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Cippus from Malta

© 1999 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities
Levant

Author(s):
Duclos Alain

Discovered in the 17th century, this cippus from Malta, a monument of Phoenician origin, is especially interesting for the bilingual inscription on its base recording a dedication to the Tyrian god Melqart by the brothers Abdosir and 'Osirshamar. The inscription allowed the great 18th-century scholar Fr. J.-J. Barthélémy to take the first steps in deciphering Phoenician texts, thus laying the basis for the later development of Phoenician and Punic studies.

A very special Phoenician dedicatory monument

The Louvre's cippus is one of two dedicatory monuments in marble discovered in Malta by the Knights Hospitallers in the 17th century (the second being in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valetta). In 1782, Emmanuel de Rohan, Grand Master of the Order, presented it to Louis XVI. It was deposited at the Académie des Inscriptions et des Belles Lettres and then transferred to the Bibliothèque Mazarine between 1792 and 1796. In 1864, at the suggestion of the great orientalist Silvestre de Sacy, it was moved to the Louvre.
The term 'cippus' is used to designate a small column with or without capital, or sometimes a truncated column, serving as a milestone, a boundary marker, a funerary monument or, as here, an inscribed monument dedicated to a divinity.
The two cippi at the Louvre and the Maltese Museum of Archaeology are unusual as they are constructed in two parts, the base being a rectangular block molded at top and bottom with inscriptions in Greek and Phoenician on the front, similar in form to a votive altar. Both blocks support a pillar that may represent a 'candelabrum,' whose lower part is decorated with acanthus leaves in shallow relief. The Louvre's piece is broken off at the top. It is especially notable for the bilingual inscription on the base, consisting of three lines in Greek and four in Phoenician.
The relations between Malta and the Phoenicians to which the two cippi testify are known to go back to the 8th century BC, but the inscription here suggests a date in the 2nd century BC, when the Maltese Islands were under Roman occupation.

A crucial bilingual inscription

The inscription on the Louvre cippus is mentioned for the first time in a letter from Canon Ignatius di Constanzo dated 1694, published in 1736 by the Hospitaller knight Guyot de la Marne. It reads as follows:
(in Phoenician) "To our lord Melqart, Lord of Tyre, dedicated by / your servant Abd' Osir and his brother 'Osirshamar / both sons of 'Osirshamar, for he heard / their voice, may he bless them";
(in Greek) "Dionysos and Serapion the / sons of Serapion, Tyrenes / to Heracles the founder."
The text then reveals this to be a monument dedicated by Dionysos and Serapion, men of Tyre.
Using this inscription, which contains 18 of the 22 letters of the Phoenician alphabet, Fr. Jean-Jacques Barthélémy was able to begin the decipherment of the language. He was thus able to read the first word 'DNN' as "to our lord." The notion that Heracles might correspond to Melqart, Lord of Tyre, led to the identification of further letters, while the names of the dedicators - sons of the same father in the Greek text - enabled him to find the latter in the Phoenician text.
The paleographic table published by Barthélémy in 1764 lacked only the letters 'tet' and 'pe.'
The study of the Phoenician inscription on the base of the Louvre cippus may thus be regarded as the true foundation of Phoenician and Punic studies, at a time when the Phoenicians and their civilization were known only from their mentions in the Bible and in Greek texts.

Technical description

  • Cippus from Malta

    2nd century BC

    Malte, port de Marsa Scirocco

  • Relief sculpture, marble

    H. (base and pillar) 1.05 m; W. 0.34 m; D. 0.31 m

  • Gift of the Bibliothèque Mazarine, 1864, on the initiative of Sylvestre de Sacy

    AO 4818

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Mediterranean world
    Room 18 b

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Additional information about the work

The base has two inscriptions, in Greek and Phoenician