Is it just a myth, or “one of the greatest voyages in maritime history”?
Rabat – Everyone knows that Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first to sail across the Atlantic ocean to the Americas in 1492. What if I told you this was not true? Captain Philip Beale, a retired British Navy officer, and the crew of the Phoenicia set sail from Essaouira port, Morocco, on November 2 to prove exactly that.
Built in 2008, the Phoenicia is an exact replica of a wrecked Phoenician ship found in Marseille. The Phoenicians, an ancient civilization born in the region we now know as Syria nearly 3,000 years ago, were legendary sailors. Rumored to have circumnavigated Africa before the Romans had even imagined Egypt, the Phoenicians held trading posts across Africa.
According to London’s “The Phoenicians: The Greatest Sailors Exhibition,” as early as “600 BC a fleet of Phoenician ships was said to have embarked on an epic journey to circumnavigate Africa.” In 2008, the crew of the newly-built Phoenicia set out to prove that the myth was, in fact, history.
After a two year voyage in a copy of a 3,000-year-old ship, the Phoenicia dodged Somalian pirates and extreme weather, sailing into the history books—the epic tale of the Phoenician explorers was no myth. However, not satisfied with one groundbreaking voyage, the crew of the Phoenicia is now on a mission to prove that the Phoenicians sailed to America over 2,000 years before Columbus.
Archeologists have found what could be merely “anecdotal” evidence, as Captain Beale put it, suggesting that the Phoenicians reached North America. The latest voyage, Beale told Morocco World News, aims to find a “needle in a haystack,” or “a silver bullet,” proving that the voyage was possible.
Having docked in Essaouira for three nights, the ship set sail across the Atlantic Ocean. After a brief stop in Tenerife, Beale and his crew, unaccompanied by support craft or modern safety vessels, will let the wind take them in the footsteps of the Phoenicians.
While in port at Essaouira, Beale told MWN that the ship has no predestined course. He explained that the Phoenician explorers would have set sail from the African Atlantic coast not knowing their destination. Beale and his crew hope that the Phoenicia will land on the American coastline, proving that the fabled Phoenician explorers’ voyage was possible.
The captain explained that the expedition chose Essaouira as a starting point because archeologists are certain the Phoenicians used Essaouira as a trading post. There is evidence that the Phoenicians traded in fish and a purple dye from plants native to Mogador island, as well as iron.
Archeologists have also found that the Phoenicians traded iron from a deposit 12 kilometers from Essaouira, copper, and gold from the Atlas Mountains and frankincense from the Sahara.
Beale and his crew believe that Essaouira was the most southern point on Africa’s Atlantic coast where the Phoenicians held outposts, and therefore, the most likely starting point for a voyage to the Americas. While evidence has been found that the Phoenicians reached the Canary Islands, Beale told MWN that Essaouira was much more likely the exit port for the original Phoenician explorers.
In his epic poem “The Odyssey,” the ancient Greek poet Homer described the Phoenician vessels as “miraculous ships.”
While he did not call the new Phoenicia a miracle ship, Beale explained that the Phoenicians were incredible innovators, particularly in the field of ship building.
“They were the first to use iron nails. They pioneered the use of mortise and tenon joints. Eight thousand joints were used in building the ship; the hull is incredibly strong,” the ship’s captain explained. The Phoenicia team had exclusive access to a wreck known as the Jules Verne 7, when designing the blueprint of the ship. “Down to the last detail,” Beale said, it is a copy of the Phoenician design.
An ancient civilization from the eastern Mediterranean, the Phoenician empire was a group of small states spread along the coastline in what we now know as Lebanon and Syria. Immortalized in epic poetry and by their own inventions, the Phoenicians, predominantly sailors, and merchants gave the modern world the alphabet and insurance.
“There’s a rich, fantastic history here,” Beale said, explaining to MWN why the 3,000-year-old voyage is relevant to Morocco in 2019. “Morocco is a lot more than souqs, pottery, and leather handbags.”
The history of Morocco, Beale went on, is made up of so many layers: Amazigh (Berber) legends, pan-African history, Arab culture, Islam, and the influence of some of the world’s greatest civilizations, including the Romans. The Phoenicians are part of that canon. If the Phoenicia can find that “needle in the haystack” proving that its 3,000-year-old counterpart could have reached the Americas, Morocco is a key part of that story.
Among other sponsors, the UN Clean Sea Campaign is backing the Phoenicia’s Atlantic crossing. Every day one of the ship’s crew members collects two vials of seawater that will be delivered to the UN for testing. The project will analyze levels of pollution across the Atlantic; each sample will give a percentage of microplastics present in the water.
Beale and his crew conducted a similar experiment while circumnavigating Africa. The captain told MWN that the levels of pollution in the eastern Mediterranean were “embarrassing.” On some days, Beale recounted, the crew could see masses of plastic floating around the boat.
He explained that the levels of plastic refuse could be explained by wind direction and strength or currents, but the facts are that “we’ve treated the oceans like the world’s biggest rubbish bin.” There is evidence of plastic in the ocean’s deepest trenches and it is affecting sea life and the ocean’s ecosystems.
Beale told MWN that it is a question of awareness—we must all do our part to address waste disposal. “It’s a question of changing mentalities.”
You can track the Phoenicia’s progress across the Atlantic at https://www.phoeniciansbeforecolumbus.com/