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B - 12 : Where is our Alphabet from?

The Phoenicians on the Levante coast did not only give us glass ware, purple dye, olive oil and cedar trees, their most important contribution to our culture was their invention of the modern alphabet.

Phoenicians making cedar logs read for shipping in Byblos - reconstructed painting

Based on shorthand for cuneiform clay tablets from Babylon, they started around 1’400 BC using pictograms to express phonetic sounds. The move from a symbol based writing system (as Chinese still is today) to one based on phonetics dramatically reduced the numbers of letters needed.


Instead of using thousands of symbols, the Phoenician alphabet could do with 22 only. A true revolution which made writing suddenly easy. Combined with the use of papyros which Phoenician traders discovered in Egypt where it was invented around 3’000 BC, a light, durable and transportable writing system emerged which was far superior to the clay tablets from Babylon.

Papyrus document with Phoenician text

The use of this new writing system spread so quickly that the Greeks called papyros “Byblos” after the prominent town in Phoenicia. It is the same word that became a synonym for book (byblos). We thus can assume that the first books were also an invention of the Phoenicians. Papyros pages put on top of each other in the right sequence. But initially, texts were kept as scrolls (as in ancient China)

Early Greek alphabet around 800 BC

It did not take long for the Greeks who had strong commercial ties with the Phoenicians to adopt this efficient new writing system by around 800 BC. The base was laid for another revolution: the invention of the bibliothque - where you put the books or book case in ancient Greek. The library became the place where human knowledge was stored for generation after generation. It was the beginning of science. The famous library of Alexandria was created in the 3rd century BC by Ptolemy I, a Macedonian general and successor of Alexander the Great.

Library of Alexandria where text were kept as scrolls

Will discuss how we got from scrolls to books tomorrow

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