MALTA DIARY: New light on Malta’s Phoenician roots in exciting marine discovery
Archaeological historians estimate that Phoenician mariner-traders sailed east from Tyre and Sidon (Lebanon) almost 2,000 years ago and became the first colonial power in Malta and Gozo. They found largely uninhabited islands with a small population that had sailed 60 kilometres south from Sicily seeking new pastures 5,000 years ago. Nevertheless, however minute the number of inhabitants they had somehow had the intelligence and ability to construct Stone-age temples like Hagar Qim, Mnajdra and Ggantija almost 1,500 years earlier than the arrival of the Phoenicians, constructing the still-standing largest upright Neolithic structures in the world, built before the Egyptian Pyramids.
Some theories contend the islands of Malta and Gozo were a place of pilgrimage for people venturing south from the Italian peninsula or north from the African coast. Other theories contend Malta may have been part of a large communications centre in the middle of the Mediterranean. The mysteries remain.
The Phoenicians named the islands “Maleth” or “Malat” meaning a safe haven, originated the use of Phoenician as a language in Malta – some historians believe Phoenician to be the forerunner of Arabic and Semitic tongues – and introduced it as a written language. Maltese today remains as one of the world’s unique languages, a Semitic tongue but written in the Latin alphabet, very much retaining some of its Phoenician roots but nowadays permeated with Latin and Anglo-Saxon words.
That’s quite a marvel of adaptation and conservation considering the great number of different colonisers that the Maltese Islands have endured.
A news item some months ago sent historians into a ferment of excitement, particularly marine historians, with the announcement that a team of divers has discovered a sunken Phoenician vessel a mere mile off the coast of Gozo that has been dated as 700 BC and is therefore the oldest discovery of a sunken marine vessel in the Mediterranean Sea.
The vessel is 120 metres below the surface. To date, researchers from France, the United States, and Malta have recovered 20 lava grinding stones, weighing some 35kg each, and 50 amphorae of seven different types, which suggests the ship had visited different harbours. Based on the cargo, scientists believe the ship was sailing from Sicily to Malta to sell its cargo when it sank.
These findings are very much in line with previous research that the Phoenicians were principally traders and the ship was involved in the buying and selling of wheat and other agricultural products as well as the sale or exchange of oils, wines and perhaps Phoenician cloth dyes. It is not yet known whether any of the grinding stones or amphorae are in actual fact of Malta manufacture but the seven different types indicate the vessel traded in ports around the Mediterranean
Maltese Project Co-director Dr Timmy Gambin said the boat was probably some 50 feet in length. The site is being explored by GROplan Project which is funded by the French National Research Agency.
The project is also developing underwater photogrammetry, a new technology which takes underwater photographs and reproduces them in three dimensional form. The University of Malta is involved in the project as well as institutions in France and US.
Phoenician civilization, which lasted from 1550 BC to 300 BC, was based in what today is present-day Tyre in Lebanon. Sailors and traders travelled across the Mediterranean, not as conquerors or colonizers but as traders and are known to have sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Atlantic, up the Iberian coast and even reached Cornwall and Devon in England where they exchanged dyed cloth for tin.
Malta’s strategic location at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea made the islands a safe refuge for the Phoenicians during their long sea voyages and by the Seventh Century BC the Phoenician presence was part of the identity of the Maltese islands.
Unfortunately there are still too few artifacts linking Malta directly to the Punic era, although all the evidence is irrefutable. The Phoenicians are known to have constructed a temple in the South of Malta near the fishing port of Marsaxlokk. The temple served as a brothel for the sea-farers and when Roman civilization replaced the Phoenicians, the temple was renamed and dedicated to the goddess Juno.
The area today is still known as Juno Heights in Marsaxlokk, still a renowned fishing village.
Further marine discoveries outside Xlendi Bay in Gozo have continued to emphasise the Phoenician connection to Malta with the bay being described as the most historic bay in the whole of the Mediterranean region because of the historic marine remains discovered, including from the Phoenician, Punic, Roman and other periods of history.