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Volume 15, Number 5September/October 1964

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Middleman Of History

Wave after wave, the invaders came, but Byblos rose each time more prosperous than ever...

Written by John Ballantine

Ur of the Chaldees was more civilized, Mesopotamian Babylon more populous, Cretan Knossus mightier, and the dynastic Egyptian capital of Thebes incomparably more majestic, but the record for antiquity and tenacious longevity probably goes to what is today the small, little known Lebanese town of Byblos.

Slumbering peacefully in the warm sun of the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, Byblos can remember when those great cities of the past blazed forth to dominate, each in its turn, the fortunes of the ancient world, only to decline and be forgotten except as vague names and dates to generations of squirming schoolboys.

Yet all the while Byblos, which contests the claims of Jericho, Erbil and Damascus to be the world's oldest continuously inhabited city, went quietly about its business of serving as middleman in the vast Mediterranean trade. So adroitly did it retain the good will, or at least the neutrality, of the powers of the moment in a warring world that it not only survived repeated invasion and destruction but rose each time more prosperous.

In its ultimate impact on world history, too, Byblos outshone its more celebrated contemporaries, for besides valuable timber, wheat, oil, wine and glass transported by their pine ships, the Phoenician merchant-captains of Byblos carried the length and breadth of the Mediterranean Sea an infinitely more precious cargo—the alphabet. Their customers eagerly adopted the invention and molded it according to their needs and tastes into the many alphabets we know today—the Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Sanskrit, to name a few—and thus made possible the easy accumulation and transmission of ideas and information upon which all civilizations are built.

The Greeks, who purchased Egyptian papyrus from Byblos, immortalized the city's name by giving the diminutive biblion to the paper-like product imported from it. In time the term was applied to any book written on papyrus, and early in the Christian era came to be reserved for the Christians' most important book—the Bible.

With an abundance of papyrus available, the business-minded Phoenicians used it for their bills of sale, contracts, deeds, prospectuses and ledger accounts, writing swiftly with an alphabet of 22 letters while less advanced nations still used the cumbersome syllabic script either written on papyrus or chiseled out of solid rock, or incised complicated wedge-marks—cuneiform—in soft clay. Ironically, many of the stone and clay inscriptions, though eroded by intervening centuries, are legible today, while the papyrus was destroyed by fire or decayed with age. Thus, the nation most responsible for the spread of the ancient world's twin blessings of papyrus and alphabetic writing is itself but meagerly represented by historical records. It remains to this day a land with a largely unfathomed past.

The little evidence that survives at Byblos in the form of funerary inscriptions, tombs and temples, pot sherds and fragments of buildings, indicates that while the city was constantly changing its profile and masters, it maintained throughout its long history the essential character of a trading center. This role stemmed directly from its geographical situation. Crowded onto a thin stretch of coastline, cut off from the deserts of Syria to the east by the looming Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges paralleling the coast, Byblos was at once partially protected from the power struggles of the interior and forced to look to the sea for its living.

The first known dwellers of Byblos were Neolithic men of some 8,000 years ago, whose villages, covering more than eight acres, boasted such refinements as houses with beaten-earth walls and burnished clay floors. Physically, they were remarkably like present-day inhabitants—long-headed and with delicate features, but a good deal shorter, averaging only five feet in height. This race of men ruled the eastern Mediterranean seaboard from about 6000 to 4000 B.C., until a new civilization appeared.

Early Bronze Age man, with tools of metal that could cut down men as well as grain, submerged New Stone Age man with his primitive flint axes and sickles. He also knew how to fashion pointed-bottomed amphorae, jars kept upright by being imbedded in sand or earth, to store wine and olive oil.

It was in this period, before 3000 B.C., that Byblos established its first sea-borne trade with Egypt, which was to become in turn its best source of raw materials, its principal market, its colonizer and overlord, and finally its weak and despised enemy when the power of the pharaohs had withered.

The economies of Egypt and Phoenicia (or Canaan, as it was then called), were in many ways complementary. Egypt lacked wood for ships and roofing, grapes for wine, olive oil, and resins for mummification, all of which Canaan had in abundance. In return, Byblos and the other three Canaanite city-states of Sidon, Tyre and Aradus, which came into prominence in this epoch, received papyrus, grain and gold.

The Book of Ezekiel lists, as items of Canaan's burgeoning trade, slaves and brass vessels from Ionia, silver, tin, iron and lead from Spain, linen from Egypt, and lambs and goats from the Arabian Peninsula. Byblos and its sister city-states, in fact, performed the same function that England would discharge centuries later: it capitalized on its mastery of the seas to control trade and eliminate competition for its manufactured products—possibly history's first instance of mercantilism at work.

The people of Byblos in time became as mixed as its trade. As its prosperity increased, the city and its fertile coastal plain attracted Semites from Arabia, Amorites, Hittites, Hurrians, Mitannians, Hyksos (misnamed the Shepherd Kings), Egyptians, Aramaeans, Assyrians, Persians and, in still later ages, Greeks under Alexander, Romans under the Caesars, Muslim Arabs, European Crusaders, even the Free French under General Charles de Gaulle.

Some came as peaceful traders, others as arrogant conquerors, still others as refugees from political persecution in their own lands. Byblos opened its gates to those who came in peace, conciliated those who bore the bloodstained sword, and made such an art of patience and diplomacy that the city outlasted them all, friend and foe alike. Meanwhile, its canny citizens neglected no means of buying cheap and selling dear—and the enemy was often the best customer.

The Byblos of today is an enormous wedding cake, layer upon layer of anthropological and historical riches from which archeologists have nibbled only bits of the icing. A shaft sunk vertically through the center of the ruins would reveal the vestiges of the successive masters of Byblos, who sought to blot out the memory of former rulers simply by building a new city on the remains of the old. Excavations at Byblos by the French archeologist Maurice Dunand have peeled back strips of the past—at one place to the days of the Crusaders, at another to the time of King Ahiram, at yet another to the period of Egyptian domination of 2000 B.C.

The digging has raised far more questions than it has answered, for to lay bare a complete stratum at, say, the level of 1000 B.C. would necessitate the destruction of all traces of civilizations of more recent times. The archeologist has thus been forced to string together such provocative bits of information as could be unearthed piecemeal on a thread of speculation and hypothesis, sometimes with gaps of centuries between solid facts. What has emerged clearly, however, is the remarkable story of the Phoenicians from the time they seized their independence from Egypt in 1200 B.C. at the zenith of their power and launched what was one of the most aggressive campaigns of trading and colonization in ancient history.

Expert seamen and navigators, the Phoenicians were soon reported by the Greek historian Herodotus—and modern research seems to bear him out—to have circumnavigated the continent of Africa, some 2,000 years before the Portuguese. Certainly the Phoenicians made the Mediterranean their private lake. In their square-rigged ships with two banks of oars they cruised incredible distances, beyond the Pillars of Hercules to the Scilly Isles off Britain, and probably even to the Azores in the mid-Atlantic, in a never-ending search for new goods to trade and new customers to buy them.

From the British Isles the Phoenicians obtained lead and tin, bartering pottery and salt with the Cornish miners in return. The tin was then used in Phoenician factories for making weapons, which they traded to Egypt and the tribes of Asia for still other commodities. The most precious local product the Phoenicians had to offer was the purple dye they obtained by a tedious boiling and processing of the tiny shellfish Murex Trunculus, a dye so rare that to be "born to the purple" was synonymous with royal rank. Indicative of the industry's importance to the economy is the fact that Phoenicia is derived from the Greek word for the color of the dye—phoinix. Because they were master ship builders as well as sailors, the Phoenicians were commissioned by King Solomon to build the first fleet from his area in history. Pine logs were floated from Mt. Hermon down the Leontes River to the sea, and shaped into men-of-war at Sidon and Tyre. The mountains behind Byblos also provided Solomon with materials for his temple. As reported in I Kings, Solomon sent 30,000 men to his friend King Hiram of Tyre, under whose protection were collected in one month the "cedars of Lebanon," wood of the fir tree, and building stone used to construct Solomon's temple in Jerusalem.

So vital were the sea trade routes to the survival of Byblos that every effort was made to conceal them from such business rivals as the Johnny-come-lately Greeks and Romans. Phoenician sea captains had standing orders to elude any ship that followed them, whatever the cost. Sometimes the cost was high. If he couldn't shake his shadow, the Phoenician captain ran his vessel onto a reef, destroying his own command as well as that of the close-following pursuer. He was secure in the knowledge that the state would pay for his ship as well as its cargo, for after all, wasn't the ruling council of elders composed exclusively of sea captains?

When even the most heroic efforts failed to maintain the Phoenician monopoly over Mediterranean trade, the Phoenicians took the logical step of guaranteeing both ends of their trade routes by establishing trading stations abroad. As citizens of a small, unmilitary nation, intent on trade rather than conquest, the Phoenicians were welcomed as immigrants almost everywhere. When a promising area was unpopulated or underdeveloped, they established full-scale colonies, built their trading posts, and opened their doors for business.

Starting close to home, the Phoenicians founded cities on the island of Cyprus, only 90 miles away, then pushed on in widening circles to establish bases in Rhodes, Crete, Malta, Sardinia, Sicily, and finally on the mainland of North Africa and Spain. Gades (Cadiz) in Spain and Utica in present-day Tunisia, both founded about 800 B.C., became mighty entrepots and anchors of the Phoenician empire.

The Phoenician colony of Carthage, in North Africa, which soon overshadowed its mother country and aroused the hatred of Rome by its commercial prowess, was founded, according to tradition, in the year 814 B.C.; it was destroyed utterly after the Carthaginian leader Hannibal had almost succeeded in conquering Rome. The great cities of Palermo in Sicily and Cordoba in Spain were both sites of powerful and prosperous Phoenician settlements. As one historian put it, "The Phoenicians were, relative to their age, the greatest traders and mariners of all time."

This ascendancy was all the more remarkable when it is remembered that Byblos itself fell time and time again to such invaders as the Persians, slogging up the coast to pillage Greece, or those heading south toward Asia for the same purpose, such as Alexander the Great and his Macedonians.

Not that Byblos didn't try to keep the invading hordes at arm's length: they added to the city's walls seven times, until at last they were 130 feet thick in places, apparently forgetting that the customary mode of entry was over, rather than through, a city's walls. Nevertheless, Byblos managed to survive each incursion with its commercial institutions intact. The probability is that Byblos was worth more alive than dead, providing an outlet for the plunder of its temporary master so long as it preserved—as it invariably did—a careful political neutrality. It was thus to the ancient world what Hong Kong, delicately poised between East and West, is today.

Though the people of Byblos probably never suspected it, not even their priceless Tyrian purple approached, in its value to future ages, their utility of the writing system with which they listed their inventories, solicited orders and settled accounts. Until the Phoenicians adopted the basic idea from Egypt, the most sophisticated writing system was a shorthand version, called "hieratic," of the laborious picture-writing used by Egypt's priestly class. Even hieratic was too cumbersome and too slow for the Phoenicians, whose nimble wits and acquisitive instincts demanded a rapid and efficient system to record their ceaseless transactions.

In short order the Phoenicians adapted it to their own requirements by reducing hieratic's 40-odd characters to the 22 consonantal sound pattern of the language spoken in Phoenicia. The Greeks, ever ready to borrow a good thing, picked up the system from Phoenician traders, and called it by the Greek version of the first two letters— alpha-beta. They introduced their own complexities by not only writing from right to left, as the Phoenicians did, but also from left to right in alternate lines. Despite the clumsiness of the system, it was the vehicle by which the Greeks recorded their masterpieces of science and literature, and opened the window to man's understanding of himself.

By the sixth century B.C. Phoenician power had begun to wane. In 586 B.C. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon seized Palestine and broke the back of Phoenician power along the Lebanese coast. Sidon had already been leveled by the Assyrian Sennacherib in 675, and Tyre in 322 was razed by Alexander the Great, whom it had the colossal bad judgment to defy, with the result that 8,000 Tyrians were slain, 2,000 crucified, and the remaining 30,000 sold into slavery. Carthage, the jewel of Phoenicia, was obliterated by the Romans in 146 B.C., and the city's site plowed and sown with salt so that no living thing would grow there again.

But Byblos itself endured. Successive conquerors seized the city and used it as a provincial headquarters, before slipping reluctantly under the waves of history. The city's highly-developed talent for survival, accommodation and compromise, honed to a razor-keen edge by millennia of living side-by-side with powerful enemies, brought it bobbing to the surface like a cork every time. It survived every change, including that of the city's name from Gebal to Egyptian Giibla, to Greek Byblos to its modern name Jbail.

The power and the splendor of Byblos is gone, but not the mystery. The massive but lonely Crusader castle which rears above Byblos stands empty, guarding only the phantoms of time-vanquished civilizations. The secrets of the ancient city lie tantalizingly underfoot, yet thousands of years away.

John Ballantine is a former public relations writer for Texaco Inc. He has contributed articles on science and economics to European publications and is now part-time correspondent in the Middle East for several American newspapers.

This article appeared on pages 3-9 of the September/October 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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