Tuesday, October 11, 2011

#2 - Talking to an Academic Professional

During my research on the Phoenicians, I had the opportunity to explore several aspects of their culture and understanding. My interview with Professor Hamblin here at BYU confirmed a lot of my knowledge about the culture and their educational practices, and also brought to light a few of the details that I missed.  Overall, it was an interesting experience to meet with him, because I didn't know him at all, and he didn't know me, (I don't think he even learned my name) and the first time we talked I called him and asked if I could interview him (after doing my research on different professors' specialties).  So picture this, well, awkward setting, when I show up to speak to him during his office hours, though it is an appointment, and he is late because of a department staff meeting, and we finally sit down and I start asking questions and he gives answers and I take some very messy notes.  Below is basically what I learned from our discussion about the Phoenicians and their culture and oral tradition.  

First we talked about the education of the priests and scribes, who spent most of their time at the temple. The Phoenicians were polytheistic, and their head god was called Baal, but this pantheon of gods allowed for an entire class or group of people to be called as priests. Though I didn't notice any special emphasis in the power or prestige of this class of people over, say, the merchants, there was still a bit of an educational inequality because of the job they had to do. In the temples, priests had to learn a variety of subjects to adequately perform their duties and lead the people in religious worship. They had to memorize specific rituals and the words that accompanied them, including songs, sacrifices, and the mythology (stories of the gods and their creation myths). They also had to be knowledgeable in mathematics and astronomy to be able to correctly schedule the big feast and festival days in the calendar. The temples were also quite wealthy because of the sacrifices and the sacred donations of the people, and so the priests were also skilled in practical book keeping. Professor Hamblin also commented that books were actually very rare, and that there might be one book for the whole temple and all its attendant priests, which then required an oral education system.

Next we talked about the effect that trading and the huge mercantile empire of the Phoenicians had on their educational systems, and oral versus written knowledge. Besides the priests being learned, there were scribes for the priests and the everyday people, and there were merchants who were somewhat educated. Professor Hamblin theorized that the Phoenician alphabet (that was then passed on the Greeks and disseminated by them) was originally created by merchants, who knew the basics of writing and recording, but wanted a simpler way to keep shipping records than the existing hieroglyphics and cuneiform. This distilled alphabet led into an era of lay literacy, where more people than just the priests knew how to write their language. This alphabet might have also become a vehicle for what Professor Hamblin called synchronism, where the neighboring cultures merge and share stories and beliefs, borrowing from each other. Definitely the trading between the different societies made the Phoenicians very susceptible to the sort of melting pot analogy, though history shows that ideas flowed both ways, influencing each other's cultures. Though at first glance it is hard to tell who came up with it first, and where to credit the similarities in cultures, certain ideas and rituals can be traced to their origin in one society or the other.

Finally we discussed the lack of written records of the Phoenicians. Though it is true that their papyrus has decayed away, there are still several writing samples on clay or stone tablets, and metal plates. But due to the lack of space, and difficulty with which they are made, these samples do not contain very many oral records, histories and epics that “everyone” (of their time and place) knows. So we don't have any great epics like Homer, but we do have more records than I originally thought. And just a cool fact: the Phoenician city-state of Byblos was the center of the papyrus trade in the Mediterranean.

To wrap up this interview commentary, and this unit, it was really cool for me to try and study the oral history and educational system of a society that is principally known in history for being on the cutting edge of the written world. They invented one of the first alphabets of the ancient world. It has been a fun ride and an interesting experience to study the Phoenicians and get to know them as a people and fellow citizens in the realm of oral knowledge.


  1. I want to be the center of the papyrus trade! I had no idea that they were the first ones to come up with an alphabet. I look forward to learning more about that as we get into the written unit. I like the concept of Synchronism. How do you think that relates to our discussion of parallel cultures earlier this week?

  2. First of all, a note on Hamblin: I LOVE THAT MAN. He was my Ancient Near Eastern History professor when I was in Jerusalem, and you always leave Jerusalem with a unique love for the professors you have there.

    On to the post: It seems like you had a very interesting and productive conversation. I thought it was very interesting to read what Professor Hamblin had to say about the creation of the alphabet--the part about merchants creating it out of necessity. That's cool. It makes sense, that merchants would be going between groups enough that they required some sort of standardized system. It's just an interesting idea about the evolution of the alphabet. I wonder if there are other occupational groups that have contributed to the development of language in a particular way like that.