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Pots of bones and diving for treasure – the quest for the Phoenicians

© Alice Fordham, Lebanon NOW Staff , December 5, 2008
Reproduced by kind permission of the author.

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Archaeologist Joseph Gari works on a Phoenician burial (Alice Fordham)

“I made a voyage to Tyre in Phoenicia, hearing there was a temple of Hercules at that place, very highly venerated. I visited the temple, and found it richly adorned with a number of offerings, among which were two pillars, one of pure gold, the other of emerald, shining with great brilliancy at night…They said that the temple was built at the same time that the city was founded, and that the foundation of the city took place two thousand three hundred years ago.” Herodotus, ca. 440 BC

“Its merchants were kings, honored all over the world.” Isaiah, 23:8

"We are still looking for the royal tombs," says Ali Badawi, the archaeologist who oversees every bone fragment and temple pediment unearthed in South Lebanon.

The glory of the Phoenicians is in the Bible, they are claimed as ancestors by snooty Lebanese, and they were ancient millionaires who shipped purple dye and cedar wood to the world’s wealthy. Their main cities were Sur and Saida, and, the thinking goes, somewhere in South Lebanon these kingly traders must be buried in tombs gleaming in purple and gold. The South has had many distractions from its archaeological heritage, but as violence has ebbed, the hunt for Lebanon’s past is afoot again.

Grave news

One site south of the Litani has lately seized the imagination. Just east of Sur this autumn, a Spanish team discovered a graveyard with dozens of earthenware urns and cremated Phoenicians. One of them, Laura Trelliso, sits outside in the sunshine in the Al-Bass ruins in Sur and peers into a pot of what used, more than 2,000 years ago, to be a person.

“We can learn a great deal from looking at their remains,” she tells NOW Extra. “We will take them back to Spain and reconstruct their position in the urn. We can see whether they were well nourished, whether they had any diseases.”

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Constanza Rodriguez Segovia holds a Phoenician statue (Alice Fordham)

They were buried, Trelliso says, with wine jars and plates, possessions or gifts taken to the grave.  Badawi says, too, that he worked on the excavation of a cemetery discovered in 1997, where many of the graves had cremated remains in one jar, buried alongside an empty jar – perhaps kept for the soul. Among the dead they found carved Egyptian-style scarab beetles and comic art. The Phoenicians, it seems, were as adept at adopting international trends and making jokes as the modern Lebanese. “They didn’t take life seriously,” says Badawi.
 
However, he says, “We would like to find more artistic material from the Phoenicians and more inscriptions.” It’s a romantic, and indeed a Romantic, idea, and Badawi points to lumps on the hilly horizon where settlements were and where he would eventually like to dig. The Phoenicians are credited with inventing the alphabet, but there is precious little in the way of written material to analyze.

Wrecks appeal

But there is plenty for wistful souls to romanticize, as marine archaeologists have been diving the sea around Sur. The seafaring Phoenicians were a trading people, and the floor of the Mediterranean around South Lebanon is thick with ancient wrecks. “There are columns over there…and there…” says Badawi, standing on the magnificent ruins at the harbor and gesturing out at the water. Another Spanish archaeologist, Constanza Rodriguez Seguovia, has been diving the area and is now working to preserve the artifacts. She picks up a terracotta statue, pulled this year from the sea after more than two millennia. “This is Astarte, a fertility goddess, from the fifth century BC” she says.

Of course, it is conflict that has stilted progress in unearthing the Phoenicians and their descendants in Lebanon. Badawi tells how the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) was originally run by Maurice Chehab, who devoted himself to the archaeology of South Lebanon from 1928 to 1982, during which epic span his work was often interrupted by war.

Archaeology stopped in 1978, and didn’t really start again until the mid 1990s. Badawi points out a site that was bombed in 2006, and says that his primary goal for the sites near the border, and under the Rashdiyeh Palestinian camp, is not to dig them for the moment, but just to protect them from harm until the area is more stable.

Politics and Phoenicia

Asked about the politics of the Phoenicians excavations, the way that since the 1800s, the Lebanese have idealized the Phoenician civilization and claimed it as their ancestry, Badawi is dismissive. “Effective people,” he says, “do not do that anymore.” It is understandable for south Lebanese to claim a magnificent ancestry when years of war have left Saida and Sur battered and impoverished. But, ancestors or not, the ongoing discovery of Phoenician material remains has offered the people of the area some civic pride.

“The government and the municipality are pouring money into our projects,” says Badawi as he strolls along a newly-restored sea front, “because they see how much potential there is for tourism. We didn’t have too many people visit in 2006 or 2007, but the numbers were up this year.” Next year, or the year after, he hopes to have glass-bottomed boats and diving trips in the harbor so people can see the sunken columns. Of course, it is not just Phoenicians who built in the area – there are magnificent Roman ruins also. There is an 18th century library and seafront houses revamped by the DGA, and plans for a proper museum.

“We started renovating buildings,” says Badawi, “but now people are applying to renovate places themselves and building apartment blocks. People are coming back to the area.”

Rich imagination

In his reconsideration of the history of Lebanon, historian Kamal Salibi said that the way some Lebanese lean on Phoenicia as part of the country’s identity, “developed more as a cult than a reasoned political theory,” and featured in tourist pamphlets. A recent report by the Genographic Project reported that Phoenician ancestry is by no means unique to Lebanon. As many as one in 17 men living today on the coasts of North Africa and southern Europe may have a Phoenician direct male-line ancestor.

But while one could argue that it is unhealthy for an unstable country to invent a glorious past for itself, few could deny the excitement of unearthing evidence of an ancient and puzzling people. Looking out at on the sea at Sur, it would take a hard heart not to picture boats full of purple and Phoenicians pulling out of the harbor. Turning back to the war-worn houses of Sur being renovated by people who want a sea view of the newly touristy promenade, it seems like good news that the dream of the Phoenicians is still drawing people to come, like Herodotus, to stand in their ruins and imagine their glory.

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