finds in the ancient texts. The Phoenicians are said to be merchants with a reputation for cunning and deceit. He also emphasises their relations with other people: they originated in Babylonia, before migrating to a variety of other venerable ancient lands, including Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria, Greece and Spain, then finally arriving in Britain. After all, he asks, ‘from where in particular do men get the custom of shaving the beard except on the upper lip, if not the Babylonians?’ This approach fitted with contemporary thinking about nations, which was not yet premised on exclusivity or confrontation: a crucial ingredient in early conceptions of European ‘nations’ was in fact the notion of their shared descent. The Table of Nations in the Book of Genesis provided a map by which scholars traced their own people back through this larger family tree to the sons of Noah.

Words apparently derived from the Phoenician include the name of Cornwall and the word for beer

By the time that Aylett Sammes published Britannia Antiqua Illustrata, or, The Antiquities of Ancient Britain, Derived from the Phoenicians (1676), the thinking had moved on. Sammes’s Phoenician theory of ancient Britain was bolstered by the popular work of the French scholar Samuel Bochart, whose Sacred Geography (1646) had traced the dispersal of Noah’s descendants across the globe. Bochart had paid particular attention to the Phoenicians, suggesting that they had reached both Britain and Ireland. Sammes claimed that the Phoenicians settled in southern Britain, while the German Cimbri colonised the north.

It was, wrote Sammes, the Phoenicians who left the bigger mark: ‘Not only the name of Britain itself, but of most places therein of ancient denomination are purely derived from the Phoenician Tongue, and … the Language itself for the most part, as well as the Customs, Religions, Idols, Offices, Dignities of the Ancient Britains are all clearly Phoenician, as likewise their instruments of war.’ For Sammes, British words derived from Phoenician include the name of Cornwall and the word for beer, and survivals of Phoenician culture include the site of Stonehenge. What language does he think the Phoenicians spoke?

Sammes maintained that the migration of the Cimbri explains why Scottish people are so much larger and fiercer than the English, as well as the advantages of the Union of the Crowns in 1603. ‘Divers Languages, Customes, and Usages … are not contrary one to the other,’ he wrote, ‘but by the mixture of the Gentry, and the happy union of this Nation under one Monarch, do meet together in the making up of the best compacted Kingdom in the World.’ Sammes’s use of the different origins of the immigrants to explain distinct modern physical types suggests a shared ancestry or racial relationship in a way that Twyne’s story of cultural borrowings had not. It also picks up on a new trend in nationalist discourse, which now emphasised the difference between nations much more than the connections between them.

Similarly, and although he emphasises the complementary origins of the British kingdoms, Sammes strongly distinguishes Britain from other European nations. In particular, he is decidedly against Britain’s arch-rival France and the French. Already for Sammes and his contemporaries, the French were closely associated with the Romans, a land-based, territorial state. Britons’ supposed descent from Rome’s traditional enemy, the maritime trading power of Phoenician Carthage, emphasised the differences between the two modern nations, and accounted for Britain’s superiority on the sea.

Furthermore, his strong opposition to the French means that it is important for Sammes that Britain has always been an island, and not – as was in fact the case – once a peninsula of northern Europe. He wrote: ‘if this Isthmus were admitted, then it would seem beyond dispute that the Gauls peopled this Nation, which … can not be imagined. It seems more glorious for this excellent part of the Earth to have been always a distinct Nation by itself, than to be a dependent member of the Territory to which it hath often given Laws.’ It’s a fundamentally different account of the origins of British nationality than Twyne’s. Britain on Sammes’s account has always been a nation, and he applies the same principle to its original human inhabitants: he is the first to describe the Phoenicians as a ‘nation’, and even a ‘state’.

In Ireland, an alternative version of Phoenician nationalism arose. Sammes’s contemporary Roderic O’Flaherty (Ruaidrhí Ó Flaithbheartaigh) was the first Irish scholar to suggest in his influential work Ogygia (1685) that the Phoenicians formed part of Irish ancestry. In the 18th century, O’Flaherty’s theory of the Phoenicians as progenitors of the Irish became very popular among the Protestant Ascendancy as well as Gaelic intellectuals. The best-known Protestant enthusiast is Charles Vallancey, who arrived in Ireland in 1756 as a British Army surveyor, and remained there as a respected local antiquarian, and a founding member of the Royal Irish Academy. Vallancey’s particular interest was in the relationship between the two languages: ancient Irish, he declares in one of his numerous lengthy studies on the subject, ‘may be said to have been, in great degree, the language of Hannibal, Hamilcar, and Asdrubal’.

Just as British nationalists could deploy the Phoenicians to differentiate themselves from the more ‘Roman’ French, proponents of Irish nationality used a Phoenician past to distinguish the Irish from the more ‘Roman’ British. In this view, the British occupation of Ireland was cast as a great struggle between sophisticated, noble Carthage, ie the Phoenician-Irish, and the savage imperial power of Rome, ie Britain. At the same time, Vallancey’s grasp of Phoenician particularity in the ancient world was hazy, and he did not strongly distinguish them from other ancient peoples: he describes the Phoenicians as absorbing the Scythians on their travels, and he assigns the Irish round towers at different times to Phoenician and Persian construction.

Ideologies of nationalism encouraged historians to embrace the idea of an ancient Phoenician nation

True separatist Irish nationalism, even among Catholics, was a 19th-century phenomenon. While Vallancey might have been devoted to Irish culture and history, his major work is dedicated to the English King. Irish intellectuals like him celebrated the Phoenicians as just one of a complex, interrelated set of ancient roots, and they were not, as yet, seeking a single, separate Irish future. They appreciated Phoenician ancestors, but they did not seek a Phoenician nation.

By the middle of the 19th century, the recognition that the Indo-European language family that included Irish and English was quite separate from the Semitic one that included Phoenician rendered the search for these modern nations’ supposed Phoenician roots untenable. So too did a distinct lack of archaeological evidence for Levantine settlement in the North Atlantic archipelago. At the same time, however, developing ideologies of modern nationalism encouraged historians to embrace the idea of an ancient Phoenician nation, swept up in what Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic (1993) has called the ideology of ‘the nation as an ethnically homogenous object’, as well as the ‘fatal junction of the concept of nationality with the concept of culture’.

Books on ‘the Phoenicians’ began to appear with extensive chapters devoted to their crafts and culture. By the 1860s, when the French archaeologist (and later theorist of nationalism) Ernest Renan began to publish his Mission de Phénicie, the results of his own excavations in Lebanon, he could refer to the Phoenicians as a ‘nation’. According to Renan, the Phoenicians had a distinctive art and architecture, and shared a practical bent and business acumen. Soon they were also a race: according to Georges Perrot and Charles Chipiez in an 1885 volume on Phoenician and Cypriot art, ‘it has been very well said that the Phoenician had some characteristics of the medieval Jew, but he was powerful, and he belonged to a race whose strength and superiority in certain respects should be recognised.’

By the end of the 19th century, the process was complete, and George Rawlinson could begin the third edition of his History of Phoenicia by declaring that the Levantine coast was ‘inhabited by three nations, politically and ethnographically distinct’: Syria, Palestine, and Phoenicia. Three hundred years of nationalist scholarship had installed the Phoenicians in the ancient Levant as a fully fledged nation, an appropriate ancestor for a state under European imperial supervision.