Phoenicia was an ancient Semitic-speaking Mediterranean civilization that originated in the Levant, including coastal Syria and north Palestine, in the west of the Fertile Crescent.
It was centered on the coastal areas of modern day Lebanon and included parts of what are now northern Israel and western Syria, reaching as far north as Arwad.
Its colonies later reached the Western Mediterranean, such as Carthage in North Africa, and even the Atlantic Ocean, such as Cádiz in Spain.
The civilization spread across the Mediterranean between 1500 BC and 300 BC.
Phoenicia is an ancient Greek term used to refer to the major export of the region, cloth dyed Tyrian purple from the Murex mollusc and referred to the major Canaanite port towns.
Their civilization was organized in city-states, of which the most notable cities were Tyre, Sidon, Arwad, Berytus, Byblos, and Carthage.
Each city-state was a politically independent unit, and there is no archaeological evidence proving that the Phoenicians viewed themselves as a single nationality.
Around 1050 BC, a Phoenician alphabet was used for writing and became one of the most widely used writing systems, spread by Phoenician merchants across the Mediterranean world.
The Phoenician alphabet gave rise to the Greek alphabet, which in turn gave rise to the Latin alphabet.
Phoenicians, meant variably “, “Tyrian purple, crimson” or “date palm” and is attested with all three meanings already in Homer.
The mythical bird phoenix also carries the same name, but this meaning is not attested until centuries later.
It is understandable how Greeks may have associated the crimson or purple color of dates and dye with the merchants who traded both products.
The oldest attested form of the word in Greek may be the Mycenaean po-ni-ki-jo, po-ni-ki, possibly borrowed from Ancient Egyptian: (literally “carpenters”, “woodcutters”; in reference to the famed Lebanon cedars, for which the Phoenicians were well-known), .
People from the region called themselves Kenaani or Kinaani, equivalent to Canaanite. The common Canaanite identity was differentiated into regional subgroups, of which the Phoenicians were one.
High point: 1200–800 BC
The high point of Phoenician culture and sea power is usually placed c. 1200–800 BC. . A unique concentration in Phoenicia of silver hoards dated between 1200 and 800 BC, however, contains hacksilver with lead isotope ratios matching ores in Sardinia and Spain. This metallic evidence agrees with the biblical attestation of a western Mediterranean Tarshish said to have supplied King Solomon of Israel with silver via Phoenicia
Many of the most important Phoenician settlements had been established long before this: Byblos, Tyre in South Lebanon, Sidon, Simyra, Arwad, and Berytus, the capital of Lebanon, all appear in the Amarna tablets.
The league of independent city-state ports, with others on the islands and along other coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, was ideally suited for trade between the Levant area, rich in natural resources, and the rest of the ancient world. Around 1200 BC, a series of poorly-understood events weakened and destroyed the adjacent Egyptian and Hittite empires. In the resulting power vacuum, a number of Phoenician cities rose as significant maritime powers.
Phoenician societies rested on three power-bases: the king; temples and their priests; and councils of elders. Byblos first became the predominant center from where the Phoenicians dominated the Mediterranean and Erythraean (Red) Sea routes. It was here that the first inscription in the Phoenician alphabet was found, on the sarcophagus of Ahiram (c. 1200 BC).
Later, Tyre in South Lebanon gained in power. One of its kings, the priest Ithobaal (887–856 BC), ruled Phoenicia as far north as Beirut, and part of Cyprus. Carthage was founded in 814 BC under Pygmalion of Tyre (820–774 BC). The collection of city-states constituting Phoenicia came to be characterized by outsiders and the Phoenicians as Sidonia or Tyria. Phoenicians and Canaanites alike were called Sidonians or Tyrians,
Decline: 539–65 BC
Persian King Cyrus the Great conquered Phoenicia in 539 BC. The Persians then divided Phoenicia into four vassal kingdoms: Sidon, Tyre, Arwad, and Byblos. Under Darius I, the area comprising Phoenicia, Palestine, Syria, and Cyprus was administered in a single satrapy and paid a yearly tribute of three hundred and fifty talents. By comparison, Egypt and Libya paid seven hundred talents.
The Phoenicians of Tyre showed greater solidarity with their former colony Carthage than loyalty towards Persian king Cambyses II, by refusing to sail against the former when ordered.
The Phoenicians furnished the bulk of the Persian fleet during the Greco-Persian Wars. Herodotus considers them as “the best sailors” in the Persian fleet. Phoenicians under Xerxes I were equally commended for their ingenuity in building the Xerxes Canal. Nevertheless, they were harshly punished by the Persian king following the Battle of Salamis, which culminated in a defeat for the Achaemenid Empire.
In 350 or 345 BC, a rebellion in Sidon led by Tennes was crushed by Artaxerxes III. Its destruction was described by Diodorus Siculu.
Alexander the Great took Tyre in 332 BC after the Siege of Tyre. Alexander was exceptionally harsh to Tyre, crucifying 2,000 of the leading citizens, but he maintained the king in power. He gained control of the other cities peacefully: the ruler of Aradus submitted; the king of Sidon was overthrown. Following Alexander, the Phoenician homeland was controlled by a succession of Macedonian rulers: Laomedon (323 BC), Ptolemy I (320), Antigonus II (315), Demetrius (301), and Seleucus (296). The rise of Macedon gradually ousted the remnants of Phoenicia’s former dominance over the Eastern Mediterranean trade routes. Between 286 and 197 BC, Phoenicia (except for Aradus) fell to the Ptolemies of Egypt, who installed the high priests of Astarte as vassal rulers in Sidon (Eshmunazar I, Tabnit, Eshmunazar II).
In 197 BC, Phoenicia along with Syria reverted to the Seleucids. The region became increasingly Hellenized, although Tyre became autonomous in 126 BC, followed by Sidon in 111. While Phoenician culture disappeared entirely in the motherland, Carthage continued to flourish in Northwest Africa. It oversaw the mining of iron and precious metals from Iberia, and used its considerable naval power and mercenary armies to protect commercial interests, until Rome finally destroyed it in 146 BC at the end of the Punic Wars.
Syria, including Phoenicia, was seized and ruled by king Tigranes the Great of Armenia from 82 until 69 BC, when he was defeated by Lucullus. In 65 BC, Pompey finally incorporated the territory as part of the Roman province of Syria. Phoenicia became a separate province c. AD 200.
The Phoenicians were among the greatest traders of their time and owed much of their prosperity to trade. At first, they traded mainly with the Greeks, trading wood, slaves, glass and powdered Tyrian purple. Tyrian purple was a violet-purple dye used by the Greek elite to color garments. As trading and colonizing spread over the Mediterranean, Phoenicians and Greeks seemed to have split that sea in two: the Phoenicians sailed along and eventually dominated the southern shore, while the Greeks were active along the northern shores. The two cultures rarely clashed, mainly in the Sicilian Wars, and eventually settled into two spheres of influence, the Phoenician in the west and the Greek to the east.
In the centuries after 1200 BC, the Phoenicians were the major naval and trading power of the region. Phoenician trade was founded on the Tyrian purple dye, a violet-purple dye derived from the hypobranchial gland of the Murex sea-snail, once profusely available in coastal waters of the eastern Mediterranean Sea but exploited to local extinction. . The Phoenicians established a second production center for the dye in Mogador, in present-day Morocco. Brilliant textiles were a part of Phoenician wealth, and Phoenician glass was another export ware.
To Egypt, where grapevines would not grow, the 8th-century Phoenicians sold wine: the wine trade with Egypt is vividly documented by the shipwrecks located in 1997 in the open sea 50 kilometres (30 mi) west of Ascalon. Pottery kilns at Tyre in South Lebanon and Sarepta produced the large terracotta jars used for transporting wine. From Egypt, the Phoenicians bought Nubian gold. Additionally, great cedar logs were traded with lumber-poor Egypt for significant sums.
From elsewhere, they obtained other materials, perhaps the most important being silver from (at least) Sardinia and the Iberian Peninsula. Tin was required which, when smelted with copper from Cyprus, created the durable metal alloy bronze. The archaeologist Glenn Markoe suggests that tin “may have been acquired from Galicia by way of the Atlantic coast or southern Spain; alternatively, it may have come from northern Europe (Cornwall or Brittany). Strabo states that there was a highly lucrative Phoenician trade with Britain for tin via the Cassiterides whose location is unknown but may have been off the northwest coast of the Iberian Peninsula.
Tarshish was a place where Phoenicians reportedly obtained different metals, particularly silver, during the reign of Solomon. The Septuagint, the Vulgate and the Targum of Jonathan render Tarshish as Carthage, nia (Iberian Peninsulab). s. . Assyrian records indicate Tarshish was an island, — the island of Sardinia.
The Phoenicians established commercial outposts throughout the Mediterranean,the most strategically important being Carthage in Northwest Africa, southeast of Sardinia on the peninsula of present day Tunisia. Ancient Gaelic mythologies attribute a Phoenician/Scythian influx to Ireland by a leader called Fenius Farsa. Others 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 down the Red Sea by pharaoh Necho II of Egypt (c.?600 BC) even circumnavigated Africa and returned through the Pillars of Hercules after three years.
These people began to adventure on long voyages, freighting their vessels with the wares of Egypt and Assyria.
The Greeks had two names for Phoenician ships: hippoi and galloi. Galloi means tubs and hippoi means horses. These names are readily explained by depictions of Phoenician ships in the palaces of Assyrian kings from the 7th and 8th centuries, as the ships in these images are tub shaped (galloi) and have horse heads on the ends of them (hippoi). It is possible that these hippoi come from Phoenician connections with the Greek god Poseidon equated with the Semitic God “Yam”.
In 2014, a Phoenician trading ship, dating to 700 BC, was found near Gozo island. The vessel was about 50 feet long, which contained 50 amphorae full of wine and oil
Important cities and colonies
On top of the cities come Sur (Tyre) and Sydon (Sidon) (Phoenicia’s two leading-city states), Berut (modern Beirut) Ampi, Amia, Arqa, Baalbek, Botrys, Jbail (modern Byblos and one of the oldest sites of civilization), Sarepta and Tripoli. However, from the 10th century BC, the Phoenicians’ expansive culture led them to establish cities and colonies throughout the Mediterranean, abroad Lebanon. Canaanite deities like Baal and Astarte were being worshipped from Cyprus to Sardinia, Malta, Sicily, Spain, Portugal, and most notably at Carthage (Qart Hadašt) in modern Tunisia.
Phoenician Language & Alphabet
The Canaanite-Phoenician alphabet was one of the first alphabets with a strict and consistent form, consisting of 22 letters, all consonants, termed an abjad.
By their maritime trade, the Phoenicians spread the use of the alphabet to North Africa and Europe, where it was adopted by the Greeks who developed it into having distinct letters for vowels as well as consonants.
The name “Phoenician” is by convention given to inscriptions beginning around 1050 BC, because Phoenician, Hebrew, and other Canaanite dialects were largely indistinguishable before that time.
The Phoenicians were among the first state-level societies to make extensive use of alphabets: the family of Canaanite languages, spoken by Israelites, Phoenicians, Amorites, Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites, was the first historically attested group of languages to use an alphabet, to record their writings.
The Proto-Canaanite script uses around 30 symbols but was not widely used until the rise of new Semitic kingdoms in the 13th and 12th centuries BC. The Proto-Canaanite script is derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs.
It is assumed that it adopted its simplified linear characters from an as-yet unattested early pictorial Semitic alphabet developed some centuries earlier in the southern Levant.
It is likely that the precursor to the Phoenician alphabet was of Egyptian origin, since Middle Bronze Age alphabets from the southern Levant resemble Egyptian hieroglyphs or an early alphabetic writing system found at Wadi-el-Hol in central Egypt.
In addition to being preceded by proto-Canaanite, the Phoenician alphabet was also preceded by an alphabetic script of Mesopotamian origin called Ugaritic.
The development of the Phoenician alphabet from the Proto-Canaanite coincided with the rise of the Iron Age in the 11th century BC.
Phoenician inscriptions are found in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Cyprus and other locations, as late as the early centuries of the Christian Era.
Phoenician art lacks unique characteristics that might distinguish it from its contemporaries. This is due to its being highly influenced by foreign artistic cultures: primarily Egypt, Greece and
Assyria. Phoenicians who were taught on the banks of the Nile and the Euphrates gained a wide artistic experience and finally came to create their own art, which was an amalgam of foreign
models and perspectives. In an article from The New York Times published on January 5, 1879, Phoenician art was described by the following:
He entered into other men’s labors and made most of his heritage. The Sphinx of Egypt became Asiatic, and its new form was transplanted to Nineveh on the one side and to Greece on the other.
The rosettes and other patterns of the Babylonian cylinders were introduced into the handiwork of Phoenicia, and so passed on to the West, while the hero of the ancient Chaldean epic became
first the Tyrian Melkarth, and then the Herakles of Hellas.
The religious practices and beliefs of Phoenicia were cognate generally to their neighbours in Canaan, which in turn shared characteristics common throughout the ancient Semitic world. “Canaanite religion was more of a public institution than of an individual experience.” Its rites were primarily for city-state purposes; payment of taxes by citizens was considered in the category of religious sacrifices. Unfortunately, many of the Phoenician sacred writings known to the ancients have been lost.
Phoenician society was devoted to the state Canaanite religion. Several of its reported practices have been mentioned by scholars, such as temple prostitution, and child sacrifice. “Tophets”, built “to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire”, are condemned by Yahweh in the Hebrew bible, particularly in Jeremiah 7:30–32, and in). Notwithstanding these and other important differences, cultural religious similarities between the ancient Hebrews and the Phoenicians persisted.