The Rosetta Stone of Malta: Cippi of Malta Offers Key to Decoding the Phoenician Language
Malqart was considered lord over life and death; he was the chief deity of Tyre. His temple was the site of two major festivals and believed to have been the inspiration for the renowned Temple of Solomon. However, the god’s most lasting gift to mankind was not received by his worshipers and defenders in Carthage. Rather, it came about in the late 17th century when two ornamental pillars, known as cippi (singular: cippus) praising Malqart were uncovered in Malta. The engravings on these memorials held the secrets to understanding the Phoenician language and all the incredible works written in it.
The name Malqart literally means ‘king of the city’ and he is considered to be the head of the Phoenician pantheon. He is often depicted sporting a trim beard and a tall, rounded hat. In his hands, he holds the Egyptian ankh and a fenestrated ax- the symbols of life and death, respectively. In addition to defending his city, Malqart was known as the god of the sea; worshiping him brought good fortune for fishing, colonization, and trade. In particular, Malqart is believed to have ensured the commercial success of Tyre and its colonies (Carthage in Northern Africa and Gadir in Spain) by providing worshippers with the knowledge and means of extracting a dye from the murex shellfish for the creation of rich purple fabric.
A statue of Malqart. Museo Barracco, Rome, Italy (public domain)
During the reign of Hiram, approximately the 10 century B.C., a magnificent temple was erected in the city of Tyre for the worship of Malqart. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, described the entrance of the temple, which he visited while exploring Tyre: “I visited the temple, and found it richly adorned with a number of offerings, among which were two pillars, one of pure gold, the other of smaragdos [emerald], shining with great brilliance at night” (Livius, 2015). It is said that Alexander the Great wished to make a sacrifice at the temple yet the priests would not allow him to do so because the rules forbade foreigners from approaching the altar, no matter how powerful.
Ruins of a temple in Tyre (public domain)
Around the 4th century B.C., the Greeks came to identify Malqart with their own legendary hero, Hercules. The famous ’12 labors of Hercules,’ trials that took the hero to all corners of the known world, was seen as the explanation behind the Phoenician’s widespread colonial empire. In honor of Malqart-Hercules, a temple was built on the island of Malta in what may have been a joint Greco-Phoenician venture. Little is known about this temple, though it is believed to have existed on the Tas-Silg, an auspicious site that has hosted several houses of worship throughout the ages. It is here that the Cippi of Malta are said to have been unearthed.
A cippus is an ornamental pillar, often truncated to half the size of a full pillar. The flat top can be used as a spot for incense and other burnt offerings. The cippus itself is often inscribed with important information, serving as border demarcations, milestones, funerary monuments, etc. Cippi can be made of a wide variety of materials; the oldest known cippi were made of sandstone. The Cippi of Malta are carved into white marble and measure 3 feet 5 inches high (1.05m), 1 foot 1 inch wide (0.34), and 1 foot thick (0.31m). In 1782, one of the two cippi was presented to King Louis XVI by the Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller, Fra Emmanuel de Rohan-Polduc. Today, it sits in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Its twin is held by the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, Malta.
On the base of the Cippi of Marble are incised with three lines of Greek script and four lines of Phoenician script. Although found in 1694, it was not until 1758 that the French archaeologist Father Jean-Jacques Barthlemy was able to decipher the Phoenician alphabet by using the Greek alphabet. The inscription read:
To our lord Melqart, Lord of Tyre, dedicated by
Your servant Abd' Osir and his brother 'Osirshamar
Both sons of 'Osirshamar, son of Abd' Osir, for he heard
Their voice, may he bless them.
The Greek inscription of the Louvre Cippus (public domain)
The Phoenician inscription of the Louvre Cippus (public domain)
The Cippi of Malta, affectionately known as the Rosetta Stone of Malta greatly aided efforts to decipher the ancient Phoenician script. Today, the Cippi are held as treasured symbols of Malta and feature on postage stamps.
Top image: Cippus at the Louvre Museum (public domain)
Kelpla. "The Cippi of Melqart and Heracles." The Daily Beagle. The Daily Beagle, 20 May 2013. Web. 13 Aug. 2016. https://thedailybeagle.net/2013/05/20/the-cippi-of-melqart-and-heracles/
Livius. "Tyre, City, Temple of Melqart." Livius: Articles on Ancient History. Livius, 22 Dec. 2015. Web. 13 Aug. 2016. http://www.livius.org/articles/place/tyre/tyre-photos/tyre-city-temple-of-melqart/
Sussle. "Cippi of Melqart." Sussle Visual Encyclopedia. Sussle Visual Encyclopedia, 2016. Web. 13 Aug. 2016.