Rediscovering Ancient Phoenicia: The Truth Behind Phoenician Identity in the Mediterranean

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Joël J Hage
The Morehead-Cain Foundation
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
May - August 2011

History

Before the rise of the Roman Empire, and before the fruitful era of the ancient Greeks, a great sea-faring people once dominated the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, these people were the first “colonizers” of the western world, spreading their civilization, language, culture, and DNA from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean. Ancient Phoenicia was once a rich, blossoming civilization that consisted of several cities founded along the Levantine coast, where lie modern-day Lebanon, Israel, and western Syria. Newer Phoenician cities were eventually established throughout the Mediterranean around the 8th century BC, from the islands of Cyprus, Malta, Sicily and Sardinia, to the peninsula of Gibraltar, the south of mainland Italy, Tunisia in northern Africa, and even as far west as Cádiz -- a city on the Atlantic coast of Spain. Unfortunately but true, history is often told from the biased perspective of those who are victorious, as opposed to those who are defeated. In this specific case, the fall of the great Phoenician civilization gave rise to Greece, and in turn, the Roman Empire. As such, much of what is known today about the Phoenicians and their culture has either been written by the Greeks or Romans, or has simply been lost to time. Millennia-old Phoenician cities and ports across the Mediterranean lie masked beneath the remains of later Roman cities – or worse, buried beneath large modern-day cities like Cagliari, the capital city of Sardinia.

It seems as though these so-called Phoenicians faced the unforgiving wrath of history. Well, that may true when speaking solely about archeological remains; however, what the average person does not know is that the Phoenicians have made a lasting impact on the Mediterranean region, and even more importantly, the world. The letters that you see on this page – in fact, the entire Latin, Greek, and even Arabic alphabets – are derived from the alphabet of the Phoenicians, the first written and recorded phonetic alphabet in modern history. To prove a point, the first two letters of the Phoenician alphabet were ‘aleph’ and ‘bet,’ which the Greeks soon modified into their own ‘alpha’ and ‘beta,’ while the Arabs similarly developed their own ‘alif’ and ‘be.’ The Etruscans soon adopted this innovative form of written communication, which was in turn modified and adapted by the ancient Romans to create the Latin alphabet. The first two letters of the Etruscan, then Roman, alphabet were ‘A’ and ‘B’. The Phoenicians, who were experienced and successful maritime merchants, would trade their unique alphabet with their neighbors in exchange for precious artifacts and minerals. Moreover, any purple clothing that may be occupying your closet space at this given moment can be credited to the Phoenicians who were the first to discover and create purple dye using mollusk shells from the depths of the Mediterranean. As sea-faring people, the Phoenicians mastered the Mediterranean and used it as their tool. Using wood from the abundant cedar trees of Lebanon, they were able to construct vast fleets of enormous ships that were able to carry them as far as the eastern coast of Europe and even the western coast of Africa. The art of ship making was developed and perfected by the Phoenicians. Thus, by a far stretch, we can even partially credit Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas to the ancient Phoenicians.

Background

Almost two centuries after the fall of ancient Phoenicia, many historians adamantly argue that the inhabitants of this civilization have been lost in history, perhaps mixed in with the later populations that ruled the area; however, the key to finding what remains of these peoples lies somewhere in the Mediterranean, and the most obvious place to look: modern-day Lebanon, their original homeland. Oral tradition holds significant importance in the villages and towns along the mountainous terrain of Lebanon. As a people who were constantly under persecution and domination since the end of the Phoenician era, it only makes sense that oral tradition is the best destruction-proof way of remembering and passing down the history of this ancient country. As such, for centuries, oral tradition in parts of Lebanon has held fast to the belief that modern-day Lebanese are the descendents of their Phoenician forefathers. Although Phoenicia collapsed and faced further imperialism from neighboring civilizations, the original inhabitants of this land did not just disappear overnight. In a similar example, the collapse of ancient Rome did not simultaneously wipeout of all the Roman people. The mountainous landscape of the Levant made it difficult for most invading armies to reach the populations living in the mountain ranges of Lebanon. Thus, genetic influence from conquering neighbors was relatively minimal until the start of the Crusades; foreign powers, such as the Ottoman Empire, actually ruled ancient Phoenicia with minimal contact with the resident populations that were living in difficult-to-reach places.

It is also important to note that Lebanon’s complicated history has caused Phoenician identity to become a delicate subject. During the Lebanese civil war – a conflict primarily between Lebanon’s religious sects – some Maronite Christians in Lebanon tried to claim a unique and direct ancestry from the Phoenicians, implying that they held a more legitimate historical claim on the land than non-Christians.1 To this day, many Lebanese cower at the mention of the word ‘Phoenician.’ Lebanon must move beyond its political and sectarian strife in order to embrace the truth behind its history, a common and uniting factor amongst all Lebanese regardless of religion or lack thereof. As a Lebanese-American, I value and admire Lebanon’s rich and complex history, and as such, I believe it is a shame to ignore or erase any part of our past due to politics. It is a history that is unique from that of its neighbors, but a history that has shaped and defined Lebanon’s culture, a history that is shared with many other modern-day nation-states throughout the Mediterranean. And so, I embarked on a journey across the Mediterranean, digging deep into our Phoenician past in order to find and make known all that remains genetically, culturally, and linguistically of our ancestors. It is my belief that, to this day, various peoples throughout the Mediterranean Sea take pride in their historic Phoenician identity, something that unites all corners of this expansive sea.

Genetics and Lineage

The creators of the written alphabet may have vanished from our history books, along with all of their written records; however, their alphabet can still be found in several locations around the Mediterranean – a special kind of alphabet called DNA. In recent years, an extensive genetic research project funded by the National Geographic Society has made its way around the Levantine coast, southern Europe, the Mediterranean islands, and northern Africa in an attempt to trace the modern-day descendents of the ancient Phoenicians. After taking DNA samples from a preserved Phoenician sarcophagus, the genetic research team journeyed to the historic Phoenician port-cities of Lebanon to begin their project. It is a known fact that the Phoenicians traded all sorts of materials, from timber to wine and minerals; yet, they also carried something else with them on each of their journeys across the Mediterranean: their genes.

One of the most significant results from this genetic research project was its ability to prove that modern-day Lebanese people of all religious communities share a common ancestral identity that dates back dozens of centuries.2 These tests confirmed a theory that the Phoenicians were in fact the same people as the Canaanites – the ancestors of today’s Lebanese – that inhabited the Levant area, according to the Bible. They most likely referred to themselves as Canaanites, not Phoenicians, since ‘Phoenician’ was a title attributed to them by the Greeks. 3

The results of this genetic investigation only become more interesting as we move beyond the frontiers of Lebanon. Dr. Pierre Zalloua, one of the lead researchers in this National Geographic project, explained in an interview that the key Phoenician identifying gene is “abundantly present in the Iberian peninsula,” meaning Spain and Portugal.4 In fact, throughout the entire coastal region of the Mediterranean Sea, as many as one in 17 men is a descendent of the Phoenicians.5 Taking into account the expanse of the Mediterranean as well as the number of civilizations and peoples that have populated it through the years, it is quite shocking to discover that one in 17 men are descended from ancient Phoenicia of the Levantine region.

Halfway between Italy and Tunisia, on a little island called Malta, Phoenician lineage was identified in 30 percent of the sample population, meaning almost one in three Maltese are of Phoenician descent.6 This is a significantly large figure, considering the number of centuries that have passed and the number of invasions that Malta has witnessed in all those years. Through periods of Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, and British rule, the inhabitants of the Maltese islands astonishingly maintained a large amount of consistency in their ancestral lineage. This is arguably one of the most interesting discoveries to date regarding Phoenician ancestry, as it highlights a strong genetic relationship between the Maltese and the Lebanese.7 Many Maltese today still proudly proclaim their Phoenician ancestry, acknowledging that they are the modern-day descendents of the ancient seafarers that settled on their islands. Both the Maltese and the Lebanese, although half a sea apart, have maintained an attachment to their supposed ancestral histories, until now, a time in which science is finally able to legitimize these previously unverified ancestries.

Sailing southwest from the southern shore of Malta, we eventually reach a fabulous city known today as Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. Once named Carthage, the little piece of northern African coast became the largest and chief Phoenician colony outside of Phoenicia. What happened to Carthage? After the second Punic War, Rome defeated the Carthaginian army and managed to burn the city to the ground. Although it was once a thriving Phoenician hub, today only a small number of Tunisians in Tunis are believed to be of Phoenician descent. "They left only a small [genetic] impact in North Africa," says Dr. Spencer Wells, the man credited with starting this genetic research project. No more than 20 percent of the Tunisian men sampled were found to be carrying Y-chromosomes that could have originated in ancient Phoenicia. Actually, most men were found to be carrying “the aboriginal North African [gene], M96."8 Although Rome managed to completely destroy one of the Phoenician’s largest cities, it was not able to wipe the Phoenicians off the map. Science has proven that even in a city that was burned down and completely depleted, the Phoenicians still left their genetic footprint, although minimal, two centuries later.

There is a clear and obvious genetic web that stretches across the Mediterranean Sea connecting various inhabitants from east to west. The biological aspect of Phoenician identity undoubtedly exists, but perhaps it is necessary to evaluate a more evident aspect of this identity in order to determine whether the recent scientific discoveries bear any importance to the peoples of the Mediterranean.

Culture

After the foundation of Carthage in the early 8th century B.C., the western coast of the Mediterranean began to witness the birth of numerous Phoenician colonies.9 Phoenicia’s era of colonization and sea exploration had begun.

The Phoenicians are believed to be the first people in modern historyi to settle and populate the island of Malta and its sister island, Gozo.10 Beginning in roughly 900 B.C. Malta was purely a Phoenician island, until the victory of Rome in 218 B.C. However, throughout the duration of Rome’s conquest of the islands, the inhabitants of Malta are believed to have “remained strictly Punic [Phoenician]ii in their belief” and to have “clung tenaciously to their Punic identity.”11 The Maltese people were still proudly Punic, and thus the carryover of Punic culture continued into Roman times.12 They would intentionally re-dig and re-use the tombs and burial sites of their forefathers in order to reaffirm their Phoenician identity, and perhaps out of spite to the Romans.13 First-hand literary accounts provide us with an insight into what life was like for the Phoenicians before the Romans arrived. In the first century B.C., Diodorus of Sicily described life in Punic Malta:

It possesses many harbours which offer exceptional advantage, and its inhabitants are blest in their possessions; for it has artisans skilled in every manner of craft…and the dwellings on the island are worthy of note, being ambitiously constructed with cornices and finishes in stucco with unusual workmanship. The island is a colony planted by the Phoenicians, who, as they extended their trade in the western ocean, found in it a place of safe retreat, since it was well supplied with harbours and lay out in the open sea; and this is the reason why the inhabitants of this island, since they received assistance in many respects through the sea-merchants, shot up quickly in their manner of living and increased in renown.”14

Historical evidence, such as Diodorus’s description of Malta, proves that Phoenician culture not only thrived in Malta, but also persisted through the centuries. Their identity was a point of pride that obviously resisted the influence of change. Therefore, it is entirely possible that this attachment to their Phoenician heritage still exists today amongst the Maltese, as it does amongst many Lebanese. One historical scholar, Claudia Sagona, writes, “For at least one thousand years Malta and Gozo claimed Phoenician-Punic culture as its own; today it is an intangible presence.”15 This would explain why, while visiting Malta or Gozo, one would come across numerous restaurants, hotels, streets, and villages whose names descend directly from the Phoenicians and/or their culture. According to Professor Anthony Bonanno, professor of Classics and Archaeology at the University of Malta, “There is a certain amount of belief [in Malta]…maybe in certain respects pride, that the Maltese derive from the Phoenicians.”16 Additionally, yet perhaps a bit subjective, one can note similar or overlapping characteristics between the modern-day people of Malta and Lebanon that could be attributed to their common ancestors. Bonanno noted that the Maltese “tend to be very good businessmen,” a characteristic that was quite typical of the Phoenicians and is today often attributed to people of the Levantine, including Lebanese, Syrians, Jews, and Palestinians.17

Although Carthage also fell to the Romans, the persistence of a Phoenician past is almost as evident as it is in Malta. The population of the once-great city was enslaved and taken away, explains Tunisian archaeologist Nejib Ben Lazreg.18 "This doesn’t mean the culture disappeared. It had become so rooted in North Africa that it was centuries before people abandoned the language. In fact, by A.D. 193, Rome had a [Phoenician] emperor from North Africa, Septimius Severus, and he spoke with a strong Phoenician accent.”19 As in Malta, one can also locate remnants of Carthage’s Phoenician past solely by observing the names and origins of modern streets, towns, and institutions. Clearly, the Phoenician history of North Africa carries a bit of importance for some Tunisians.

Road signs, restaurants, and town throughout Spain and Sardinia also bear traces of Phoenician culture. A few towns in Spain have retained their Phoenician names to this day (with slight adaptations in pronunciation), including Carteia, Cádiz, and Málaga, and even the island of Ibiza. The entire region of Andalucía in southern Spain was once a large Phoenician region, and a lot of what the Phoenicians brought there culturally still remains today. Similarly, in Sardinia, Nora and Bithia are two towns of Phoenician origin, as well as Sulcis, the name of the southwestern province of the island.

Phoenician culture also has its remnants in contemporary religions practiced around the Mediterranean. Although the pagan populations of the Mediterranean were eventually converted to one of the three main monotheistic religions, it is quite unrealistic to assume that all of their pagan habits, traditions, or aspects of worship were completely abandoned. On the islands of Malta and Gozo there are old churches and chapels that have been built along the coastline; it is not a coincidence that many of these churches face out into the sea. The positioning of these churches is significant because it gives evidence to the lasting impact of the pagan Phoenician culture on modern-day Christianity. It was common Phoenician practice to build temples and sanctuaries along coastal promontories in order to provide either a place of prayer or a visible spiritual sanctuary for passing Phoenician sailors. This cultural habit may have been carried over into the Christian era, during which churches were built in similar positions in order to provide a place of prayer or to serve as a visible spiritual reminder for fishermen out at sea.20 Interestingly, one Phoenician sanctuary in Malta -- called Tas Silg – is known to have remained in continuous use by later religious invaders including the Byzantines, the Arabs, and the Normans.21 This was actually common practice throughout the entire Mediterranean, as many pagan temples and sanctuaries were later converted into Christian houses of worship. Additionally, one theory relating to the Phoenicians makes a claim as to why the Virgin Mary is so revered within the Catholic Church. Many Mediterranean towns and villages hold annual religious processions during which a statue of Mary is carried through the streets. This is done in reverence to the Virgin, the mother of Jesus Christ. However, more than likely, this tradition originated in pagan times, when Astarte (the most important Phoenician goddess) would be venerated with similar public processions.22 Astarte was one of the most important figures in all of the pagan Mediterranean civilizations, iii including the Greeks and the Romans. Perhaps those once-pagan people desired another important feminine figure in their new religion upon converting to Christianity. Such examples of Phoenician culture in today’s Mediterranean societies are visible indications that remnants of the ancient civilization do exist, and are still rife in the region. They can be quite obvious at times, especially when there are noticeable similarities between one country and another; however, some aspects of Phoenician culture require a little more scrutiny to figure out – the language, for example.

Language

The question remains as to whether or not the Phoenicians have left a linguistic impact in the Mediterranean aside from their written alphabet, whose adaptations have now spread across the globe. Various theories exist, some claiming that modern-day Maltese and Lebanese (a Levantine dialect of Arabic) are the two closest relatives to the Phoenician language, while others argue that the spoken Phoenician language has been completely erased. Their language once thrived throughout the region, but it is a language that is no longer spoken today exactly as it was spoken thousands of years ago. However, it has not disappeared entirely.

In the 5th century A.D., after North Africa had already been Romanized and converted to Christianity, the inhabitants of Carthage reportedly still spoke Punic (see Endnote ii). Records show that Latin churches were employing people to preach in Punic, rather than Latin, meaning that the spoken language in Tunisia before the Islamic invasions was still the Phoenician language.23 On the Maltese islands, the earliest records of language were found to be in written in Phoenician.24 The Phoenicians definitely introduced their language to Malta, and it was a language that stuck with vigor, much like in Carthage.25 “The people [in Malta] were speaking, writing, reading Phoenician/Punic for at least six hundred years. The Romanists tell us that in the first hundred years or so of Roman occupation, nobody would [have known] that the Romans were [in Malta], neither from the language nor from the inscriptions.”26 It is thus quite unreasonable to assume that the language would one day, all-of-a-sudden, disappear. “Even if the Romans Romanized Malta later on, the people of the land would still have spoken Punic.”27

Carthage and Malta shared an almost identical linguistic timeline throughout the first few centuries A.D., even through the Islamic invasions that soon after took over North Africa. The Arabs that invaded North Africa later invaded the Maltese islands, bringing with them the influence of their language, Arabic. As we have seen, records show that the Phoenician language long outlived the Phoenician era in Malta and Carthage; therefore, it must have been relatively easy for the later invading Arabs to Arabicize another prior-existing Semitic language, such as Phoenician. To make a contemporary comparison, if the Spanish were to conquer Italy, the Italian language would very easily adapt into Spanish due to their common Latin root. But when an invading civilization tries to change a language, it is almost impossible to entirely eliminate every element of the language that existed previously in the area (much like the earlier example of Christianity trying to replace the various pagan religions). Therefore, we can assume that pieces of the Phoenician language have survived through the centuries and thus still exist today in modern-day Maltese, which of course is now a mix of Phoenician, Latin, Italian, Arabic, French, English, etc. (due to Malta’s history of constant foreign domination).

But why is it that many scholars pinpoint Lebanese as the closest relative to the Maltese language? These two small countries have never had any historical connections – that is, except for the era of the Phoenicians. Professor Anthony Frendo at the University of Malta believes that these two languages are so strikingly similar due to their common ancestry.28 Lebanon’s linguistic history is similar to that of Carthage and Malta; Phoenician (later Aramaic)iv was the spoken language until the arrival of a related Semitic language – again, Arabic. Lebanon’s spoken language today is a dialect of the Arabic language, with Phoenician roots and a significant amount of Turkish, Persian, French, and English influences. The once-Phoenician language of the Levantine was transformed under heavy Arabic influence, much like the Maltese language. A large percentage of the grammar, vocabulary, and every-day verbs of the Levantine dialect of Arabic are words and rules that differ significantly from those of Classical Arabic. However, a good number of Levantine words are also shared with the Maltese language.v The same can be said about several family names that are mutual between Malta and Lebanon, yet are non-existent in many other Middle Eastern and North African countries. In fact, many Maltese scholars who have traveled to Lebanon claim that the Lebanese tongue is much closer to Maltese than any other language, in terms of the two populations being able to understand each other.29 To give an example of overlapping vocabulary, the modern Levantine and Maltese word for ‘outside’ is ‘barra,’ while the Arabic translation would be ‘khaarij.’ Since many words (and names) are shared between Lebanese (and the greater Levantine dialect) and Maltese, but not with Arabic, simple logic can deduce that the origin of these words and names must be Phoenician. Therefore, the ancestral root of modern-day Maltese and modern-day Lebanese is still Phoenician, albeit with several other languages sprinkled on top. Interestingly enough, a few of those Phoenician words that are used in Maltese and Lebanese can still be heard in parts of Tunisia, but often as a synonym to the more commonly used Arabic word. And so, millennia after the creation of the Phoenician language, its linguistic roots are still pumping blood through the veins of the Mediterranean.

The Truth Behind Phoenician Identity As It Exists Today

Acknowledging that a population has fallen under the reign of foreign imperialism does not mean that the inhabitants of that area have genetically, linguistically, or culturally transformed to become identical clones of the invading population. If that were the case, then almost all Europeans should be called Romans since Rome once dominated most of the European landmass. Many Africans would be called French and Indians would be called Brits. Drawing a parallel, we should not make the mistake of stripping the descendents of the Phoenicians from their historical identity. Their legend has suffered under the victory of the Romans and the Greeks, which is why our history books rarely mention the Phoenicians. Claudia Sagona explains it perfectly:

The modern perception of the superiority of Greek and Roman civilization over that of Phoenician-Punic culture has led to an entrenched view that the Greeks colonized the west prior to Phoenicia, even though the Greeks themselves recognized that Phoenicians had preceded them.”30

The Phoenicians were one among the most intelligent and well-accomplished civilizations to ever populate this planet. It would be a disgrace and a mistake to erase them from our past.

Although it may be an ancient, complex, and extremely diverse region of the world, the Mediterranean still retains what the Phoenicians once had. There is a cohesive gene pool, cultural remnants, and ancient linguistic roots that together exist to make up the modern Phoenician identity. If these things remain, then the Phoenicians have not been lost to history. From Lebanon, to Italy, to Malta, to Spain and Tunisia, thrives a proud understanding of what links these diverse nations. Regardless of nationality or religious background, and regardless of whether or not these people proudly and publicly claim it as they do in Malta or in Lebanon, the fact remains: our past was still Phoenician.

      1. 1 Rick Gore, “Who Were the Phoenicians?” National Geographic Magazine Oct. 2004, 26 May 2011.
      2. 2 Tom Perry, “In Lebanon DNA may yet heal rifts,” Reuters 10 Sept. 2007, 28 May 2011.
      3. 3 Gore, “Who Were the Phoenicians?”
      4. 4 Perry, “In Lebanon DNA may yet heal rifts.”
      5. 5 Paul Rincon, “DNA legacy of ancient seafarers,” BBC News 31 Oct. 2008, 27 July 2011.
      6. 6 Perry, “In Lebanon DNA may yet heal rifts.”
      7. 7 Salim George Khalaf, “Proving History Through Science,” Phoenicia.org 3 Feb. 2011.
      8. 8 Gore, “Who Were the Phoenicians?”
      9. 9 Piero Bartoloni, Archeologia Fenicio-Punica in Sardegna (Cagliari, Italy: CUEC, 2009) 23.
      10. 10 Claudia Sagona, et al., Punic Antiquities of Malta (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters-Leuven, 2006) 13.
      11. 11 Ibid., 14.
      12. 12 Anthony J. Frendo, Personal Interview, 8 June 2011.
      13. 13 Claudia Sagona, et al., Punic Antiquities of Malta, 13.
      14. 14 Claudia Sagona, et al., Punic Antiquities of Malta, 12.
      15. 15 Claudia Sagona, et al., The Archeology of Punic Malta (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters-Leuven, 2002) 1.
      16. 16 Anthony Bonanno, Personal Interview, 6 June 2011.
      17. 17 Anthony Bonanno.
      18. 18 Gore, “Who Were the Phoenicians?”
      19. 19 Ibid.
      20. 20 George Azzopardi. Personal Interview, 31 May 2011.
      21. 21 Claudia Sagona, et al., The Archeology of Punic Malta, 274.
      22. 22 Andrew Galea. Personal Interview, 20 June 2011.
      23. 23 Anthony J. Frendo.
      24. 24 Anthony Bonanno.
      25. 25 Ibid.
      26. 26 Anthony J. Frendo.
      27. 27 Ibid.
      28. 28 Anthony J. Frendo.
      29. 29 Anthony Bonanno.
      30. 30 Claudia Sagona, et al., The Archeology of Punic Malta, 26.

Endnotes

i Prehistoric nomads are known to have lived on the Maltese islands. However, the first modern human inhabitants of the islands were the Phoenicians.

ii The word “Punic” is derived from the Latin word “Poeni” which itself is a derivation from the Greek word “Phoinikes,” meaning Phoenicians. The title “Punic” is often used to refer to the populations of Phoenicians that left their homeland to settle around the Mediterranean.

iii Astarte (pronounce ‘Ashtart’ in Phoenician) was the goddess of fertility, sexuality, and war. She had many symbols, including the lion, the sphinx, the dove, and a star within a circle. She was referred to as Aphrodite by the Greeks, Isis by the Egyptians, and Venus by the Romans.

iv The Aramaic language was an adaptation of the language spoken by the Canaanites, or Phoenicians. The Aramaic language was formed by the 8th century BC. Aramaic was the lingua franca of much of the Middle East before the conquest of the Arabs, who spread the Arabic language. Today in the Levant, only a few thousand people still speak dialects of Aramaic.

v Not much research has been carried out or published concerning the linguistic relationship between Lebanese and Maltese. However, throughout the duration of my research in the Mediterranean, I intentionally spent quite some time recording verbs, prepositions, grammatical concepts, vocabulary, family names, etc. that are almost identical, if not exactly the same, between Lebanese and Maltese.

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