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Greater Phoenicia

2. Culture

The Semitic language Aramaic supplanted Akkadian as the most frequently spoken language of the Assyrian Empire (1100-612 BC).  It originated in upper Mesopotamia and was widely used by Assyrian and Persian administrations.   Source: Hornblower, sv. Aramaic Thus, the dominant language of Phoenicia, including Syria and Mesopotamia, during the 1st century BC and 1st century AD was Aramaic.  This was the language which was most likely spoken by Jesus Christ and understood by the listeners of his teachings, although Greek, the language of the books of the New Testament of the Bible, was also widely spoken in the region.  For this reason, Phoenicia is significant in the linguistic and religious culture of the period, because it is the region where the Aramaic language spoken by Christ was in use.   Aramaic was replaced by Arabic as the dominant language of Lebanon and the Middle East in the 7th century AD.   Syriac, which is the dialect of Aramaic of the city of Edessa in north west Mesopotamia, became the main language in the Middle East for the Christian Church.

Source: phoenicia.org, section on Culture: A Study in the Aramaic Language of Jesus; Hornblower, sv. Aramaic


In addition to their fame in weaving and cloth manufacture, which included the use of purple dye, inscriptions record that the Phoenicians produced significant crafts and artwork in the media of ivory, metal, glass, terra cotta, stone and wood.  Indeed, it can be considered that the contribution of the Phoenicians in the production of small objects was their main artistic contribution to the region of the Mediterranean.   Source: Moscati, 306. They borrowed ideas from various civilisations with whom they traded, but their skill was the adaptation of these in their own Phoenician creations.  The works of art were produced for many purposes, including religious dedications and trade objects.  The objects which survive are small ones, and they are in durable precious and semiprecious materials.  Less durable materials, such as wood and the famous purple dyed fabric, usually do not survive.

Source: phoenicia.org, section on Culture: Phoenician Art; Along the routes of the Phoenicians, 65-85, 113-8.


Borrowing from many different foreign designs and styles, Phoenician art employs unusual modifications and combinations of motifs to create an eclectic mixture, which is its distinct characteristic.  Significant sources for the designs were Egyptian, Assyrian and Greek art.  Foreign styles were often imitated directly by Phoenician artists, which makes the recognition of actual Phoenician products problematical.  Ivory objects, stone stelae (carved pillars) and terracotta masks are some of the principal products of Phoenician artists.
Source: phoenicia.org, section on Culture: Phoenician Art; Along the routes of the Phoenicians.


Like much which survives from antiquity, most of the objects come from tombs or funerary contexts.  In addition to the tombs themselves, such as stone sarcophagi, the objects found in them include scarabs, amulets, jewellery, terracottas, amulets, ivory boxes, metal bowls and cosmetic items. These objects represent the status and rank of the dead.  Source: phoenicia.org, section on Culture: Phoenician Art


Because of the extensive trade routes of the Phoenicians, their objects are spread widely to the areas where they travelled.  Thus, the Mediterranean cultures, such as the Greeks, Etruscans, North Africans and Iberians in Spain, as well as those of the Middle East, such as the Assyrians and the other Semites, were recipients of Phoenician items and were influenced by them.   Due to the lack of sufficient excavation of archaeological sites in Phoenicia itself, the Phoenician colonies and trading posts are the main source of Phoenician art, which is particularly well represented from Sicily, Sardinia, Tunisia and Spain, and mainly date from 7th-2nd centuries BC.   Source: phoenicia.org, section on Culture: Phoenician Art


Ivory carving was an important product of Phoenician craftsmen.  There are many significant ivories which date from the 8th-7th centuries BC, and were inlays for furniture.  As well as being found in Phoenicia, at Zaraphath and Byblos, they are well known from Megiddo, Samaria, and other sites in Palestine, in the palaces of Assyrian cities, on Cyprus and in the western Mediterranean.   There is a strong Egyptian influence on the very decorated Levantine style with motifs of lotus flowers, winged sphinxes and human figures with Egyptian headdresses.

Source: Moscati, 456-71; phoenicia.org, section on Culture: Phoenician Sculpture and Crafts


Glassblowing was probably invented in the coastal area of Phoenicia in the 1st century BC or earlier.  Rougher production of glass products  existed in the Middle East for many centuries before this, but the Phoenicians perfected a technique of blowing clear glass, which has been influential on civilisation ever since.  This led to glass vessels being extensively used throughout the Roman Empire.  Source: Moscati, 536-61.


Some of the most significant artistic treasures found in Phoenicia are the sarcophagi from the cemeteries in Sidon.  In 1887, there was the chance discovery of the Royal Necropolis of Sidon, which held several very significant marble sarcophagi, including the Sarcophagus of the Lycian, two in the style of a Greek temple, the Sarcophagus of the Weepers (Source: Markoe, 64, fig. 10), which has statues of weeping women, and the Sarcophagus of Alexander, which has scenes from the life of Alexander the Great including battles and hunting scenes, and the Sarcophagus of the Satrap.   These monuments date from the 4th century BC and the marble for them came from the Greek island of Paros in the Aegean Sea, which is the source of famous cream coloured marble and had long been known to Phoenician traders, and the Pentelic quarries near Athens, which was the source of marble for the buildings on the Athenian acropolis at Athens.  The sarcophagi were painted, as was frequent for ancient marble sculpture from their period of manufacture, and much of the original colour still remains on them.   These were excavated by the authorities of the Ottoman Empire, which at that time controlled the area of Lebanon, and transported to Istanbul, then named Constantinople, where they were placed on display in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, where they remain today.

Source: phoenicia.org, section on Culture: Phoenician Treasures


Other significant sculptural creations are the white marble anthropoid sarcophagi, which are found in significant quantities in the cemeteries of Sidon, in particular a find south of Sidon of six in 1861.  This form of sarcophagus is Egyptian in origin, and the earlier ones are often of Egyptian style.   They have various forms, but those dating from the 5th-4th century BC have a carved human head and smooth bodies, and they were carved in Phoenicia, but are influenced by Greek workmanship.   Source: Moscati, 355. Since the sarcophagos closely resembles a human body, the term ‘anthropoid’, which comes from the Greek word anthropos meaning ‘man’ is used to describe their design.   Indeed, similar sarcophagi are found on the islands of the Aegean Sea, where Phoenician traders were based and interacted with the Greeks.  The largest collection of these sarcophagi in the world, including twenty-six from Sidon, is in the Beirut National Museum.

Source: Moscati, 355-9; phoenicia.org, section on Culture: Phoenician Treasures


Ancient scholars were aware of the importance of the Phoenicians in the development of the arts.   St Clement of Alexandria (AD c.150-c.215), the Christian theologian who lived in Egypt, talks about this in his work  The Stromata (Miscellanies) (Bk I, Ch. 16), where he states that the origin of the arts can be found in non-Greek cultures such as Phoenician and Carthaginian.  The examples which he gives are Cadmus the Phoenician was the inventor of the alphabet and of stonecutting and was the discoverer of the gold mines of the Pangaean mountains in Northern Greece, and that the Sidonians were the first to build the trireme.

Source: Phoenicia.org, section on St Clement: Origin of Arts and Philosophy Non-Greek


Thus, the Phoenicians are not simply traders for which they are widely known, but, as an intermediary, they were influential in this way by spreading to the Greeks, the alphabet, the ‘orientalising’ decorative motifs in art, which are best known from Greek pottery, architectural designs, and Phoenician standards of weights and measures.

Source: phoenicia.org, section on Phoenician Alphabet, Mother of Modern Writing