The research recorded here was born one warm summer evening of I960 at Ras Beirut, with the Sputnik passing overhead and the lighthouse beam from the Manara circling. The banana seller with his pushcart calling mawz had left some hours before; we would sit out front and add our quota to the gentle rain of pistachio nut shells falling from all the balconies. In those days I was a great reader of dictionaries covering the polyglot speech on the Beirut streets, both in recent and in older times. Suddenly it came over me: “Greek and Hebrew have the same word for ‘gold’ except for one vowel, chrysos and harm. (Later I learned that Lebanese Phoenicians reduced the first vowel, which made the correspondence perfect.) Then they must have corresponding phrases for a gold brick, a gold shekel, a golden bowl. Perhaps somebody has collected them.” After some search I discovered that nobody had. And likewise with the words for “frankincense and myrrh,” “tunic,” “jasper and emerald,” the “horned bull,” a “jar of wine.” Etymologists had made the connections, but no cultural historian had followed them up. So what I found lacking in the literature I wrote down myself. It appeared that Phoenician seatrade, and donkey caravans in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), had carried the things named, their names, and their associated symbolism back and forth between the societies.
One thought led to another. How did it happen that for two millennia Europe had Hebrew and Greek grammarians to copy their books and read them aloud, but no grammarians from the much older and wealthier civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia? Those cultures indeed had books, but written in the difficult and nonphonetic scripts of hieroglyphic and cuneiform—scripts held as a monopoly by the scribes of a businessman, a priest, a king—and so when trade, religion, monarchy fell, the tradition died. But in Israel and Greece the simple alphabetic scripts were the valued