29 July 2016

Beyond Our Stars: Hanno the Navigator & the Phoenician Reliance on Astronomy

Goddess Tanit, Carthage
Modern day Senegal is said to be inhabited by a sizable Lebanese community, the majority, like my father and myself, being born there. These “African Lebanese” or “Senegalese Lebanese”, as they like to call themselves, are primarily entrepreneurs. They are deeply entrenched in Senegalese commerce and constitute a strong monopoly. 

The Lebanese have been established in Senegal for decades. Their presence dates from even before the Lebanese civil war of the mid-70s with some, like my grandfather, having arrived in the early 1930s, while others erred there on migrant boats under the misguided belief that they would be brought to America.

Regardless of their arrival date and of the deep anchor into a country they call their own, it would come as a surprise to most “Senegalese Lebanese”, to learn that thousands of years ago, their Phoenician ancestors had, long before they did, endeavoured to establish trade in Senegal.

Between 500 and 480 BC, the naval commander and King of Carthage, Hanno, sailed through the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar), contouring the African coast anti-clockwise, and is said to have reached the Senegal River. Hanno recorded his journey on a tablet which he placed in a temple. His record, later translated into Greek, depicted an expedition consisting of 30000 colonists and 60 ships.

Phoenician ship detail from 2nd-c.
sarcophagus - Sidon, Lebanon
Carthage-based Phoenicians like Hanno originated from the land of Canaan which today encompasses most of Lebanon, parts of Israel and Syria. What a remarkable coincidence that like their modern day Lebanese counterparts, the Phoenicians would have had an interest in exploring trade opportunities in Western Africa, with Hanno navigating past Cape Verde, round the Gulf of Guinea and potentially as far as Cameroon.

The Phoenicians were merchants and ship builders who dominated the Mediterranean Sea three thousand years ago. Their empire stretched from the city of Tyre in modern day Lebanon, to Carthage in modern day Tunisia, and their colonies included Cadiz in Spain, Cyprus, Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia.  In their times, they were the uncontested masters of the sea, trading as far as Cornwall in England. Their desire for trade provided an incentive for exploration and this went hand in hand with navigation.

Phoenician trade routes
It is acknowledged that the Phoenicians were the first Western civilization to have developed the art of navigation at sea. Their navigation skills were aided by a knowledge of astronomy - they are considered to be the first navigators to use the Pole star. The Phoenicians had learned to sail on a cloudless night, using the star, Polaris, as a reference for North. Polaris is a star in Ursa Minor, the constellation of the Little Bear. In those days, other cultures began to call this constellation “Phoenike” after the first mariners who employed it, the Phoenicians.

Use of Polaris allowed the Phoenicians to venture away from traditional routes that generally hugged the coastline, without fearing they might become lost.  They kept the North Star to their right (starboard), when they wanted to sail West and to their left (port side), when they wanted to sail East. Interestingly, the Phoenician word for East was Asu (sunrise) while for West, it was Ereb (sunset) - terms which have given us Asia and Europe, respectively.

Along with Polaris, the Phoenicians observed other stars, together with the sun and moon. To aid in their observation of the sky, most of their Mediterranean navigation took place between March and October, when weather conditions were more favorable.

The Phoenicians could calculate how far south they were by looking at the height of the midday sun or through the emergence of new stars and the disappearance of others in the sky. They knew that the sun was lowest in the sky at the winter solstice. They also knew that during equinoxes, the sun rose in the east and set in the west more precisely than at other times.

The Phoenicians of Carthage were highly dependent on sky observation for sea travel and ultimately for their monopoly over Mediterranean commerce. This reliance is best illustrated through their increasing worship of the Goddess Tanit.

Tanit stele, Carthage
Tanit was Carthaginian Sky Goddess who ruled over the Sun, Stars and Moon, while her consort Ba’al-Hammon was the God of the Sky. Her origin may have been either local, or harked from Ashtart (Astarte), the fertility Goddess of the Tyrian Phoenicians.  Starting in the 5th century however, Tanit became the chief deity of the city of Carthage - a patron goddess and oracle.  It is this oracle quality in particular, an allusion to consulting the sky for making decisions, which further underlines the Phoenicians’ reliance on astronomy for their successful endeavours.

Today the Lebanese merchants living in Senegal are no seafarers. In their daily business, they need not gaze upon the stars nor do they worship astral deities like their Phoenician ancestors once did. Still I can’t help but smile when I consider that their inherent love of commercial exchange and their presence in Africa remain strong.  

  1. The Amazing Astronomers of Antiquity, Houston Museum of Natural Science
  2. The Science of Navigation from Dead Reckoning to GPS, Mark Denny, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.