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on 31 December 2013
This history reads almost like a novel. It is extremely readable and actually quite gripping. I could not put it down and read it in only a few days. This is the only book I know of which traces the entire history of the Phoenicians across their roughly 3000 years of existence. Holst also recounts the contacts the Phoenicians had with the other peoples of the Mediterranean and this allows the reader to put events into context in a very helpful way. The book is more than just a history of the Phoenicians. As the title suggests, it really does explore the whole of the ancient Mediterranean.

In his introduction, Holst states that there are often varying opinions as to what actually happened in history, but that for the sake of brevity, he has simply presented the explanation of each event best supported by the available evidence. While this approach is pragmatic, it robs the reader of the opportunity to understand where there is consensus about the events Holst is reporting, and where he is venturing into more debatable interpretations. In fact, there are many places where he gives detailed accounts of the motivations of the Phoenicians that we cannot possibly know. At times, his narrative is highly speculative, but presented using language which makes it sound like fact.

Overall, he presents a very one-sided view of the Phoenicians as lovers of peace and equality. Though they quite probably were more peaceful and egalitarian than the societies which surrounded them ( as were many people whose prosperity was based predominantly on trade), it is probable that things were far more nuanced and changeable than the impression Holst gives us. Having said that, Holst does provide us at the end of the book with internet links to papers he has presented on some of the more debatable themes in the book so that the reader can follow these up.

Overall, there is a lot of new material in the book and it brings all the information together into a coherent and fascinating narrative. Despite the one-sidedness, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. However, if you want to balance out your view of the Phoenicians I suggest also reading 'Carthage Must be Destroyed' by Richard Miles after you finish 'Phoenician Secrets'.
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on 16 June 2011
It's great to see there is more to the Phoenicians and other people of the ancient Mediterranean than most books ever show us. I liked that the sources for these things include classical writers such as Aristotle who wrote about democracies at Carthage, Minoan Crete and Sparta as well as Athens. Herodotus, Thucydides and many others are included, as are archaeologists from the Middle East, the Greek isles, Spain, and many places in between. It would have been good to have more depth and discussion in some parts. But as it is, the lives of many interesting people and the significant events they lived through keep this from being just a dusty academic trek. It is a remarkably revealing view of the ancient Mediterranean and a pleasure to read.
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on 22 May 2014
What do you know about Phoenicians? Not a lot I guess. A gap in the school curriculum's history quota. Buy this, be entranced by purple dye, origins of iron age Greeks and God knows what else - Hannibal for instance??
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on 9 August 2014
This book is important and yet rather easy-going as for the reading entertainment it may represent. Yet it is at times very irksome to find out that many events are evokeD, enumerated, stated and yet quite many dates are not given formally, I mean "twenty years later" and other phrases like that are not a proper way to date an event. And quite a few events have no clear date. This is supposed to be a book of history written by a historian and there is no clear time line in the book.

The second thing is that he assumes too much we know what he is speaking about. He is not writing a book for specialists but a book for the wide public. His general tone of story telling more than history telling makes it easy, personal, reader-friendly, but at times the author assumes we know and he puts Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides in the same sentence presented as "classical playwrights" in the same period, Pericles' golden age of Athens, in the same theater of Dionysius and Socrates is in the next line. This does not give us enough about the three of them when we know Aeschylus was 81 when he died and at that moment Sophocles was 39, Euripides only 26, and Socrates hardly 17. The absence of such details makes time fuzzy and we have difficulty following the flow of time.

If we stay on this idea of the timeline, the book is clear and yet not that clear. The books sets the beginning around 6000 BCE but the author does not specify where the Phoenicians were coming from. The Phoenicians are Semitic. There were no Semites in the Levant from 80,000 BCE to 36,000 BCE. So did they arrive after the ice-age and then where did they come from, the Arabic Peninsula, the Southern Levant (and where from before) or Egypt? Are they part of the migration that brought Semitic people back into the Levant around 36,000 BCE before the Ice Age or are they part of a migration that took place after the Ice Age? The book insists tremendously on the close collaboration between David and especially Solomon with Hiram, the King of Tyre. Both are Semitic, but are they connected or are they only commercial acquaintances? We know where Solomon comes from, though there still is some fuzziness about the arrival of Jews and their settling in the Levant, with two kingdoms that developed in those days, Israel and Judah. Are the Phoenicians in continuation with these Hebrews or Jews coming from Egypt, We cannot just be satisfied with the idea that the Phoenicians appeared around 6,000 BCE in what is today Lebanon.

On the other hand he is clearer about the end with two events. First the destruction of Tyre in 332 BCE by Alexander the Great who did not destroy the other Phoenician cities in Lebanon or the Middle East and in fact cooperated with them. Second the destruction of Carthage by the Romans in 149-146 BCE. Then in his last chapter he wonders where these Phoenicians are today? First their language seems to have disappeared but yet Lebanon speaks a dialect of Arabic, hence the Semitic language has been kept in continuity though it is the Arabic side of the Semitic family that was retained, not the Hebrew side of it and we must keep in mind in Jesus' time the standard spoken Semitic language in the Levant was Aramaic, with Syriac further north, which is a dialect of Aramaic. We also know that modern Hebrew is a recent creation or recreation that was imported into the Levant and not original to that part of the world. He sees the Lebanese as the heirs of Phoenician society and principles, but what about the language and the culture? In spite of the enormous massacres that resulted from the resistance of Phoenicians to invaders, like in Tyre: 8,000 people killed, 30,000 sold into slavery and 2,000 Phoenician youths impaled on the coast as retaliation to the killing of Alexander's emissaries; or in Carthage: door-to-door slaughtering of most of the population and selling of the survivors into slavery; most of the Phoenicians survived, went on practicing their commerce and other economic activities, but they blended in surrounding societies. But where is the Phoenician language gone? We are speaking of an enormous voluntary diaspora that survived the destruction of Tyre and Carthage. The other diaspora in this region of the world and just a couple of centuries later, a diaspora that was not voluntary at all, the Jews, after the destruction of Jerusalem, and yet they retained their language, both the old language of the Bible and the logic of it to the point of being able to reinvent a common modern spoken and written brand of Hebrew.

That's the real mystery.

But thus linguistic approach opens up many other questions. He speaks of the original inhabitants of Greece and Crete, the Pelasgians but he does not speak of their language. It cannot be a Semitic language, nor an Indo-European language. If they are the real original population, they have gone through the Ice Age, hence they are the original population of Europe which was like the original population of Anatolia speaking an agglutinative language of the Turkic family. The other instance in Europe is Basque, still spoken in France and Spain. In the same way he says the Etruscans came from the North at a time when the Indo-Europeans were moving into the vast plains of Central Europe en route to western Europe: I am talking of the Indo-European branches that will give the Slavic languages, the Germanic (including Scandinavian) languages and the Celtic languages. Once again, it would be nice to try to identify the language of these Etruscans who could very well like the Pelasgians be survivors of the original Turkic population of Europe. It is not enough to say we do not know. The question has to be asked and if these Etruscans were "civilized" as the author says, we can wonder if they are the descendants of the Gravettians who were extremely advanced when they lived in Central European plains some 30,000 or 35,000 years ago long before the Ice Age and thus of the Turkic linguistic family. After if 75-80% of European DNA comes from that older population and only 20% from the Indo-European post Ice Age immigrating population, the older Turkic-speaking population must be somewhere in these millennia after the Ice Age.

The best part of the book is the seven principles he identifies in Phoenician culture. But once again they are not listed clearly anywhere, the seven of them. So let me list them:

1- international trade (p. 44);
2- creating partnerships (p. 44);
3- respect for women (their main goddess was Mother Nature, Our Lady) (p. 44);
4- religious tolerance (p. 50);
5- peaceful resolution of differences and living a peaceful life (p. 51);
6- equality and sharing the wealth (note: nowhere does the author mention the existence or absence of slavery in this society) (p. 66);
7- strong preference for privacy and even a degree of secrecy in their personal and professional affairs (p. 75).

And I will add an eighth principle as stated in the book:

8- their penchant for mixing the roles of government, business and religion (p. 129).

The author is adamant about the fact that these principles enabled the Phoenicians to survive and thrive in spite of all the invaders, looters, hostile migrants or conquerors they were confronted to during the nearly six millennia during which they existed. One point here: Byblos was not the first massive stone city because at least one was built around 9,500 BCE, hence more than three thousand years before in Gobleki Tepe, not so far away from Byblos. By the way Byblos which is said to be a Greek name for the city comes from the Semitic root BBL. Byblos means "book." The root is very complex and it seems to refer to the action of using language to express a meaning with a lot of derived words we know like "Babel" and the eponymous Tower, "babble" and of course "Bible" which is not a simple ordinary book, but the book in which the verb of God is recorded. The city of Byblos is thus the city in which the wisdom of the divinity is realized, made true and real. I regret the author just indicates the "book" meaning of Byblos. It is slightly too short. And the fact that it is not the name the Phoenicians used fort this city does not change the fact that "book" is very short. That leads me to say that the principles the author has identified are like the commandments of their Mother Nature divinity, the supreme wisdom of their vision of the world entirely divine and inhabited by the divinity in its multiplicity of forms and uniqueness of essence.

We finally come to the alphabet.

He is not clear enough on the fact that this alphabet needed the existence of previous writing systems to be invented. The first thing that has to be invented by man is a writing system, that is to say to come to representing the sound of what you say with some symbolic visible artifact or item that can be reproduced at will by someone who knows how to do it. He does not differentiate the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians (and he does not clearly indicate the evolution from pure hieroglyphics to utilitarian lexemes and to isolated sound (the initial sound of the word represented by the hieroglyphics). Note the Celtic writing system in Ireland and probably the whole Celtic world, Ogham, is based on the same principle: using twenty words for twenty trees as the name of the initial letters of these tree names and attaching to them a symbol that is not representative of anything. In the same way the Runes of Germanic languages are based on the same principle of using the names of various items as the names of the first letters of these items and attaching to them a symbol that is schematically significant.

The Sumerian system is quite different because it is arbitrary. It is a syllabic writing system each syllable being represented by a certain composition of the same two elements: two different impressions of a stylus in the clay of the tablet. Then these syllabic arbitrary elements can be associated into more complex words or sentences. Some syllables can be reduced to one vowel.

The Phoenician invention is not a full alphabet the way we understand it in standard linguistics. It is a consonantal alphabet with only one vowel having a sign of its own, the vowel /a/ called "aleph" in Phoenician when it is at the initial of a word, like "Adam." The system behind is the one I have just indicated for Celtic or Germanic languages: the consonant is the initial letter of a word and this consonant is named after this word. The written symbol is not gratuitous: it is a schematized representation of the object designated by the word. This process of using a word to provide the first letter of it as a letter in the alphabet is a very vast method used in many civilizations, and we have not studied them all, far from it. Note in our area here, the Etruscans have left a lot of inscriptions but they used the Greek alphabet to write their language and yet we cannot qualify the language itself, essentially because we haven't tried yet to use a phylogenic approach.

What the author says then about the Greek alphabet is by far a little bit short. Greek is an indo-European language and a consonantal alphabet is not enough. The Greek invented the vowels which created then a real alphabet since the words could be written phonetically, one sign per consonant and one sign per vowel whereas Phoenician like most Semitic languages only wrote the consonants (and aleph when at the initial of a word) and added diacritic signs over or under the consonants to indicate the vowel sounds attached to those consonants in those particular words. Note modern Hebrew does not use the diacritic signs in print, particularly in the press. Reading then is guessing the word from its consonant roots and the place in the utterance that gives the part of speech and syntax.

A very fascinating book altogether in spite of some shortcomings because the general vision and the general tone make these Phoenicians very close and reader-friendly.
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on 5 September 2014
Excellent book
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