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The Glorious Origin of the Phoenicians

posted on: Nov 8, 2017

The Glorious Origin of the Phoenicians

By Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

The history of the Phoenicians is a study of a contradiction of a people who left a well-imprinted mark in the development of civilization.  Throughout the centuries, every nation, tribe or scribe who came into contact with them, recounted their world of wonder and majesty.

What they created and their contribution to the development of humanity, this history is recorded.  However, scholars have disagreed as to the origin of the Phoenicians, many claiming contrary theories.  It is a battle of colonization, the West fighting the East, power, and politics, combining to create an atmosphere of misconception and doubt as to the origin of a people who gave us the alphabet – the greatest invention in the saga of man.

The last rewriting the history of the Phoenicians was by the French and its supporters in Syria and Lebanon.  For hundreds of years, the people of today’s modern countries of Syria and Lebanon had lived as one people. That is not to say there was no conflict for the mountains of this ancient land had been a haven for many types of religious sects.  Sometimes a despotic ruler persecuted a sect that was not to his liking.  However, on the whole, one could say that the people lived in harmony if one is to take into consideration the vast number of these religious sects which existed in this land filled with history.

Long before their armies occupied Syria, the French had been active in pursuing a policy of preparing the way for bringing this country under their rule.  No sooner had the last Crusader left the shores of Syria, then the French began to prepare for their return to the Levant. To pave the way they took upon themselves the task of offering to protect the Catholic Christian sects in the Greater Syria area.

Of course, if this protection was not needed, situations had to be created in order that these ancient Christian sects of the Middle East would call on France for help.  The French missionary teachers were to be an excellent instrument for this policy.  When Fakhr al-Din, a feudal lord in the mountains of Lebanon in the 17th century, rebelled against the Ottomans and created a state under his rule, he invited the Vatican to send teachers to his new country.

The French, who had been waiting for such an invitation was ready.  They sent many priests to open Catholic schools and thus infuse the people with French culture.  This was the first step in making their students ready for the day when the French would occupy the Greater Syria area.  Later on, the Jesuit Order, which had been banned in France after the French Revolution, sent many of their people to the region thus ridding France of them while at the same time using them to serve France’ s foreign policy.

Not only were the people imbued with French culture but French policy looked further ahead into the future when France planned to control this part of the world.  What better way to pave the way for domination than to divide the Christians of Greater Syria from their Muslim brethren by creating for them a history to make them believe they were a different people?

Hence, a history of the Phoenicians was created by the French in which these ancient people were portrayed as originating from Europe then immigrating to the land which is now Lebanon from where they created a brilliant civilization.  The Christians of Greater Syria were taught that these European-Phoenicians were their ancestors and their Muslim brothers were a different people who came from the Arabian deserts.

When the French occupied Syria after the First World War, they divided Syria into five different countries with Lebanon as the main pivot of their control.  After this, they instituted their version of Phoenician history as official policy in Lebanon.  School books glorified this invented history of the Phoenicians and passed over Arab history as if it did not exist.  Generations were brainwashed to think the Lebanese were a Phoenician people who had nothing in common with their Arab brethren.

The effect was devastating on the minds of the Lebanese, especially on the Christians.  They came to think of themselves as superior to their Muslim Arab brethren and, since they were Europeans like their rulers, they had nothing in common with their neighbors.  Anti-Arab Lebanese nationalism came into existence and this led, in the last quarter of the 20th century, to a devastating civil war.

Many intellectuals in Lebanon saw the danger of this nationalism and attempted to correct the harm created.  Two Lebanese writers, Hashim al-Madini and Muhammad Ali al-Zubi, co-authored an excellent book entitled The Muslims and Christians in Lebanon (Dar al- Ansar, 1952).  In it they recorded a more factual history of the Phoenicians.  I have translated a portion of this excellent Arabic book in order to give the English reader an insight into the factual history of these famous trading and seafaring people.

Below is a translation of a portion of their version of Phoenician history:

Archaeologists have uncovered in the Middle East many artifices which indicate that successive emigrations from the Arabian Peninsula have been made to Egypt, Iraq and the Greater Syria area since the dawn of history until our present day.

The English historian Phillip Van, the late learned scholar Muhammad Kurd Ali , the former president of the Damascus Arab Academy, the Andalusian historian Ahmad ibn Sacd and Amir Maurice Shihab, Director of the Lebanese Department of Archaeology, all agree that the first people to emigrate from the Arabian Peninsula to what is now Lebanon, were the Canaanites who came in two waves.

The city of Beirut was established in 4000 B.C. by the first wave of these Canaanites and named Fakhidh Kanani ( a branch of Canaan) – indicating that this first wave of Canaanites settled on the Lebanese coast.  Further, archaeologists have found ruins of other cities built by this first wave of Canaanites at about the same time.

The Arab historians, Amir Shakib Arsalan, Isa Maluf, and Dr. Philip Hitti, all write that after emigrating from the Arabian Peninsula this first wave of emigrants became known as Canaanites, a name derived from one of three Arabic words: kan, khana or khadha –  all having the same meaning: ‘to bend down’ or ‘to be low’. 

Hence, the first wave of emigrants was named Canaanites because they settled on the coastal lowlands of the Greater Syria coast.  Their Semitic brothers who also came from the Arabian Peninsula and settled in the Syrian highlands came to be known as Aramaeans, from the old Arabic/Semitic word arm, found in the Bible and the Qur’an and meaning ‘lofty’ or ‘high’.

Historians consider the first wave of Canaanite emigration as a pathfinder for the second wave of Canaanites who later came to be known as Phoenicians.  The name Phoenician was not what the second wave of Canaanites called themselves but it was given to them by the Greeks – a name derived from the Greek word, ponikijo, meaning ‘purple’.  The Canaanites who had settled on the Syrian coastline were renowned for trading in both a purple dye and the colored fabrics produced with this dye.

The emigration of the second wave of Canaanites was not made during a short period of time but continued for 500 years, from 3000 B.C. to 2500 B.C.  The famous archaeologist Arnot, discovered a statue of Astrate, the Canaanite or Phoenician goddess, in the first homeland of these people – the Arabian Peninsula.  To be more precise, Arnot’s discovery of the statue took place amongst the ruins left by the Himyarite civilization of South Arabia.                         

Later, in the Chaldean ruins of Iraq, the same statue of this goddess was found indicating that the Chaldeans brought this goddess with them when they emigrated from the Arabian Peninsula to Iraq.  In later centuries, the Canaanites or Phoenicians took this goddess with them to the coastal lands of the Syrian/Lebanese shores.

Strabon, a Greek traveler, and geographer who lived in the first century A.D., wrote that he saw with his own eyes in two Phoenician cities, Sur and Arwad, in Bahrain. Strabon goes on to relate that the inhabitants of these two cities talked to him about the journeys made by their forefathers to the Syrian coast. 

These same stories are also confirmed by the great Greek traveler Herodotus four and a half centuries before the time of Strabon.  He relates that when he visited the Temple of Baal-Melquart in Phoenicia, he asked the priests and men of knowledge about their first homeland.  They all answered without hesitation: Bahrain. 

The French historian, Lirchy, in his translation of the works of Herodotus, notes that when this Greek traveler talked about a people, he always tried to satisfy himself as to their origin and the former lands from where they came.  Hence, his story about Phoenicia was not an isolated tale.

Francais Lenormand, a learned French writer, ascertained that the stories told by Herodotus relating to Phoenicia, the tales the inhabitants used to relate among themselves and the stories that were narrated by Strabon, generally conclude that the second wave of Canaanites emigrated from the Arabian Peninsula.  They moved from Bahrain to al-Qatif in eastern Arabia then to Lebanon by way of Iraq.

The origins of these people were also attested to by the historian Trogh Bomby and the French writer René Dussaud, who, relying on the verification of the scholar Winkler, wrote that ‘the Arabian Peninsula was the first homeland of all the Semitic people who, after their departure from that Peninsula, became known under various names, such as Babylonians, Assyrians, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Nabateans, etc.  These two scholarly writers conclude, after much research, that the name ‘Arab’ is synonymous with the name ‘Semitic’.

The Adnani Arabs, who originated in the Arabian Peninsula, are without a doubt the Chaldeans.  This historical fact is attested to by Father Anastas al-Karmali who wrote: ‘The Chaldeans and Assyrians originate from an ancient Arab named Kaldah and this name was not lost for we find this name among the companions of the Prophet.  Even in our day, there is still a tribe in Hadhramaut in South Yemen called Chaldeans.’

Al-Karmali concluded after his in-depth study of Arabic, which he referred to as ‘the mother Semitic tongue’, that the ancient Arab peoples such as the Babylonians, Assyrians, Canaanites, and other tribes spoke only dialects of this language.

The scholarly priest Louis Rahmani also came to the same conclusion.  He writes: ‘The languages that were spoken by the Semitic tribes, such as the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Arameans, Syriacs, Nabateans, etc., all were one with different dialects and every dialect was named after the people who spoke it, but all are derived from the mother tongue Arabic.  Just as in our present day, the dialects of the Egyptians, Iraqis, Syrians or Moroccans relate to the people who speak these Arabic dialects.  For example, if historians discussed the dialect of Iraq in the past, they would say, for clarification, ‘the Babylonian’.  The relationship of Babylonian to the modern Iraqi dialect is the same as Old English is to modern English’.

What we gain from the research of these scholars and what has been uncovered by archaeologists is that the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula from before the dawn of history until our era were and are one, with one language.   If they are called at times ‘Semitic’ and at times ‘Arab’, it makes no difference for these are only synonymous names for the same people.  As for the specific use of the word ‘Arab’ to designate only one of these Semitic tribes, this is due to general use and the evolution of this word throughout the centuries.

From the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula sprung the Iraqi, Yemeni, Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian and the other Arab people of our day. Historians did not find any difference between the Aramean dialect of the Nabateans and Palmyreans – Aramaic being the language of Syria for twenty centuries – and the dialects of the other Arab tribes such as the Canaanites, Phoenicians, Syriacs, etc.

Scholars and archaeologists agree that the mother Semitic tongue of all these tribes that emigrated from the Arabian Peninsula was the Arabic language which has always been evolving until our era.  Due to this development, historical researchers have found some differences between the language of the tribes which emigrated to the Fertile Crescent after the Islamic conquest, carrying the language of the Qur’an and the language of the tribes who had emigrated in the previous centuries. 

The scholar, Father Lamens understood this when he wrote: ‘As for the people of Syria, their dialect is Aramean while the rest of the people speak an Arabic dialect somewhat different from the language of the Our’an.  A great number of historians, western and eastern, ancient and modern, and many archaeologists all agree that the first homeland of the Phoenicians was the Arabian Peninsula where they were nomadic Arabs, knowing only their herds of animals and the nomadic way of life.

Their remains in al-Qatif in the Arabian Peninsula are well known and their settling for a time in Iraq is attested to by a tablet found in Tel al-Amarna in Egypt.  The tablet contains a message from the king of the Phoenicians to the Pharaoh, their master, written in the Babylonian dialect which they had learned while in Babylon and continued to use when they settled on the Lebanese coast.”

Hashim al-Madini and Muhammad cAli al-Zucbi, are to be thanked for bringing to light the factual history of the Phoenicians.  However, these two authors were not the only writers who asserted that the Phoenicians are Arabs like the brother Semite tribes.  There were many others.

Sabatino Moscati, Professor of Semitic Philology at the University of Rome, in his book The World of the Phoenicians, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1968), quotes Donald Harden who states that the Phoenicians were a part of the waves of migrating Semites who came from Arabia or the Arabian Gulf.  Also, in his book Saga America, Dr. Barry Fell (Times Books, New York, 1983) makes an excellent case for the theory that the Punic North African inhabitants, the offspring of the Phoenicians, before the Islamic invasions, were the same people as the men who came carrying the banners of Islam – Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula.

If need be, one could quote many other historians to verify the origin of the Phoenicians, as being the same as that of the Arabs.  There is no doubt that the Phoenicians were a part of the Arab tribes who, like their many other kingship tribes, merged with the conquering Arabs of the seventh century to create the Arab world we know today.

The Lebanese are a part of this world, no different than any other part.  Not the Lebanese, but the Tunisians of our day, are the people who have the right to claim Phoenician pedigree. Long after Alexander the Great had destroyed the Phoenician cities on the Syrian/Lebanese coast, the Phoenician/Punic civilization of Carthage flourished.  But it did not serve French interests to create a false Phoenician history for the Tunisians.  Lebanon, with its many religious sects, was a much more fertile land where this false history could take root and flourish.