A Phoenician settlement?

Lisbon’s castle hill has known human presence since pre-historic times, at least judging from the polished axe and flint stones that have been found (Moita 1994, 27). Traces of buildings from the 7th century BCE have also been excavated next to the castle, including what appears to be a cooking area complete with fragments of pots and amphoras. Other findings include pottery from the 6th to the 4th century, some of which are of Attic origin, implying trade connections with the Greek world. The question remains, however, of who were the founders of the city.

The oldest known name of Lisbon is Olisipo. Strabo mentions it in his Geography (III, 3, 1), as does Varro (De re rustica II, 1) and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (IX, 9), but a pre-Roman origin is widely assumed, even if the etymology is unclear. Ancient authors from the Roman period to the 16th century have derived it from Ulyssea, crediting Ulysses with the founding of Lisbon, while modern scholars have focused on the suffix -ipo or -ippo, also found in the early settlements of other Portuguese cities, namely Colipo (around Leiria) and Bevipo (modern-day Alcácer do Sal). To some, this suggests an Iberian Turduli background, but to others – and this is the most popular interpretation – it points to a Phoenician origin. This latter theory was first presented in the 17th century by the French orientalist Samuel Bochart, picked up two hundred years later by the Portuguese scholar Leite de Vasconcelos and more recently by José Augusto Ramos, who proposed a possible Semetic etymology based on alysubbo, meaning something along the lines of “pleasant stream” or “sailing path” (Guardado Silva 2008, 36-7). If it’s true, it may be a reference not to the mouth of the Tagus, but the inlet that used to run through what today is downtown.

In any case, whether the Phoenicians founded the city or simply occupied a pre-existing settlement, their presence in ancient Lisbon since the 7th century BCE is well attested, both on the castle hill and the southern and western slopes, closer to the river. Excavations in the medieval cloister of the Episcopal see have wielded materials of Phoenician origin, followed by a layer of fragments dubbed as Ibero-Punic, from the days of Carthage’s presence in the Iberian Peninsula. The same classification has also been given to the remains of several houses found beneath a building in downtown Lisbon (today a museum), dated from the 4th century BCE in what would have been a row of dwellings along the beach:

By then, Lisbon would have looked like something similar to this artist’s rendering on display at the museum (whose location is signaled by the red circle):

However, despite centuries of presence, archaeological traces of Phoenician religious life in Lisbon haven’t been found (at least as far as I know). It doesn’t mean that Canaanite gods were never worshiped in Olisipo and indeed their absence would be virtually impossible in over five hundred years of trade and cultural ties with the Phoenician world. Rather, it may well mean that, unfortunately, subsequent occupations and changes in the city have erased what traces were left by the Gods of Canaan.

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