Tag Archives: art

Tfel-ot-thgir (right-to-left)

Another interesting thing about the Phoenician alphabet: when you write in it, you write from right to left. The words you’re reading here are left-to-right. As the alphabet was adopted by cultures to the west of the Phoenician cities, it was written left-to-right, like our alphabet today. As the alphabet traveled east, it was written right-to-left, like Arabic and Hebrew are still written today.

Solomon built the Temple with cedar wood from Lebanon.

David, the mighty king of Israel, had Phoenician artisan advisors in his court. King Hiram of Tyre was good buds with David’s son, Solomon. It seems natural to assume that the Phoenicians brought the alphabet with them to Israel.


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How my sketches evolve

Probably my best tool for convincing an art director to hire me is my ability to sketch. I like my drawings to look like they came together without much effort. That’s an illusion, of course. To make something look easy you need to put in a bit of work.

Here are the stages of the Hannibal drawing I did for the last post:

1) A rough thumbnail sketch of the idea. Believe it or not, I drew it 10 years ago when I first started planning this book. I like the carelessness of this drawing.

2) I grabbed reference for Hannibal’s elephants and drew this sketch by tracing over the thumbnail and refining it. I added a guy behind the elephant for some drama. I think it looks way overworked, like I’m trying too hard.

3) So I traced over the tracing. This one feels light and fun, like the thumbnail. But, I overlooked one thing…

4) …that howdah needs to be drooping further back on the elephant. That change makes the elephant look even less in control—the balance has shifted—there’s tension because he could go tumbling at any moment. I didn’t redraw the whole sketch, just the howdah.

If I use this image in the printed version of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing, I will paint it traditionally. I will concentrate on keeping it light and fun.

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The Phoenicians were mighty sea-traders. Wherever there’s trade, you can bet there will be armed protection of trade routes and access to markets. The Phoenicians are thought to be the first people to build ships for military use—for a navy. They set up a humongous colony on the north coast of Africa called Carthage. Carthage was on the western side of the Mediterranean—so Phoenician traders had a safe place to land when they were far from home ports in the east.

Eventually Carthage became big and powerful enough that it was a threat to the Roman Empire. The wars between Carthage and Rome were called the Punic Wars. Maybe the Romans couldn’t pronounce the ph sound? Anyhoo, this was the conflict where Hannibal brought his army across the Alps on elephants, and when Carthage was finally conquered the Romans knocked everything down and salted the fields there so nothing would ever grow.

Rabbit hole time: I wonder if our word ‘punish’ comes from how the Romans treated Carthage? I’m noodling around on the search engine thinghy but can’t find a line from ‘phoenician-punic’ to the Latin verb ‘punire.’

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The purple people

It’s a sketch—I’ll paint it in purple

According to the great historian Herodotus, the Phoenicians were called ‘the purple people’ because of the dyed purple cloth they sold. The dye was long-lasting and impossible to wash off their hands. Purple is an expensive pigment (they got it from sea-snails that live inside murex shells). Traditionally, only royalty (or at least the very rich) can afford purple robes.
Take a look at this site about the history of color: http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/intro/purples.html#:~:text=Purple%20is%20typically%20defined%20as%20a%20mixture%20of,violet%2C%20prepared%20in%201859.%20Timeline%20of%20purple%20pigments.

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I’m going to pull a ‘Well, akshually’ and tell you the Phoenician alphabet isn’t quite an alphabet. It’s an abjad. An abjad has consonants but no vowels—no A, E, I, O, U or sometimes Y. You were expected to know how words are pronounced and supply the vowels yourself when you read something written in the Phoenician system.

The word ‘abjad’ comes from smooshing together the first four letters of the Arabic alphabet: alif, bā’, jīm, and dāl.

Pointless rambling for today: There’s a tv show from the 1970s set in the 1950s called Laverne & Shirley. They’re 2 working-class girls from Brooklyn, New York City and speak like Brooklyners. I saw a bit (I can’t find a clip, sorry) where one of the girls is talking about her friend ‘Sheldn’—she pronounces it just that way. It fits with her accent; that’s the way they tawk in Brookln. The punchline: his name really is Sheldn; the ‘o’ was accidentally left out on his birth certificate.

Wikipedia says the Arabic alphabet is the result of the Phoenician alphabet evolving in the Near East, where it took a few different turns from ours in the West. Scroll down to look at the chart.

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A win for the shmos

monopoly (noun)
mo·​nop·​o·​ly | \ mə-ˈnä-p(ə-)lē
1 : exclusive ownership through legal privilege, command of supply, or concerted action
2 : exclusive possession or control

By the way, this is the beauty of the free market. The Egyptian scribes weren’t about to change hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics was job security. Hieroglyphics could be read or written by the scribes only—scribes were an elite class because hieroglyphics is so difficult. The scribes controlled who got to read or write. The scribes had a monopoly. But the Phoenician traders had a big-time need for an efficient writing system. A new technology—the alphabet—was invented, the traders enthusiastically adopted it, and so the scribes’ monopoly was busted up.

Here’s homework (yay!): can you think of a communications technology today that’s owned and closely guarded by a small handful of people? What would happen if someone—maybe you—invented a simple, accessible different technology to replace it?


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Canaanite turquoise miners fool around with hieroglyphics during lunch break

My pals (and Western Civ User’s Guide Irregulars) Ilene L and Jeffrey K each sent me a link to this Nova series on PBS about the origins of the alphabet—in it, archaeologist Orly Goldwasser asserts that a group of Canaanite turquoise miners working in Egypt were fooling around with hieroglyphics and almost-by-accident invented the alphabet. I think it’s a compelling theory—that’s exactly how a creative mind works: by fooling around. Okay so far. If that’s how it happened, their invention would still need to be promoted, spread far-and-wide, made popular. How do you do that?

The beautiful top drawing of an ox head was drawn by an expert drawer. Under that is an ox head as the Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol Aleph. Under that is a pathetic attempt at drawing ox heads by some ham-fisted Canaanite turquoise miner. At the bottom is our letter A.

The Phoenician traders and all their customers needed an efficient writing system to keep business records. The alphabet turned out to be the writing system they needed. The Phoenician trade routes were a communications network—like social media today but without the kitten photos. Those sea-captains visited every port around the Mediterranean Sea. Once the Phoenicians started using the alphabet, everybody started using the alphabet.

And how did the Canaanite miners get their invention to Phoenician sea-captains? You kids who go to Sunday school and Hebrew school knew this one already. Look in the back of your study bibles at the map—the Phoenician cities Sidon, Byblos and Tyre are in the Land of Canaan. Canaanites = Phoenicians.

Very good article here: https://barzilaiendan.com/2012/06/08/cine-a-inventat-alfabetul/

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Twenty-two little letters

‘A’ is ‘Aleph’ and ‘B’ is ‘Beta’—where the word ‘alphabet’ comes from. Aleph and Ayin are glottal stops (‘), like how some people pronounce the double-T in ‘kitten’ or ‘button.’ There are 2 Hs, Ts and Ss—even a third symbol for the impure S, ‘SH.’

The Phoenicians looked at the Egyptian writing system and threw out all the pictograms and ideograms. They kept only the symbols that represented sounds and wound up with a 22 letter alphabet. That’s it. The alphabet was so simple that a sea-captain could write a list of all the stores in his ship without a scribe’s help.

Twenty-two letters! Compare that with the hundreds of symbols (and their variations) you need to memorize so you can understand cuneiform or hieroglyphics or Demotic script. An alphabet of symbols that represent only sounds can be arranged to spell any word you can think of. Suddenly regular shmos could read and write.

Phonetic: a symbol equals sound. Now you know where ‘phonetic’ comes from—those good ol’ Phoenicians.


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A sea-change

Sure, they would have used Demotic script but hieroglyphics is much funnier.

If you own one of these Phoenician trading ships, you’re carrying cloth or papyrus or books or glass or copper or oil. You need to keep track of all that merchandise, how much it cost you and how much you want to sell it for. You’ll be putting in to different ports, unloading some of your cargo and taking on new merchandise. You need to keep records of what you sold and what you bought and who ordered which merch in advance. Egyptian hieroglyphics are way too complicated—even Demotic is cumbersome with symbols for entire syllables—and having a scribe aboard was an additional expense.

The Phoenicians looked at the Egyptian writing system and threw out all the pictograms and ideograms. They kept only the symbols that represented sounds and wound up with a 22 letter alphabet. That’s it. The alphabet was so simple that a sea-captain could write a list of all the stores in his ship without a scribe’s help.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Copper and Tin

Phoenician trade routes

Speaking of copper, let’s take a minute to appreciate that around the Mediterranean, people had stopped making weapons and tools out of stone and had switched over to copper. There was lots of copper to be mined in Cyprus (pronounced KI-proos). You dig up rocks that have copper ore in them and heat ‘em in a blast furnace until the metal oozes out. Copper is a whole lot easier to make things out of than stone. Its only drawback: it’s not the hardest metal and copper blades need to be sharpened constantly. Copper is soft enough that kids put pennies on railroad tracks and a train’s wheels will smoosh ‘em out. YOU MUST NEVER DO THIS.

The Phoenicians were zipping all around the Mediterranean Sea, buying and selling stuff. Eventually one of those sea-captains got brave enough to head out into the Atlantic Ocean and up north to the British Isles. You know what kind of metal they mine in southern England? Tin. So the Phoenicians brought tin back to the Mediterranean and some genius discovered if you combine molten tin and molten copper you get a new, stronger alloy—bronze. That discovery kicked off the Bronze Age.


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