The sarcophagus of Ahiram found in Byblos, in Lebanon, by French archaeologists In 1923 is one of the most important works of art from the Levant. [See Byblos.] Its inscription can be considered the oldest meaningful document so far known in Phoenician. The text, in two lines of unequal length, is carved on the lid of the sarcophagus. Words and syntactic units are separated by a small vertical stroke, but the technical execution of the writing leaves a bit to be desired. Analysis of the inscription shows that orthographic practice at the end of the second millennium BCE did not include the use of matres lectionis. The script presents a number of peculiar features: the aleph, the upright stance of gimel, the horizontal crossbars of ḥet, and the archaic ayin. The inscription is dated on paleo-graphic grounds to about 1000 BCE. The text runs as follows: “Coffin which Itthobaal son of Ahiram, king of Byblos, made for Ahiram, his father, when he placed him in eternity: if a king from among kings or a governor from among governors or the commander of an army should come up against Byblos and uncover this coffin, may the scepter of his rule be broken, may the throne of his kingship be overturned, and may peace flee Byblos, and (as for) him, may his inscription be effaced (from) before Byblos.”

The decoration on the lid portrays two figures, a father and son. The dead father holds a drooping flower in one hand and raises the other in a gesture of benediction. On the main body of the sarcophagus, the father is enthroned, and before him is a table laden with food; on the other side of the table a standing courtier is followed by two men with cups and four others with both hands raised. Mourning women, persons carrying baskets on their heads, and a single man leading an animal are carved on the narrow and long sides of the sarcophagus. The strong Egyptian influence in the iconography of these scenes reflects the connections this ancient city-state always had with Egypt. The decoration allows for a date at the end of the eleventh century BCE, which accords well with the paleography of the inscription. The royal name Ahiram, which means “My brother [god] is exalted,” appears very frequently in Phoenicia, but less so the name Itthobaal, “Baal is with him.”

Bibliography

  • Dussaud, René. “Les inscriptions phéniciennes du tombeau d'Ahiram, roi de Byblos.” Syria 5 (1924): 135–159. Contains the editio princeps of the principal Ahiram inscription (pp. 135–142).
  • Gibson, John C. L. Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions, vol. 3, Phoenician Inscriptions. Oxford, 1982. See pages 12–16.
  • Porada, Edith. “Notes on the Sarcophagus of Ahiram.” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University 5 (1973): 355–372.
  • Teixidor, Javier. “L'inscription d'Ahiram à nouveau.” Syria 64 (1987): 137–140.

Javier Teixidor