Thursday 29 December 2011

The Hellenization of Canaan

One interesting thing that I've noticed about many websites I've visited on the Canaanites, is that many of them seem to have this idea that Canaanite culture was destroyed by the Hebrews in a supposed invasion, that their descendants lived in the north and became known by the Greeks as Phoenicians.  Then the Greeks Hellenized Phoenicia and all of the city-states basically became Hellenic Greek city-states and Canaanite culture disappeared.  I have long felt that this wasn't the case, and Canaanite culture was (even when Hellenized) less 'Hellenic' than most people imagine it to be.  Just to clarify, I'm not claiming that Canaan was never Hellenized, that Alexander's conquest of the land never happened, or that Hellenic culture has had no influence whatsoever over Canaanites and their traditional religion.  There are numerous elements of Greek thought that I can see in later Iron Age religion from what we have discovered so far.  But the point I'm trying to make is that the Canaanites didn't simply become Greeks, and their culture wasn't destroyed or abandoned.

I recently stumbled upon an online debate regarding portrayal of Qart-Hadasht (Carthage) in popular culture as a Middle-Eastern (described here as 'Arab-Persian' though they themselves were very distinct cultures and religions) city, and portrayals of its notable inhabitants (including famous names like Hannibaal, Hadmelqart, Maharbaal) as clearly being a part of a Middle-Eastern culture and religion.  I'm not exactly sure where in popular culture Qart-Hadasht is portrayed as Middle-Eastern or Canaanite (most portrayals of it that I have seen have been quite inaccurate in that they seem to portray it as a Greco-Roman city).  But still, this has sent me off on a quest to disprove some miconceptions regarding Hellenized Phoenicia.

1.  Walking into Iron Age Sidon, Gubla, Jaffa, or Qart-Hadasht would be just like walking into Classical Athens.  They would have looked no different to Greek cities, and wouldn't have looked Middle-Eastern or Canaanite anymore.

While it's certainly true that Greek architecture and art influenced the ones in Iron Age Canaanite cities to a large degree (as Egyptian and Assyrian had done so before), there was still something distinictly Canaanite about them.  The Greeks brought in elements such as the column (which could be seen in many temples and in the famous naval harbour in Qart-Hadasht), and open-vaulted ceilings.  But for the most part, walking into Sidon would not just be like walking into Athens.  Most buildings such as houses remained largely the same as they had before.  Let's compare Seleucid Canaan with Ptolemey Egypt.  Walking into Egypt at that time (though it was Hellenized) would not just be the same as walking into Greece.  Egyptian culture still remained, but in an evolved form.  It was mostly the same with Canaan.

2.  The Canaanites copied the art style of the Greeks which can be seen on reliefs, in statues, and on coins.

In regards to the coins specifically, the Canaanites had long minted coins with interesting patterns and designs.  And coins with the heads of generals or horses on them are not automatically 'Greek' in any way.  But with reliefs and statues, they were heavily influenced by Greek art.  For example, in a tomb was found a scene representing a banquet.  The people in the image are dressed in Grecian clothes and participating in scenes familiar to anyone who has studied Greek art.  But there are some elements (such as the people sitting and eating in the shade of a palm tree in the background, and the images of deities on either side) betray the true origins of this piece of art.

3.  The Canaanites worshiped Greek gods in place of their own.

This one is actually fairly common.  I've seen a lot of portrayals of Qart-Hadasht (for example) in which the people are worshiping deities named specifically as Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite etc.  or else as Roman gods.  This is actually due to the Greeks and Romans interepreting foreign deities as their own under different names.  So the people in Canaan were likely worshiping Melqart, who the Greeks called Heracles, and so on.  They did adopt some Greek gods, like Ares and Demeter and Kore into Qart-Hadasht.  But their cults were heavily 'Canaanized' actually, and some of the symbols associated with Kore, for example, are symbols associated with Allani.

4.  The Greeks were never influenced by the Canaanites at any point in time.

While the Greeks did influence the Canaanites a lot, the Canaanites did also influence the Greeks in return.  Some examples are the alphabet and the galley ships.  It is important to remember that the Canaanites colonized the Mediterranean before the Greeks did, holding colonies in Kittim (Cyprus), Rodanim (Rhodes), Malat (Malta), Kaphtor (Create), Elishah (Sicily and nearby islands), Shardana (Sardinia), and Sapan and Tarshish (Spain).  And there is some influence on the Greeks.  One example is relief from Kittim which depicts Melqart stealing cattle.  This seems to suggest that this story may have influenced Heracles stealing Geryon's cattle, enforced further by the fact that the Canaanite city of Gadir is actually mentioned in this story. 

5.  The Canaanites had abandoned their own culture by this time.

Untrue.  They still kept their alphabet, language, number system, calendar, festivals, and religion (religion being a mjor aspect of culture). 

My intention in dispelling these misconceptions is not in any way to deny the influence of Hellenism on Canaan.  Canaan was Hellenized, and the Greeks were actually a mjaor influence over the Canaanites.  But it is important to remember that the Canaanites didn't somehow caese to exist at this point of time.  Alexander attempted to unite their cultures by paying visits to their temples.  Their religion was not replaced or destroyed.


  1. I assume this idea of an Israelite invasion comes from Israelite mythology about the Empire built by David and Solomon of Judah...

  2. That's true. The Abrahamic sciptures aren't even consistent on the details of it. Like when it's promised that the Israelites will massacre the Sidonians and take Sidon for themselves, and yet it doesn't happen. And the Perizzites also are no longer mentioned and we never find out what happened to them. And then Solomon allies himself with Hiram.

    Evidence points to the fact that the Israelites began as a subset of Canaanite society and were polytheists. I personally favour the theory that the Hebrews were the descendants of many of the Hyksos. Driven out of Egypt, they remained desert nomads in Midian and Edom. When the Egyptians conquered Canaan, the Hebrews were outside of their control. The Hebrews moved further north and inhabited small villages (being more rural) around the Canaanite cities (which were more urban), in the southern 'mountain' part of Canaan. The northern 'coastal' part had no Hebrews as the Sidonians and Gebalites resisted them. The Hebrews occasionally warred with Canaanites, but they never destroyed them completely, and many Canaanite kingdoms allied with them e.g Hazor.

    By the end of the Bronze Age, Egypt's empire has left the area, and now we see the Hebrews and southern Canaanites mixing. During the Iron Age, the identities of Perizzite, Girgashite, Jebusite and so on began to disappear and they became known as the Israelites. But in Israelite society, the Hebrews actually formed quite a small (mostly rural) element, with the southern Canaanites forming the larger (mostly urban) element. Soon the smaller kingdoms disappeared and the Kingdom of Israel was formed with Jerusalem as its capital city.

    It is clear from Egyptian sources that at the time David and Solomon were alleged to have existed, the name 'Israel' did exist, but we have much evidence that there was no Hebrew invasion and that Israel was a combination of Canaanites and Hebrews who were both polytheistic.

    We do have evidence, however, of conquests by the Hittites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, and Romans.