The Phonecian Cinema / Ian Macartney

Before Muybridge set the perpetual gallop of horses to glass plates in a cocktail swirl of collodion and dry emulsion; before Maddox discovered gelatine-bromide of silver; before phenakistoscopes, zoetropes, trope-l’oeil; before Niépce and heliography; before View From His Window at Le Gras; before renaissance automatons; before Palissy burned his furniture; before the active light of modernity, the world of ancient cinema flourished along the coast of Phoenicia. While the Egyptians yearned for movement in their bas-reliefs, noble leaders across the ancient world, Asia Minor to the Iberian peninsula, sailed to watch light dance effortlessly across the domes of marble amphitheatres, public baths or villa walls.

The origin of the proto-cameras used in these times is unclear (Herodotus is vague on such matters). Only a device known as the photopyramis, the ‘Pyramid of Light’, has been found, excavated from a trade-shipwreck along the Cyprian coast in 1937. It currently resides in the Güggen-Smith Museum of Antique Obscurity, Brussels. Blue-bronze with time, the excavated photopyramis has a square base of 112cm and a height of 180cm. There is no pointed top, but rather an exact squarish gap in the centre of the rightmost slope, of 12cm2. It is believed the projection was focused out this hole, and that the top held the source of light.

The specifics of said source of light, however, are murky. Sanchoniatho refers to a counter-candle which went in base up and brightened the interior, its wick lasting for weeks. Mochus speaks of a smaller glass pyramid with a capillary tube siphoning down light to a quartz orb which then illuminated papyrus reels glued to the inner sides, focused through a conical telescope of crystal. Apocryphal texts praising Reshef (the Phoenician god of fire and lightning) imply supernatural pearls that could be placed in lieu of the absent peak, orbs which melted into whirling light, projecting the movie in brilliant crushed-beetle colour only once, before divine fire incinerated the reed.[1]

Perhaps a combination of all three of these light sources were used throughout the Phoenician era. The lattermost, however, signifies an interesting intersection between the photopyramis and spirituality. Initially in the religious capitals of the civilisation, such as Byblos and Baalbek, priests held very public burnings of papyrus reels, photopyramii and even heresiarchs who dared to utter praise for the ancient cinema. Yet as time progressed and the cinematic scene in Sidon blossomed, the temples reconsidered their position, especially when the concept of divine pearls became popularised. Thus, during worship, it would not be remiss for a photopyramis to bear mythology along the temple walls.

The ‘pearl theory’ also indicates a fascinating ephemerality not explicit in modern film. Once the translucent papyrus were burnt away and watched, it was gone forever. To watch a film was akin to theatre, in this sense – creating copies was unthinkable, considering the arduous strain it would put on artists, compounded by the ever-changing and fickle tastes of the Phoenician audience.

All auteurs of antiquity were animators. Their names are lost to time, as are their creations, but secondary sources, records and transcriptions, prevail. Some recall great battles; others, comedic farces; adaptations of Aristophanes and Eupolis were popular. In one scandalous document by Arrian, the historian recalls Alexander the Great commissioning a film of his “intimate conquering” of nubile boy-slaves, projected during his orgiastic parties in Babylon. 

Despite being the ostensible global capital of trade in the ancient world, it was only in southwest Greece that the photopyramis was deployed outside of Phonecia, so died with the civilisation. In the middle ages Pope Anticus dared to excommunicate any who recreated a fire god’s “devilish apparitions”. The Orthodox sect was similarly strict. Only in the Islamic empire were there flickers of ingenuity and attempted recreations, but by the Moorish loss of Granada in 1491 the dream of ancient cinema was dead.

I wonder what it would be like for some person, or entity, or post-human, to uncover one of our present cameras, ten thousand years from now. To pick up the shattered black shell and analyse every facet of the robotic octopus’ eye; to pick apart the labyrinth of wires within. Would they know what to do with our chips of yttrium and silicon? Or would our gods of blood, our decadence and sex, be obscured in digital impermanence? Perhaps only the glass would remain, looking to the future with its converse images, a civilisation relayed in archaic warped light.   




Ian Macartney is a writer. He has been published in numerous publications including Icarus, Ex/Post, Maudlin House, The Scotsman and The Guardian. His work has been collected in anthologies like Time and Tide (Arachne Press), The Centenary Collection (Speculative Books) and #UntitledThree (Polygon). He can be found at ianmacartney.scot


[1] How the reed paper was placed inside the photopyramis is unknown. Coral has stiffened the vertices of the Guggen-Smith’s artefact, so whether it could be flayed open like a flower is not certain, although probable.

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