A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Did Punic Survive Until the Advent of Arabic? Part 4: The Post-Augustine Evidence

 I'm on vacation. As I've done in recent years, I've prepared a number of posts on topics of historical and cultural interest ahead of time, posts unlikely to be overtaken by events. There will be one or more of these per day, and I may drop in to comment on current developments as required.

In the third part of this survey of the survival of Punic yesterday, we examined the rather extensive evidence provided by St. Augustine of Hippo of the survival of Punic as a spoken language in his day (d. 430). But the argument that Punic was still a living language when Arabic arrived two centuries and more later requires the assumption that Punic did not die out in the interim. Skeptics have gradually yielded ground as evidence has been assembled, and many scholars accept that Punic may indeed have survived in a few places. But the evidence trail thins out considerably after Augustine. Today we will look at the evidence for the fifth to the 11th centuries; tomorrow this series will conclude with a discussion of some of the interpretations scholars have put forward about the legacy of Punic in North Africa in the Arab period.

Roughly contemporary with Augustine we also have epigraphic evidence of the survival of Punic in the trilingual funerary inscriptions in Sirte, Libya from the fourth and perhaps fifth centuries. I have not seen a standard study of these, Jongeling. Karel; & Kerr, Robert M. (2005). Late Punic epigraphy: an introduction to the study of Neo-Punic and Latino-Punic inscriptions. In part two of this series I did quote excerpts from Kerr's doctoral dissertation on Late Punic. And keep Sirte in mind when we come to the evidence of Al-Bakri below.

There is no incontestable literary evidence for Punic after Augustine, but there is a very intriguing, though in a bizarre context, account in the historian Procopius' De Bello Vandalico, "Of the Vandal Wars," from the sixth century. In last month's post about the Nika Riots we talked about Justinian and his efforts to reclaim Italy and North Africa for the Eastern Roman Empire; Procopius is the great historian of the era of Justinian. He actually accompanied Justinian's great General Belisarius on some of his campaigns. In discussing the reconquest of North Africa from the Vandals, Procopius drops an intriguing aside into a story about the legendary settlement of North Africa by the Phoenicians. I take my quote from H. B. Dewing's older translation of Procopius' History of the Wars, because it is available online even on vacation in the Georgia mountains and is free of copyright:
And finding there no place sufficient for them to dwell in, since there has been a great population in Aegypt from ancient times, they proceeded to Libya. And they established numerous cities and took possession of the whole of Libya as far as the Pillars of Heracles, and there they have  lived even up to my time, using the Phoenician tongue. They also built a fortress in Numidia, where now is the city called Tigisis. In that place are two columns made of white stone near by the great spring, having Phoenician letters cut in them which say in the Phoenician tongue: "We are they who fled from before the face of Joshua, the robber, the son of Nun."
Hardly surprising that this passage has often been dismissed; the columns near Tigisis mentioning Joshua of the Bible seem clearly a figment of legend.  But it is not the incredible tale itself but the aside that matters: "and there they have lived even up to my time, using the Phoenician tongue." Again quoting Fergus Millar on this text:
The passage of Procopius is set in the very dubious context of a legend about the settlement of N. Africa, supposedly referred to in an inscription of Phoenician language and lettering at Tigisis; Courtois has argued that the inscription could not have had its supposed contents, and consequently that the people did not understand it (and therefore that in this sentence Procopius refers to Berber). But the argument makes Procopius use 'φοινικικός' in two different senses in the same passage, and proceeds too strictly from what we might presume but cannot know. The sentence is an addition by Procopius himself, who had been in Africa with Belisarius, and (especially when combined with Augustine's evidence) should be taken to mean what it says.
The problem is that the legendary story in which the aside occurs tends to make one dismiss Procopius' possible firsthand testimony that Phoenician (Punic) was still spoken in North Africa "even up to my time, using the Phoenician tongue." Millar is right that in conjunction with Augustine's testimony, this could make a lot of sense.

Procopius, if we accept the testimony, brings us down to just a century before the Arab conquests. There is no mention of Punic, at least as such, in the early Arab histories of the conquest of the Maghreb. In fact there is only one other piece of evidence sometimes adduced to suggest a longer survival of Punic, and this is, intriguingly, quite late: the 11th century AD.

The Arab traveler and geographer Al-Bakri (Abu ʿUbayd Abu ʿAbdullah ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAziz al-Bakri (c.1014-1094) was born in Islamic Spain (Al-Andalus) and wrote several works of which the most important is his Kitab al-Masalik wa'l-Mamalik (Book of the Roads and the Kingdoms), a general geography and description of key routes of the Muslim world. As an Andalusian, Bakri knew North Africa well and his work is particularly valuable as a description of it.

There is a passage in Bakri that raises eyebrows: remember, we are talking here about the 11th century AD, some 650 years after Augustine. Let me quote Lameen Souag on Bakri's text:
The twist in this tale is that Phoenician may have survived into the 11th century AD! Al-Bakri (whom I've mentioned before) enigmatically says of the inhabitants of Sirt in Libya that:
لهم كلام يراطنون به ليس بعربي ولا عجمي ولا بربري ولا قبطي ولا يعرفه غيرهم
‍They have a speech in which they jabber which is neither Arabic nor Ajami (by which he probably means Latin but might mean Persian) nor Berber nor Coptic, which no one but them knows.
The location (in eastern Tripolitania) is about right for it to be Punic, and if it were Greek you would expect him to know, considering he cites (more or less correctly) the Greek etymology of طرابلس (Tripoli) in the next page. So was Punic still spoken in the 11th century? Your guess is as good as mine, but it looks plausible.
Now for a couple of points: the latest epigraphic evidence of Punic we have is in triliteral Greek-Latin-Punic Christian catacombs in Sirte (Sirt), so we know Punic was still known there in the 4th century and maybe the 5th. So it's interesting Bakri found an unusual language in Sirt in the 11the century; he specifically says it isn't Berber or Coptic or ʿAjami. One reason Lameen has crossed out "Persian" is that in Spain and North Africa, ʿAjami, which in the East usually means Persian, was commonly used to refer to Latin or local Romance dialects or the Mediterranean lingua franca. As Millar notes, Bakri seems to have been able to recognize Greek as well, so what was this language?

It may have been Punic. It isn't clear if Bakri had any familiarity with Hebrew, from the Jewish communities in Spain and North Africa; if he had, he should have noted the kinship if the language were indeed Punic.  At best, the Bakri quote tantalizes and perhaps teases a bit.

The Procopius and Bakri references both raise questions and I suspect the best we can do here is render a Scots verdict of "not proven."

But if indeed Punic did survive, what are the historical and linguistic implications?

Tune in tomorrow ...

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