Friday, November 05, 2010
"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.