Gibraltar, the Pillars of the Phoenicians

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The Pillars of the Phoenicians

© Copyright, William Serfaty 1997

This is a thesis designed to provide a possible historical origin for the legend of the Pillars of Hercules.

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Mythology -- (Fiction)

"La columna de plata" article from El Mundo, Spain ( in Spanish on Mr. Serfaty's thesis by kind courtesy of Mr. Luis Miguel Fuentes.
El Mundo article

The Pillars of Hercules, in Homer's legend, were the two pillars on which Heracles, the original Greek form of the Roman mythical Hercules, mythically, fictitiously, pressed to separate Europe from Africa, and are today accepted as being two mountains at the mouth of the Mediterranean, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, namely one on either side of the Straits of Gibraltar. (This is perhaps a Greek repetition of the Story of Sampson in Middle Eastern mythology, who was said to have brought down the building he was in by separating and shearing two of its columns.) Another myth concerns Hercules' theft of the Golden Apples, placing the giant, Atlas, and his task of supporting the weight of the world, at the "Pillars of Hercules".

Historical Basis of the Mythology

1. The Phoenicians as Traders

The Phoenicians were involved in coastal trade from as early as 3000 BC. (a wreck discovered at Galeidonya, on the southern coast of Turkey dates from 1375 BC, and items discovered on it show it came from a developed maritime trading society on the Canaanite coast). The first clients they would have found Southwards along their coast from their cities at Tyre, Byblos, Sidon, Sarepta, Aradus, and Ugarit, would have been the Egyptians, who were engaged in a fever of Pyramid building fuelled by the wealth provided by the fertility of the Nile basin. The first products they traded were timbers for building construction from the cedar trees for which Lebanon is still renown, Phoenician crafts which were valued in Egypt, such as the manufacture of glass, silk from their trading with tribes to the east, possibly originating in India, and which the Phoenicians dyed with the purple ink they obtained from a marine snail found on their coast, a whelk, the Murex Murex, (other shades of purple requiring the addition of inks from other species of marine snails, all of which were more or less common throughout the Mediterranean). William Serfaty

This purple silk was favoured by aristocratic Egyptians, and was extremely expensive. It was later adopted by the Romans and later by the Royal Houses of Europe ; the colour has become known as "Tyrrhian Purple" or "Royal Purple". Its high cost led the Romans to use a white toga with a narrow band of purple material. The process was tedious and consequently expensive. For example the length necessary to make one robe would have been sold for the equivalent of the wages of a sea-captain for one year. (The greatest extravagance of all time was perhaps on the flagship of Cleopatra's fleet, which is said to have sported a mainsail of Tyrrhian Purple.) Some authorities attribute the name Phoenicia to the Greeks, and a word of theirs meaning "Purple". One of their high-value, small-volume, ground-breaking products was glass for containers for liquids. This could well have been discovered as a by-product of the casting of bronze in the desert, a process described in Kings 1 in connection with the construction of the first temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. In order to provide these products and services they built their own port at the Nile Delta near to what was to become Alexandria.

As Egypt grew more powerful, and united its North and South Kingdoms it expanded its land frontiers, and in 1800 BC Egypt invaded, and occupied all the Canaanite settlements on the Eastern Mediterranean coast including their Nile port.

The occupation did not appear to change the commercial relationship, and throughout the period of occupation and after it, about 1100 BC, trading with Egypt continued.

2. Phoenician Geographical Expansion

What had started as a group of three independent defensible coastal towns, Tyre, Byblos, and Sidon, was by now a string of hundreds settlements and trading posts which had gone beyond the Nile delta and inexorably grew, in some stretches of coast by the pact of "blind bargaining" with the peoples there, and in other areas, devoid of resistance, by settlement along the North African Coast and the Eastern Mediterranean Islands, Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete, Sicily, Malta, reaching the Atlantic Coast as far south as Mogador on the Atlantic coast of what is now Morocco, and including the entire Iberian Coast from Huelva in the West to beyond Valencia in the East. The Eastern Mediterranean is not a windy sea and the Phoenicians' principal means of propulsion was the oar. The settlements were laid out a day's rowing from one to the next, about every 30 to 60 miles. The purpose of this continued expansion was to obtain more raw material for the trade with Egypt and with the tribes to the east.

3. Metallurgy and Military Power

In 2500 B.C. the peoples around the Mediterranean basin were still in the New Stone Age or Neolithic, having Copper as the only available metal. On arrival on the Atlantic coast of France the Phoenicians came for the first time upon tin, and either devised or learned the technology necessary to convert it to Bronze by combining it with Copper, which was freely available in the Middle East. Bronze is a far superior material to Copper for practically all purposes, it is stronger to use for weapons and as armour for men and fixings and cladding for ships, and is less prone to rusting. This would be the equivalent today, if such a parallel is wise or possible, of one country coming secretly on the only source of Uranium for Nuclear weapons. So important was this to them that they named North-western France "Barra Tannica" the land of Tin, from which the names Brittany and consequently Britain come. Some specialists claim the Druids, the Celtic religious hierarchy, controlled the trade in tin at all its sources, from Cornwall in the North through Western France and Galicia, to Huelva in the South, and it was therefore perhaps natural that the Phoenicians should decide to try to prevent any other Mediterranean sea-going people from reaching the source of their security and the military power, which gave them complete control of their world for over 1000 years.

This is my hypothesis on how they set about doing so.

Spiritual Importance of the Concept of the Pillars

Origin of Phoenician religious concepts

As their trading and military abilities had developed, so had the religion of the Phoenicians. To what extent their religious ideas were home--grown or imported is hard to say, since so little evidence has so far been found of the origin of Canaanite, or Phoenician, culture save that it is the coastal culture of the hinterland Assyria. One concept that seems to have been borrowed from their trading partners the Egyptians is that of the importance of the entrance to the next world. Such was the importance the Egyptians attached to this idea that when the two Egyptian Kingdoms, North and South were united, a great Obelisk or Pillar was erected at each of the Capitals, Memphis and Thebes, (one of these obelisks is now in London, Cleopatra's Needle, which stands on Victoria Embankment on the North Bank of the River Thames, and the other in France whose tip is dramatically viewed a mile and a half away from the Church of the Madeleine in Paris when looking from its door to the front door of the Royal Palace three miles away). The concept proposed that the passage of the Sun each day in its arching route over them symbolised re-birth at sunrise and repeated death at sunset of the great god Ra each day, and described allegorically the entrance to the next world.

The Phoenicians had established a religion by which they believed that God, Melqart, which means in Aramaic "The Lord (Melq) of the City (Qart)". Melqart was to be worshipped at the Temple erected to his name in Tyre. We know that one of the features of the Temple of Melqart at Tyre was a pair of pillars, one at each side of the entrance. It is also known that entrance to the temple of Melqart at Tyre was permitted only to the High Priests.

Biblical and Egyptological concepts of The Pillars

According to the Book of Kings, and recorded in great detail by Flavius Josephus in "The Antiquities of the Jews" (written in 79 AD), in about 969 BC, Solomon, King Kingdom of Judeah, adjacent to the Kingdom of Tyre, decided to build a Temple to replace the tented structure in which was kept the Ark of the Covenant, the gilt wooden chest containing the Tablets of the Law which according to the Bible was given by God to Moses during the flight from Egypt. According to Josephus Solomon sent word to Hiram, King of Tyre, whom, he recognised, had the expertise and the necessary materials, that he wished to have this temple built as one of the great buildings of its time, and as one entirely worthy of its sacred purpose. Although we do not yet know what, if any, the allegorical significance of the Pillars outside the Temple of Melqart at Tyre was to the Phoenicians, it is recorded in the Book of Kings, and Josephus repeats it, that at the entrance of the first Temple at Jerusalem were a pair of bronze pillars, cast in the nearby desert by Hiram, (the 'architect' who had been sent by King Hiram from Tyre) whose mother was a widow from the tribe of Naphtali (1 Kings ch7 v13 and also according to Josephus), as two great hollow bronze cylinders (about 9 feet in diameter and 34 feet high, with a thickness to their bronze walls of about 2 inches), one of which contained the Scrolls of the Law. He was also, according to Kings 1, a great worker in Wood, Brass, Bronze, Glass and a number of other materials. One of the pillars was finished in silver and the other was gilt and studded in emeralds. To Solomon the Pillars represented the dual Pillar, which had assisted his people in their flight from Egypt. The account in the Bible of the flight from Egypt, the Exodus, of the enslaved Jews states that God provided Moses with "a pillar of fire by night to show your People the way (hence the Emeralds on Gold, which would operate together to shine and refract the sun's rays), and a pillar of smoke (hence the Silver finish) by day to hide them from the sight of the soldiers of the Pharaoh, that your People might be saved from his wrath" (Exodus ch13 vs21-22). None but the High Priest and then only one High Priest in each generation might enter the Holy of Holies in King Solomon's Temple, and the Inner Sanctum, The Holy of Holies, only on a particular day of the year, the Day of Atonement, so we know that to the population in general the Pillars of Solomon's Temple, which may have been based on the architectural language of the Pillars of the Temple to Melqart at Tyre (the architectural vernacular of Hiram the architect according to Flavius Josephus), symbolised an extremely clear and restrictive prohibition, the entrance to a sacred and secret place. So strict was the prohibition that a rope was tied to the High Priest when he entered, and bells sewn onto the rim of his garment. The bells advised those outside that the High Priest was moving in his prayer, and the rope would serve to remove the High Priest from the Temple should he die or collapse while he was inside, thus avoiding the risk that any caring assistant might be tempted to rush into the Temple in a medical emergency.

The Western Pillars of the Phoenicians

1. The Pillars at the Entrance to the Atlantic Ocean

Hence the proposal, in the context of the Pillars at the Straits of Gibraltar, that the concept of two pillars, one in the North and another in the South, in those times, would be recognised by all sailors as a religious prohibition, a warning that only the approved might pass between them. The Pillar on the right, sailing out of the Mediterranean towards the Atlantic, Westwards, would be Gibraltar, a grey limestone monolith two miles long and 1380 feet high almost evenly along its length, which gathers the humid east Wind and condenses it for one day in every three, at intervals throughout the year. The Pillar on the left, on the North African coast would be a lower mountain about 400 feet high, known as Septa, today's Ceuta, which is covered today in low evergreen bushes which flower yellow in January through to April, presenting the impression of the fiery pillar.

2. Religious Warning and Military Control

Let us now return to the need of the Phoenicians to control access through the Straits of Gibraltar, principally, I propose, in order to keep secret the bearings and directions to the tin mines of the Celts on the Atlantic European coasts. The Phoenicians had competitors in the Mediterranean, the Greeks in the Eastern Mediterranean and later the Etruscans in the Western Mediterranean, and customers, the Egyptians, it was important to keep them away from the secret of bronze, the source of their naval power. What better way to warn seamen that arrival at the straits was arrival at a restricted place, that passage through here had to be approved by a higher authority. Hence I have suggested, the origin of the idea of Pillars at the Straits of Gibraltar, one at the North, on the right which would have been silver, or grey, and one on the left which would have been emerald or green. The Phoenicians called Gibraltar Calpe. In Aramaic/Phoenician the consonants in Cala meant Hollow and in Pietra meant stone, hence to them Calpe - Gibraltar (and other similar places) was the Hollow stone, probably a reference to the caves they found here at sea level. It is notable that The Gibraltar Museum Authority, which set up the "Gibraltar Caves Project" in 1998 now controls no less than 140 caves all over the Rock of Gibraltar, which it is subjecting to a scientifically and authoritatively organised Archaeological Programme.

The Two Pillars

As to which the mountains which were considered to be the Pillars which flanked the Straits were, it seems clear that Gibraltar was the one on the right, North, side as one sails from east to west leaving the Mediterranean, it is grey, and on 150 days of the year it gathers a cloud from the East Wind, which condenses over two thirds of its 2-mile length, identifying it as the Silver Pillar of Smoke of the First Book Kings.

Homer, researching this for his own writing 500 years later places his fictional Hercules at the foot of two mountains, one of which was "hollow", and we can see why this might describe Calpe, Gibraltar.

This second, left-hand Pillar would therefore seem to describe Ceuta on the South Shore of the Straits, 12 miles due south of Gibraltar (which is green all the year round and from January to April flowers yellow) rather than Sidi Musa, which people of the Straits area think of as being the other Pillar, but which is 3,000 feet high, (far too high for an archer and which the wrong colour for the left Pillar, grey).

It is interesting that the doors of the Temple at Tyre (now in the British Museum) were made of Bronze. The allegory can be taken a little further, since the space between the Pillars at the Straits is the path to the missing component of Bronze

3. Shrine at Gorham's Cave, Calpe - Gibraltar, the control point

The existence of a Shrine at Gorham's Cave where thousands of items of Phoenician origin, votive offerings, are still being found by the Gibraltar Museum's 1998 'Gibraltar Caves Project' appears to support this hypothesis. A priest could have overseen the contents of a ship, the identity of its crew from their language and appearance by a visit to it anchored off Gorham's cave in the shelter from the prevailing South Westerly winds (known as 'Poniente' in the Western Med. 'the Setting Wind'. Once the Easterly Wind had commenced ('the Levanter' or 'Rising Wind' -- the Wind from the direction of the Rising Sun -- from the daily birthplace of Ra') conditions would be right for passage from east to West into the Atlantic, with a following wind.

The Naval base

1. Enforcement of the Warning -- the Naval base at Carteia.

The allegorical warning could have been supported by enforcement, since the Phoenician city of Carteia, now the site of archaeological research, is situated strategically at the sheltered Northern head of the Bay of Gibraltar, and had a population of 4,000 at a time, when Athens, one of the world's largest cities, had 20,000, so it can be considered a sizable city for its time. Recent excavations and topographical data shows that Carteia had a sheltered harbour capable of berthing up to 40 biremes of 80 feet in length at any one time. It is not excessive speculation that a craft seeking to go through the Straits into the Atlantic without first "reporting" and "receiving clearance" from Gorham's Cave would have received the immediate attention of a fleet of enforcers from the Bay, and if the intruders were missed by that sortie, there is the possibility of naval attacks emanating from a further settlement at the exit of the Straits, known to the Romans as Baelo Claudia from which it is possible the Phoenicians also operated at this time in addition to Tangier, (ancient Tingis) on the south side of the Straits of Gibraltar at the Atlantic exit. There are suitable locations along the coast of Gibraltar for a small settlement capable of supporting a "caretaker" group at Gorham's Cave, including a village which is still inhabited about a one mile row along the East Coast of Gibraltar Northwards from Gorham's or this could easily have been carried out on a daily basis directly from Carteia which is a 5-mile walk on level ground along sand dunes and beaches from Gorham's Cave, albeit requiring a row for the last mile, which would have made the cave of difficult access and a serene place.

2. The Bronze Blockade

This hypothesis implies a blockade of the Mediterranean over an extended period perhaps of several centuries, and a level of organisation and cooperation amongst Phoenician settlements, including perhaps Regal direction from Tyre, with which many Archaeological authorities will not agree, since this is not at present supported by any other Archaeological evidence than the existence of an important Phoenician port at Carteia and (thousands) of votive offerings at Gorham's Cave, mainly the several thousand personalised Scarabs from the signet rings of visiting sailors, traders, or other worshipers and small clay oil lamps, or incense burners. In addition a large number of glass teardrop vases two or three inches high are beginning to appear. It would be interesting to see DNA tests of any residue of tears left in these small bottles.

The reports of the archaeologists so far indicate all these items were made at Tyre.

*The presence of scarabs as an offering at this place is interesting. The Egyptians appear to have regarded the scarab with some awe. The scarab as the dung-beetle rolled before it a mass the shape of the Sun, which was sacred to them as the giver of Life, Ra. At one point the beetle's larva would appear as young as if magically from this ball, providing the beetle with the properties of Kherib (whence skherib/scarab?), who in Egyptian mythology was said to assist Ra on his passage across the heavens each day.

There is evidence, moreover, that the Greeks were restricted by the Phoenicians to the Aegean Sea for a period of many centuries from 1200 BC onwards, and Naval Historians attribute this to the availability exclusively to the Phoenicians of two elements in ship construction, namely long straight cedar timbers (compared to short sinuous olive timbers available to the Greeks) and Bronze for fixings, claddings and battering rams, which were used in battle to perforate hulls, sinking the enemy.

Archaeological Note:

The Phoenician levels of Gorham's Cave which cover an area about 60 feet deep into the Rock of Gibraltar just above sea level, Gibraltar, Europe, are at present still the subject of a minute scientific seasonal archaeological investigation, and the Phoenician historical community should await with great interest the findings there, which are being carried out and organised by Professor Francisco Giles Pacheco, curator of the Museum of Archaeology of Puerto de Santa Maria in Spain and are under the aegis of the Gibraltar Museum's "Gibraltar Caves Project". The Curator of the Gibraltar Museum is Dr. Clive Finlayson who is responsible for the direction of the excavations and the restoration, display, and dating of all artefacts recovered and for the subsequent publication of works on the archaeological works at this and all protected sites in Gibraltar.

The Author: William Serfaty, dip.Arch.(Leics.)
© Copyright 1997, 2004

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