Tag Archives: Phoenicians

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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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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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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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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