Phoenician Legacy

The Phoenicians occupied modern day Lebanon from about 1550 BC to 300 BC.  They were a trading and seafaring people who left an incredible legacy throughout the Mediterranean basin that persists to this day.

Their greatest contribution to humanity was undoubtedly their alphabet.  The Phoenician alphabet is considered to be the ancestor of almost all modern alphabets. The Phoenicians were the first state-level society to widely implement a phonetic alphabet, which in turn, extended literacy beyond a narrow caste of priests.  It lead to a more democratic and flatter social structure throughout the Mediterranean.  This democratization of knowledge in turn inspired the renowned Greek constitutional government and fomented a spectacular leap in literacy and literary production.  The oral traditions of Greek mythology began to be transcribed onto Egyptian papyrus, which had an enormous influence on later cultures, namely the Etruscans and Romans.  The Phoenicians were in fact the first shipping pioneers to explore beyond the Strait of Gibralter.  Their commercial network spanned the Mediterranean, where they colonized many outposts, including Carthage.

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In Carthage, they spoke Punic, a variety of Phoenician language, and became the Roman Empire’s main rival.  Rome and Carthage would fight three major battles, known as the Punic Wars, which would eventually determine the course of Western civilization.  Hannibal, a Carthaginan commander, lead a successful attack on Rome by crossing the Alps on war elephants.  Rome eventually vanquished Carthage and subsumed its territory.

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The Phoenician influence persisted, both through the Roman Empire, and through successive Middle Eastern civilizations.  Hebrew and Arabic languages both stem from Phoenician, and Lebanon has inherited Phoenicia’s rich literary tradition.  Lebanon, in fact, boasts some of the highest education rates in the region, many of its citizens are trilingual, and Beirut has long been a regional book publishing capital.

It is interesting to me how highly valued Greek and Roman cultural output is, while the  underlying Phoenician influence is little known.  Without the innovative Phoenician alphabet, we might not have Greek and Roman mythology in the canon of Western literature.

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English Words of Arabic Origin

You may not realize it, but many English words have their origins in Arabic language.  Here are some pretty common ones whose backgrounds I think are particularly interesting:

Alcohol (الكحل) – Originally meaning a finely ground or sifted material, and eventually meaning  a purified material or “quintessence,” achieved through a distillation process.

Algebra (الجبر) – Meaning “completing or restoring broken parts.”  The mathematical meaning derives from a 9th century book that was not translated into Latin until the 12th century.  The origins of Algebra can be dated back to the Babylonians, who developed advanced mathematical systems which included algorithms.

ImagePage from the 9th century algebra book, “The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing”

Candy (قندي) – Stemming from the word, “qand,” meaning sugar cane, which was cultivated with artificial irrigation by the medieval Arabs and exported to the Latins.

Coffee (قهوة) – Coffee was first cultivated in Yemen in the 15th century, and quickly spread throughout the region, becoming particularly popular in Turkey.  Cafe Mocha was named after the Yemeni port and coffee exporting city of Mocha.

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Turkish Coffee

Ghoul (غهول) – Ghouls are a staple of Arabic folklore, and were first introduced to the Western world in a French translation of 1,001 Nights.

ghoul

Giraffe (جرافة) – Giraffes and their distinctive appearance were discussed by medieval Arab writers.  The animal was first introduced to Italy from a zoo in Cairo in the late 13th century.

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Mattress (مطرح) – Stemmed from the Arabic verb “tarah,” to throw, and became known as a padded blanket to lie upon.

Sugar (سكر) – Cane sugar originated in India but was produced by medieval Arabs on a larger scale.  The modern words for sugar in English, French, Italian, Spanish, and German all stem from Arabic.

There are dozens of other examples like these.  I think they all serve as an important reminder of how interconnected different cultures are, whether or not we realize it.