This blog post was partly inspired because I got annoyed watching an otherwise quite informative BBC documentary, in which the presenter gave the Phoenicians around 750BC all the credit for developing and distributing the alphabet. Well, the Phoenicians were certainly a key factor in spreading alphabetic writing far and wide, but the actual invention goes back about a thousand years before then! There is intense debate as to whether the very earliest examples are from the Sinai or from Egypt a little north-west of Luxor, but either way we are talking around 1800BC or so. The presenter was (I suspect) repeating a seriously out of date view in which alphabetic writing was seen as the immediate precursor to universal literacy and general social transformation. However, this old romantic view that “every urchin would be able to read” shortly after the invention of the alphabet was soon dashed by the observation that large fractions of the Roman and Greek world remained illiterate, despite having a well-defined alphabet to work with!
The real mystery, now that more of the true history of alphabetic development is known, is why this seemingly liberating tool sat around for the better part of a thousand years without being used for anything much more than odd bits of graffiti and the occasional short dedicatory text. The first real piece of extended narrative that we have written in alphabetic script is called the Moabite Stone, dating from around about 850BC and giving a broadly parallel account (but from the opposite perspective) of an event recorded in the Hebrew Bible. Rather earlier, and further north in Ugarit, a large collection of religious material has been found written in an alphabetic script, but this uses poetry rather than prose to achieve its purpose.
As regards the time I write about, around 1200BC, the job of a scribe was interesting, varied, and very complex. Someone like Damariel in the hill country would at minimum have to be adept at reading and writing the “new” alphabetic signs – and writing them meant doing it neatly and consistently, not just scrawling them. But to make contact with the major authorities he (or possibly she – we have little evidence either way) would also need to be competent in cuneiform writing (wedge marks in clay). Damariel is quite disparaging about cuneiform to his friend Kothar – “of course no-one writes this stuff any more, this wedge and clay work is all finished” – but the reality was that it would continue for many more centuries, and Damariel himself would need to draft a crucial letter using the script later on. Egyptian writing is another story – and another day’s blog.
We do know from archaeology that works of fiction that were considered great classics – such as the story of Gilgamesh – were copied and enjoyed in cuneiform versions in the Levant area and not just far out to the east in Mesopotamia. Analysis of the clay used for these shows that they are local copies, not imported ones, and one particular fragment originates from southern Israel – perhaps even the tablet that Kothar acquired in the market at Bayth Shamsh! We also know that much early alphabetic writing was produced on materials which by nature are perishable – wood, wax, cloth etc. So it is possible, although not certain, that Damariel and his fellow seers were writing alphabetic stories and prose accounts themselves, but that these have simply not survived. Some scholars think that the use of local alphabetic scripts was a deliberate challenge to the older, established nations such as Egypt – a sort of very early example of using social media to spread a slightly subversive message!
Writing in various forms colours large parts of In a Milk and Honeyed Land – why not see how many examples you can find! Your local bookshop should be able to order copies – in case of difficulty see http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx