Category Archives: Phoenician alphabet

Phoenician Alphabet

Dear students,

please read the brief extracts below on the origins of the Greek alphabet. Keep in mind the importance of writing as one of the key elements of complex societies/civilizations.


1. Phoenician alphabet.

The Phoenician’s most enduring achievement was a technology that transformed the ancient world: the alphabet. The oldest surviving example of an alphabet can be found on an inscription that runs round the top of the sarcophagus of Ahiram, the Phoenician king of Byblos sometime around 1100 BC. Ominously enough it is a curse against anyone who dares to disturb the tomb, but the development of an alphabet by the Phoenicians was a blessing that we are still benefiting from today.

The written alphabet was probably not a purely Phoenician invention; it seems most likely to have developed in Mesopotamia around the fifteenth century BC. But it was the Phoenicians who adapted the letters to make it simpler to use and did the most to disseminate it across the eastern Mediterranean. Earlier writing systems, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics or Akkadian cuneiform, were, broadly speaking, representational. This meant that they consisted of an array of symbols, sometimes hundreds of them, which stood for the things described. They were a kind of bureaucratic code and the skills required were usually restricted to a class of trained specialists known as scribes.

An alphabet works differently; it is more like a speech-recording device. Each letter indicates the sound of a spoken word, or part of it, so if you can pronounce the alphabet correctly you can sound out a word even if you do not know what it means (this is how children read to learn phonetically). Quicker and easier to use, the alphabet made literacy more widespread, and it also allowed literature to become more expressive and inventive, echoing the music and rhythms of speech. (Richard Miles, Ancient Worlds: The Search for the Origins of Western Civilization, 66)

2. Greek illiteracy

Our first surviving inscription in Greek characters is on a jug of about 750 BC. It shows how much the renewal of Aegean civilization owed to Asia. The inscription is written in an adaptation of Phoenician script; Greeks were illiterate until their traders brought home this alphabet. (Roberts and Westad, (2013) The Penguin History of the World.)


Map and extracts shared privately with students for educational purposes only. Please see the relevant booksellers for copies of the books and consult the website for the map and related materials.