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The Greek Alphabet Written by Charlotte P.

The Greek alphabet came from the Phonecians around the year 900 B.C. When the Phonecians invented the alphabet there were 600 symbols. Those symbols took up too much room on the papyrus, so they narrowed it down to 22 symbols. The Greeks borrowed some of the symbols and then they made up some of their own. But the Phonecians, like other cultures, used their symbols to represent consonants and vowel sounds together. The Greeks were the first people to have separate symbols (or letters) to represent vowel sounds. Even the name "alphabet" comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet -- "alpha" and "beta." All later alphabets came from the Greek alphabet.



"THE very interesting problem of the 'origins' of writing is shrouded in a cloud of darkness and is as hard to interpret as the 'origins' of art, architecture, religion, and social institutions, to name only a few of the important aspects of our culture." In this statement Dr. I. J. Gelb (1974), Professor of Linguistics at the University of Chicago, is referring to the so-called 'beginning of writing' in the Mesopotamian Valley slightly more than 5,000 years ago (the two tablets shown on the title page are examples). But the true origin of writing may be even more mysterious--and it may have occurred much earlier than commonly supposed.

How did writing began? Most epigraphers and paleographers agree that the historical evolution of writing occurred in basically four stages: 1) Ideographic; 2) Logographic; 3) Syllabic; 4) Alphabetic. It can be seen from this that alphabetic writing is considered the most advanced of the evolutionary stages (Gelb, 1974).

The development of writing is unidirectional. This means that it will pass through the above four stages in that order and no other. No system of writing can begin naturally with the syllabic or alphabetic stage; if such a case did occur, it could only happen if influenced by another system which had already passed through the earlier stages. A writing system can stop at any given stage (a case of arrested development); it can combine stages as it passes from one stage to another; or it can continue to use more than one stage forever. But no writing system ever studied has ever skipped a stage. This observation led Prof. Gelb to an important discovery concerning the Egyptian and Western Semitic systems which will be discussed.

I will describe the four major stages in extremely brief terms.

In the ideographic stage there is absolutely no relationship between what is transcribed and actual speech sounds. It is basically composed of pictures and readily discerned symbols, designed so that the message is obvious. An example is that practiced among the American Indians before the arrival of the Europeans.

The next stage is the logographic (word-sign) in which each written sign stands for a word in the spoken language, and maintains basically a one-to-one relationship to the spoken words. If one wanted to say "tree," he drew a picture or a symbol of a tree. If one wanted to say "three trees," he could either draw three trees, or he could precede the picture of a tree with a numerical symbol having the meaning "three". However, some things are not so easily pictured.

Abstractions, such as life, love, beauty, etc., were difficult to express in this manner. The usual device to overcome this difficulty was the use of homonyms (words with the same sounds). For instance, the ancient Sumerian word for "life" was ti. The same Sumerian word also meant "arrow". It was easy enough to incise an arrow, which could be read as "life" if the context demanded it. This technique of expression is also known as rebus writing.

Proper names presented a greater difficulty. As long as names like White Cloud and Running Bear were used there was no problem. But how do you write down names like Assurbanipal, Shalmanezer or Zephnathpaaneah using a logogram? This led to phonetization.

The next major stage is the syllabary. The principle of phonetization arose when words could not be indicated by mere pictures. This vital step occurred when complex words were "sounded out" using separate signs. Thus each sign represented a single syllable (a consonant followed by a vowel sound). Such a system is known as a syllabary.

With logographic writing thousands of word-signs have to be memorized in order to have a good working vocabulary of the language to be written. Also, over a period of time once easily recognizable pictures become conventionalized to the point where they must be memorized in order to be recognized. In a syllabary the number of signs to be memorized drops to a few hundred.

Even in a syllabary, to delineate each vowel sound following the initial consonantal sound would require a large number of written signs (especially since some syllables also end with a consonantal sound which may be different from the initial sound). But since everyone in a given culture already knows how to pronounce the words, it is possible to eliminate differentiations in vowel sounds with a minimum of sacrifice in accuracy. In such systems, the sound of a or e was understood as standard. Sometimes a few of the leftover signs from the preceding logographic system were retained for use as determinatives. The Egyptian hieroglyphic system, which lasted some 3,000 years, retained a large number of logograms until its extinction.

However, all such 'trimmed down' syllabic systems ran into one common problem: LONG vowels! In the Western Semitic system (Phoenician, Amorite, Hebrew, etc) long vowels were absolutely necessary in expressing plurals. Something had to be done to let the reader know when a given vowel should be long rather than short. The answer was plenic writing. Plenic writing incorporated the use of the so-called "weak" consonants (such a w and y) to substitute for a long vowel sound (usually w for long "o" or "u" and y for long "i"). It is the use of plenic writing which has led to the misidentification of these systems of writing as "consonantal alphabets," when in reality they are syllabaries.

Paleographers saw these "weak" syllabic signs as mere vowels, and consequently interpreted plenic writing to be a development toward a partial or incomplete vowel system for the so-called "consonantal alphabets" rather than for what it really was. It was because of this misconception that the Phoenicians were accredited with "inventing" the first alphabet. But plenic writing has been found in a number of other systems which are assuredly and definitely syllabic. It has been through comparisons of all these systems of writing that the error was finally recognized. Prof. Gelb sees the distinction as extremely important in studying the evolution of the structure of writing systems.

However, plenic writing did make clear the dire need to express all the vowel sounds in every word to further improve accuracy in the transmission of knowledge, which led to the development of a true alphabet.

This brings us to the alphabetic stage of writing. We have just seen that the so-called "alphabet" used by the Phoenicians was in reality a syllabary incorporating the technique of plenic writing. The so-called "vowels" of plenic writing are in reality no vowels at all, but rather certain syllabic signs used as memnic devices to alert the reader to the presence of a long vowel-sound.

It is to the Greeks that the credit must go for the invention of a true alphabet; since the addition of a few more signs representing true vowel-sounds (which enabled them to follow each initial consonantal sound with the appropriate vowel-sound), accomplished the final result of "a single character for every single sound," which is the definition of a true alphabet.

Evolution of letters from early Phoenician to the Roman

So where does this leave the Phoenicians and the Atlanteans? The most that we can accredit the Phoenicians with is the forms of the characters used in their system. And, as we have seen, these may have come from Atlantis! At least, they may have been "western" rather than "eastern" in origin. The letters on this page (since they evolved from the "Phoenician alphabet") may have had their origin in Atlantis! That question is explored in the articles on the controversial Glozel Tablets, and classical testimony which add weight to this hypothesis.



According to ancient Greek legends Cadmus was a Phoenician prince who founded Thebes in Boeotia, and among several other things invented the alphabet. In spite of the popularity of this tradition (supported by Herodotus, 450 B.C.), this was doubted even in ancient times. For instance, Tacitus says:

The Egyptians also claim to have invented the alphabet, which the Phoenicians . . . appropriated the glory, giving out that they had discovered what they had really been taught. (Annals 11.14)

We know now that as early as 3,000 B.C. the beginnings of a writing system existed on Crete, and by 2,000 B.C. the Minoans were in possession of a syllabic "alphabet"1 which we have named Linear A (Jackson, 1981). And this was hundreds of years before Cadmus' time. We have learned also that, far from being illiterate as once thought, the Achaean Greeks modified Linear A slightly in order to use it for their own language (Linear B). In other words, the Achaean Greeks were using an alphabet hundreds of years before the "Phoenician" version of the alphabet was introduced into Greece at the time of the Dorian invasion.

It is a given that the Roman letters we use today evolved from the actual characters used by the Phoenicians of the Near East. But did the Phoenicians invent the letters, or did they merely learn of them from earlier sources. Diodorus (1st Cent. B.C.) expresses caution in the acceptance of this Phoenician "invention":

Men tell us . . . that the Phoenicians were not the first to make the discovery of letters; but that they did no more than change the form of the letters; whereupon the majority of mankind made use of the way of writing them as the Phoenicians devised. (Lib. Hist., Book V).

There are ancient and venerable traditions which point to a western, rather than an eastern, origin of our alphabet. In the same work Diodorus mentions that the Phoenicians had discovered a marvelous Atlantic island during their excursions outside Gibraltar. Atlantis was long gone, of course, but the survivors of that catastrophe still existed on the Canary Islands (and possibly others) and it is known that the Guanches inhabiting those islands possessed a system of characters with which the Phoenicians could have been familiar.

Manetho (250 B.C.) also recorded that the Egyptians themselves derived the elements of their writing from an island in the west. Ancient Egyptian papyri also attribute the invention of writing to the god Thoth who ruled a "Western Domain" (Book of the Dead, Chap. LXXXV). These same papyri declare that Thoth came from an Island of Flame (Atlantis was very volcanic, and perished in flames). The Turin Papyrus (1300 B.C.) lists Thoth as one of the ten kings who reigned during the "reign of the gods," more than 12,000 years ago.

Strabo, the Greek historian, records a tradition that Tartessos (on the Atlantic coast of Spain) had written records that go back 7,000 years before their time (500 B.C.), which is equivalent to saying that writing was being utilized on the Atlantic coast of Spain 9,500 years ago. These are strong traditions suggesting the existence of an older, unnamed culture in the west that had long been familiar with the art of writing.

One of the most important finds are the several hundreds of stones dating from the final stages of the Ice Age in a cave at Mas d'Azil in France. The 12,000-year-old Azilian rocks are painted with designs "which show astonishing similarity with later Greek and Latin letters" (Behn, 1948). Some experts have speculated that the cave might have been a writing school for Ice Age children.

Also, there are the bone calendars (date 20,000 B.C.), which until properly analyzed, could possibly represent a form of writing according to experts in anthropology and paleography (Marshack, 1972). Can a relationship be demonstrated between some of the better known western "alphabetic" (syllabic) writing systems and our Glozel prototype? The answer is, "Yes!"

First, there are the inscriptions on the Canary Islands (especially those on Hierro and Grand Canary): the script resembles Numidian and appears to be composed of some twenty four characters and a number of ideograms (Cline, 1953). There is also a "kinship" recognized between some of these Canary Island scripts and the Iberian and Sinai "alphabets" (Wolfel, 1942).

The Numidian (Berber) writing is "alphabetic" (technically a syllabary; Gelb, 1974). The Tuaregs of North Africa speak Tamachek, but their written language, T'ifinagh, is also "alphabetic" (syllabic) and is closely related to the Basque language. T'ifinagh is being forgotten before it can be either properly classified or translated (Friedrich, 1957). The close similarity between all these "western" systems, and their difference from the "eastern" cuneiform (Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Hittite, Ugaritic) systems cannot be ignored.

Even the Aymara Indians living along the shores of Lake Titicaca in South America were in possession of an ideographic form of writing when the Spanish conquistadors appeared on the scene (in spite of a ban on writing put in effect by the 63rd Inca ruler, Topu Gaui Pachacuti). Some of these signs correspond exactly to the characters found on the Canary Island tablets and among the Tuaregs and Berbers in North Africa (Wilkins, 1946).

Does all this sound familiar somehow? Basques, Berbers, Tuaregs, Guanches, and even the Aymaras of South America? We are talking about the same areas, the same people, the same language, and the same culture called "Atlantic" by learned scholars. In other words, our Cro-Magnon-Atlanteans.

There must have been a "western" prototype (which I believe we have in the Glozel Tablets), completely independent of the eastern writing system which evolved later in Sumar, for all these "Atlantic" systems to be so much alike. Prof. W. Z. Ripley (1899) agrees: "A system of writing seems also to have been invented in western Europe as far back as the Stone Age." We will demonstrate the validity of this startling statement in the article entitled Ancient Alphabets Compared.

1It is demonstrated on this website that all the so-called "alphabets" before the Greek invention of the vowel signs are technically syllabaries, but the topic under discussion here is the characters which form the components of these early writing systems. [Back]


Behn, F., Vor- und Fruhgeshichte, Wiesbaden, 1948.

Budge, E. A. Wallis, (translator) The Book of the Dead, University Books, New Hyde Park, 1960.

Champollion, Jean Francois, (translator) The Turin Papyrus, 1300 B.C.

Cline, Walter, "Berber Dialects and Berber Scripts," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 9, 1953.

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History (Oldfather's translation), Book V, 8 B.C.

Friedrich, Johannes, "Extinct Languages," Philosophical Library Inc., New York, 1957.

Herodotus, "History": Book V, Terpsichore 58-59 (Rawlinson's translation), 450 B.C.

Jackson, Donald, "The Story of Writing," Taplinger Publishing Co., New York, 1981.

Manetho, Egyptian Dynasties, circa. 250 B.C.

Marshack, Alexander, "The Roots of Civilization," McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, 1972.

Ripley, W. Z., "The Races of Europe," D. Appleton & Co., New York, 1899.

Strabo of Amasya, Geography (63 B.C.-24 A.D), translated by H. L. Jones, Loeb edition, 1917-1932.

Tacitus, Cornelius, Annals (55 A.D.-177 A.D.), translated by A. J. Church & W. J. Brodribb, Great Books, 1952.

Wilkins, Harold T., "Mysteries of Ancient South America," Rider & Co., London, 1946.

Wolfel, D., "Die Hauptprobleme Weissafrikas," Archiv fur Anthropologie, 27, 1942.


Barry B. Powell, Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Pp. xxv, 280. ISBN 0521371570. Reviewed by Mabel L. Lang, Bryn Mawr College.

Some may question whether making the case for Wade-Gery's 1949 suggestion that the Greek alphabet may have been fashioned explicitly in order to record hexametric verse is worth doing at all; Powell has shown in this book that it is worth doing well. Replete with maps, chronological charts, and a careful review of all possibly relevant evidence, alphabetical, epigraphical and Homeric, the case as presented here still rests ultimately more on possibilities and a willingness to believe than on demonstrable probabilities.

First, in Chapter 1, a survey of what can be known about the creation of the Greek alphabet from the West Semitic syllabary is seen to suggest a single Euboian adapter working with a Phoenician informant about 800 B.C., first learning in their proper order the names and shapes of the signs and then experimenting with the usefulness of their phonetic values for the writing of Greek words: converting to use as vowels those four Semitic signs the names of which, at least, represent sounds rather than consonants (alf, he, yod, ain) and splitting off from the consonant wau its vocalic counterpart; and attempting, with some confusion, to find uses for all four Semitic sibilants.

The product, or Ur-alphabet, being transmitted first to colonists and neighbors, then throughout Greece, incurred the variations characteristic of the epichoric alphabets as a result of error, ignorance, or efforts to simplify or differentiate. The argument is intricate and masterly in its use particularly of the supplemental letters (phi, chi, psi) to show how the adapter, in inventing the chi-form and psi-form as signs for aspirated kappa and koppa (just as he had invented the phi-form for aspirated pi, imitating his use of Semitic tet for aspirated tau), set the stage for the division between the so-called "blue" (chi-form for chi) and "red" (psi-form for chi) epichoric alphabets. Why the chi-form as xi is first of the supplementals in the Etruscan abecedaria (derived from Euboia) is not explained even though that value is seen to be a subsequent abbreviation of the adapter's chi-sigma when the psi-form's use as chi made the chi-form redundant.

Powell demonstrates the nature of the adapter's alphabet by using it to record the first ten lines of the Iliad. He does not, however, explain the several anomalies in the writing. Why, for example, is contraction for the sake of the meter noted inconsistently (MU/RI' *A)XAI/OIS and D' E)TELEI/ETO but A)/LGEA E)/QHKE, DE\ I)FQI/MOUS and TE A)/R) despite regular contraction in the earliest verse inscriptions? Why is the chi-form used for chi before alpha (*A)XAI/OIS), iota (*AXILH=OS), and upsilon (YUXA/S) while the psi-form is used for chi before omicron (XOLWQEI/S)? Why are the two o-sounds in H(RW/WN represented by one vowel while the two e-sounds in E)TELEI/ETO both appear? Is the omission of a metrically necessary digamma in A)/NAC a mistake like the rho for pi in PA=SI and the omitted kappa in O)LE/KONTO?

Chapter 2 surveys the history of writing from Egyptian hieroglyphics through the Cypriote syllabary to the Phoenician script, which Powell, following the view of Gelb outlined in Appendix 2, takes as a syllabary. How these earlier forms of writing worked is described in detail in order to make clear the nature and magnitude of the change involved in the invention of the alphabet. Then for the first time in the history of writing it became possible for a man both to record and to pronounce words in a language he did not know. Furthermore, unlike the syllabaries, the alphabet with its unique emphasis on phonetics constituted the perfect vehicle for the recording of hexameter verse. Was that why it was invented?

Chapter 3 presents 68 of the earliest Greek inscriptions, showing both the preponderance of hexametric verse in those long enough to exhibit it and the private, almost literary concerns of the writers which are manifested in all parts of Greece. The absence of public or economic texts confirms the impression of an aristocratic society (of which the adapter was a leading light) intent on its own good life. Noted also is the extent to which the inscriptions' preservation has resulted from nothing more than the imperishability of the objects on which they were written, suggesting the possibility of much contemporary writing on perishable materials. But once such lost writing is mooted, is the absence of public or economic texts significant?

Chapter 4 is concerned with the question whether the adapter invented the alphabet in order to record hexametric verse in general or that of Homer (rather than that of the demonstrably later Hesiod) in particular. The answer comes with a detailed survey of the evidence of Homer's date (from archaeology, linguistics, and outside references both literary and pictorial). Considerable importance is given to the beginning of the representation of legendary material about 725 B.C. with the vastly greater number of such mythic scenes being from the Epic Cycle rather than from Homer. The impetus is taken to be the greater ease of writing and so the greater spread of copies of such shorter poems, as if pot painters and other artists could be inspired only by the written word. And yet the poems of Homer are here assumed to have been recorded some fifty years earlier without having started any new fashion in artistic representation.

Chapter 5 contrasts the Iliad and Odyssey with the short, one-topic songs sung by the bards in the Odyssey at banquets or on the athletic field, by audience request or on their own impulse. The length of the Iliad and Odyssey, which is taken to be inordinate for any conceivable performance, and their richness and variety of episode could have been achieved only in a situation in which the poet was obliged to spin out, to elaborate, to digress -- that is, in which his normal pace was so slowed down that the adapter could record it word by word in the alphabet he had invented for this purpose. "We praise Homer, but the Iliad and the Odyssey were a joint venture, a cooperative effort between the poet and the man who wrote down the poet's words" (p. 230). How are we to react? Many who think wishfully that we have Homer's words pure and unadulterated will be pleased at the neatness of this solution even though they may have to give up notions of the poet's unique genius. Still there are questions. Instead of the epics' organic unity that we have supposed resulted from an orally composing poet's repeated re-creation and structural tightening, are we instead to imagine a poet who has time enough on his hands between words and lines to invent new epithets but rather saves it up to insert episodes which were hitherto separate songs? And if the oral performance of the Iliad requires 18 hours (p. 229, note 19), how many days of how many sessions would it have taken to record in a new and unfamiliar medium the same Iliad now to be viewed as a composition which was conceived ab ovis, vastly enlarged and strung together by a poet who was inflating now for the first time one old song with other songs old and new? And if the Iliad and Odyssey came into being thus, what was it about Homer's earlier repertory that so impressed the adapter that he invented the alphabet to record it?

A final tying-up of mythic and alphabetic loose-ends introduces the adapter by name, that is, as the Palamedes who is in later literature credited with alphabetic and other cultural innovations. All in all, this is a book which is as remarkable for the ingenuity of its answers to difficult questions as it is for its useful review and compelling display of so much of the relevant evidence.


Writing in the ancient Near East

From the end of the third millenium BCE, the art of writing was practiced in the ancient Near East. Here, the pictographic, cuneiform, and hieroglyphic scripts were invented and developed. In particular, Canaan, situated on the cultural crossroads between Egypt and Mesopotamia and beneficiary of their scribal traditions, produced new indigenous writing systems. Some, like the Bublian pseudo-hieroglyphics, the enigmatic Balua stele, or the inscribed bricks from Dier Alla, ancient Succoth, were limited to specific centers. These short-lived systems indicate a high degree of scribal experimentation and originality.

It is no wonder then that the Canaanites invented the alphabet. They discovered that their language contained some 30 phonemes and that each one could by represented by an individual sign. Like many revolutionary discoveries, its implications were not immediately appreciated and the social effects of the linear alphabet were not to be felt for several generations.

Between the 17th and 12th centuries BCE, the primitive, pictographic alphabet was employed in Shehem, Gezer, Tel al-Hasi, Tel al-Ajul, Bet Mirsim, and Lahish. These inscriptions are generally called Proto-Canaanite. Another large group, the so-called Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions (1500 BCE) were probably written by a colony of northwest Semitic slaves who worked in the mines in Wadi Ma'ara in the Sinai Peninsula. It seems that this script generally served a religious function and may have been developed by the Canaanite priesthood. Certainly, all official government documents were written in cuneiform (e.g. the Tel el-Amarna letters) which obscured the alphabet script.

It was during this period that a novel attempt to employ the alphabet was initiated at Ugarit (1370-1200 BCE). Perhaps as a result of the desire to express the local literature in its own medium, a cuneiform alphabet, influenced by the dominant Mesopotamian system, was devised. A similar trend may be noted in other Canaanite cities as well (Bet Shemesh, Taanah, Mt. Tabor). This script as well as an earlier attempt to adapt the cuneiform signs to surfaces other than clay by giving them linear form did not survive the disappearance of the Babylonian scribal centers in Canaan and Syria toward the end of the Bronze Age.

The political and cultural break with Mesopotamia, as well as the administrative needs of emerging young societies, accelerated the development of the linear alphabet. The letters were simplified, beginning the process that was to evolve into a cursive form. The first alphabetic system to emerge was the 22-letter Phoenician script, which appeared by about 1100 BCE, and was to be adopted by the Israelites, Arameans, and later by the Greeks. The new medium was adopted early in Israel's history and deeply affected its civilization; monotheism was grasped now in terms of a written covenant between God and Israel. The central cult was the Decalogue cut in stone, and later became the written Torah scroll. Israelite religion thus elevated writing from a means of recording the mundane to a medium of revelation.

Perhaps it was because of the relative simplicity of the alphabet or the fact that Israel had no conservative scribal class with vested interests, that biblical society as a whole became "book-centered." Any tribesman, even a non-priest, could emerge as a literate leader (Joshua 8:32-35; 24-26). The establishment of the monarchy and the process of urbanization resulted in a greater diffusion of writing (among members of the government service, army personnel, the mercantile class, stonemasons, ivory cutters, potters and others).

Certainly by Hezekiah's time, in the eighth century BCE, a great deal of literary activity was going on. Older written traditions were collected and edited (Proverbs 25:1). The classical prophets, or their disciples, wrote down their messages. Prophesies were illustrated by written texts, which could only have meaning for a literate populace. [*] Also the wide use of inscribed personal seals bearing fewer designs and iconographic motifs again argues for a growing literate social body during the First Temple period.

[1] Isaiah 8:1; Jeremiah 17:1; Ezekiel 37:16; Habbakuk 2:2, Isaiah 10:19  
From: The Hebrew Book, ed. by Raphael Posner and Israel Ta-shema, Keter Publishing House., Jerusalem, 1975. Based on articles in the Encyclopedia Judaica. 



   There have been many different ideas and myths surrounding the origin of the word "Phoenicians".  The word itself is from the word "Phoinix" which is thought to mean the king of Tyre, the main city of the Phoenicians.  The suggested meanings include "hero of country", "father of Phoenicians" and "brother of Europa".  Phoenicia is also associated with the colors dark red and purple.  These colors are associated with Phoenicia because they were the first people to discover how to dye garments using a shellfish called a musket.  The color that would be achieved would be a dark red or purple.  This started an advantage for the Phoenician people because royalty in the surrounding countries decided that only royalty should only wear this new, very expensive, color of clothing.  So, the Phoenicians sold them these garments at a high price, making themselves a whole lot of money!  At this point the Phoenicians were a strong and independent culture because of their awsome location right on the coast for seafaring trade.  Also, their land was unlike Greece.  The Phoenician land was lush and fertile so it made it easier for them to grow food.  What the Phoenicians are really known for is their outstanding abilities as sailors and navigators.  Experts say that the Phoenicians invented the art of navigation.  Though the Phoenician captains could navigate well during the day, they also had expert knowledge of how to use the stars to help them guide them though their nights out at sea. 


There were three different events that started the relocating of Phoenician territory: the Israelite conquest of Canaan to their south, the military occupation of the coast of Palestine, and the location of the Aramaeans in the northern and northeastern territory of Canaan. Because of these events, Phoenicia shrank from 500 square km to 200 square km. Due to the loss of land, by around 800 BC (in Greece, the Archaic period) the Phoenicians' only option was to head west! However, many experts still argue the specific reason why the Phoenicians went west. Over time they did come up with some reasons that the Phoenicians went west. They say it is because of the combination of environment, overpopulation, specialized industries, trade in metals and the silver standard, and relations with their powerful neighbors, Persia and Egypt. All of these reasons made it impossible for the Phoenicians to exist in such a small area.

(For similar Greek colonization click here)


   The idea that the Phoenicians invented the alphabet is one myth that has been proven wrong by the experts.  They now say that it was the Syrians (of Palestine), whom today we prefer to call Canaanites, not the Phoenicians.  It all started when Ugarit, a Syrian town, sought to create a graphic system to represent its language.  This new language was meant to replace the hieroglyphics (pictures and symbols on rocks) and syllabic writings.  After the Syrians created this language, the Phoenicians made some changes to the signs.  For example, they replaced the ox's head, the human head and the fish with more schematic ones.  The Phoenician alphabet only had 22 signs, because the Phoenician language had fewer consonants than the earlier languages, and because vowels were not written (as in modern Hebrew and Arabic).  After 1000 B.C. the Phoenician writing spread in all directions.  The Phoenicians carried it with them on their seafaring excursions along the Mediterranean coast.  The most important writing that came from Phoenician culture was the Greek alphabet, which has become the first of all western alphabets.  Like the one you know today!  So...all in all, the Greeks took over from the Phoenicians the forms and names of signs in the alphabet, and the direction of writing. 


   There are many reasons why the Phoenician civiization continues to be a mystery to us all.  In order to reconstruct the history of the Phoenician cities experts relied on three written sources: the Assyrian annals, Biblical texts, and the references passed down from classical authors of this time period.  In Egypt there have been countless carvings and tablets found that give examples of Phoenician ships and cities.  And it is mostly from these carvings that we know for sure that the Phoenician society existed.  Up until recently, archeologists have not been able to find much evidence of the society because the climate caused many of the tablets to disintegrate due to the damp soil.  Also, because so many battles had been fought in Phoenicia, it caused much destruction and many things were lost.  Not to mention, the cities that were rebuilt after these battles caused whatever remains that were left to be built on top of.  Today many archeologists are working in Phoenicia (modern day Lebanon) to dig up any remains that may still be intact.  Experts believe that there are remains in the city of Beirut and are starting work there.  Hopefully over time there will be more discoveries that will add pieces to the puzzle of the Phoenician culture that exists today.