Phoenician Mystery

An article in the July 1993 issue of the South African magazine Signature started with the sentence “Recent excavations at Pinelands in the Cape have raised the speculation that Phoenicians may have sailed around the Cape in Ancient times.”

In 1806 there were rumours that fossilised remains of an old galley had been found on the Cape Flats and that locals had been carting the wood away for firewood. Some 44 years later the Surveyor General, Charles Bell, inspected the wreck which was believed to have been exposed due to the changing course of the Hardekraaltije stream (identified as the Elsieskraal River by Jose Burman in his book “The unofficial history of the Cape”). However Andrew Bain, who is better known for his road  building,  inspected the site  and concluded that it was not wood he was seeing but a bed of  brown coal. 

However, it was reported in 1880/1890 that workman found an ancient galley in the same area buried at about 6 feet. In 1925 Prof Dart managed to track down two workmen who had seen the ship. They described a mast that smelt of tar and the wood held together with iron fastenings.  Although the wood was rotten, it had to be broken up with pickaxes. The broken wood was removed in 4 or 5 wagon loads for firewood.

Maps have shown that in the 17th Century the area was the tidal estuary of the Salt River. Approximately a kilometre wide, it had a succession of pools and lakes. Records refer to boats being dragged to the backwaters of the estuary where repairs took place.

In 1989 Bernard O’Sullivan dug a number of boreholes on the Old Mutual Sports fields where he discovered pieces of wood which were sent for testing. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich carbon dated the wood around AD 110 and identified it as Lebanese cedar. This was of particular interest as Phoenicians used cedar for the tar masts.  

On March 15, 1993, a front loader started removing the topsoil of a cricket pitch to expose the clay where it was hoped that some evidence would be found to support the theory that Phoenicians were the first ships to arrive at the Cape. The actual site of the dig was identified in the Argus dated March 18, 1993, as the Old Mutual Sports Complex. The excavation was unsuccessful.

So is this idea of ancient Phoenicians in Pinelands just a wild theory?

The Phoenicians travelled extensively in the Northern Hemisphere and in effect controlled the ancient seas. Herodotus, the Greek historian wrote of a voyage when King Necho II, the ruler of Egypt from 610 to 595 BC, commissioned the Phoenicians to find a way around Africa referred to at the time as Libya. The voyage started in October. Eventually they reached the equator and continued South. In about June they passed a mountain with a field of kelp (which is believed to be Cape Point) and then found themselves heading north. They soon landed to carry out repairs to their ships in an area believed to be St Helena Bay. The explorers eventually returned to Egypt after 3 years.  

This story, told by Herodotus, was generally questioned after the famous geographer Ptolemy had said that it was impossible to circumnavigate Africa. Another voyage was necessary to vindicate the Phoenician claims. This trip was made in 1488, when Bartolomeu Diaz reached the Cape of Good Hope.

The 2008 the Phoenician Ship Expedition was a re-creation of the Phoenician voyage. The ship was a twenty-metre replica of an ancient Phoenician ship built in Syria using ancient traditional methods. The expedition departed from Syria in August, sailed through the Suez Canal and around the Horn of Africa. The expedition reached South Africa in January 2010, landing at Richards Bay before setting off for Cape Town. After battling 6m wave around Cape Point they sailed up the west coast of Africa, through the Strait of Gibraltar and across the Mediterranean to return to Syria and Beirut in October of the same year.