Rest Like an Egyptian: Lifting the Lid on the Elaborate Phoenician Tabnit Sarcophagus
There is a remarkable sarcophagus that many tourists mistake for an elaborate ancient Egyptian creation. The perception is understandable as this kind of burial is often related to the rulers who lived near the Nile River. But the Tabnit sarcophagus is actually one of the most fascinating artifacts from the mysterious Phoenician culture.
The sarcophagus dates to the 5th century BC. Tabnit, the man who was buried inside it, was a priest of Astarte (Ashtoreth) and a ruler of Sidon. He was an influential king in the period when Egypt was ruled by the 26th Dynasty. The pharaohs of Egypt were already legendary and they inspired many other rulers. Civilizations like the Phoenicians were powerful and rich through trade, and they likely received many cultural ideas from abroad. However, their story still consists many gaps for modern researchers.
The Phoenicians were one of the most mysterious civilizations to live near the Mediterranean Sea. Their territory fell under the rule of the Ottoman Empire for a very long time and discoveries of Phoenician archaeological sites started a bit later than those of Egypt.
Cross-section of the Ayaa Necropolis. The Tabnit sarcophagus is at the bottom left. (Public Domain)
The tomb that held the Tabnit sarcophagus was discovered in 1887 by a Presbyterian minister from the USA, William King Eddy. He came upon the discovery while researching the Middle East. Originally his goal was to take the artifacts he had found to the British Museum, but orientalist William Wright wrote a letter to The Times, in which he stated that Eddy only wanted to take the treasures to the UK to protect them from ''the vandalizing'' Turks. This statement caused a diplomatic scandal and a radical reaction by the Ottoman Empire.
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The grave of Prof. William Wright, St Andrews Cathedral churchyard. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Thus, the Tabnit sarcophagus was exhumed in 1887. When the lid of the coffin was removed, researchers saw the remarkably-preserved remains of a man who lived millennia ago. The body’s state of preservation provided precious information about the man. The coffin was filled with an oily brown fluid, preserving the body. The parts that were still covered with the liquid were in such a good state that it almost seemed like Tabnit was buried only a short time before. However, his eyes and the parts that were not covered (his lips, nose, and some parts of his throat) didn't survive as well. The vital body organs were also well-preserved. This fantastic state of preservation really surprised the researchers.
The exhibited remains of Tabnit are not doing as well since they were put on display in the museum. When the body was exposed to sunlight, the remains quickly began to decompose. Now the museum really only displays Tabnit’s bones, the mummified appearance is gone. The fatal mistake took place before any documentation had been made - there are no photos or realistic drawings of Tabnit’s body in its mummified state.
The sarcophagus in its current location. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The first autopsy proved that Tabnit died when he was about 50 years old and his body was very well embalmed. The researchers also discovered that his body was mummified with all the organs inside it. (Phoenicians didn't practice organ removal, unlike the Egyptians.) The detection of traces of small-pox on his remains suggested that Tabnit could have died from that disease.
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The inscriptions carved on the sarcophagus are fascinating for the combination of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Phoenician script. This kind of writing was created at the beginning of the 5th century BC. It wasn't in use for a long time, so any discovery of this unusual text is considered precious. The inscription on the sarcophagus says (according to a translation by George Rawlinson):
''`I Tabnit, priest of Ashtoreth and king of Sidon, lying in this tomb, say – I adjure every man, when thou shalt come upon this sepulchre, open not my chamber and trouble me not, for there is not with me aught of silver, nor is there with me aught of gold, there is not with me anything whatever of spoil but only I myself who lie in this sepulchre. Open not my chamber and trouble me not, for it would be an abomination in the sight of Ashtoreth to do such an act. And if thou shouldest open my chamber and trouble me, mayest thou have no posterity all thy life under the sun and no resting place with the departed’.''
The sarcophagus is very similar to the ones used by pharaohs of the Third Intermediate Period, for example, Psamtik II. This suggests that this part of the tomb had been made in an Egyptian workshop or by artists who knew Egyptian styles.
The sarcophagus of Horkhebit, from Saqqara, is very similar in style to the Tabnit sarcophagus. (CC BY 2.0)
His Father’s Son
Another interesting sarcophagus belonged to Tabnit’s son Eshmunazar II. His sarcophagus is also recognized as a Phoenician treasure. Eshmunazar II’s sarcophagus was discovered in 1855, and the inscription that covers it was the first Phoenician text ever found. After being forgotten for centuries, researchers had the difficult task of trying to decipher the Phoenician language.
Detail of the sarcophagus of Eshmunazar II. (CC BY 2.0)
Both sarcophagi are now part of the collection of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum in Turkey. Although the inscriptions have been read and it seems that they cannot give much more information for now, these coffins may be useful for future research. Phoenician history still puzzles modern researchers, though connections between new and old discoveries help them get one step closer to realizing the truth about these ancient people.
Detail of the Phoenician language inscription on the Tabnit sarcophagus. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Top image: Sarcophagi in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. The Tabnit sarcophagus is in the foreground. Source: Public Domain
John Freely, The Companion Guide to Istanbul and Around the Marmara, 2000.
Tabnit sarcophagus, available at: http://www.elixirofknowledge.com/2015/07/tabnit-sarcophagus.html
Hamdi Bey, Osman; Reinach, Théodore, Une nécropole royale à Sidon: fouilles: Planches [A royal necropolis in Sidon: excavations, 1892, available at: