THE Phoenicians, who were the neighbours of the Jews, were a Semitic tribe which at a very early age had settled along the shores of the Mediterranean. They had built themselves two well-fortified towns, Tyre and Sidon, and within a short time they had gained a monopoly of the trade of the western seas. Their ships went regularly to Greece and Italy and Spain and they even ventured beyond the straits of Gibraltar to visit the Scilly islands where they could buy tin. Wherever they went, they built themselves small trading stations, which they called colonies. Many of these were the origin of modern cities, such as Cadiz and Marseilles.
They bought and sold whatever promised to bring them a good profit. They were not troubled by a conscience. If we are to believe all their neighbours they did not know what the words honesty or integrity meant. They regarded a well-filled treasure chest the highest ideal of all good citizens. Indeed they were very unpleasant people and did not have a single friend. Nevertheless they have rendered all coming generations one service of the greatest possible value. They gave us our alphabet.
The Phoenicians had been familiar with the art of writing, invented by the Sumerians. But they regarded these pothooks as a clumsy waste of time. They were practical business men and could not spend hours engraving two or three letters. They set to work and invented a new system of writing which was greatly superior to the old one. They borrowed a few pictures from the Egyptians and they simplified a number of the wedge-shaped figures of the Sumerians. They sacrificed the pretty looks of the older system for the advantage of speed and they reduced the thousands of different images to a short and handy alphabet of twenty-two letters.
In due course of time, this alphabet travelled across the Aegean Sea and entered Greece. The Greeks added a few letters of their own and carried the improved system to Italy. The Romans modified the figures somewhat and in turn taught them to the wild barbarians of western Europe. Those wild barbarians were our own ancestors, and that is the reason why this book is written in characters that are of Phoenician origin and not in the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians or in the nail-script of the Sumerians.