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Reading Europe - Germany: Look Who's Back - Episode 2
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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed The Phoenicians. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep.


Here are some notes from the talk after the programme. One of our contributors said that he should have been giving a lecture in his university. Instead he’d asked his students to listen to In Our Time and to discuss it with him as soon as he got back.

While on air we had a message from Damascus. From Damascus!

In Tudor and Renaissance times, when people in this country did not want to think they were French in origin (unlike the colonising force which came across in 1066 and steadily for a couple of centuries afterwards), they decided that they would be Phoenicians instead. The Cornish were particularly keen to be Phoenicians. They said the Phoenicians had come up to the Scilly Isles and then into Cornwall itself, and they had been responsible for Stonehenge and cinnamon in fruit buns, among much else.

The Welsh also wanted to be Phoenicians. The evidence they put forward was the Welsh moustache. They said that living in Wales the Phoenicians had lost their red or ruddy skins, and gone Welsh white. But to maintain their distinction they grew a particular sort of moustache.  Later on, to retrieve some colour, they painted themselves blue. This was called woad. But there were certain Welsh persons convinced that this was a return to the Phoenician.

The Irish, too, decided to be Phoenician because they didn’t want to be British. We find it in several Irish writers, Friel and Heaney included, that they sympathised with the Carthaginians, because the Carthaginians were anti-Roman which stood for being anti-British.

The Phoenicians have had a high old time since they slipped out of history. A very early film made in Spain in 1914, Cabiria, concerned a little blonde girl who was stolen by Phoenician pirates and taken to Carthage to be sacrificed. She was rescued by a Roman soldier and his black slave/servant and huge adventures ensued.

In fact, it seems that because we know so little, if anything, about the Phoenicians since about the 2nd century BC, we can make up whatever we want.

It is significant that Aeneas, on his way from burning Troy to founding Rome, stopped at Carthage, which as a result was the subject of the best book in Virgil’s epic. The story of Dido and Aeneas, and her sacrifice as he sails off to found a new empire, still resonates.

End of notes.

I found it impossible to go for a walk, partly because it was sluicing down and I was not dressed for such a downpour. In Cumberland it would have been bracing.  As the sage said, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing”.  And I had back-to-back-to-back meetings. I try to pack them into one day so that the rest of the time can be free to get on with work.

Met with Tom Morris, the producer, to talk about the next batch of programmes. We have three in prospect and need another half-dozen. Tom is so well-prepared that meetings like this are the quickest and most decisive I think I’ve ever had in my career. Joined by Gwyneth Williams, Controller of Radio 4, who was very pleased to tell us (and we were very pleased to hear) that our audience figures – as measured by an organisation called RAJAR – went up by a quarter of a million in the last three months. These things go up and down, but up is always good. We talked a little about the five programmes that we’re going to do on Magna Carta at the beginning of next year. Gwyneth departed with the RAJAR cake she’d bought for her office. Tom and I had a biscuit with our coffee.

I walked from building to building to those meetings and there was a general sense of trudge everywhere. The Tube strike bit in. Masses of people were heads into the rain up the pavements. Umbrellas threatened to poke out all eyes.  There was almost a sense of refugees. Nothing of course like the Somerset Levels. I can’t think of those two words without remembering that that was where Alfred the Great retreated when England was threatened by the Danes to become Danish, and would have been, had Alfred not gathered his strength and a force in the Somerset Levels where he evaded all attempts to capture him, and came back and defeated the Danes and Christianised them and that is why we’re English today.

Then crawled back home through traffic which probably set new standards for congestion.
Nevertheless … a message from Damascus! Think about that.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg


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  • Comment number 7. Posted by Harry

    on 12 Feb 2014 14:43

    I wouldn't include the peculiar Shell Grotto in Margate in program content as the idea is much too contentious, but it is a very odd experience to visit. With millions of shells meticulously arranged in peculiar patterns quite unlike other follies and grottos. It has no contemporary local history until discovered around 1825 and must have taken many years to decorate. Thanet (or Tanit, a Phoenician God) was of course an island and fits the Phoenician pattern of colonising small defendable islands with good harbours on important routes. The designs in the grotto bear no relation to fashionable shapes in the 18th or, 19th Century, when it is thought to have been built, but several designs do resemble what few examples of Phoenician art I've seen. Certainly very odd and remotely possible that it is an example of the extent of Phoenician 'reach'. Slim evidence, but certainly a bit more than moustache's and whimsy!

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by John Thompson

    on 9 Feb 2014 02:07

    Their great gift to civilization was the alphabet. Phoenician traders of the Mediterranean were the 1st to take over simplified Egyptian symbols and use them to represent consonants. They weren’t interested in vowel-letters,because vowel-letters were not necessary to the writing of Phoenician,which shared these characteristics with other Semitic languages.This meant they were able to do with 22 symbols- a tremendous and epoch-making economy.An unknown scribe in Byblos was the originator. The Egyptians had traded for cedar wood at this very cosmopolitan port.It was also the end of the trade route with Babylonia.This area was to the edge of these great power centres where they could simplify the complexity,the structures of divinity and authority of those centres.There was too much prestige,scholarship and religion in those systems.The alphabet could be used for the mundanity of bureacracy but never for the writings of power and control.The alphabet developed between trading partners as a system of checks and balances.Hieroglyphs were a form of display,cuneiform was a tool of bureacrats,the alphabet was a merchant’s tool,where literacy and numeracy linked. The spread of the alphabet throughout the Mediterranean extended literacy beyond a narrow caste of hierarchical priests.

    What created this system of easily learned and easily-handled letters?Not literature, not religion but trade.They presumably needed to make out their bills and enter their books with some speed: a few quick strokes and there was a memo or delivery note or invoice.Not for them the leisure of hieroglyphics or syllabaries.An Egyptian eye or head,bird or running water must become abstract lines or circles-as with the letters of our own alphabet,which has the same derivation.

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by John Thompson

    on 9 Feb 2014 02:03

    The Phoenicians got their name from others,probably from the Greeks to cover their production of purple dyes from murex shells.Their name for themselves was Canaanites, from a word related to Hebrew kena’ani,which has the meaning ‘merchant’.These inhabitants of Phoenicia,an ancient land corresponding to modern Lebanon with parts of neighbouring Syria and Israel.They were noted merchants and sea traders, and colonized the Mediterranean area in the 1st millenium BC.Their chief cities were Tyre,Sidon and Byblos.Never a kingdom,more a group of city-states (influencing the Greeks later).Their civilization was materially more advanced than that of the people of Israel,but morally they lagged far behind and their cultic practices are condemned by biblical writers. Times of prosperity in Israel often hinged upon good relations with Phoenicia as in Solomon’s reign.Their trading empire stretched from the Tigris to Spain,with cities and colonies set up along the trading routes. They traded raw materials and manufactured goods:pottery,ivory,storage jars, Imperial cloth,glass,timber,metals ,jewellry,and slaves. Democracy spread westwards from the motherland as kingship(exc.Cartage)fades and elite hierarchies.

    Like the Etruscans they are one of the ancient worlds mystery peoples(also Sumerians and Hittites),which emerged from the hinterland of Asia Minor to establish themselves for a few hundred years as the leaders of civilization in the Mediterranean world,nations whose rise and fall have been overshadowed by the later empires of Greece and Rome.Phoenicians and Carthaginians,master mariners of the pre-Colombian Age,cannot speak to us directly.Though we can understand the few Punic records-mostly funerary inscriptions- that do survive;our view would be fuller if the libraries of Carthage had not been destroyed along with the rest of that city!Instead we can only learn about the Phoenicians,Carthaginians and Etruscans from their worst enemies,the Greeks and Romans.They cannot speak for themselves or defend their lives or justify their conduct and so elicit our sympathy and admiration.Their records are too scanty to counteract the accounts of the Greeks and Romans,who detested them.

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by Richard Tomlinson

    on 7 Feb 2014 21:18

    It was a fairly thorough coverage given the time limitation. However there was no mention of the large amount of evidence that Phoenician trading extended beyond the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. For example the Greek historian Herodotus actually records a Phoenician clockwise circumnavigation of Africa in about 600 BC, on behalf of Pharaoh Necho. There is also evidence of their regular trading voyages to Cornwall for tin. There are also more controversial accounts of Phoenician inscriptions found in the Americas (of which I have copies of photographs). The famous Indian epic, the Mahabharata, states that: "The able Panch (Phoenicians) setting out to invade the Earth, brought the whole world under their sway".

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by Phoenicia

    on 7 Feb 2014 19:53

    Sorry, I am a first time user and didn't realize we cannot include web addresses. There are several excellent documentaries on Utube which discuss the Phoenicians; they all suggest the idea that the Phoenicians used child sacrifice was a propaganda lie used in the ancient world to discredit them. Otherwise I appreciated your program on Phoenician culture immensely. Thank you for many worthwhile programs.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by Phoenicia

    on 7 Feb 2014 19:43

    Dear Melvyn, Thank you so much for your discussion of the Phoenicians and early Mediterranean culture. So much fascinating and influential history there which is rarely discussed. However, I did want to call attention to the idea that the Phoenicians practiced child sacrifice. That erroneous assumption has been effectively challenged in a wonderful video you might be interested in. and Apparently they had child cemeteries where children were protected by certain deities. But there is no hard evidence that they sacrificed their children. That was ancient propaganda used to discredit them. They also may have been pacifists, preferring to hire mercenary soldiers to fight for them rather than going to war themselves.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Briantist

    on 7 Feb 2014 18:46

    Re "Met with Tom Morris, the producer, to talk about the next batch of programmes. We have three in prospect and need another half-dozen"

    How about a programme that end with the Ancient Greeks: isn't it time to do a programme about the MYCENAEANS?

    I know you nearly got there with "The Dawn of the Iron Age" (24 Mar 11) but I'm sure you need to a show that ends with the Greeks...

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