TUSCANY AND TARSHISH
“For Solomon had a fleet of ships of Tarshish at sea with the fleet of Tyre. And once every three years the ships returned, bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks.” (I Kings 10:22)
Scholars have debated the meaning of the Old Testament word “Tarshish” or “Tartessos”; some even doubt that a “Kingdom of Tartessos” ever existed. Yet peculiarities in the dialect of villages along the southern reaches of the Guadalquivír River give indication of eastern Mediterranean influence. Ancient artifacts corroborate: In 1940 in south Portugal, within the boundaries of what has been called the “area of Tartessian influence,” a weatherworn inscription came to light. Its stone-carved letters formed words written in a language used by the Etruscans of northern Italy and by their relatives living on the Isle of Lemnos off the western coast of Asia Minor. The Biblical quotation above contains a further hint: There is only one “ape” that occurs in the West, and that is the Barbary Macaque that lives along the Libyan coast, in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algiers, and on Gibraltar, which lies between Africa and Iberia. Taken together, the evidence suggests that people of western Asia Minor---Lydia, Adana and Lemnos---had relatives or trading partners living along several shorelines fronting the
Mediterranean, even as far west as modern Portugal. As they were the first mariners to build ships capable of carrying horses as cargo, this tells us when and how horses of the eastern Mediterranean first reached western Europe.
Rarely do people migrate or travel without leaving signs of their passing: trash and trade goods. Eager for riches, these mariners plied the port towns of the Anatolian and Levant coasts and island-hopped across the Aegean to reach Crete and the Peloponnese. We know of their earliest exploits in part from the recent discovery of the limeencrusted hulk of one of their vessels, wrecked some 3,200 years ago off Cape Gelidonya in southern Turkey.
What cargoes did these traders carry
In trade for tin, early mariners offered the rarest and most valuable commodity available to them: horses.
in their single-masted, open-hulled ships? Another passage in the Old Testament provides a hint: “Tarshish did business with you, O kings of Tyre, because of your great wealth of every kind; they exchanged silver, iron, tin, and lead for your wares” (Ezekiel 27:12). In the 1970s an ancient hoard of Lydian workmanship was unearthed near Alicante (Aluca) on the east coast of Spain. It contained some 60 golden ornaments, but more significantly it also includes jewelry made of iron. Buried in an ancient era when iron was still considered a rare and precious metal, the find vindicates the traditional date of 1100 B.C. for the establishment of the “city of Tartessos.”
Of all metals considered precious by the ancients, tin---essential to the making of bronze---was the most valuable. Tin ore is rare in the eastern Mediterranean but could be found in the part of northern Italy colonized about 800 B.C. by the Etruscans, who originally came from Anatolia. Tales of even richer deposits in the “Tin Isles” prompted mariners to pass through the dangerous Pillars of Hercules and to brave the open Atlantic. In trade for tin, early mariners offered the rarest and most valuable commodity available to them: horses.
Riches acquired through longdistance trade soon encouraged others to perfect seagoing crafts capable of heavy cargo. The greatest of all ancient seafaring traders were the Phoenicians. From their home city of Tyre they sailed north and west, planting trading colonies in Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia, Majorca, along the coast of southern Iberia, and at numerous places along the north African shoreline west of the Nile delta. The greatest of these colonies, Carthage, was founded in about 800 B.C. Its position about halfway between the Levant and Portugal for centuries made it a hub of trading activity.
Particularly important as we follow the course of eastern horses shipped west is the colony of Agadir---today the city of Cadiz, Spain---the oldest city still standing in Europe. The Phoenicians built it as a walled enclave at the mouth of the Guadalquivír so as to be within easy reach of Tartessos, and it prospered as a center of trade
in horses, copper and lead ore. From Agadir, following in the wake of earlier sailors from Lemnos and Adana, the Phoenicians explored and colonized the Atlantic coast of Portugal and Spain, leaving horses in trade for precious metals at many stops along the way. Reaching the first rich source of tin in Galicia, they quested onward, following the curving shoreline of the Bay of Biscay, eventually reaching the Brittany peninsula. From there they sailed to the Cassiterides, the “Tin Isles,” to Tintagel in Cornwall and to Cardiff in Wales and even, at last, to the “edge of the known world,” Hibernia---Ireland.
The last group of ancient horsetraders to reach Ireland were the so-called “Sons of Mil.” Related in the Lebor Gabála Érenn (“The Book of the Conquest of Ireland”), an early Medieval compilation of ancient tales, is the story of the Gaelic king Breogan who founded the city of Brigantia (the “city of Mil,” near A Coruña, Spain). As the tale is told, Mil, son of Breogan, set sail northward across the Celtic Sea with a great army to claim a homeland in Ireland. Similarly, the Irish Lebor na hUidre (“Book of the Dun Cow”) relates the coming of “the children of Danu”--that is, “people from Adana”---who were the early ancestors of Breogan and Mil.
While most scholars regard these and similar works as primarily myth, like much mythology they highlight an important underlying truth: from ancient times there was regular trade between Iberia and Ireland, so that it is ultimately to the Levant and Anatolia that the Irish Hobby, along with many of the so-called “pony” breeds of Italy, Spain, France and Britain must trace the sire side of their ancestry.