"Wla... We invented the Alphabet, Wla!" Abufares  

I stood on my rock by the sea watching the ship getting closer to shore. I evaded the boisterous throng and the pompous dignitaries and floated in my euphoric solitude. On the afternoon of Saturday, October 23rd 2010, Phoenicia returned home.

Phoenicia is a faithful replica of the Phoenician vessels that sailed across the Mediterranean and beyond in the 6th century BC. She was conceived and captained by Philip Beale, a former Royal Navy officer based in South Dorset in the UK and built by master shipwright Khalid Hammoud of Arwad, Syria. The ship completed her epic voyage to Arwad then Tartous after covering 20,000 miles in 26 months around the African continent. She set sail from Arwad with a volunteer crew on board in August 2008 to Port Said (Egypt) heading south through the Suez Canal, across the Red Sea to Port Sudan, Yemen, Oman, the Horn of Africa, off the Somali coast (to avoid pirates) all the way to Mayotte in the Comoros Islands, Birea (Mozambique), Richard's Bay, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town (South Africa), St. Helena, Ascension Island, Azores, Gibraltar, Carthage (Tunisia), Malta, Sidon, Beirut, Tripoli (Lebanon) and back to Arwad then Tartous (Syria). The main purpose behind this enterprise, assuming a once in a lifetime adventure needs justification, was to prove that the Phoenicians were in fact the first to circumnavigate Africa 2,600 years ago in their single square-sailed vessels. The only historical record regarding this seemingly impossible feat is that of the Greek historian Herodotus. In 440 BC he wrote that he believed the Phoenician accounts to be true but was uncertain about one particular geographic discrepancy. The mariners' claim that the sun was to starboard (right side) as they headed West did not make sense to Herodotus. However, it was a true observation, one which could only be made in the southern hemisphere. The Phoenicians were there 2,100 years before the Portuguese under Vasco da Gama (1497-1499).

Captain Beale is no stranger to the sea. In 2003 he led the Borobudur Ship Expedition and piloted the Samudraraksa (Defender of the Seas) along the ancient trading seaways between Indonesia and East Africa. He is also a consummate naval history researcher. Based on archeological evidence, mainly the Jules Verne 7 and M'agan Michael wrecks off the coast of Southern France, Greek pottery and Phoenician coins, the basic design and the building method of the era were established. Khalid Hammoud an accomplished shipwright was chosen from a list of candidates due to his exceptional skills and to the fact that he works in his yard in the Syrian island of Arwad. The Arwadites were on the forefront of naval construction technology in the 6th century BC and the unrivaled masters of the sea. It is more than likely that the original Phoenician ships to sail around Africa were built in that tiny island, 3 km off the coast of Tartous.

I was invited by a dear friend later in the evening to attend a gala dinner in honor of Phoenicia and her crew. Captain Beale's account of the voyage and his revealing presentation were captivating. I found myself lost in a daydream of my land and sea in better times although one nagging contention distracted me well into the night. Unfortunately I did not have the chance to inquire privately with Philip. The reference to the Suez Canal pricked my better rationality. I think that it would have been easier for the Phoenicians to sail west across the Mediterranean, head south to the Cape of Good Hope, north toward the Red Sea all the way to Sinai then retrace their own outbound passage back to the shores of the Levant rather than commence their sea passage from coastal Egypt off the Red Sea. The Canal itself was not built until 1869 and even to this date many modern vessels follow the long way around Africa to avoid the high canal crossing fees. It would have been more intuitive and much simpler for the Phoenicians to start their maiden journey from their own Levantine shores rather than transport pine lumber from Aleppo and olive timber across the Sinai desert. It is likely that the Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa regularly (the way Phoenicia did) but it is only logical that the first voyage they embarked on followed a shuttle path across the Mediterranean through Gibraltar. They could have later put a number of ships on segments of that route permanently if it were commercially feasible.

Despite the commendable efforts of all parties involved in the Phoenicia project I strongly believe that on the official level Syria is doing a lousy job in promoting her heritage to others and in instilling pride in her own young generations as far as her ancient roots are concerned. Our school curriculum emphasizes recent Islamic and Arab yesterdays while treating our venerable pre-monotheist history too casually. We were here before them all, before the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims. We invented the Alphabet on these very shores; the ALPHABET without which they could have never invented their accounts and stories of parting the sea and rising from the dead and riding winged horses. Syria is the first home of Judaism and has been conquered by the Christian Crusaders and the Arab Muslims but she predates them all. We sailed near and far with the emergence of civilization. The rise of monotheist religion in all of its major manifestations, obscure sects and Sufi cults is consequential to our identity. With the invention of the Alphabet, anything became subsequently possible. Phoenicia's voyage should remind us of the way we were and the way we could be if we dig deep enough into our true identity. It was Syria that made them all great never the other way around.

Wla... We invented the Alphabet, Wla! 


Many thanks to my dear friend Aziza for providing me with vital literature for the writing of this post.


Isobel said…
Wow! This is a fascinating story, Abufares! How exciting to see a true replica of a Phoenician ship and to know that it was sea worthy and traveled so far successfully. This is a piece of history worth hanging onto and promoting. I'm glad you took the time to tell the world about it - or at least your faithful readers. :) Thank you! Oh! And thanks also to your ancestors that I can read this post and write a comment!!
Sean L said…
'Syria is doing a lousy job in not just promoting her heritage to others...'

Too true! Maybe it says something of my own ignorance and what it's like to grow up in semi-rural Australia that I hadn't even heard of Syria until I was about 20, but I do often wonder why the ancient cultures and monuments of Egypt and Jordan are so well-known and well-publicised, but Syria remains so obscure to most people.

I'm getting a bit off-topic here, but it probably doesn't help that almost every Syrian restaurant in the West calls itself 'Lebanese'. I knew a little about Lebanon from a very young age, mainly because I liked Lebanese food so much. The very, very best 'Lebanese' restaurant in London (al Waha) is totally Syrian owned and run, by the way ;-)
BIL said…
All I can say is WOW! This is really something and like you and I talked about in this forum, the history of Syria is so neglected in comparison to the other countries in that region of the world. Yes, you would think that the folks in leadership would want to promote this seemingly wonder- ful and sadly often misunderstood land. Through your Blog I have learned more about your country in the few short months that I have been a loyal reader than through my entire schooling in the USA. As you have pointed out, the early contributions well surpass contributions credited to the “other” countries in the Eastern Mediterranean. Your account of the Phoenicia is truly remarkable. Someday I hope to experience that special place near “Your Rock” and be able to see this wonderful vessel for myself.
Best Wishes BIL
Gabriela said…
Even at the risk of being sound repetitive, WOW! This summary of the history of your beloved land is awesome. Chapeau!
And I share with you that a once in a lifetime adventure needs needs no justification at all.
As usual, masterfully written.
Amazing! I love when you can SEE history ... touch it, smell it ... feel it beneath your feet.

It is sad that Syria is not using it's ancient history to promote tourism and knowledge of where "it" all came from. Like Egypt, Greece or Italy do ...
Abufares said…
You well know how enamored I am with words. The possibility that one of my ancestors, a distant Abufares, contributed with a single letter to the first alphabet fills me with an internal revelry I am incapable of describing. Any letter would do really but the letter "I" has a special place in my own alphabet. It's the EYE I see with, it's ME and it's the first letter of your beautiful name :-)
Thank you!
Abufares said…
You're not getting off the topic at all. The Lebanese are excellent promoters. The Syrians are lousy ones.
If I am to indicate the most significant cultural difference between Lebanese and Syrians it is that the Lebanese are outspoken and the Syrians are introvert. It is possible that the political chaos in Lebanon and docility in Syria (since their independence)caused this recent behavioral discrepancy.
The new trend by the wealthy in Syria to flaunt their riches for instance is looked at with disdain while it's an integral part of the Lebanese character, rich or poor to parade what they have or don't have.
I'm not being judgmental but simply making an observation.
Abufares said…
I always get a deep sense of satisfaction after reading your comments. That I was able to bring you a small bit of information makes me very happy. While I never intended my blog to be a reference point about Syria it has, along with other blogs, partially fulfilled this role due to the mediocre official promotion on the international level.
Abufares said…
WOW to YOU :-)
I was thinking about you only yesterday. Every time I read one of your comments I get the urge and the premonition that I am having a nice dinner with you on the oceanfront in Lima.

PS We were not alone on the table. There were 4 of us.
Abufares said…
You reminded me of back when I was a kid. I used to hate history because it was told the wrong way. The emphasis was on remembering dates, numbers and certain events rather than recounting it as the wonderful story it is.
Please check this link on the Phoenicia website:

I think this is the way it should be done.

Syria needs a few more loudmouths like me to yell their lungs out louder than the Egyptians, Greeks and Italians:-)
Ammoontie said…
This is a bit off topic from your beautiful post.
But I would like to tell you that I saw a documentary on our local TV channel recently, on Allepo.
Its so beautiful and made me wish to be able to visit it some day.

As always I have always enjoyed reading your blog!
KJ said…
I shall use your closing quote in my favourite Quotes list!

Thank you for this brief trip in history. Always a pleasure reading your blog :)
Abufares said…
Hi there, how are you?
Aleppo is nice indeed. Probably this is the best time of year to visit.
Come again, always.
Abufares said…
You know I thought I should perhaps copyright this quote of mine :-)
I'm usually critical of my own writing but to tell you the truth I like: "Wla... We invented the Alphabet, Wla" so much I'm thinking of turning it into a song.
Melhem Barakat's Wawawowawawaw is along what I had in mind.

Always a pleasure having you here.
Joseph said…
Well done Abufares. Truly captivating.
I didn't know what to comment. The following is testimony to too much sugar intake! :-)

Close to the water's edge and deep; “with arrows, fire and flowers”
breaching and patching the waves as she skims the seas in a spray of kisses and tears, just like regions, as they unite.
She educates, she navigates, flaunted, her colorful sails, impregnated by immaculate conception, aromas, sea salt and amber. She returns.
Ultimately, she arrives in search of you, Abufares, and not very far from you, she sleeps.
Abufares said…
What can I say?
I don't mind getting addicted to sugar if writing such as yours is a side effect.
Thank you for the lovely comment :-)
Joseph said…
Tislam, Abufares.

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