Rootless Cosmopolitans

De Agostini Picture Library/G. Dagli Orti/Bridgeman Images
Phoenician glass masks from Carthage (modern-day Tunisia), third century BC

In her book In Search of the Phoenicians Josephine Quinn has opened up the history of a people who have been thoroughly familiar to European scholars since the nineteenth century, when Ernest Renan traveled to the Near East to study them. His Mission de Phénicie (1864) drew upon observations he made in 1860–1861 and laid the foundation for a view of the Phoenicians as a nation with a coherent ethnic identity. Others such as George Rawlinson, in his History of Phoenicia (1889), took up Renan’s position, and their work was reinforced by the earlier decipherment of the Phoenician alphabet by the numismatist Jean-Jacques Barthélémy in the mid-eighteenth century. The language seemed to provide a philological foundation for the unifying vision of Renan and his successors.

Quinn has taken aim at the entire edifice of Phoenician history and culture. In doing so she has raised major questions of ethnic identity as well as shown modern claims to a presumed cultural heritage from antiquity to be part of a political agenda. Her work is richly and authoritatively documented and admirably free of ideological prejudices. At the end there can be no doubt that Quinn’s argument is decisive: there is scarcely anything left of the supposed Near Eastern nation that colonized North Africa and western Spain.

The demolition that Quinn has carried out has its immediate origins in a great exhibition, “I Fenici,” at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice in 1988. The organizer of the exhibition (which was sponsored by Fiat) was the Semitic philologist Sabatino Moscati, who had posed two decades earlier the awkward and still-unanswered question of who exactly the Phoenicians were. At Venice he tried hard to give publicity to what they did, and above all to suggest that they were really one people. Quinn aptly quotes a witticism that was current at the time: “Sabatino Moscati invented the Phoenicians, Gianni Agnelli manufactured them.”

There is no doubt that the Phoenicians, whose origins go back to the ancient Lebanese cities of Tyre and Sidon in the late second millennium BC, were prominent in the ancient Mediterranean. They were famous for commerce and seafaring. Athough their language was Semitic, the shape of their letters has been forever associated with the emergence of the Greek alphabet. As merchants they turned up in remote and unrelated places such as Delos, Carthage, and Cádiz, and their tireless god Melqart was transformed into the Greek Heracles, with European wanderings in Spain and France above all, where traces of his legendary travel can still be detected. As Quinn reminds us in the arresting opening of her book, the Phoenicians were even thought to have reached Ireland and to have become the progenitors of the Irish.

In the Near East the Lebanese of the twentieth century…

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