[From: Woolley, Leonard. The Art of The Middle East, including Persia, Mesopotamia and Palestine. New York: Crown Publishers. 1961.]
1.Geography and History --- 2.Elam --- 3.Sumer --- 4.Sumer and Akkad --- 5.Syria & Palestine --- 6.Hurri & Hittites --- 7.Anatolia
Until very recent times the writer on Phoenician art was wont--and indeed was obliged--to illustrate his thesis by means of objects found not in Phoenicia itself but in Cyprus, a Phoenician colony, in Greece and Etruria and as far away as Utica and Carthage. In all those countries antiquities abound which bear unmistakably the mark of Phoenician style and technique, and yet there is a certain disadvantage in employing them as illustrations of Phoenician handiwork. The Cypriote colony was relatively small but extremely active in manufacture, and since Cyprus had a culture of its own the products of the Phoenician factories were likely to show certain modifications of the styles prevalent upon the Asiatic mainland--and where Asiatic evidence was lacking the extent of such modification could not well be determined. A Phoenician bowl discovered in an Etruscan tomb might have been made in Cyprus or on the North African coast [a silver platter from Praeneste is almost certainly the work of a Carthaginian engraver] and might show features characteristic of the colony and not of the mother country. Because the present history is arranged on a territorial basis, and because modern excavations--especially those of Ugarit and Byblos--have produced a mass of material of unquestionably Phoenician origin, the following chapter deals almost exclusively with objects discovered in Phoenicia itself.
The brief description of the country given in our first chapter sufficiently explains its art history. In so far as it was the land-bridge between Asia Minor and Africa, it was necessarily exposed to the cultural influences of its neighbours at either end of that bridge, and because both of those neighbours alike regarded it as a thoroughfare not only for their traders but also for their armies, the sphere of cultural influence was apt to become one of political subjection. Although the Syrian desert was a barrier minimizing contact with Sumer, yet the trade-route along the Fertile Crescent was continued by the road running south from Aleppo, so that in the time of the Third Dynasty [p. 101] of Ur the upper Orontes valley lay within the Mesopotamian cultural province, and in later days the Assyrian armies, following the same track, could reduce to vassalage the small Syrian states.
Already we have had to deal with north Syria, where the population was predominantly Hurri. In the east, Damascus was to develop only at a late date as capital of an Aramaean kingdom; of its culture there is little to be said. In south Syria the petty city states did undoubtedly flourish in the early part of the second millennium B.C., as is proved by the immense amount of treasure which conquering Pharaohs boast of having taken from them, but there is little left to witness to their riches or their art. Only the coast towns of what was afterwards to be known as Phoenicia have made a recognisable contribution to the history of the art of the Middle East.
Two or three isolated objects of very early date could scarcely be omitted from this survey, in spite of the fact that they bear no obvious relation to the art of later periods. From Jericho, in the pre-pottery phase of the neolithic period, there come the astonishing heads modelled in plaster over actual human skulls. The fact of the eyes being inlaid with cowrie shells might seem to imply that these are primitive grotesques, but nothing could be farther from the truth; the delicate [p. 102] and sensitive modellng of the flesh is such that it would be disturbing but for the eyes, where the inlay gives just that touch of convention which a true work of art requires. A slightly later level of the neolithic period at Jericho has yielded a painted terra-cotta head with shell-inlaid eyes; remarkable as it is, it is but a decadent descendant of the plaster-modelled heads which must nevertheless be reckoned a unique phenomenon, isolated and inexplicable.
A steatite figurine from the Amq plain, unfortunately not accurately dated but belonging to the early part of the neolithic period, shows a seated woman of the steatopygous type so characteristic of the Stone Age but is rather more plastically modelled than most. To the first half of the fourth millennium B.C. must be assigned the mud-brick houses of Teleilat el-Ghassul, in the Jordan valley southeast of Jericho, with their polychrome wall-paintings in tempera; the main design, an elaborate eight-pointed star, is strongly reminiscent of the painted designs on the pottery of Tell Halaf. Associated with the star there were other geometrical patterns and highly-stylised dragons; but there are also remains of human figures more or less realistically portrayed, and a drawing of a bird is frankly naturalistic in its detail. But here too nothing that has been preserved for us suggests that this early art persisted into or influenced in any way that of succeeding generations.
In the Jamdat Nasr period, i.e., about 3200 B .C., Mesopotamian influence was strong in Syria and Palestine, as is shown by numerous impressions of cylinder seals found in Megiddo and in Byblos; as this was the time during which the art of late Predynastic Egypt was being assimilated to Mesopotamian models it is but natural that the country which formed the bridge between the two cultures should itself come within the sphere of the predominant power. But very soon afterwards the tide set in the opposite direction; Syrian pottery, decorated with linear or network patterns in red and brown paint, had been freely exported into Egypt up to and during the First Dynasty and is found in the royal tombs at Abydos: but now, in the twenty-ninth century B.C., Egyptian vases begin to appear in Palestine and it is even probable that the Pharaohs of the Thinite dynasty invaded and ruled over southern Syria; the Byblos stone vases with gold lids bearing cartouches of the period may be evidence of suzerainty. It is to the Pyramid age that we can, perhaps, assign a stela found at Shihan in Transjordania; its mixture of Egyptian and Jamdat Nasr styles is just what the political history of the time would lead us to expect. At Ai, [p. 104] overlooking the Jordan rift, alabaster vases of the Third Dynasty bear witness to Egyptian influence, as does a stone tomb at Taanach, near Megiddo; but the south country was still poor and the more prosperous north was, about 2600 B.C., overrun by the barbarous makers of the Khirbet Kerak pottery whom we have seen occupying by force the Amq plain on the lower Orontes; and they were a purely destructive force. The result of all this, and of Egyptian raids, is that very little remains whereby we can follow the progress of early Syrian culture, and of art objects practically nothing has survived.
Only at the beginning of the second millennium does Phoenician art make its first appearance. To this date can be assigned the Obelisk Temple at Byblos, and however curious it may be for its bearing on the religious ideas of the early Phoenicians [if it is legitimate to use that term for the Giblites of 1900 B.C.] it is woefully disappointing as an example of architecture. The obelisks are for the most part undressed monoliths, and the actual building is of the crudest type of rubble masonry; it may be that the walls were carried up in mud brick, and in any case they were certainly plastered, but neither in plan nor in construction can the temple claim any merit. But the objects found in it are of a very different order. Vast numbers of votive offerings were found here, some presumably given by the rulers of the city, many more by private individuals, especially by the workers in metal who dedicated examples of their craft, often unfinished castings. Innumerable bronze figurines, sometimes cast in the round, sometimes flat silhouettes, illustrate the industry rather than the artistic powers of the smiths, but others do full credit to their skill. A statuette of a god in gilt bronze shows the deity advancing majestically, his right arm rigid against his side, his left forearm stiffly extended--the hand probably held a spear or similar symbol; he wears the high pointed mitre of a Hurrite divinity and otherwise is naked; the features are finely worked, and although the head is disproportionately small for the elongated body the head-dress atones for this. Seen from in front the anatomy of the body is well rendered, but in profile the torso is curiously flattened, being scarcely thicker than the arm, [p. 105] so that one feels that the artist was interested only in the frontal view; but what did interest him he has done remarkably well.
Even in this, the earliest known example of Phoenician art, there can be seen something of what was to be the characteristic of that art throughout history. The admirable technique is Phoenician, but the inspiration is borrowed. The head-dress, as has been remarked, is Hurri, and the flatness of the body is also typical of the northern school, but the attitude, the proportions and the modelling of the figure are thoroughly Egyptian. Two or three other bronze figurines might be direct copies of Egyptian originals, even to the details of the dress, and figurines in glazed frit, probably of local manufacture, are equally Egyptian in treatment and include a standing figure of Ta'urt, the hippopotamus goddess, which is no more than a clumsy imitation. A truly magnificent gold dagger from the Obelisk Temple epitomizes the imitative character of the art. The general effect is Cretan--and fragments of Middle Minoan painted pottery vessels found at Byblos prove early connections with the island. A figure of a god embossed upon the casing of the grip shows the same mixture [p. 1 06] of northern [Hurri] and Egyptian influences that was apparent in the bronze statuette; two rampant goats back to back with their heads turned to face each other are a familiar Sumerian motive; the line of animals, men and fish upon the sheath again show the combined influences of Egypt and of Mesopotamia. On the other hand it is true that however derivative may be the design, the various elements are not only skillfully worked together but translated by the Syrian artist into a whole which can almost be called original, so distinctive is it of Phoenician art; it is quite unmistakably the work of that particular school.
What is noteworthy in these early works is the admirable technique. Where the craftsman does not look abroad for inspiration but is content to let mere workmanship commend his goods he can succeed to perfection. A number of gold lunate axe-heads affords striking examples of this. The bold simplicity of the design [the type is perhaps native to Syria] is contrasted with the elaborate granulated decoration of the gold casing of the shaft, where this shows through the openings in the blade, and the effect is very fine. Granulation was not indeed a Phoenician invention, but it was a technique which the Phoenician made peculiarly his own, and he exercised it with a finesse which only the Etruscans were to rival. Where however the maker of axe-heads tries to invent something original, he fails; the figure of an animal worked in relief upon the blade not only is distorted in an attempt to secure balance and symmetry but clashes with the severity of the bladeÍs outline and ruins the design.
If the Byblos statuette shows the influence of Egyptian art, two silver figurines found at Ugarit and dated by Schaeffer to 2100-1900 B .C. [p. 107] may be taken as illustrating the work of the Phoenician craftsman in northern Syria, beyond the reach of that influence. They are grotesquely crude pieces of purely local manufacture. At a slightly later date, contemporary with the Byblos Obelisk Temple, two copper statuettes, of a standing god and a seated goddess, prove that Ugarit has now passed under the influence of the Hurri. One quality these have in common with the Byblos figure, namely their frontality; from the front they appear rounded and well-modelled, whereas seen from the side they are thin and quite flat. In the case of the goddess this served a practical purpose because, copper being difficult to cast, it might have been beyond the craftsman's powers to produce a seated figure; it was made therefore in a long straight strip which was afterwards bent to fit the throne on which the goddess sat. In the case of the god the flatness cannot be explained on such grounds and must be due to the fact that the statuette was meant to be seen only enface. Both figures had inlaid eyes and were more or less covered with gold foil, now missing: the head-dresses are Hurrite, and the drapery has the heavy rolled border which we have seen in the statue of King Idri-mi; undoubtedly of Ugarit manufacture, they belong stylistically to the Hurrite rather than to any Canaanite school; perhaps, because Ugarit had shortly before freed itself from a short-lived Egyptian domination, the artists were anxious to avoid any suspicion of subservience to Egyptian art. Such influence was, however, to reassert itself in due course, and a gold-encased copper statuette of Ba'al, dating from the fifteenth century, comes much closer to the Byblos figure though, being more recent, it is more free and life like, a really fine and vigorous work.
Gifted craftsmen though the Phoenicians were, they seem never to have mastered the art of carving in stone. They had models in plenty, for both at Ugarit and at Byblos [to mention only excavated sites] imported Egyptian statues and reliefs are common, but of native [ p. 108] work there is surprisingly little. Four stelae from Ugarit, dated by the discoverer between 2000 and 1800 B.C., show Phoenician gods, Anath, Aleyn-Bel, Môt and Ba'al; the dress and attributes of each are Canaanite, but the flat two-plane reliefs in style and technique but an indifferent imitation of the Egyptian. Later reliefs show no improvement, and even when we come to the famous sarcophagus of Ahiram, King of Byblos [c. 975 B.C.], where the best workmanship was to be expected, the carving is lamentably bad. Stelae of about the same date found at Salahiye and another site, both showing Assyrian influence, are equally bad; one from Amrit, probably of the ninth century, an essay in the Syro-Hittite style, is technically far superior and might have been carved by a peripatetic artist who had worked at Tell Barsip; certainly in the case of the Sinjirli basalt orthostats [730 B.C.] and the Neirab stelae of the sixth century, although the inscriptions are in Aramaic, the sculpture cannot be considered as Phoenician; these are works of a north Syrian school which can hardly be distinguished from the Syro-Hittite. Admittedly there is in central and south Syria no good stone suitable for carving, so that there was nothing to encourage the Phoenician; possibly too because he was essentially a tradesman, making goods primarily for export, for which sculpture in stone was ill-suited, he was not at pains to acquire the art; it was as a goldsmith and a carver in ivory that he gained his reputation.
In those branches he was already, in the 15th-14th C. B.C., a past master, Contemporary with the copper statuette of Ba'al mentioned above are a shallow gold dish and a gold bowl from Ugarit which better than anything else reflect Phoenician style as it was then and was to continue to be for centuries. The dish has on its flat base two concentric registers; in the inner, four animals advance in procession, in the outer is a hunting scene, an archer in a chariot pursuing [p. 110] his quarry, an ibex, two wild bulls and a cow, while his two dogs join in the chase; the figures are embossed in fairly high relief. The bowl, of which the decoration is on the outside, has three registers with bands of guilloche round the rim and between the upper registers and a rayed disk on the base; in the bottom register are five goats, two pairs rampant against sacred trees and one isolated; above are two bulls and two lions separated by sacred trees with pomegranates above them; in the top register there are men fighting a lion, lions attacking a bull, ibex or gryphon, a winged sphinx and a winged bull--the disparate scenes have no logical connection but are arranged simply to form a pattern in which every free space is filled with branches of trees, rayed disks and an elaborate 'sacred tree'; the figures are in relief, but the repoussé work is combined with chasing for the details of the figures and for the guilloche patterns.
The effect of the two vessels is astonishingly rich, the workmanship is excellent and the design, alike of the more open hunting scene of the dish and the over-all decoration of the bowl, is extremely skillful, but nowhere is there any originality of invention . All the motives are borrowed. Egypt, Mesopotamia and Crete have all been laid under contribution, and whatever meaning the scenes may once have had it is here disregarded. Even if the hunting scene refers, as Dr. Schaeffer holds, to the hunting exploits of the king of Ugarit, it does no more than symbolize those exploits by a conventional design borrowed from Crete; and on the bowl the various motives, however distorted by the copyist, are reduced to mere ornament. If we look at the fairly numerous engraved bowls in bronze or silver which have been found in foreign countries such as Cyprus and Etruria, vessels which, although not necessarily made in Syria, illustrate the later phases of Phoenician art, we shall find no two duplicates but a constant repetition of motives. It is evident that the craftsman possessed a 'pattern book' of motives derived from all the sources available to him and combined them indiscriminately into a design. Just as in later times the Phoenician goldsmith would string together meaningless Egyptian hieroglyphs as background ornament, so too he would from the outset adapt for decorative purposes religious scenes or symbols whose significance he ignored or misunderstood; he was a decorative artist only, but as such excelled.
Phoenician goods traveled far and wide, and to their often barbarous or backward customers appeared to be of unparalleled merit. But it must be admitted that they were seldom, if ever, of the highest quality. [p. 111]
The eighteenth-century king of Byblos who wanted a gold pectoral of Egyptian style would certainly have commissioned his best goldsmith, but the pectoral, very splendid though it be, cannot compare with the workmanship of an Egyptian royal piece; similarly the Ugarit gold vessels, for technical finish, fall very far short of Egyptian standards. Working for a different and a less discriminating clientele the Phoenician goldsmith was content to gain a superficial effect rather than to achieve technical perfection.
The worker in ivory aimed higher--possibly because Egyptian ivories were exported and he had therefore to meet keener competition in the Mediterranean market, but was equally imitative, because he had to satisfy the tastes of clients in different areas. Ugarit has produced a magnificent ivory roundel of the fourteenth century carved with a figure of a seated goddess between two wild goats which is so truly Cretan in style that it might be mistaken for a genuine Minoan piece; toilet-boxes in the shape of a duck with its head turned back over its wings are precise replicas of those made in Egypt; ivories from Megiddo [13th c.] are in the northern [Hurri] taste, but combine this with Egyptian motives. Because Pharaoh exported his surplus raw ivory to Syria the Phoenician craftsmen could build up a flourishing trade. Not only is carved ivory found in large quantities at sites in Syria such as Megiddo, later at Arslan Tash, Samaria and Lachish, but a very large proportion of the innumerable ivories from the palaces of the Assyrian kings are of Phoenician manufacture. Inlay for furniture was sometimes engraved, sometimes worked in relief, sometimes cut au jour; the ivory might be stained, inlaid with coloured stones, partly gold-plated, so that the effect was brilliant in the extreme, and upon those royal commissions the workers lavished their utmost skill. Some motives were frankly Syrian, such as the familiar 'Woman at the Window'; many were copied from Assyrian reliefs; many were Egyptian, these being for the most part derivative rather than directly imitative, and something of the Mycenaean tradition still survived even in the eighth century B.C. Throughout the centuries the ivory-carver's art was conservative; an innovation generally results from the copying of a motive supplied by a fresh client, but the same motives tend to be repeated, so that it is difficult to date a single carving on internal evidence, and to trace any development is impossible. In the course of time however the carver's repertoire became very large, and by ingenious combinations and modifications of standard motives a clever man could devise something essentially [p. 113] original. Such is the finest of all the ivories known to us, a plaque from Nimrud [8th-7th century] showing, against a background of flowering reeds, a young Negro being killed by a lioness--a work exquisite in composition and technique and with a dramatic intensity rarely to be found in Phoenician art.
In the glyptic art there is the same mixture of foreign styles as in metallurgy. The actual form of the cylinder seal is of course borrowed from Mesopotamia, while the scarab is native to Egypt. The Phoenicians cut cylinder seals, often employing Egyptian motives to the exclusion of any other, often a combination of north Syrian and Mesopotamian motives; but they greatly preferred the scarab, which incidentally gave scope for their skill in the use of coloured glaze. In neither case did they make any noteworthy invention or archieve any advance.
It was north Syria, the Hurrie country, that produced all the best of the countless cylinders which our museums have acquired from Syrian dealers; glyptic had few attractions for the Phoenician craftsman. A seal is a personal thing which must be made to the order of an individual customer; its maker needs to possess invention and adaptability; the Phoenician on the other hand liked to make things for export, things which would commend themselves to an unknown client and could be taken from pattern-books; seal-engraving therefore he could leave to others.
The fact that the Temple of Solomon at Jerusalem was built for him by the skilled workmen of Hiram, king of Tyre, surely implies that the Phoenicians were good architects and masons. Nothing remains in their country to substantiate this. We have seen that the early obelisk Temple at Byblos was but a crude affair. We must disregard the magnificent corbel-vaulted tomb-chambers of Ugarit, because those are due not to the natives of Ugarit but to the Aegean merchants resident in the port; the walls of Ugarit, with the postern gate and corbel-vaulted passage in the wall's thickness, are indeed impressive but they too are not Phoenician in origin, and as rough rubble structures they cannot rank very high by architectural standards. The huge blocks of stone in the walls of Arvad bespeak a triumph of engineering, but the construction is unsound, since they rest upon far smaller [p. 114] blocks; and the same is true of the immense stones in the podium wall of Ba'albek which, even if of late date, are in the Phoenician megalithic tradition. The only monuments of pre-Classical days that can be cited as illustrating Phoenician architecture are the megalithic Ma'abed or tabernacle at Amrit, Egyptian in design and with an Egyptian cornice, but with a monolithic roof trimmed inside to stimulate a barrel vault, and a somewhat similar [ruined] monolithic tabernacle at Ain al Hayât close to Amrit with a uraeus cornice. The well-known Amrit tombs, dating from the first centuries B.C. and A.D., are in the same monolithic tradition but while the forms may be Phoenician such decoration as there is has been borrowed from Assyria. From Sidon we have two architectural fragments which again show the lack of originality characteristic of Phoenician art; one is part of a column-base in Syro-Hittite style, the other a column-capital composed of two bull protomoi which is a painstaking copy of those at Persepolis.
At Megiddo there were found two 'proto-Ionic' pilaster capitals, one of which is of the time of Solomon of Judaea and the other perhaps a generation older; they are the earliest known. It would be surprising if this architectural form, so poplar in later times, originated in a Canaanite town of secondary importance.  Similar capitals occur in Cyprus in the sixth century B.C., and it is not unreasonable to suppose that those at Megiddo were also due to the Phoenicians. King Solomon may well have employed Hiram's masons and architects for work in other towns of his realm besides Jerusalem; the building of the Astarte temple at Megiddo, from which one of the capitals comes, was as much beyond the powers of the Hebrews of that date as was that of the more ambitious temple of Yahwe, so that foreign labour would have been needed; and it is noteworthy that the technique of wall construction used for the principal buildings [the walls are in sections divided by wooden uprights resting on a sleeper wall; the footings for the uprights are of ashlar masonry with rubble masonry between them] is one that was not normal in Palestine. If this supposition be justified then it must be admitted that the Phoenicians did make at least one important contribution to architecture.
But that most of their work in this as in other fields was imitative is undoubtedly true; even in the Hebrew description of the temple at Jerusalem, with its "Walls carved with cherubims and palm-trees and open flowers", we can recognize the Syro-Hittite orthostats, which [p. 116] were capable of far more elaborate work than any architectural remains in Phoenicia itself would lead us to attribute to them; its quality we must take on trust, but a little basalt lion from Byblos, now in the Louvre, a work of the Persian period, typically Phoenician in its resolution of animal forms into decorative patterns, gives a very favourable impression of what their stone-carving may have been at its best.
So constantly has it been necessary to insist upon the derivative character of Phoenician art that it might be thought that such an art does not deserve the space here given to its description, for obviously it contributed little or nothing that was new to the art of the ancient world. The answer to this objection is that in spite of their lack of originality the Phoenicians played an indispensable part in the history of art. Being from the outset in touch with the greater powers, Sumer and Egypt, the Hittites and the Hurri and [to some extent] with Minoan Crete, they not only borrowed from each and all but also supplied to each more or less faithful imitations of the works of art of the others; it was thanks to the Phoenicians that by the fourteenth century B.C. there had been established something like a koine of the eastern Mediterranean. We have only to look at the development of Egyptian art as illustrated by the treasures of Tutankhamen's tomb to realize how much was due to that artistic commonwealth.
When, just after 1200 B.C., thanks to the displacement of peoples which destroyed the Hittite empire and brought the Philistines to the borders of Egypt, the Phoenician harbour towns received contingents of Mycenaean seamen and under their guidance embarked on oversea voyages such as they had not attempted before, the Phoenician contribution to art history became yet more important. Their impact upon Etruscan civilization was such that while in many cases we can recognize Phoenician imports, in many it is hard to decide whether a work of art is Phoenician or Etruscan made under Phoenician influence. In Greece they were responsible for the phase of 'Orientalising' art which in the late eighth and seventh centuries prevailed both in the islands and on the mainland, at Corinth and at Athens, and helped to mould Greek art of the great age .
The Phoenicians had no creative imagination, and if they had exported manufactures fashioned after their own crude ideas their international trade would have had no effect upon the art of their clients. Because they were inveterate copyists and so disseminated styles that [p. 117] were not their own they became the middlemen of the art world and by hybridization promoted the aesthetic development of peoples who, but for them, would have remained isolated and perhaps sterile. [p. 119] 1. A Syro-Hittite relief from Carchemish, which may be earlier in date than the Megiddo fragments, show two man-headed bulls grasping a staff [or tree?], the head of which is curiously like the proto-Ionic capital, though the side elements are really curved fronds, not full volutes. The Phoenician claim to the invention of the capital is therefore liable to challenge.
[Woolley, Leonard. The Art of The Middle East, including Persia, Mesopotamia and Palestine. New York: Crown Publishers. 1961.]
The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].