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Phoenicia was an ancient civilization with its heartland along the coastal plain of what is now Lebanon and Syria. Phoenician civilization was an enterprising maritime trading culture that spread right across the Mediterranean during the first century BC. Though ancient boundaries fluctuated, the southern city of Sarepta, between Sidon and Tyre, is the most thoroughly excavated city of the Phoenician homeland.

It is not true that Phoenicians left no written literature or records, as many claim. Evangelical Preparation by Eusebius of Caesarea quotes extensively from Philo of Byblos and Sanchuniathon. Further, the Phoeniciian Punic colonies continued to be a source of knowledge about the Phoenicians. Saint Augustine refers to their books as containing lots of wisdom while he calls Phoenician Punic "Our language."

The name Phoenicia derives from the Greek name for the area, Φοινίκη (Phoiníkē).

Table of contents
1 Origins
2 The 'Empire'
3 Phoenician Merchantry
4 Persian and Hellenistic Phoenicia
5 Important Phoenician Cities & Colonies
6 Ancient Sources
7 Language & Literature
8 External link
9 Phoenicia and Canaan in Archaeology
10 Phoenicians in the Bible
11 External links
12 References


The Lebanese, Maltese, Libyans and even some Somalians still consider themselves descendants of Phoenicians, along with certain other island folk in the Mediterranean. Interestingly enough oral tradition is fairly constant, but none more strikingly than among the Lebanese.

Herodotus wrote an account which cannot be trusted because it refers to a faint memory from 1000 years earlier (History, I:1):

"According to the Persians best informed in history, the Phoenicians began to quarrel. This people, who had formerly reached the shores of the Erythraean Sea, having migrated to the Mediterranean from an unknown origin and settled in the parts which they now inhabit, began at once, they say, to adventure on long voyages, freighting their vessels with the wares of Egypt and Assyria..."

but this is merely a legendary introduction to Herodotus' brief retelling of some mythic Hellene-Phoenician interactions: he follows directly with succinct accounts of the abduction of Io from Pylos, and the retaliatory abduction of Europa by the Cretans. "The Cretans say that it was not them who did this act, but, rather, Zeus, enamored of the fair Europa, who disguised himself as a bull, gained the maiden's affections, and thence carried her off to Crete, where she bore three sons by Zeus: Sarpedon, Rhadamanthys, and Minos, later king of all Crete." Few modern archaologists would confuse this myth with history.

In fact, professional archaeologists have been at work on the origins of the Phoenicians for generations, basing their analysis in the mainstream of excavated sites, the remains of material culture, contemporary texts set into contemporary contexts, and the slipperier slopes of linguistics. Modern cultural agendas, both personal and national, have been brought to bear. One such perspective for example is that many things attributed to Phoenicians might easily have been due rather to the activities of coastal maritime Israelite tribes like Dan. On the other side of the fence is the idea that the Philistines had an important role to play thereby connecting them with the Sea Peoples. The origins of the Phoenicians are unknown: where they came from and just when they arrived and under what circumstances.

The 'Empire'

Phoenicians established independent city-states like Byblos, Tyre, Tripolis as well as Berytus, and others on the islands and along other coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. This league of ports was then ideally suited for trade between the Levant area rich in natural resources and the rest of the ancient world.

During the early Iron Age, when powers that had previously dominated the area, like Egypt and the Hittites, were weakened or destroyed, a number of Phoenician cities established themselves as significant maritime powers. Power seems to have been stabilized because it derived from three power-bases: the king, the temple and its priests, and councils of elders. Byblos soon became the predominant center from where they proceeded to dominate the Mediterranean and Erythraean Sea routes. However, Byblos was attacked by successive invaders, and by around 1000 BC Tyre and Sidon had taken its place. The collection of city-kingdoms which constituted Phoenicia came to be characterized by outsiders as Sidonia or Tyria and Phoenicians & Canaanites alike have been called Zidonians or Tyrians as one Phoenician conquest came to prominence after another.

Phoenician Merchantry

In the centuries after circa 1200 BC, the Phoenicians formed the major naval and trading power of the region. Perhaps it was through these merchants that the Hebrew word kena'ani ('Canaanite') came to have the secondary, and apt, meaning of "merchant". The Greek term "Tyrian purple" describes the dye which they were especially famous for and their port town Tyre. Phoenician trade was founded on this violet-purple dye derived from the Murex sea-snail's shell, once profusely available in coastal waters but exploited to local extinction. James B. Pritchard's excavations at Sarepta in Lebanon revealed crushed Murex shells and pottery containers stained with the dye that was being produced at the site. Brilliant textiles were part of Phoenician wealth. Phoenician glass was another export ware. Phoenicians seem to have first discovered the technique of producing transparent glass.

From elsewhere they got many other materials, perhaps the most important being tin from Spain and Cornwall in Britain, which together with copper (from Cyprus) was used to make bronze. Trade routes from Asia converged on the Phoenician coast as well, causing the Phoenicians to also govern trade between Mesopotamia on the one side and Egypt and Arabia on the other.

The Phoenicians established commercial outposts throughout the Mediterranean, the most notable being Carthage in North Africa, with others in Cyprus, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Spain (the name Spain came from a Phoenician word, which means 'rabbit coast'), and elsewhere. The Lebanese, Maltese and some Somalians still consider themselves descendants of Phoenicians, along with certain other island folk in the Mediterranean. Their ships ventured out into the Atlantic ocean as far as Britain, where the tin mines in modern Cornwall provided them with important material. They also sailed south along the coast of Africa. A Carthaginian expedition led by Hanno the Navigator explored and colonized the Atlantic coast of Africa as far as the Gulf of Guinea, and according to Herodotus a Phoenician expedition sent out by pharaoh Necho II of Egypt even circumnavigated Africa.

The Phoenicians exerted considerable influence on the other groups around the Mediterranean, notably the Greeks, who later became their main commercial rivals. They appear in Greek mythology. Traditionally the city of Thebes was founded by a Phoenician prince named Cadmus when he set out to look for his sister Europa, who had been kidnapped by Zeus.

In the Bible, king Hiram I of Tyre is mentioned as co-operating with Solomon in mounting an expedition on the Red Sea and on building the temple. The temple of Solomon was built according to Phoenician design, and its description is considered the best description we have of what a Phoenician temple looked like. Phoenicians from Syria were also called Syrophenicians.

The Phoenician alphabet was developed around 1200 BCE from an earlier Semitic prototype, which also gave rise to the Ugaritic alphabet. From this alphabet the Greek alphabet, which forms the basis of all European alphabets, has been derived. The alphabets of the Middle East and India are also thought to derive, indirectly, from the Phoenician alphabet. Ironically, the Phoenicians themselves are largely silent on their own history, because Phoenician writing has largely perished, since their characteristic writing material was papyrus from Egypt, which has distintegrated. What we know of them comes from their neighbors, the Greeks and Hebrews.

With the rise of Assyria, the Phoenician cities one by one lost their independence, and afterwards were dominated by Babylonia and then by Persia. They remained very important, however, and provided these powers with their main source of naval strength. The stacked warships like triremes and quinqueremes were probably Phoenician inventions, though eagerly adopted by the Greeks.

Persian and Hellenistic Phoenicia

Information on Phoenician cities and their hinterlands under the Achemenid Persians is sparse. The famous event is the revolt of Sidon against Achaemenid rule in 345 BCE and its destruction, dramatically, perhaps too dramatically described by Diodorus Siculus. The arrival of Alexander the Great in 333 - 332 BCE is the main turning point, for Hellenistic Phoenicia lost its influential mercantile role, and the distinctive culture of its cities was Hellenized under Alexander and his Macedonian successors. The responses of the individual Phoenician cities to the conquest of Persia by Alexander varied: the ruler of Aradus submitted; the king of Sidon was overthrown (perhaps by internal plotters who valued the city more than their king). Tyre resisted with the most energy. It was captured after a prolonged siege, one of the most famous sieges in Antiquity, and Alexander was uncharacteristically harsh. He executed 2000 of the leading citizens but maintained the king in power. A popular king, who owed everything to Alexander, was a more secure city than a deeply rooted local oligarchy. If Tyre was meant to set an example, it was effective: the Phoenician resistance was utterly broken, no Phoenician city seems to have resisted occupation. Shifting frontiers between Ptolemaic armies and Antigonid or Seleucid forces in the following decades, required some flexible diplomacy and alacrity in accepting a new alliance. This is the period when the cult of Tyche, goddess of Fortune reached a prominence it had never enjoyed before.

In 287 - 225 BCE, after decades of meaningless violence and small empty victories that simply ravaged the countryside, the Ptolemies regained some stabilized control of the cities (except for Aradus), and the last of the old Phoenician city-kings disappeared. In their new forms the cities were scarcely different from the Greek cities interspersed along the coastal plain, all nominal republics with a very limited suffrage., an autonomy that was formal and local, while they were ruled from a distance by a great king at Alexandria. The center of Phoenician power had shifted westward to the Tyrian colony of Carthage which had not merely gained its independence, but had become a major power in the Western Mediterranean in its own right.At the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, the Seleucid monarchy had finally reasserted its primacy on the former Phoenician coast, but the last Seleucid kings local power was increasingly a fiction, as the cities, now thoroughly Hellenistic, regained local independences.

Important Phoenician Cities & Colonies

From the 10th century BCE, their expansive culture established cities and colonies throughout the Mediterranean. Canaanite deities like Baal and Astarte were being worshipped from Cyprus to Sardinia, Malta, Sicily, and most notably at Carthage in modern Tunisia.

Ancient Sources

The Phoenicians (a Greek name for them, known to the Hebrews as
Phut) were the ancient Mediterranean Sea's (and beyond) best navigators (their talents hired by Egyptians and Persians alike). They are classified by biblical traditions as one of the nations in the four directions from Israel Gomer being the north, Persia to the east, Cush to the south, and Put in the Mediterranean to the west.

Language & Literature

Though they are often credited for developing the first alphabet, the Phoenician alphabet is actually what is termed an abjad (different from an alphabet in that it contains no vowels. The Phoenician abjad, which first made its appearance in the 11th century BCE, evolved out of the proto-Canaanite abjad, which originated around the 17th century BCE. A cuneiform abjad originated to the north in Ugarit, a Canaanite city of northern Syria in the 14th century BCE. Phoenician traders disseminated the concept along Aegean trade routes, to coastal Anatolia, Crete and eventually Mycenean Greece. Classical Greeks remembered that the alphabet arrived in Greece with the mythical founder of Thebes, Cadmus.

Their language has been named Punic and was a North-East Semitic . The Semitic languages constitute a group of closely-related languages and dialects spoken in the ancient Near East, with written records going back to about 1500 BC.

Note: The term Semite was proposed at first for the languages related to the Hebrew by Ludwig Schlözer, in Eichhorn's "Repertorium", vol. VIII (Leipzig, 1781), p. 161. Through Eichhorn the name then came into general usage (cf. his "Einleitung in das Alte Testament" (Leipzig, 1787), I, p. 45. In his "Gesch. der neuen Sprachenkunde", pt. I (Göttingen, 1807) it had already become a fixed technical term. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIII

Letters from the 14th century BCE, written in Akkadian, the language of diplomacy at the time, which were discovered at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt, contain solecisms that are not 'mistakes' but actually early Phoenician Canaanite words and phrases.

The earliest known inscriptions in Phoenician come from Byblos and date back to ca. 1000 BC. Phoenician inscriptions are found in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Cyprus and other locations as late as the early centuries of the Christian Era. Punic, a language that developed from Phoenician in Phoenician colonies around the western Mediterranean beginning in the 9th century BCE, slowly supplanted Phoenician, similar to the way Italian supplanted Latin. Punic Phoenician was still spoken in the 5th century CE: St. Augustine, for example, grew up in North Africa and was familiar with the language."

Knowledge of Hebrew aided the reconstruction of Phoenician inscriptions. An early essay in Phoenician language studies was Wilhelm Gesenius (1786 - 1842), Scripturae linguaeque phoeniciae monumenta, 1837, analyzing texts from coins and monumental inscriptions. Nowadays one can study Phoenician in the U.S. at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan and University of Chicago (the only place to study advanced Phoenician).

Details of the historical inter-relations of the Semitic languages are debated by linguists. Especially controversial are the relationships of languages that are not themselves well known, like Amorite, or archaic languages like Eblaite which has features of both Akkadian and Canaanite languages.

See also Phoenician language, Phoenician alphabet.

External link

Phoenicia and Canaan in Archaeology

In archeological terms Phoenicians were actually Canaanites and the two should not be considered as separate people along the coasts of the Levant. After a period of Egyptian domination in the area, the high point of Phoenician power is usually placed ca 1200 - 800 BC. However, the first appearance in archaeology of cultural elements clearly identifiable with that period is sometimes dated as early as the third millennium BC.

Phoenicians in the Bible

The Bible refers to the Phoenicians as Canaanites. In fact, the New Testament mentions the same woman from the Sidon and Tyre area as being Syro-Phoenician and/or Canaanite woman. Writers of the Old Testament hated the Phoenicians when a princess from Phoenicia became Queen Jezebel of Israel and introduced the worship of her gods. Queen Jezebel was the great-aunt of Dido-Elissar who founded Carthage out of which came Hannibal.

External links


Maria Eugenia Aubet, The Phoenicians and the West: Politics, Colonies and Trade, tr. Mary Turton Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 2001: review)