In one of the early adventures of Asterix and Obelix, a Phoenician trade ship takes the world’s funniest Celtic warriors from the Gaul’s last village free from Roman rule to Queen Cleopatra in the land of the Nile. Now, of course this is but an image in a comic book, but still, is it possible that the Phoenicians, generally known as the greatest seafarers of antiquity, reached Brittany? Or perhaps sailed even further?
There’s no doubt that Phoenicians were well established all over the Mediterranean. Archeological remains prove they lived in a vast network of cities at Cyprus, Malta, Sicily, Spain and the African coast, where Carthage became the powerbroker of the western Mediterranean till the rise of Rome.
Archeological finds take us even further, past Gibraltar’s “Pillars of Hercules,” to Phoenician settlements on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and Portugal. But that’s it. So far no physical proof of any further exploits has been found. However, there are some spectacular written sources.
First of all, there are two Latin texts that relate of the journey of Himilco, who in the 5th century BC sailed from Carthage around Iberia (Spain) to northern Europe. According to these sources, Himilco did not go ashore in Brittany to pick up any Celtic warriors, but crossed the Channel to Great Britain.
“It’s a story not that unlikely,” said Helen Sadr, professor of Archeology at the American University of Beirut. “The Phoenicians always had a keen interest in precious metals and Britain was renowned for its tin, which was already traded over land. What’s more, finds in Britain prove close contacts with Iberia, which for centuries was a colony of Carthage. Combine that with the Phoenician settlements found in Portugal and a journey to England is not that far-fetched.”
A second story about Phoenician exploits stems from the Greek “father of history” Herodotus. In a chapter on the world’s (three) continents in “Histories,” he writes that “as for Libya (Africa), we know it to be washed on all sides by the sea, except where it’s attached to Egypt. This discovery was made by Necos, the Egyptian king, who … sent to sea a number of ships manned by Phoenicians, with orders to make it to the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) and return to Egypt.”
According to Herodotus the Phoenicians sailed south from the Red Sea. Every autumn they went ashore, sowed corn and waited till it was ripe to set to sail again. It took them three years to get back to Egypt. “On their return,” Herodotus writes, “they declared I for my part do not believe them that in sailing around Libya they had the sun upon their right hand.”
It should be noted that Herodotus, who was born in the 5th century BC, is also known as “the father of lies” and indeed some of his stories, such as on the man-sized desert ants of Persia, are just fables. He himself said that “my business is to record what people say, I’m by no means bound to believe it.” What furthermore speaks in his favor, is that no one believed his accounts of Amazons and a man-made canal between the Nile and the Red Sea, until archeologists proved both actually existed.
To the Greek historian the changed position of the sun in the southern hemisphere was just too much to believe. “It is precisely for that remark,” said Sadr, “that most scholars believe the story is probably true.”
Third, there’s the journey of Hanno, which stems from a Greek text of the 10th century AD. That’s a bit late for a trip that took place some 1,500 years earlier, yet what makes the text plausible are the incredible details described, which were not generally known in 1,000 AD. According to the text, which is said to be a translation from a much older Phoenician tablet, Hanno set sail from Carthage with 60 ships.
After sailing beyond the Pillars of Hercules, Hanno founded several cities on the coast of today’s Morocco. They passed a river called the Lixos, took translators aboard and sailed for days along a large desert coast until they reached a small island called Cerne, which was situated in the mouth of a large river. According to Hanno, Cerne was as far from the Pillars as is Carthage.
Most scholars agree that the description fits Somalia, and several other texts confirm that the Phoenicians used to trade with Cerne. Sailing onto the river, Hanno and his men saw “mountains crowded with savages clad in skins of wild beasts” and reached a second big river “teeming with crocodiles and hippos.”
They returned to Cerne and sailed further south. Passing the coast, which is described as “mountainous, clad with trees and inhabited by Ethiopians” they reach a large bay where they went ashore. “By day we could see nothing but forest, but by night we saw many fires burning and we heard the sound of flutes and the beating cymbals and drums, and a great din of voices. Fear came upon us and our soothsayers bade us to leave.”
And so they did. Further south they reached a “fiery coast with great streams of fire and lava pouring down into the sea.” The dubbed the volcano “Chariot of the Gods” and continued their journey, till they reached another bay with an “island full of savages.”
“By far the greater number were women with shaggy bodies whom our interpreters called gorillas.” They were unable to catch any of the men, but caught three women, “who bit and mangled those who carried them off.” Hanno’s men decided to kill them and take but their skin to Carthage.
The lively description of the green African coast most probably refers to Cape Verde and Gambia, while the volcano can only be in Guinea or even Cameroon. Again, seeing the settlements in Morocco, and the many existing
references to Cerne, most scholars believe the story is true. If so, the many Lebanese living in West Africa are perhaps but following in the footsteps of their ancient ancestors.
Unfortunately, as both Tyre and Carthage were destroyed to the ground, the main sources of Phoenician civilization were forever lost to mankind. We can only imagine what our view of history would be, if the Greek and Romans had done a less thorough job. Some say, the Phoenicians also sailed to India and even reached America.
Now, the latter is most probably a bit too far-fetched, but fact is, that even if only half the stories above are true, the history and map of the world, both of which are predominantly European, may have to be reviewed considerably. The Street of Magelaen south of the African continent, for example, may have to be renamed Phoenician Street.
THE DAILY STAR;
February. 23, 2004