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Rick Gore

Phoenicians On Assignment

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Robert Clark

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Todd James (top) and Alex Di Suvero


Phoenicians On Assignment Author Phoenicians On Assignment Author

Field Notes From Author
Rick Gore

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    Toward the end of my coverage I took a walk along the seaside in Cádiz, the city that was founded by the Phoenicians on the Atlantic coast of Spain. For the ancients, this was the end of the world. The Phoenicians used Cádiz as a base for trading with the indigenous people. They also may have set off from there to reach the coasts of Africa and Britain. They spread the word to the rest of the Mediterranean world that dragons lurked beyond the horizon off this coast. It was probably a conspiracy to frighten competitors away from the sources of their wealth.
    At a harbor known as La Caleta, waves washed over brown reefs. In Phoenician days, those reefs supported great temples to Melqart and Astarte, which the ocean long ago reclaimed. Something about the breeze, the waves, the smell of the air, said that I was no longer in the Mediterranean world. The vista spoke to the adventurous traveling spirit of the Phoenicians—as well as to the impermanence of even the grandest works of humans.

    Although the rebuilding of Beirut after the long civil war in Lebanon has erased many scars, the bombed-out remnants of buildings still haunt the capital. The anguish and devastation of that era remains palpable and staggering. People still are torn between their desire to forget and move on and the religious hatreds that fueled the carnage. The great Phoenician cities were likewise burned and savaged by invading armies. To someone exploring one of the most glorious cultures of the past, those damaged buildings of modern Beirut are a potent reminder that humans are as good at destroying civilizations as we are at building them.

    In the Istanbul Archaeological Museum lies the mummy of a Phoenician king named Tabnit I. He rests amid a collection of late fourth-century B.C. sarcophagi brought back by Ottoman archaeologists in the 1880s. Only a few fragments of preserved skin remain on King Tabnit's nearly intact body. On his coffin, the king curses anyone who would disturb him. "They and their breed shall not find peace in this or any other world."
    That curse is a source of occasional humor for the museum staff. "He haunts us," said museum curator Rahmi Asal. We were drinking tea in the garden outside the museum before I went in to see the old king. "Whenever something strange happens, we blame it on Tabnit. We think his intentions are mostly mischievous. He hasn't harmed anyone yet, and we've been living with him for a long time." Moments later, a pigeon in a tree that was shading us splattered my face with droppings. "See, that's Tabnit's warning," joked Asal. "He's here."


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