Phoenicia De-Phonated

Phoenicians, who gifted the world with alphabetic writing, also wrote a lot themselves. Phoenician literature - epic, sacred, lyrical - was almost certainly extensive. It has also been entirely lost, apart from some late fragments. They left many inscriptions on stone, and on metal and ivory objects (mostly brief and of a funerary nature) but for long documents of a literary nature, they used perishable material like leather and papyrus, instead of clay tablets or birchbark. (The fact that Ugaritic, Akkadian and Sumerian speakers used clay tablets to write their literatures is the only reason why they survive at all.)

So once Phoenician passed out of literary currency and gave way to other languages, the literature perished with the media, as there was no scholastic or religious tradition to preserve Phoenician literature through late antiquity and the Middle Ages, as was the case with Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and Hebrew. Any scholarly apparatus that might have had a chance of transmitting Classical Phoenician literature was obliterated with the conquest of Carthage.

The failure of Phoenicians to write their epics, hymns etc. on clay tablets is really annoying, in view of the immense influence their literature appears to have had throughout the Mediterranean, particularly on Greek. The debt Greece owes to Near Eastern cultures is clearly substantial, and will in all likelihood never be fully understood. Damn papyrus.

Lesson here: make sure you store your data on durable media.


  1. I laughed out loud when I reached the "lesson". BTW, what do you mean by alphabetic writing? Do you mean phonetic writing? thanks!

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