In Search of the Phoenicians
Josephine Quinn
Princeton University Press
360pp, 75 black-and-white illustrations,
11 maps
Hardback, £27.95/$35.00

We know who the Phoenicians were. In the 12th century BC, as the late Bronze Age civilisations declined, the Phoenicians launched a trading empire from the ports of what is now Lebanon. Their exports, it is said, included their Semitic alphabet, which the Greeks reworked for the Hellenic market; and Europa, abducted from the beach at Byblos by Zeus in the form of a bull. Closer to home, the Bible records that a Phoenician 'king', Hiram of Tyre, supplied both the cedarwood and the artisans who built the First Temple in Jerusalem for Solomon. Further away in time and place, in the 3rd century BC, Hannibal and the Phoenician colony of Carthage nearly defeated the Romans in the Punic Wars. But did the Phoenicians know who they were?

Josephine Quinn thinks not. Nothing, she believes, 'did in fact unite the Phoenicians in their own eyes or those of their neighbour'. There is no evidence to suggest that they called themselves 'Phoenicians' or 'Canaanites'. The noun phoinix is a Greek word for 'people from the Levant'. The 'Phoenicians' shared elements of their language, a religious cult, trading activities and a geographical habitat with peoples that were not and still are not designated as Phoenicians. Like Hiram of Tyre, they derived their collective identity from their home-port, or their family.

Furthermore, Quinn argues that the modern idea of 'the Phoenician people' is not 'a real historical object, but rather a product of… scholarly and political ideologies' dating from the Renaissance, and inseparable from the definition of modern nationhood. The oldest self-descriptive use of 'Phoenician' dates to 5th-century BC Sicily – after the 'traditional' terminus of Phoenician history, but contemporary with the rise of Carthage.

The Carthaginians do meet the criteria of nationhood, not least because they possessed a common myth of origin: they believed themselves to be descended from 'Phoenicians'. This does not mean that they were. The same goes for the 19th-century Lebanese Maronites who called for a modern 'Phoenicianism', oriented towards Europe and away from Arabia; and the nautical and dynastic pretensions of Hannibal Gaddafi, son of the late Libyan leader, who commissioned a giant yacht called Phoenicia. 

Quinn's analysis of how ideas of modern nationhood have corrupted our understanding of past identities is expert and wide-ranging. On the evidence, the Phoenicians were not a nation 'in their own eyes'. But the evidence is thin. One of the oddest aspects of the Phoenician enigma is that while their Israelite neighbours made prolific use of the Canaanite scripts as they created their nationhood, the Phoenicians left little written evidence. 

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. As Quinn says, 'The identity of the same person could be conceptualised differently in Greek and Phoenician'. There is more emphasis on family and ancestry in the Phoenician inscriptions. yet the Phoenicians did not create Greek-style 'communal institutions'. Perhaps they understood collective identity differently from the Greeks or Hebrews.

A couple of odd identifications in mapping the Near East demonstrate the ease with which geography can slip into anachronisms of nation and state. An 1861 map of what was then the Ottoman Empire includes the Palestine Mandate. A 1920 map includes a state called 'Palestine'. Modern Palestinians claim descent from the ancient Philistines, but the word peleshtim is an Israelite term for the invading Sea Peoples, who were of Aegean, not Canaanitic, origin. Did Goliath see himself as a Philistine? Did Hiram of Tyre know that he was a Phoenician?

Quinn, by using documentary absence to open the entire field of 'Phoenician' history, significantly widens the range of interpretation about a people, if that is what they were, whose story, if it was singular, is at the heart of our own origin myths.
Dominic Green