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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Their Alphabet Started It All

The Phoenicians were members of an ancient civilization based in the north of ancient Canaan, which approximates today’s modern Lebanon. Their civilization was a trading maritime culture that spread across the Mediterranean from 1550 BC to 300 BC, a period in history when there was no major military power in Mesopotamia, thus enabling smaller states like Phoenicia and the Hebrews to prosper.  
            The term “Phoenicia” was actually from a Greek word that referred to the color of the dye from the snail murex; the Phoenicians, however, referred to themselves as the “Kena’ani,” (or “Canaanites”), which incidentally is also a Hebrew word for “merchant.”
Although the Phoenicians considered themselves a single nation, Phoenicia was not a unified state but a group of city-kingdoms, much like the ancient Greek city-states. The most important of these cities were Simyra, Zarephath (Sarafand), Byblos, Jubeil, Arwad (Rouad), Acco (‘Akko), Sidon (Şaydā), Tripolis (Tripoli), Tyre (Sur), and Berytus (Beirut). The two most powerful were Tyre and Sidon, which alternated as sites of the ruling power.
Called Sidonians or Canaanites in the Old Testament, they founded their first settlements on the Mediterranean coast about 2500 BC. The Phoenicians developed their culture under the influence of the Sumerians and Akkadians of Mesopotamia. Around 1800 BC, the Egyptians invaded and conquered Phoenicia. Raids on Egyptian territory by the Hittites around 1400 BC weakened the Egyptians, providing the Phoenicians an opportunity to revolt; by 1200 BC they succeeded in driving out the Egyptians.
Phoenicia comprised an area that is now modern Lebanon and parts of Syria and Israel. As the territory was small, Phoenicians were forced to turn to the sea for a living. They were the most skillful shipbuilders and navigators of their time. They founded colonies all over the Mediterranean, even reaching as far as Spain and the British Isles. Their most important colony was Carthage in North Africa. 
Hannibal, one of history's greatest generals, was from Carthage
Monarchy was Phoenicia’s oldest form of government. Kings could not be chosen outside the royal family, as members of the royal family claimed they were descended from the gods. The king’s power, however, was not absolute. Powerful merchants who possessed great influence in public affairs largely limited the power wielded by the king. The kings in the cities of Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre had a council of elders to assist them in their duties. Later, other Phoenician cities adopted a form of republican government in place of the monarchy. Instead of a king, a suffete, or a judge, ruled some of these city-states. 
With mountains to their east and the Mediterranean to their west, Phoenicia’s geography proved ideal for trade during this era. The Phoenicians were able to exploit the small arable land in the mountain slopes, and use the watercourses for irrigation, a system of cultivation that was in use up to the 20th century. Phoenicia was also famous for its cedar and fir forests, which provided neighboring countries with valuable wood, and for the purple dye, the “Tyrean purple.” This dye, obtained from the snail murex, was so expensive that only kings and members of the nobility could afford garments dyed with it. Ivory, woodcarvings, linen, wine, metal works, and glass are some of the products that were traded by these people. The invention of glass is also credited to the Phoenicians. 
A Phoenician king, Hiram, is also mentioned in the Old Testament as an ally of King David and later of King Solomon, whose temple King Hiram helped build.
They are also famous for their maritime exploits. Besides founding colonies throughout the Mediterranean, there is also evidence of Phoenician mariners having reached the New World, well before Columbus did so in the 15th century. After developing the technical knowledge for navigating the high seas, the Phoenicians mastered almost all of the sectors of economy: from exploitation of the mineral and agricultural resources, to their transformation, and commercialization through a remarkable chain of distribution.
Due to their sea-faring capabilities, they were able to reach many markets, taking the fine wares of Eastern Europe to trade with the Western barbarians. In addition, they learned to manufacture the wares themselves, and they adapted to the taste of the buyers in different countries around the Mediterranean Sea. This meant that they did not only offer luxury goods to rich customers, but they also had low-priced goods for the masses as well. We can say therefore that the Phoenician Empire was built not through military exploits, but through trade.   

The Phoenicians’ maritime tradition would not have been possible without their nautical technology. Their ships had designs that were pretty advanced for their time, and their navigational skills where the envy of the ancient world. In fact, they provided Persia with ships and mariners during Persia’s unsuccessful attempt to conquer Greece. The Phoenicians were also the first to use Polaris (the North Star) in navigation. 
Probably the greatest contribution of the Phoenicians to humanity was their alphabet, which was developed around 1000 BC at Byblos (incidentally, from this city’s name comes the Greek word bibliabooks—and the English word “bible”). This 22-character alphabet greatly simplified writing; before this, people had to create thousands of symbols for the thousands of words in their language. The Phoenician alphabet uses the 22 characters to represent 22 different sounds, which form a word when strung together. This type of alphabet is also known as “phonetic” alphabet. Guess where the term comes from. 
Phoenicians spread this style in their travels and greatly influenced Greek and other alphabets. 

Although Phoenician city-states never constituted a single political entity, there was a cultural identity among the Phoenicians, mainly because of a common language. In this society, wealthy merchant aristocrats enjoyed protection from the law. Below the aristocracy were the lesser merchants, artisans, and shopkeepers. A rung below the social ladder were the average workers, and at the bottom were the slaves. Slaves had little protection from the laws, but they could earn money and could even buy their own freedom.
Women in this society relatively had a bit more freedom than in any other society of this era. They could initiate divorce proceedings, they could engage in business, and they could bring issues to legal courts. Not much of a freedom, though. Women were made to cover up carefully with layers of clothing when going out in public, and were often relegated to work in menial jobs, like weaving textiles. They had no say in government affairs.
Phoenicians are known for their pantheistic religion (belief in many gods). Each city-state had its own special deity (kind of like a “patron” deity), usually called Baal, or lord. A pantheon (temple) was presided over by the chief god, “El.” The principal figure in Phoenician pantheons, however, was Astarte (a.k.a. Ishtar).
In Phoenicia, she is known as Astarte
The Phoenicians’ culture and language resemble those of the other Semitic peoples living in the area. Because of their maritime tradition, they were able to spread this culture to other places in the Mediterranean rim. Their art also had no unique characteristics that could be identified as purely Phoenician; they were heavily influenced by foreign artistic and cultural traditions, such as the Egyptians, Greeks, Assyrians, and Persians. As a result, their art was a mixture of the different styles of the many civilizations that conquered their lands. 
Phoenicia reached its peak shortly after they achieved self-rule with the Egyptians’ expulsion from their lands. Their fleets traveled throughout the Mediterranean and even reached the Atlantic Ocean. Other nations employed Phoenician ships and mariners in their navies. Phoenicians also founded many colonies, most notable of which, besides Carthage in North Africa, were Utica (also in North Africa), Rhodes and Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea, and Tarshish in Spain. In the 8th century, Phoenicia, then under the leadership of Tyre, was conquered by Assyria. After the fall of the Assyrian Empire, the city-states were added into Nebuchadnezzar II’s Chaldean Empire. In 539 BC, they became part of the Persian Empire.
Alexander the Great then conquered the Persians; several city-states of Phoenicia quickly surrendered to the Macedonian conqueror, except for Tyre. Alexander conquered Tyre in 332 BC only after a seven-month siege. Phoenicia gradually lost its identity after this defeat. The inhabitants were absorbed into Alexander’s empire, and the cities became Hellenized (became Greek-like). In 64 BC, the territory became a province of the Roman Empire called Syria.      
In the year 630, Islamic Arabs conquered the area of what used to be Phoenicia, almost without any resistance.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

God at the Emmys

So Modern Family won big at the Emmys, including Best Comedy Series. Also Jim Parsons, who played Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, won as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series.
Both shows are my favorite, although I’m leaning more towards the "three geniuses and their friend Howard.” 

Good for them, winning all those Emmys.
I didn’t get to finish watching the Emmys, though. But I noticed that among those I saw receiving awards, I didn’t hear one thanking God (or Jesus, or Mama Mary or even the baby Jesus).
Maybe they realized that God doesn’t really have a favorite actor, or a favorite TV show, and that He probably, probably, doesn’t even watch TV.
An interesting image, that: God (a bearded old guy in white robes; or maybe someone who looks like Morgan Freeman) kicking off his sandals, lying back in his heavenly Lazyboy facing the TV, a beer in hand, remote control in the other, going “I wonder what’s on tonight…” and clicking.

Some, however, would have us believe that He watches sports. Remember that guy (a basketball player), who claimed that God was guiding his hand when he made the game-winning shot? And that player wasn’t even playing in the NBA. I mean if you were God, and have all these choices literally at the snap of your fingers (or just by thinking it), and with billions of people asking you for something, would you  watch a tenth-rate basketball league?
Maybe He does works in mysterious ways; and even His taste in sports is also unfathomable.
That is, assuming He’s a sports fan. Or watches TV, and that is assuming a whole f*****g lot.
It also raises the question: if He indeed is out there, why would He watch TV? You"d think he'd rather work towards world peace, or maybe He'd try fixing the economy, don't you. Or do something about world hunger. Any of these things should have priority, right?
Well, given the condition of the world today, maybe God does spends a lot of time watching TV.
Or basketball games. Or boxing matches.
What would Jesus watch?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Of Twelve-Year-Olds and Jumping Sharks

Watched the season 2 finale of “Modern Family” last night.
It’s Jay’s birthday (the patriarch), and he is looking forward to a quiet day spent fishing on the lake. His family, however, plans a party for him, and his birthday wish doesn’t happen, so he spends most of the episode sulking and grumbling about his ruined plans. At the dinner table however, realizing that his family had put an effort to give him a memorable birthday party, he declared, “You know what, I’d been acting like a jerk. What am I, twelve years old?”
Whereupon Luke, his twelve-year-old grandson, interrupts him with “Hey!”
For some reason this strikes me as very funny.
Yes, there are other funny scenes in that episode, but I seem to have fixated on this one.
I kept repeating that scene in my mind during my commute to the office.  
Love that show. 
Also, Sofia Vergara and Julie Bowen are in the show, so how can it lose?

It’s September, so the season 3 premiere is scheduled for later this month; also the season premiere of “The Big Bang Theory.” 
Which reminds me.
I really don’t like the idea Penny and Raj hooking up. It’s like Joey and Rachel hooking up, which the writers of “Friends” mercifully didn’t pursue.
I like Leonard and Penny, so I guess that makes me on… Team Leo-ny? Or Team Pen-nard?
I hope “The Big Bang Theory” didn’t jump the shark, though.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Two Girls and An Army

There have been women in history who showed incredible courage and skills against odds that would daunt even the hardiest of men.  

For sheer badassery, however, few could top the Trung Sisters (Trung Trac and Trung Nhi), who are regarded today in Vietnam as national heroes.
The Trung sisters were born in China-dominated Vietnam sometime during the first century (no one was really sure of the exact date).

Coming from a military family, the sisters grew up well-versed in martial arts, which meant they were no strangers when it came to some serious ass-kicking.
Not really known as a benevolent overlord, China was then pursuing a policy of forcible assimilation of the Vietnamese people, an idea that did not sit well in the Trung household.
Thi Sach, Trung Trac’s husband, decided enough was enough and made a stand against the Chinese. 
As you can imagine, the Chinese invaders did not take this well; they promptly executed him as an example to other would-be heroes; after which they raped his widow because 1, to show others what might happen to those who defy China, and 2, because why the hell not.
The Chinese thought that that story would end there, with Thi Sach as another casualty and Trung Trac just another widow, but they were wrong. 

They were wrong big time. 

Instead of just grieving for her husband and moving on, Trac, together with her sister, Nhi, raised an army of around 80,000 seriously pissed-off women and proceeded to kick the Chinese invaders where it hurts most.
Not only did the women liberate their own village, but they went on to take back 65 Chinese strongholds, eventually liberating their country. It took the sisters and their army just a few months to accomplish this.  

What leadership they must have shown, to inspire an army composed mostly of women to deliver such an ass kicking to the army of the foremost “superpower” nation of the period. 

The sisters and their army were eventually defeated, but their struggle against the Chinese was so awesome that one would think the entire saga was a product of some Hollywood hack. 
Statue of the Trung Sisters in Ho Chi Minh City

Their story has all the stuff legends are made of (as they say), like the one about a noblewoman named Phung Thi Chinh, who was one of the Trung sisters' generals and was heavily pregnant during the epic final battle. 
You’d think being pregnant would be enough of an excuse, don’t you, for her to stay at home; but no, she went on to the battlefield to serve some Vietnamese kickass-flavored dishes to the Chinese horde. 

That in itself was pretty badass, but the really badass part was when she gave birth on the frigging battlefield, and it didn’t even stop her.
Hell no; she strapped her newborn to her back and with a sword in her hand, killed a few more enemies. 

Makes John McClane look like a wuss, doesn’t she. 

Another legend is that the soldiers China sent to face Trung’s army were naked
These soldiers faced an army of (mostly) women with their schlongs blowin’ in the wind, so surprising the female warriors that they fled from the battlefield, leaving the army in a weakened state.
It is no surprise then that Chinese historians wrote just a few paragraphs about the Trung sisters.  

And who could blame them?
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