The Phoenicians were a powerful and influential ancient civilization that rose to prominence despite humble beginnings. They were constantly challenged by new invasions and conquered by foreign powers, yet they persevered through their industry, determination, and intelligence. They were known for their shrewd business acumen, their ability to adapt to changing circumstances, and their fierce determination. They were also known for their lack of moral scruples and their willingness to trample on the rights of others to achieve their goals. Despite all of these challenges, the Phoenicians managed to secure a prominent place in history and a reputation for their accomplishments that still resonates to this day.
This unforgettable civilization was a powerhouse of innovation and exploration. They were the pioneers of systematic trade and mining, known for their expertise in metallurgy and invention. They were fearless mariners, who colonized vast territories and controlled the wealth of the entire world. Their form of government was a model of constitutionalism and their people were renowned for their mastery of the practical arts and sciences. For a time, the riches of the world flowed into their laps, but as they became increasingly preoccupied with material comforts and luxuries, their thirst for knowledge waned.
Their once-fearsome naval power was diminished, and their colonies, now mature enough to stand on their own, broke away from them through a mix of hard-fought battles and peaceful agreements. The nations that had once trembled at the thought of them now looked upon them with disdain and ignored them until they were erased from the annals of history. They became a cautionary tale for all who would follow in their footsteps, a reminder of the dangers of becoming too absorbed in the pursuit of wealth and pleasure at the expense of wisdom and knowledge.
Nonetheless, these ancient mariners of the Eastern Mediterranean were a daring and adventurous race, who set out to sea in fragile ships, braving the perils of the waves and storms, and even the monsters of the deep. They explored the rugged and inhospitable shores of the Adriatic and Pontus, navigating through the treacherous islets and rocks of the Aegean, along the jagged coastlines of Thrace, Euboea, and Laconia. They ventured into the Western Mediterranean, then through the Straits of Gibraltar into the vast and untamed Atlantic, with its towering tides, massive waves, torrential rains, and frequent fogs.
With nothing more than their knowledge of the stars to guide them, these fearless sailors embarked on daring voyages, reaching the shores of Scythia in one direction, Britain and possibly even the Baltic in another, and the Fortunate Islands in a third. They even traversed the entire length of the Red Sea and, by doubling the Cape of Storms, they successfully circumnavigated Africa two thousand years before Vasco da Gama. All without the aid of charts or compasses, these ancient mariners truly exemplified the audacity and spirit of enterprise.
PART I – Etymology
That part of the ancient Mediterranean coast, referred to later on as Phoenicé or Phoenicia, was a land of lush palm trees and vibrant, tropical greenery. The pre-Homeric Greeks who first stumbled upon this idyllic paradise during their early voyages were struck by the striking beauty of the palm trees that lined the low sandy shores. The palm trees, with their feathery leaves reaching towards the bright blue sky, were a defining characteristic of the region; date palm fruits, when ripened, turn into a vibrant purple color. The Greeks, in awe of this natural wonder, named the land Phoenicia, meaning “the Land of Palms” and its inhabitants, the Phoenicians, meaning “the Palm-tree people.” Though the Phoenicians referred to themselves as Kan’ani or Canaanites, the name given to them by the Greeks has stood the test of time.
The ancient world was captivated by the stunning purple hues of the Murex shellfish, found in abundance in the Phoenician region. The famous botanist Theophrastus, who lived from 370-285 BCE, may have even evolved the word Phoenicia into “Phoenix” from this vibrant color, giving it to the purple-ripening date palm fruits and the mystical shellfish purple. But the legend of the Phoenix, the mythical bird known for its symbol of renewal and rebirth, adds an additional layer of intrigue to the word Phoenix. According to Greek and Egyptian legend, the Phoenix lived for 500 years and, just before its death, would build a nest and set itself on fire, rising from the ashes as a new bird.
While the connection between the legend and the color purple is unclear, it is likely that the primary sense of “Phoenix” is simply “purple”, symbolizing fire and the Phoenician’s reputation as the “purple land” and “land of the sunrise”. The Phoenician capital of Tyre, nonetheless, was known for its vital role in the trading of expensive purple dye, making it a coveted and highly valued commodity.
Much like how Picasso’s paintings are highly sought after today, Tyrian purple was deemed worth its weight in gold for over three millennia. The history of purple is rich and fascinating, revealing the immense value and exclusivity that the color held in ancient times, only accessible to the wealthiest members of society.
PART II – Origins
The Phoenicians, a highly advanced and influential civilization, were a part of the Semitic group of nations. This group, which also includes the Assyrians, Babylonians, Aramaeans, Arabians, Moabites, and Hebrews, is linked by a common language and a general sense of homogeneity among its members.
Scholars and writers throughout history have identified several key traits that are commonly found among the Semitic nations, including a unique combination of pliability and determination, an innate depth and forcefulness, a longing for a relaxed and dreamy existence, an ability to work tirelessly, and a love of abstract thought.
Others have suggested that the Semitic nations are characterized by an innate and intuitive sense of monotheism, a tendency towards intolerance, a strong tradition of prophecy, a lack of interest in philosophy and science, a lack of curiosity, a lack of appreciation for mimetic art, and a lack of capacity for true political life. Regardless of the specific traits identified, it is clear that the Phoenicians, as a Semitic nation, were a complex and fascinating civilization with a rich culture and history.
The Phoenicians’ place within the Semitic group is a complex and debated topic. While their geographic location would suggest they belong to the western Aramaic branch, linguistic and historical evidence paints a different picture. In fact, there is a striking similarity between the Palestinian languages spoken by the Phoenicians, Hebrews, Moabites, and those of the Assyro-Babylonian group.
The Aramaic language, on the other hand, is relatively limited in both grammatical forms and vocabulary compared to the Phoenician and Assyro-Babylonian languages. Furthermore, the Aramaic language is considered to be a degraded version, while the Phoenician and Assyro-Babylonian languages are considered to be modeled on a primitive type. Interestingly, the Phoenician language is even more closely related to the Assyro-Babylonian language than Hebrew is, as demonstrated by their similar feminine singular terminations.
Long ago, the ancient historian Herodotus shared a tale passed down through generations, that the Phoenician people, known for their seafaring and trading prowess, had originated from the Erythræan Sea (now known as the Arabian Gulf) and migrated to the Mediterranean coast. Strabo, another ancient historian, backed up this story with accounts of similar traditions held by the inhabitants of islands in the Arabian Gulf, even pointing to Phoenician-style temples in their cities. Trogus Pompeius, another ancient historian, wrote that the Phoenicians, driven out of their homeland by an earthquake, made their way to the shores of the Mediterranean, where they founded the city of Sidon, named for the abundance of fish in the area.
The “Assyrian Lake” mentioned in these accounts is believed to be the Bahr Nedjif, near the ancient city of Babylon. Despite attempts to discredit this tale, modern experts on Phoenicia and the Phoenicians consider it to be likely true. Modern discoveries in the areas of Nineveh and Babylon have shown a striking similarity in the civilization and religion of Phoenicia and Assyria, lending credence to the idea of a common origin in the Arabian Gulf, as attested to by ancient sources.
Nevertheless, other historians claim that when the Phoenician immigrants first arrived on the Syrian coast, they found it uninhabited and claimed it as their own. However, there was no central governing authority among them and they tended to maintain separate rule and jurisdiction. This is evident in the way they are separately enumerated in the book of Genesis – Sidon, the Arkite, the Arvadite, and the Zemarite. The Hebrews didn’t even have a single name to refer to the commercial people settled along their coastline until the Greeks introduced the term “Syro-Phoenician” in later times. The Phoenicians, much like the Greeks, had a strong sense of city autonomy. Each little band of immigrants, as soon as they settled in a sheltered area between the mountains and the sea, claimed the spot as their own, built homes, and surrounded them with walls, effectively becoming a distinct political entity.
The rugged terrain of ancient Phoenicia, split apart by powerful mountain ranges such as Lebanon and Bargylus, only served to fuel the separatist tendencies of its people. In the early days, there was little threat of outside invasion, allowing the Phoenicians to indulge in their independence without consequence. It is unclear when the first Phoenician settlements were established, but during the reign of the Egyptian dynasties between the 18th and 14th centuries BCE, the Phoenicians were already in control of the coastal regions, and their cities were operating independently and on equal footing with one another. Cities like Tyre, Sidon, Gebal, Aradus, Simyra, Sarepta, Berytus, and possibly even Arka are referenced in the inscriptions of Thothmes III and in the “Travels of a Mohar” without any indication of a dominant city among them. The towns were autonomous, submitting to the Egyptians when necessary but always eager to reclaim their independence and never forming any alliances that could have jeopardized their separate autonomy. During this time, no single city rose to prominence or achieved great prosperity. While the Phoenician nation as a whole may have been making progress, it was not particularly notable or noteworthy.
As the reign of the powerful Egyptian empire began to wane following the death of the second Rameses, a shift in power dynamics emerged. With the external pressure lifted, ambitious city-states began to rise in prominence. In the north, the city of Aradus (also known as Arvad) and in the south, the city of Sidon, began to exert their influence over neighboring states. Sidon, in particular, gained fame as the “Great Zidon” for its maritime dominance and territorial expansion. The city’s ambition for land dominion led to the establishment of settlements as far as Laish, on the headwaters of the Jordan. It is believed that Sidon’s support allowed weaker cities such as Accho, Achzib, and Aphek to resist invasions from the Hebrews and maintain their independence. Meanwhile, Sidon continued to expand its influence over neighboring coastal towns such as Sarepta, Heldun, Berytus, Ecdippa, and Accho.
The time that followed the reign of the Egyptians in Western Asia was marked by the rise of the city-state of Sidon. This was a period of great prosperity for Sidon, as they excelled in the arts, military, and seafaring. Their ships were known to sail far and wide, even venturing into regions where no Greek dared to go. Under Sidon’s leadership, Phoenician colonization spread throughout the Western Mediterranean, the Aegean, and even the Propontis. They even engaged in war with the powerful Philistines and though they were defeated, they gained a reputation for their bravery. The citizens of Sidon were known as “poludaidaloi” which translates to “skilled in many arts” and they were widely recognized as the world’s foremost artisans and metalworkers, particularly those from Sidon.
PART III – The Phoenician
To get into the personal side a bit, the Phoenicians possessed a unique talent for commerce, their acumen for business stemming from a combination of remarkable qualities. Their industry, determination, and shrewdness, coupled with a quick perception of opportunities and an ability to forecast the future, made them adept at organizing and executing bold, timely decisions. These skills, along with others that may be identified by careful analysis, contributed to their success as merchants and traders.
In terms of physical appearance, the Phoenicians bore a resemblance to the Assyrians and Jews, with large, well-built frames, strong muscles, and distinctive curls in their beards. They may have also had similarities to the Cypriots, who were a diverse group of people. However, the Phoenicians had a somewhat lighter complexion than the Mesopotamians, being slightly sallow rather than fair. Their hair was typically dark, although some may have had red hair.
Phoenician women were known for their freedom and agency in society. They were often depicted as participating in banquets and social gatherings alongside men, sometimes even sitting or reclining at the same table. They were also skilled musicians, playing instruments such as the lyre and double pipe, and were known to perform in bands with other women. They even participated in religious ceremonies and made offerings to the gods. This is exemplified by notable historical figures such as Jezebel and Dido, showing that Phoenician culture had a more egalitarian approach to gender roles compared to other Eastern societies. Men in Phoenicia were also known for their physical strength and activity. It’s worth noting that in all the depictions, there is only one instance of a Phoenician using a parasol.
The rugged and harsh lifestyle of Phoenician sailors left them with little need for footwear, and the average Phoenician often went barefoot, exposing their necks, chests, arms, and legs to the elements. They spent their days hunting wild animals such as oxen and boars in the marshy coastal plains and dense forests of today’s Lebanon and even dared to hunt lions in the majestic mountain ranges. However, the Phoenician’s tendency to imitate the art of other cultures, rather than create original work, is evident in the lack of authentic depictions of these lion hunts in Phoenician art. Instead, we see conventional images borrowed from foreign cultures, rather than firsthand depictions of the Phoenician’s own experiences.
The Phoenicians were also deeply religious people, and they often gave their children religious names as a way of acknowledging that their children were gifts from the gods. This was a common practice among the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians, who were both allegedly (and evidently) polytheistic idolators, and for that matter, I prefer to dismiss this subject from this article and move on to detail other aspects of Phoenician civilization.
- Men’s Attire
When it comes to fashion, Phoenician men, particularly those from lower social classes, typically wore a single, form-fitting tunic that reached just above the knee. This garment was typically made from linen or cotton and was unadorned and simple, much like the shenti worn by the Egyptians. Phoenician men also often wore a variety of caps, including round ones, conical ones, and even ones that resembled helmets. The conical headdresses were often topped with a knot or button, reminiscent of the headdresses worn by Chinese Mandarins. Overall, the Phoenician dress was simple and unostentatious, reflecting their religious and practical lifestyle.
Among men of a higher social rank, great attention was paid to their hair and beard. The hair was usually kept close to the head in a wavy and compact mass and was often adorned with a wreath or diadem, in one or two rows of crisp, rounded curls. The beard, on the other hand, was similar to that of the Assyrians, with three, four, or five rows of small tight curls extending from ear to ear around the cheeks and chin. Occasionally, there was a single row of tresses that were curled at the extremity.
In addition to the hair, men of a higher class often wore a shenti, a close-fitting tunic with short sleeves that was patterned and parted towards the two sides, with a richly adorned lappet, terminating in uraei, falling down in front. The girdle, from which it depended, was also patterned. Over the shenti, a man of rank often wore an outer blouse or shirt with sleeves reaching to the elbow, and sometimes a mantle was thrown over the left shoulder, falling about him in graceful folds. The conical cap with a top knot was the almost universal headdress for men of high rank.
The male Phoenicians were also known to wear lavish and intricate collars, armlets, and bracelets as ornaments. The collars were similar to those of the Egyptians, arranged in three rows and falling far over the breast. The armlets were typically plain in design, made up of a single twist of metal that encircled the limbs once, twice, or thrice. Etyander, king of Paphos, was known to own royal armlets made of gold, whose ends only just overlapped and were plain, save for the inscription that marked them as his property. The men’s bracelets were similar in design and the finger-rings were usually of gold or silver, set with a stone that bore a device and was used as a seal.
The most detailed male costume known to us is that of a figure found at Golgi and believed to represent some sort of high priest of Ashtoreth wearing a highly elaborate costume. Such priests wear a conical headdress, which is divided into partitions by narrow stripes, and crowning it, is a representation of a calf or bull’s head. The main garment is a long robe, reaching from the neck to the feet, and two rows of stars painted in red adorn the neckline, possibly meant to represent embroidery. A mantle is draped over the right arm and shoulder and twists around the left arm before hanging down below both knees. The hair is styled with a row of crisp curls and three long tresses falling from behind the ears. The feet are left bare, and the figure holds a cup in one hand and a dove in the other. This figure is a remarkable representation of the elaborate costumes of Ashtoreth’s high priests.
- Women’s Attire
Women in the ancient Phoenician culture were known for their modest, yet fashionable dresses. They would typically be draped from head to toe in garments that were often highly decorated and intricately folded. Women’s gowns were usually sleeved and gathered into a sinus below the breasts, while they were also known to wear a second garment over the gown or robe, which would cover the left shoulder and lap. They would also accessorize their dresses with a girdle that was knotted in front.
Women’s headwear would range from a loose hood or cap to a band encircling the hair or even tresses that would hang behind their ears in long loose curls. Although their attire was modest, the style and detail of the clothing was a reflection of the time and culture, with the fabrics and colors used to adorn the garments being an important part of the fashion of the period.
Personal ornaments were extremely important to Phoenician women. They wore tinkling foot ornaments, cauls, round tires like the moon, chains, bracelets, and mufflers, bonnets, and leg ornaments, headbands and tablets, ear-rings, rings and nose jewels, changeable suits of apparel, mantles, wimples, crisping pins, glasses, fine linen, hoods, and vails. Excavations on Phoenician sites have yielded a plethora of necklaces, armlets, bracelets, and pendants to be worn as lockets, ear-rings, finger-rings, hair ornaments, buckles, or brooches, seals, buttons, and various toilet articles that women adore.
Phoenician women also appear to have worn three or four necklaces at once, one on top of the other. A string of small beads or pearls would be wrapped around the neck just below the chin. Below, where the chest begins, would be a second string of larger beads, perhaps of gold, perhaps only of glass, while further down, as the chest expands, would be rows of even larger ornaments, pendants in glass, crystal, gold, or agate modeled into the shape of acorns, pomegranates, lotus flowers, cones, or vases, and lying fifty or sixty alongside one another.
The ancient Cypriote ladies were adorned with beautiful necklaces that have been passed down to us through the ages. One such necklace that was excavated is composed of 103 gold beads, arranged in an alternating pattern of round and oval shapes. Each oval bead is adorned with a pendant, also crafted from gold, depicting the blossom and bud of the lotus plant except for one, which features a human head and bust modeled in the Egyptian style, complete with hair cascading in lappets on either side of the face and a broad collar adorning the shoulders and chest.
Another necklace is made of 64 gold beads, 22 of which are larger in size than the others, and 18 delicately-chased pendants shaped like flower buds. There are also necklaces where gold beads are intermixed with small carnelian and onyx bugles and gold pendants, or where gold and rock-crystal beads alternate with a single crystal vase as a pendant, or where carnelian and gold beads alternate with carnelian cone pendants, a symbol of Astarte. Occasionally, the necklaces were solely made of glass. The intricate details and variety of materials used in these ancient necklaces showcase the skill and artistry of the Cypriote craftspeople.
Necklaces crafted from glass have captivated humanity for centuries, with examples dating back to ancient times. One such example is the glass necklace found at Tharros in Sardinia, which features a stunning array of colors and forms. The necklace is composed of long oval beads of blue or greenish-blue glass, as well as dark olive beads. But the necklace isn’t just composed of beads, it also includes two long rough cylinders, four heads of animals, and a central ornament of a human head.
Each element of the necklace, when taken separately, may not appear to be of great value. The heads of the animals and the human face, possibly representing Bacchus, are not necessarily masterpieces of artistry. The cylinders and rounded beads that fill the spaces between the main objects are of poor execution. However, when combined together, the mixture of whites, greys, yellows, greens, and blues creates a harmonious and gay whole. The necklace is a beautiful example of how the combination of different elements can produce something truly special.
Imagine the most exquisite and sophisticated necklace you have ever laid eyes on. Picture a thick, robust cord crafted from solid gold, with a soft and pliable texture that glistens in the light. At either end of this piece of jewelry sits a cylinder of delicate granulated work, one adorned with the intricately detailed head of a lion, the other with a simple cap. The lion’s mouth holds a ring, while the cap supports a long hook that appears to extend from a complex knot, within which is nestled a single, delicate rosette. The curves and twists of the thin wire in this necklace convey a sense of effortless grace, an air of nonchalance that is the epitome of technical mastery.
The bracelets worn by Phoenician women were equally stunning and came in a variety of styles. Some were simple bands of solid gold, devoid of any ornamentation and weighing between 200-300 grams each. Others were open and featured the heads of animals at each end. One such bracelet discovered at Curium in Cyprus showcased the heads of two lions, locked in a seemingly fierce confrontation at each end.
The Phoenician ladies were also known for their elaborate and fanciful earrings. They were particularly creative in their designs, and the earrings they produced were incredibly diverse. Some were quite expensive, consisting of multiple pieces connected by elegant chains. One of the most stunning examples was discovered in Cyprus and featured a hook at the top for suspension. The centerpiece of the earring was a medallion, crafted with an extraordinary level of delicacy. The medallion featured a rosette at its center, surrounded by a series of loosely arranged spirals, all enclosed within a chain-like band and finished with a double beading. Suspended from the medallion were five finely wrought chains. The central chain held a human head and a conical vase, while the two shorter chains on either side ended in rings with small pendants hanging from them. The final two longer chains held small vases or bottles as embellishments.
When it came to hair styling and fashion, Phoenician women knew their business; such examples include using hairpins that were intricately designed. These pins were between two to three inches long, featuring large heads that were ribbed lengthwise and adorned with two smaller balls, one above the other. These hairpins were crafted from precious materials such as gold or silver.
In addition to styling their hair, the Phoenician ladies also used fibulae, or buckles, to secure their garments. These fibulae were of a simple design and did not feature any precious stones. However, some fibulae were decorated with glass beads or featured the figure of a horse or bird on the rounded portion. The majority of fibulae were made of bronze, but one particularly luxurious example, found in the treasury of Curium, was crafted from gold.
- Phoenician Society
The Phoenician civilization was built on trade and commerce, with merchants at the heart of its political and social structure. The elite class, known as the senate, was made up of powerful merchant families who wielded significant influence over the affairs of the city-states. However, unlike other aristocracies of the time, this was not a closed group based on noble birth, and there was a great deal of social mobility within Phoenician communities.
Marriage and gender roles were also quite different in Phoenician society. Intermarriage with non-Phoenicians was common, and women had more freedom and agency than in many other ancient cultures. Carvings and inscriptions from the time depict women participating in banquets and religious ceremonies alongside men, and there were even powerful female leaders and revered female deities.
However, it is important to note that Phoenician society also had its hierarchies and inequalities. Slavery was a significant aspect of their economy, with many enslaved individuals captured in war or through deceitful tactics by Phoenician sailors. It is important to consider the potential bias of historical sources, as many of these accounts come from Phoenicia’s rivals.
It should also be noted though that Phoenicia was never a unified society; rather, it was a loose alliance of numerous city-states in modern-day Lebanon and Syria, including Tyre, Byblos, Beirut, and Sidon. Phoenician cities were also often controlled by other regional powers like Egypt, Assyria, and Persia.
- Trade, Commerce, and Economy
The Phoenicians were seafaring people who lived along the narrow coastal corridor that connected Asia to Africa. Driven to the coast by their aggressive Assyrian neighbors, they were not able to develop extensive farming due to the environmental conditions inland being unfavorable to large-scale agriculture. However, they took advantage of their location and became master traders, creating a robust network across and beyond the Mediterranean Sea. Their ships carried technologies and ideas, and their merchant communities absorbed and adapted foreign ideas, forming critical connections between places and driving cultural exchanges that would impact the world for millennia.
They traded a wide variety of goods including textiles, wood, glass, metals, incense, papyrus, and carved ivory. They were famous for their purple dyes, and the word “Bible” actually comes from the city of Byblos, which was a center for the trade of papyrus. They also traded wine, spices, salted fish, and other food. Their political structure supported their trade, with foreign policy determined by the dominant merchant class who had an economic interest in maintaining sea lanes and making it easy to get raw materials. Though they didn’t form a powerful empire, the Phoenicians were incredibly influential and their impact on the world is still felt to this day.
Phoenician colonies played a crucial role in the economic engine of the ancient world. These settlements, spanning over two dozen ports and colonies, formed the backbone of a bustling trade network that connected the Mediterranean and Atlantic regions. The colonies were a melting pot of cultures, home to Phoenicians, indigenous peoples, and migrants from all corners of the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa.
Despite the Phoenicians’ impressive colonizing efforts, they did not establish a traditional empire in the sense that they did not directly rule over vast territories. Instead, they exerted power through the colonized peoples, such as in the fertile city of Carthage. Here, enslaved individuals and indigenous peasants worked the land to ensure a steady food supply, while the city also boasted a formidable military force.
As these commercial colonies prospered, they evolved into thriving city-states, with some historians even positing that the Phoenician urban centers served as the inspiration for the Greek city-state. However, perhaps the Phoenicians’ most enduring legacy was the introduction of their alphabet to the Greeks. Some colonies, such as Carthage, went on to become even more powerful than the original Phoenician city-states. By 500 BCE, Carthage had grown into one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of nearly half a million residents.
PART IV – Phoenician Cities
The ancient land of Phoenicia was a place where cities held immense power and prestige, much like Greece. Unlike other nations such as Judaea, Samaria, Syria, Assyria, and Babylonia, Phoenicia was not a centralized country with a single recognized capital. Instead, it was a collection of distinct tribes who fiercely valued their independence and had never been fully united under one political entity. Cities like Tyre and Sidon were often referred to as metropolitan centers, but it’s uncertain if either of them ever held true authority over the entire country.
At various points in history, certain cities may have held a temporary hegemony over others, but there was no organized confederacy binding them together. Each city had the freedom to submit or not submit to the leadership of another, and there is no historical record of a time when all Phoenician cities acknowledged a single leader. The rivalry between Tyre and Sidon was particularly intense, and instances of either city accepting the leadership of the other were few and far between in the nation’s history.
Imagine a land of ancient splendor, where the sun beats down on bustling cities teeming with merchants, sailors, and artisans. The Phoenician civilization of old was home to 25 cities that stretched from the northernmost reaches of Laodicea to the southernmost port of Joppa. Among these were Laodicea, Gabala, Balanea, Paltos; Aradus, with its dependency Antaradus; Marathus; Simyra, Orthosia, and Arka; Tripolis, Calamus, Trieris, and Botrys; Byblus or Gebal; Aphaca; Berytus; Sidon, Sarepta, and Ornithonpolis; Tyre and Ecdippa; Accho and Porphyreon; Dor and Joppa.
While some of these cities were historically insignificant, like Gabala, Balanea, Paltos, Orthosia, Calamus, Trieris, Botrys, Sarepta, Ornithonpolis, and Porphyreon, others played a vital role in shaping the Phoenician civilization. The pious widow of Sarepta and the adventures of Trypho in Orthosia are etched in the annals of history. But out of the 25 cities, only 15 were truly important, of which 6 stood out as the most significant: Tyre, Sidon, Aradus, Byblus (or Gebal), Marathus, and Tripolis. The remaining 9 cities, Laodicea, Simyra, Arka, Aphaca, Berytus, Ecdippa, Accho, Dor, and Joppa were also noteworthy in their own right.
Let us take a journey back in time and explore the grandeur of these six first-rank cities. Tyre, known as the “Queen of the Seas” was a thriving center of trade and commerce; Sidon, the birthplace of the famous glass industry; Aradus, an island fortress that controlled the shipping lanes; Byblus (or Gebal), a city rich in culture and history; Marathus, a city of poets and philosophers; and Tripolis, a city built on the slopes of a mountain that was a hub of the purple dye trade. These were the cities that defined the Phoenician civilization and left an indelible mark on history. Let’s talk more about each one of those six marvelous cities.
Nestled between the majestic peaks of Lebanon and the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, and positioned twenty miles south of Sidon, lay the grand and majestic city of Tzur, also known as Tyre. The name Tzur translates to “rock” and the city was built upon a set of rocky islets, situated just off the coast of the Syrian coast. The location of Tzur offers a rare and shallow indentation along the coast, making it a prime spot for a maritime society to seek shelter from the boisterous winds. The Phoenician settlers recognized the strategic importance of this location and quickly seized the rock, fortifying it, covering it with buildings, and turning it into a thriving town.
When the sun rises over the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean, this island chain stretches out before one’s eyes with a string of pearls glinting in the morning light. These eleven or twelve islands were like a natural barrier, running parallel to the coast and beckoning us to explore their secrets. The southern end of the chain was made up of three small islets, while the northern end was home to seven more. But it was the two larger islands in the middle that truly caught our attention. These islands had once been separate, but over time, the channel between them had been filled in, creating one larger landmass. And that wasn’t the only change that had been made to the islands. Man-made substructions had been built out into the sea, adding even more land to the area.
In addition to the island city of Tyre, a second town began to grow on the mainland opposite the isle. The two towns were considered to be one city, with a rich history and culture. However, after the time of Alexander, the mainland town began to decline and the name Palae-Tyrus was given to it to distinguish it from the flourishing island city. The island city of Tyre continued to thrive and flourish, standing as a testament to the ingenuity and determination of its people.
As mankind walked the shores of these islands, it was clear that they had been transformed into something much more than just a collection of islets. They had become the foundation for a thriving town, with an area large enough to support a community of people. According to the ancient Roman historian Pliny, the island of Tyre had a circumference of twenty-two stades (or just over two and a half miles). Modern measurements, however, have revealed that the island’s actual area is now over 600,000 square yards. The island’s shape is an irregular trapezium, with a western face stretching 1,400 yards, a southern face of 800 yards, an eastern face of 600 yards, and a northeastern face that is even longer.
This picturesque region stretches for miles, from the southernmost point of Ras-el-Abiad to the northern reaches of Sarepta, spanning a distance of roughly twenty miles. Though the area is long, it is relatively narrow, with the widest point measuring only five miles across and most areas being less than two miles in width.
The region is blessed with bountiful water sources, including the mighty Kasimiyeh or Litany River which originates in the Coelesyrian valley east of Lebanon. It carves its way through the rugged mountain range in a series of spectacular gorges before flowing peacefully through a broad, low-lying tract of meadowland, eventually emptying into the sea just southeast of the present-day city of Tyre.
In addition to the Kasimiyeh, a network of rivulets and streams descending from the western flank of the mountain, also contribute to the fertility of the plain. Surprising fountains of water gush forth with incredible force in various locations, particularly at the southernmost point of Ras-el-Ain, just three miles from Tyre. Even as recently as the early 20th century, the region was covered in orchards, gardens, and cultivated fields, producing rich crops of tobacco, cotton, and cereals.
Long ago, the town was surrounded by a large wall that was said to be a hundred and fifty feet high on the side that faced the mainland. The base of the wall was set in the sea and is still visible today, made of massive blocks of stone held together with strong cement. It runs from the southeast corner of the original island to the west, then turns sharply before reconnecting with the island’s southwestern tip. Recent studies suggest that the space between the wall and the sea was once an artificial addition, which the sea has since claimed back. This space is believed to have been originally meant for a pier or quay and a harbor.
Tyre had two distinct harbors: the northern (dubbed “Sidonian“), and the southern. The northern harbor was situated on the east side of the main island, and its walls protected it from the northern and western sides. A double line of wall was formed north of the harbor, extending for about 300 yards, with a space of around 100 feet between the two lines. This wall acted as a breakwater, while the southern wall acted as a pier. Its eastern wall extended northwards for 250 yards and was supported by two reefs. Between the reefs was a space of 140 feet that could be closed off with a boom or chain if needed. The northern harbor of Tyre was approximately 370 yards from north to south and 230 yards from east to west and was connected to the southern port by a canal.
This mighty city was also home to some remarkable architectural structures, such as the royal palace which abutted on the southern wall of the city, and temples dedicated to Baal, Melkarth, Agenor, and Astarte or Ashtoreth. Recent explorations have revealed that the temple of Baal, also referred to as that of the Olympian Zeus, stood alone on a separate islet at the south-western corner of the city, while the temple of Melkarth was placed as near to the center of the city as possible, and that of Agenor was near its northern end. The houses of Tyre’s inhabitants were closely crowded together and were often several stories high. Eurychorus was an open space towards the east side of the city where business could be conducted, and many dyeing establishments made it difficult to traverse Tyre. Towards the east side of the city were docks and dockyards.
Tyre was already renowned for its strength and resilience during the time of Joshua, and Tyrian sailors were known for their toughness and determination, qualities that would come to define their city’s rise to power. As Tyre rose to prominence, it embarked on a period of expansion and colonization, establishing settlements in far-flung places such as Gades, Thasos, Abdera, and Pronectus to the north, as well as Malaca, Sexti, Carteia, Belon, and a second Abdera in Spain. Tyre’s colonies also extended to the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and the North African coast, with settlements in Hadrumetum, Leptis, Tingis, and Lixus (on the West African coast).
Tyre’s ambitious expansion plans were driven by a desire to expand its commercial reach and gain access to new markets. The Tyrians were known for their “long voyages,” and it was Tyre that encouraged its colonists in Gades to explore new territories beyond the Pillars of Hercules, aka the Strait of Gibraltar. Their voyages took them northwards to Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, southwards to the Fortunate Islands, northeastwards into the Baltic, and beyond, in search of new opportunities and wealth.
When Alexander the Great took control of Tyre, however, the population of its main island was estimated to be around forty thousand people. This number may not seem particularly large given the city’s reputation as a major commercial hub and its significance to the Phoenician people, but it is nevertheless an impressive population for such an ancient city. We should also factor in the fact that an enormous amount of Tyrians left the main island to settle on one of the many colonies out there.
Sidon, a city steeped in ancient history, is considered by many to be the oldest of the Phoenician towns. According to the Book of Genesis, Sidon is referred to as “the eldest born of Canaan,” and in Joshua, it is referred to as “Great Zidon.” The ancient poet Homer also frequently mentions Sidon in his writings but makes no mention of Tyre. The historian Trogus Pompeius even states that Sidon was the first town the Phoenicians built upon arriving at the shores of the Mediterranean. However, Tyre claims, on some of her coins, to have been “the mother-city of the Sidonians,” and Marathus was also regarded as a city of the very highest antiquity.
The city of Sidon stood on a flat plain between the mountains and the shore, opposite a small promontory that projects into the sea towards the west. The modern town of Saïda stands close upon the shore, occupying the greater part of the peninsula and a portion of the plain on which it abuts. But the ancient city of Sidon is found to have been situated entirely in the plain, and its most western traces are almost half a mile from the nearest point of the present walls. The city was also surrounded by a number of rocky islands that added to its natural beauty and historic charm.
Nestled against the rugged coast of ancient Saïda, a bustling port town bustles with activity before one’s eyes. The natural harbor is protected on the west by a large island stretching 250 yards, and on the north by a series of islets and reefs extending 600 yards out to sea. The Phoenicians, ever attuned to the benefits of a protected harbor, enhanced the natural roadstead by building a wall from the coast out to the most easterly islet, fortifying the only vulnerable side of the harbor. Even today, remnants of their massive wall of limestone blocks can still be seen along the reefs and islets, a testament to their engineering prowess. The town, built around this thriving port, hums with the energy of trade and commerce, the cries of seagulls, and the bustle of ships coming and going.
The ancient city of Sidon was blessed with not one, but two magnificent harbors. The first, located on the northern side of the peninsula, was a stunning 500 yards long by 200 yards wide. But that was not all, on the southern side of the peninsula lay a second, even larger harbor that offered ample space for ships to dock. This oval basin was a massive 600 yards long and nearly 400 yards wide and was surrounded by land on three sides, offering protection from the winds and a long stretch of sandy shore free from buildings, perfect for drawing up ships.
Despite the grandeur of these harbors, the ancient city of Sidon has left only scanty and scattered remains, making it difficult to mark out the enceinte of the ancient town or place it with any exactitude. The southern necropolis, however, marks the southern limits of the city and towards the east, the hills are penetrated by a number of sepulchral grottoes and tombs of various kinds, which were probably outside the walls.
It is from the southern necropolis that a remarkable inscription was dug up, which first established beyond all possibility of doubt that the modern Lebanese city of Saïda is the representative of the ancient city of Sidon. The harbors, the necropolis, and the sepulchral grottoes all come together to paint a vivid picture of a bustling port city, bustling with trade and commerce, and teeming with life.
Lastly, it’s important to acknowledge that Sidon played a significant role in the development of trade and commerce in the region. The city is known for its production of the highly-valued Tyrian purple dye, made from a specific type of shellfish. Although Tyre would eventually surpass Sidon in the production of this dye, it is believed that Sidon was the first to discover and manufacture it.
In addition to their contributions to the dye industry, the Sidonians were also pioneers in navigation and colonization. They are credited with founding the city of Aradus and colonizing the islands in the Aegean, as well as several Phoenician settlements in North Africa and Central Mediterranean. It is even suggested that the Sidonians were the first to settle at Carthage and that the Tyrian occupation under Dido was simply a re-colonization of a previously established city.
The Sidonians were known for their daring and skilled seafaring abilities. They navigated the waters of the Great Sea, exploring every corner and becoming a familiar presence on the shores of many lands. Their seafaring skills developed over time, starting with cautious coastal sailing during the summer months when the weather was favorable, to longer voyages that took them from one promontory to another and from island to island, even across stretches of open sea where land was out of sight. They had the capability to embark on voyages throughout the year except in the most dangerous conditions. Furthermore, Sidonians were the first to introduce the practice of night sailing for doubling down on their voyage speed in addition to various astrological purposes.
However, this period of Sidonian dominance came to an end with the outbreak of war against the Philistines. The date of this transition is believed to be 1252 BCE, marking the beginning of the second era of Phoenician history, characterized by the hegemony of the city of Tyre.
The most important Phoenician city towards the north was Arvad (aka Aradus). Similar to Tyre, Arvad was situated off the Syrian coast. It was located on a small island at a distance of two and a half miles from the shore. This tiny island, of not more than half a mile in length and a quarter of a mile in width, was made of bare rocks, flat and low, bereft of any natural soil and water. It was surrounded on three sides – north, west, and south – by a number of rocks and islets. The Phoenicians occupied this place and filled up the area between the rocks with squared stones and a cement-like material, creating a solid land. In the northeastern corner of the island, there was a section of 150 yards by 125 yards that was perfectly smooth and almost flat. It is thought that this part of the island was used as a dry dock for smaller vessels. The western and southern parts were used for house-building, where the houses were constructed very close to each other and had multiple stories to accommodate the large population.
To compensate for the lack of a natural harbor, the Phoenicians on the island had constructed two artificial ports of a fair size on the eastern side of the island, which faced the mainland and was away from the prevailing winds. To do this, three piers were built out from the shore at right angles and into the sea, with the central one measuring from seventy to a hundred yards, and the other two almost as far. This created two rectangular basins, one on either side of the central pier, that were guarded against winds on three sides and open towards the east from which the winds are not too strong. Moreover, the mainland, being less than three miles away, served as another protection. The central pier was a remarkable work of art, made of massive sandstone blocks whose length became the thickness of the pier, and the ends formed the walls on either side. Quays of concrete were also built on both sides of the wall.
The ancient enceinte of the island still remains, with its walls composed of blocks of stone ranging from fifteen to eighteen feet long – placed side by side without mortar, forming a gigantic work. Arranged in regular courses, two at times taking the place of one, the stones are roughly squared and bear no ornamentation. Quarried from the island itself, the beds of rock can still be seen nearby. A unique feature is the western side of the island, where the native rock was cut into the shape of the wall for a distance of ten feet. To protect the wall against the elements, a moat and glacis were created along the entire western side.
The internal arrangements of the ancient town are a mystery but we can tell that the houses were close and tall. Aradus depended on its possessions on the mainland for food and water, as the island was unable to grow any crops on its barren rock. Rainwater was collected and stored in tanks and reservoirs, which can still be seen. But normally, the water supply came from the opposite coast. When this was cut off, there was still one option left – a fresh-water spring at the bottom of the sea. By confining the spring in a hemisphere of lead and attaching a leathern pipe, the fluid was raised to the surface and put into vessels, which were carried to the island. This phenomenon still occurs, though the modern inhabitants are too unskilled to take advantage of it.
- Byblus (aka Gebal)
Gebal – or Byblus – was one of the most important remaining cities of the Phoenicians. Mentioned in the Assyrian inscriptions as early as the time of the Hebrew prophet Jehu, and even earlier in Hebrew records, Gebal was known as a town of note from the time of Alexander the Great to that of Pompey. According to Phoenician tradition, it was one of the oldest cities, founded by Kronos or Saturn. It was an especially sacred, holy city devoted to the worship of Beltis and Adonis.
Located between Tripoli and Beirut, four miles north of the Adonis River, Gebal has a small but well-sheltered port marked on each side by two curved piers, leaving a narrow entrance. The castle is situated on a hill overlooking the shore and is constructed of large beveled stones, some measuring 15 to 18 feet in length and 5 to 6 feet thick, probably the work of Giblite stone-cutters, but placed in their present position in the Middle Ages.
- Tripolis (aka Tripoli)
Tripolis, located halfway between Byblus and Aradus, was not one of the original Phoenician cities but was a joint venture between three major settlements: Tyre, Sidon, and Aradus. It is unknown when it was founded and what its original Phoenician name was, only leading to conjecture among maritime towns known to the Assyrians but unmentioned by any Greek authors. Its location was favorable due to the chain of seven small islands running off the shoreline in the northwest, providing protection from the most intense winds. The founders of Tripolis were separated, each living in their own walled part of the town at a slight distance from one another. Although this arrangement hints at distrust, remnants of a wall across the isthmus on the land side have been discovered. Today, Tripolis is known as Tarabolus.
Aphaca, the only significant Phoenician city located inland, is now known as Afka and is a popular tourist attraction. It was situated in a picturesque area at the head of the Adonis River, a sacred river that was fabled to run with blood once a year during the festival commemorating the Nature-God Adonis’ self-mutilation. Aphaca served as a type of Delphi, more of a collection of temples than a town, and was especially dedicated to the worship of the Syrian Goddess Ashtoreth or Venus, also known as Beltis or Baaltis.
Due to her disgracefully licentious character, the orgies of Aphaca were eventually totally forbidden by Constantine. Today, there are no remains of the ancient site except for one or two Roman edifices. The Adonis River Gorge also no longer contains any ancient buildings, previously housing “Tombs of Adonis” just like the “Holy Sepulchres” of Europe during the Middle Ages. Sadly, all these traces of its famous cult have now disappeared, leaving nothing for the modern-day traveler to explore.
PART V – Colonization
Although the Phoenicians built many, many colonies throughout the centuries, in this article I’ll be focusing on a few (in Cyprus mainly) to give a detailed overview of the colonial aspect of this wonderous ancient civilization.
The beautiful island of Cyprus, situated in the corner of the Eastern Mediterranean, was the first and nearest region to be colonized by the Phoenicians. With its lush, green fields and tall mountain ranges running parallel to Taurus, it boasts a great amount of natural beauty. The island is plentiful in resources, yielding gold, silver, iron, and the very metal for which it takes its name: copper. Additionally, Cyprus is known for its quality wheat, fine Cyprian wine that can maintain its strength and flavor for almost a hundred years, henna, pigments of various colors, hemp, flax, tar, and timber – from the heavy keel to the lightest spar and flimsiest sail. This makes it the ideal destination for seafarers, and a prime example of the Phoenician’s impact on the world.
Ancient Cyprian city Amathus was one of the earliest of the Phoenician settlements on the island. It was situated on the south coast in a favorable trading position with the interior. The site of Amathus has yielded a large number of Phoenician remains such as tombs, sarcophagi, vases, bowls, paterae, and statuettes. The Phoenician settlers were known to have improved the natural position of the island by creating an artificial basin enclosed within piers. Evidence suggests they ventured into the interior of the island and settled in large numbers there, taking advantage of the fertile and well-watered plain that stretched westward and southwestward, shaded by carob and olive trees and with access to rich copper mines.
The ancient city of Curium was located in the center of the bay between the Zeugari and Boosoura promontories and had a long stretch of sandy shore along the southeast edge. This town was situated atop a rocky elevation of 300 feet and was further fortified by a strong wall.
In 1874, General Di Cesnola made a remarkable archaeological discovery at Curium – a set of “Treasure Chambers” full of metal artifacts including rings, gems, necklaces, bracelets, armlets, earrings, bowls, basins, and jugs. These works of art span many centuries, from the 15th or 16th century BCE all the way down to the best Greek period (500-400 BCE), and include Assyrian, Egyptian, and Greek pieces.
This collection demonstrates the profound influence of Phoenician culture in Curium, despite the contrary assertions of the Greeks. In fact, when Onesilus waged war on Amathus, Curium sided with the Persians. It is likely that this city, like many other Phoenician cities in Cyprus, was eventually Hellenised, having been a hub of Phoenician trade and culture for many centuries.
Situated along the southern coast of Cyprus, where the land starts to curve towards the northwest and the Bocarus or Diorizus river flows into the sea, lies the ancient Phoenician settlement of Paphos. According to legend, it was founded by Cinyras, a king from the city of Byblus. Paphos was home to one of the most renowned temples dedicated to Astarté, also known as Ashtoreth, the Phoenician goddess of nature. For centuries, the temple was overseen by the powerful sacerdotal class of the Cinyridæ. Today, the remains of the temple can still be found, showcasing the impressive and sturdy architecture that was characteristic of Phoenician structures from that era.
- Other Cyprian Colonies
Other Phoenician settlements of Cyprus included Salamis, Ammochosta (now Famagosta), Tamasus, and Soli. Salamis is recognized as being originally founded by the Phoenicians, due to its Hebrew name “Salem”, which is an alternative name for Jerusalem. This city is situated along the eastern coast of the island and opens up to a large bay that points towards Phoenicia. Unfortunately, there are no remains in the vicinity of Salamis that can be linked to the Phoenicians.
Ammochosta was located close to Salamis and is first recorded in the reign of Esarhaddon (680 BCE) as part of the 10 Cyprian cities that tributed to the Assyrian king. In more modern times, it is known for its participation in the Venetian-Turkish wars. Tamasus, or Tamassus, was an inland city primarily used for mining copper. It is located near the river Pediaeus and is listed in the Cyprian towns that were tributary to the Assyrians. Despite its importance, its location has yet to be sufficiently explored.
Moreover, set along the shore of the Gulf of Morfou, Soli was a Phoenician settlement that flourished in ancient times. Unlike what the Greek myths and legends suggested, the evidence points to it having a Phoenician origin. The surrounding area was incredibly fertile and rich, suitable for any kind of cultivation, while the mountains in the south contained plentiful veins of copper. Unlike the northern coast between Capes Cormaciti and S. Andreas, which lacked a certain allure, the southern coast attracted more attention from the Phoenicians. They established many settlements there including Tars or Tarsus, which is likely the Tarshish of Genesis, and worshipped the supreme Phoenician deity under the title of “Baal Tars.”
With its commanding view over the bountiful Cilician plain and its copious stream, the Cydnus, and its convenient harbor, Tarsus became an important city as well. The surrounding hills provided excellent timber for shipbuilding and the river allowed for the timber to be transported to the sea. Cleopatra’s ships were thought to have been derived from the Cilician forests which Antony gifted her. Other Phoenician settlements in the area included Soli, Celenderis, and Nagidus.
Concluding this section, the Phoenicians were a great seafaring people, known for their colonization and exploration of many lands in the ancient world. After Cyprus, they first colonized the island of Rhodes in the southwestern corner of Asia Minor, introducing civilization to its primeval inhabitants. From there, they spread out in two directions, first southward to Crete and Cythera, and then northward to Chalcia, Telos, Astypalaea, and the Cyclades and Sporades. These mighty people’s explorations have left a lasting legacy, pioneering the way for other seafaring nations to explore the world and discover new lands, cultures, and civilizations.
PART VI – Inventions & Innovations
The Phoenicians were a civilization known for their numerous contributions to humanity, many of which continue to benefit us to this day. One of their most notable inventions was soap, which they created by mixing goat’s tallow and wood ashes as early as 600 BCE, as recorded by Roman statesman and naturalist Pliny the Elder. Furthermore, the alphabet as we know it today is all thanks to the Phoenician invention of the alphabet (more on that in a separate chapter below).
But their innovations didn’t stop there. The Phoenicians were also believed to be the first to construct lighthouses. Some historians, however, claim that it was the Athenian statesman Themistocles who first established a lighthouse at the harbor of Piraeus in the 5th century BCE. This Greek lighthouse was essentially a small stone column with a fire beacon and served more as a marker for ports rather than a warning signal for reefs and promontories, which is the main purpose of modern lighthouses.
The only other lighthouse that came close to the fame of the Lighthouse of Alexandria was the Tower of Hercules in Galicia, Spain. This lighthouse is believed to have existed by the 1st century CE and was possibly built or rebuilt under the Roman emperor Trajan. The design of the lighthouse was possibly Phoenician in origin and was built with the original plans of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which was also believed to have been masterminded by the Phoenicians themselves. This makes one wonder whether the Phoenicians were the first inventors of lighthouses, considering their expertise as seafarers and coastal colonizers throughout their existence.
As we delve deeper into the mystery of who built the first lighthouses, we turn our gaze toward the seafaring expertise of the Phoenicians. These ancient mariners, who emerged as a distinct people around 1,200 BCE, have long been hailed as the greatest navigators of their time. For nearly a millennium, they dominated the seas, charting new routes and mastering the art of shipbuilding.
Their mastery of the seas was so great, that even as their culture began to decline around 250 BCE, they still had the know-how on how to engineer the Pharos lighthouse at Alexandria, a towering beacon that served as a model for lighthouses to come.
It is therefore highly likely that the Phoenicians were the ones who built the first lighthouses, using their impressive shipbuilding and navigation skills. The most likely locations for these ancient lighthouses would have been at Gadir or Carthage, two major Phoenician cities that were vital centers of trade and commerce.
Both, ancient and modern historians have confirmed that the Phoenicians most likely constructed a lighthouse in the mouth of the river Guadalquivir, according to ancient historian Strabo. Writing in 20 BCE, Strabo described a “pharos” at Caepio in Spain, which was the precursor to the current Chipiona lighthouse. He stated that the beacon stood on a rock surrounded by the sea, resembling the famous Pharos of Alexandria, and helped guide ships through the treacherous sunken rocks and shallows at the mouth of the river. This account marks one of the earliest known instances of a lighthouse built on a rock, rather than on land.
Some historians also suggest the presence of a light structure in Carthage, a Phoenician city in modern-day Tunisia. However, this remains speculative as the Romans destroyed the city and there is no solid evidence of Phoenician involvement in lighthouse construction. Recently, excavations of the harbor at Carthage revealed the remains of an octagonal building 123 meters in diameter with walls 2 meters thick. The only remaining features were fragments of marble columns, which may have been part of an open lantern or similar structure.
(Take a deeper look at a 50-page article online for a detailed analysis on this subject: Ancient Lighthouses – Part 4: The Phoenicians by Ken Trethewey)
Glass, a brilliant discovery that changed the world forever, was originally attributed to the Mesopotamians around 2,500 BCE. This versatile material we take for granted today, however, may find its origins in Phoenicia; historians like Pliny of classical Rome were quick to credit the Phoenicians as the pioneers of glass-making. They were supposedly the first to develop the art of free-blowing, a technique that involves attaching a chunk of molten glass to a hollow tube and blowing through the opposite end. This creates a thin bubble that can be shaped into intricate bottles, glasses, and other vessels with the help of tools. The Phoenicians’ mastery of free-blowing revolutionized the way glass was crafted, making it possible to create beautiful and functional pieces that still amaze us today.
According to Pliny, however, on a warm, balmy evening along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean, the Phoenicians had just landed after a long journey at sea. As they set about the task of preparing their evening meal, they found themselves in a predicament. They searched the shoreline for sturdy rocks to place their cooking pots on, but to no avail. In a moment of necessity, they turned to the cargo on their ship and retrieved cakes of saltpeter. With no other options, they placed their cooking vessels on top of the saltpeter, and with a spark, lit a fire beneath them.
As the flames danced and flickered, the heat began to rise. The saltpeter and the quartz sand on the shore, caught in the intense heat, melted together into streams of a mysterious fluid. The Phoenicians, unaware of the significance of this moment, watched as the fluid hardened into a translucent substance, unlike anything they had ever seen before. It was the birth of glass-making, an unintentional discovery that would change the course of history.
This ancient tale of discovery was the first written document on the history of glass-making. Pliny described the discovery as a chance encounter on the mouth of the Belus River, where the heat from the flames caused the saltpeter and quartz sand to combine and form the first glass. A moment of ingenuity and improvisation that would lead to the creation of one of the most versatile materials in human history.
“A ship belonging to traders in soda once called here, so the story goes, and they spread out along the shore to make a meal. There were no stones to support their cooking pots, so they placed lumps of soda from their ship under them. When these became hot and fused with the sand on the beach, streams of an unknown liquid flowed, and this was the origin of glass.” (Pliny, 362)
- Shipbuilding Innovations
The Phoenicians were a legendary civilization in ancient times, renowned for their masterful shipbuilding abilities. They were considered the pioneers of the maritime world, credited with inventing several key features of ships that are still in use today. One such invention is the keel, the backbone of a ship that runs along the bottom and provides stability and balance. Another is the battering ram on the bow, a formidable weapon that was used to ram and sink enemy ships in battle. And finally, they were also known for their use of caulking, a technique that involved filling the gaps between planks with tar or other materials, making the ships watertight and seaworthy. These innovations not only revolutionized shipbuilding but also allowed the Phoenicians to establish a powerful maritime empire and control the trade routes of the Mediterranean.
- The Art of Navigation
The ancient city of Sidon was renowned for its seafaring prowess, particularly for its innovative practice of sailing by night. This revolutionary technique drastically reduced the time required for voyages and allowed ships to make twice as many trips in a year. To navigate at night, sailors had to master the arts of astronomy and computation, studying the stars and constellations to determine their position and find a fixed point to steer by. The Phoenicians, and likely the Sidonians specifically, identified the last star in the tail of the Little Bear as the ideal point of reference for determining true north.
These master navigators were also known to have ventured deep into the vast and treacherous waters of the open sea, guided by the brilliant light of the “Phoenician star” – the North Star in the constellation Ursa Minor. Their skill in celestial navigation was so renowned that other cultures referred to the constellation as “Phoenike.”
But the Phoenicians didn’t limit themselves to the Mediterranean and the immediate Atlantic Ocean. They pushed the boundaries of exploration and ventured into uncharted territories. It is believed that they completed the first circumnavigation of Africa around 600 BCE, discovering distant settlements in West Africa and possibly even the Azores. (More on the subject in the following section)
One of the most daring voyages was undertaken by Hanno the Navigator, who is thought to have sailed as far as Senegal or Cameroon. And in the 5th century BCE, the Carthaginian Himilco is reported to have sailed to the Cassiterides (Isles of Scilly, England) in search of tin. These distant forays were truly remarkable for their time, even for such accomplished navigators as the Phoenicians. Their daring and skill in the face of the unknown continue to inspire awe and admiration to this day. Their explorations weren’t limited to the “Old World”, but there is sufficient evidence that proves they had (possibly frequent) contact with New World civilizations, which we will see in the following section.
Although the Phoenicians were renowned for their advanced ships, their true genius was in the strategic development of their ports. In the eastern Mediterranean, for example, their homeland harbors (as we spoke of in the “Cities” section earlier) were expertly crafted around natural features that were abundant in the region and perfectly suited for their needs. They expertly utilized reefs, small islets, and promontories to provide the best access between ships and land, as well as maximum shelter from the elements. However, when direct mooring to the shore was not possible, ships had to anchor offshore which was less than ideal for the transfer of goods.
In the western Mediterranean, the geographical features were not as favorable, with the exception of the island ports of Gadir, Malta, and Motya. When the coast was steep, ships could get close and gangplanks could be set up, but when the slopes were gentler, it was more difficult to get close to the shore. In southeast Spain, the conditions proved to be particularly favorable, allowing ships easy access to the beaches. It’s no surprise that this area was a popular location for Phoenician settlements.
PART VI – Probable Discoveries:
- The Circumnavigation of Africa
The Histories of Herodotus, specifically Book 4, chapter 42, is the only known surviving independent source for the legendary voyage of the Phoenicians around Africa. Though other Greek authors mention the story, it is believed that they only came to know of it through reading Herodotus’s account. Though brief, Herodotus’s account offers important details such as the reference to the sun being on the right side and the favorable ocean currents blowing in the direction of the Red Sea, from which the voyage likely began.
“… I wonder, then, at those who have mapped out and divided the world into Libya, Asia, and Europe; for the difference between them is great, seeing that in length Europe stretches along both the others together, and it appears to me to be wider beyond all comparison. For Libya shows clearly that it is bounded by the sea, except where it borders on Asia…”
“… Nekos (aka Necho II) king of Egypt first discovered this and made it known. When he had finished digging the canal which leads from the Nile to the Arabian Gulf, he sent Phoenicians in ships, instructing them to sail on their return voyage past the Pillars of Heracles (the Strait of Gibraltar) until they came into the northern sea and so to Egypt…”
“… So the Phoenicians set out from the Red Sea and sailed the southern sea; whenever autumn came they would put in and plant the land in whatever part of Libya they had reached, and there await the harvest; then, having gathered the crop, they sailed on, so that after two years had passed, it was in the third that they rounded the Pillars of Herakles and came to Egypt. There they said that in sailing around Libya they had the sun on their right hand…”
Nautical experts estimate that the voyage would have taken between two and three years, taking into account the vast distance of Africa’s circumference at approximately 15,000 miles (or 24,140 kilometers). The average speed of ancient ships under good conditions was around five knots, but the Phoenicians were known to have revolutionized sailing by introducing night voyages, thereby doubling their speed to an impressive 70 miles a day. This, coupled with the favorable ocean currents and the fact that Herodotus stated that these voyagers spent autumns doing farming activities makes the Phoenician’s voyage around Africa a plausible feat.
- The Phoenicians in Brazil?
The Paraiba inscription is a mysterious artifact that has captivated the minds of many researchers and historians for decades. Discovered in 1872 in northeastern Brazil, it is said to be a Phoenician inscription carved in stone, dating back to ancient times. The inscription first made headlines in the 1870s, but then was largely forgotten for nearly a century.
However, in the 1960s, a new copy of the inscription was found and brought to the attention of Professor Cyrus Gordon of Brandeis University. Upon examining the inscription, Gordon declared it to be authentic and published an article on his findings. This caused a sensation in the media, with headlines like “Phoenicia Linked to America” appearing in major newspapers.
Despite the excitement surrounding the inscription, many experts remain skeptical of its authenticity. The contents of the inscription are quite unusual and some argue that they are exactly what one would expect from a fake Phoenician inscription found in Brazil. Regardless of its authenticity, the Paraiba inscription continues to spark debate and intrigue among scholars and history enthusiasts alike.
The Complete Paraiba Stone Translation:
The words of a stranded Phoenician in South America in the 6th Century BCE:
“We are children of Canaan from Sidon of the Eastern Kingdom of Merchants and are cast, I pray, here beside a central land of mountains (with this) offered choice gift to the Most High Gods and Goddesses in year 19 of King Hiram, I pray (still) strong, from the valley of Ezion-Geber of the Red Sea. Thereby (we) journeyed with 10 ships and we were at sea together assuredly two years around the land of Ham. We were separated by the hand of Baal and no longer remained among our companions, I pray, we have come here, 12 men and 3 women at this new land. Devoted, I make, even whom men of wealth bow the knee, a pledge to the Most High Gods and Goddesses (with) sure hope.”
- Similarities Between Aztecs and Phoenicians
As we delve deeper into the similarities between the Aztecs and Phoenicians, we begin to uncover a fascinating narrative that illuminates the theories of many scholars. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico, they were gifted with charts of the harbors on the coast by the Aztec leader Montezuma (1). This is eerily reminiscent of the Phoenician tradition of surveying the harbors they traded with, as recorded by the ancient historian Herodotus.
It comes as no surprise that both civilizations were heavily involved in trade, as they both had a knack for business on a grand scale (2). Furthermore, they both possessed a wealth of skill in the art of gem engraving and the creation of intricate jewelry (3). They even shared a common material for writing, with the Phoenicians using papyrus and the Aztecs using leaves, particularly those of the aloe plant (4).
Their creation stories and earliest historical traditions were also alarmingly similar (5). Both societies believed in a cosmogony that was almost identical, and their earliest legends of the world, including the deluge, the building of the Tower of Babel, and the confusion of languages, were eerily similar. These similarities continue to fascinate scholars and bring new light to our understanding of the ancient world.
As we continue to uncover the striking similarities between the Aztecs and Phoenicians, we find that their religious beliefs and practices were also closely aligned (6). Both civilizations held an intense spiritual conception of the deity and were deeply devoted to their religious practices. However, as time passed, their worship began to degenerate and ultimately descended into the horrifying practice of human sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of children. This disturbing trend was mirrored in both societies, leading one to wonder if the decadence and changes in worship were happening simultaneously at the far reaches of the Phoenician empire (7).
Another striking similarity can be found in the impressive engineering feats of both civilizations (8). The Phoenicians built towering aqueducts for Solomon, and it comes as no surprise that duplicates of these structures can be found in Mexico. Additionally, the use of the lotus as a decorative element was common to both nations, further adding to the list of similarities.
One of the most astonishing similarities is the existence of calendars in both countries that appear to have identical origins (9). The Aztecs were known for their sophisticated calendar, which was based on both the Egyptian and Asiatic systems, and it was even more accurate than the Gregorian calendar used by the Europeans. Furthermore, just as the Huns and Mongols were known for their mastery of horseback riding and archery from a lifelong habit, the Phoenicians and Aztecs were known for their superior seafaring skills from a lifelong habit of being superior seafarers, making a voyage across the Atlantic seem highly plausible (10).
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- Final Remarks on the Subject
According to ancient Greek historian Diodorus, the Carthaginians possessed knowledge of a vast island located in the Atlantic Ocean, teeming with mountains and bountiful rivers. This island was the source of their immense wealth, and they kept its location a closely guarded secret.
Moreover, evidence of the Carthaginian presence in the Americas has been found through artifacts such as pottery, copper and bronze tools, weapons, and inscriptions discovered in places like Canada, the United States, Paraguay, Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina. Furthermore, the discovery of Isphora flasks with lugs and narrow necks, typically used by the Carthaginians, in various states across the Americas also indicates their presence in the region. These artifacts are believed to date back to between 350 and 320 BCE.
Adding to the evidence, a map was discovered on a Phoenician gold coin found in Carthage, dating back to 320-350 BCE. The map depicts the ancient world, including the Mediterranean, Europe, Britain, Asia, and the Americas. Initially, the shapes at the bottom of the map were thought to be Phoenician letters, but American scientist Mark Maminamen revealed that it was actually a map of the ancient world according to the Carthaginians. It’s clear that the Carthaginians had much more extensive knowledge and reach than previously thought.
PART VII – Phoenician Ships
The Phoenician civilization was known for its advanced shipbuilding techniques. With the limited number of Phoenician shipwrecks that have been found over the years, modern historians have pieced together a clear understanding of their structures through the wreckages, in addition to various documents and reliefs. Three distinct types of ships were thought to have been utilized by the Phoenicians. The first was a small, agile craft with a horse-headed prow, typically manned by one or two individuals for short voyages.
The second was the merchant vessel, a mainstay of Phoenician trade for over a thousand years. These ships were large and capable of carrying impressive loads, with some estimates suggesting a capacity of up to 450 tons. They were known for their unique “bathtub” (or broad), round design, similar to Dutch fishing boats of two centuries ago, making them difficult to handle; these vessels were propelled by both sails and oars, with the sails being the main form of propulsion. The sail used was a square sail, which was only suitable for sailing when the wind was directly astern. This sail was attached to the yard and could be reefed tightly or shaken out loosely. Small boats were attached to merchant ships, which provided a means of safety in case of shipwreck, and were also useful for landing cargoes on a shallow shore. It is unclear whether these boats were hoisted up on deck when not in use, or were towed behind the ship.
The Phoenician warship, on the other hand, was a formidable force on the water. These vessels were lightweight and propelled by oars, manned by a crew of 50 skilled sailors. They were fitted with a ram, making them formidable in battle. The Phoenician navy was considered the first naval power in history, and their ships were incredibly successful in battle until the Romans began to catch up in technology and fighting tactics. Even then, the Phoenicians were still respected for their superior seamanship.
In the early times, the Phoenicians relied on war galleys, which were long open rowboats. These vessels, called triaconters or penteconters, were armed with sharp metal beaks to use as weapons. Later, these vessels were superseded by biremes which were decked and had masts and sails. As time went on, the Phoenicians developed more advanced vessels including the trireme and quadrireme. By the third century BCE, the Carthaginians were using quinqueremes in warfare. The Phoenicians of Phoenicia Proper, however, never used these more advanced vessels.
The Phoenicians’ superior shipbuilding and seafaring were demonstrated when Xerxes assembled his fleet of twelve hundred and seven triremes for his expedition against Greece. This fleet included ships from Phoenicia, Cyprus, Egypt, Cilicia, Pamphylia, Lycia, Caria, Ionia, Aeolis, and Propontis. To test the quality of his ships and sailors, a grand sailing race was held, and the Phoenicians of Sidon emerged victorious. When Xerxes ventured out to sea, he chose a Sidonian galley as his vessel. The Phoenicians believed that their ships were under the protection of the Cabeiri, and they placed images of the Cabeiri at the stem or stern of their ships. These images, called pittuchim, were believed to be amulets that would protect the vessel from harm and were likely no larger than bronze or glazed earthenware figures.
PART VIII – Phoenician Alphabet
The famous sequence of letters A-B-C-D-E-F-G can be traced back to the 16th century BCE, thanks to a small group of traders and merchants known as the Phoenicians. These wonderous ancient people created the foundation for the modern English alphabet and many other alphabets around the world. They organized a system of 22 consonants into what is now known as the alphabet; it would eventually be used by dozens of different peoples from around the world (particularly the western world); this Phoenician alphabet was indeed a revolutionary invention that simplified writing.
The Phoenicians, a skilled and enterprising seafaring people, faced a problem that many merchants and traders of their time encountered – the need for a writing system that was easy to learn and use. They looked to the symbols that were already in use among the Semitic-speaking peoples of Canaan and Mesopotamia for inspiration.
As far back as 3000 BCE, the Sumerians and the Egyptians had already invented writing systems based on symbols. However, these early scripts were primarily used by merchants and traders to record contracts, receipts, and lists of goods. Despite their practicality, these scripts fell short in one crucial aspect – they were complicated and difficult to learn. The Egyptian and Sumerian writing systems used hundreds of different complex symbols to represent ideas (ideograms) and syllabic sounds (phonograms), which made them cumbersome and time-consuming to use.
And so, the Phoenicians sought a solution that would make recording and communication more efficient, thus they created a new alphabet. This new alphabet was easy to learn and quick to use, making it the perfect tool for merchants and traders of Phoenicia, and it would eventually become the basis for many of the world’s modern alphabets.
The Phoenicians then drew inspiration from these early systems and instead, used symbols to represent sounds. This might not sound like a big deal, but it was a monumental leap in the history of writing. Once you learned the sounds symbolized by the letters, you could read without having to know the meanings of countless little pictures. This made literacy a lot easier and writing a whole lot faster. It also made trade and accounting easier, as the Phoenicians traveled across their networks, their system of writing moved with them.
By 800 BCE, the Greeks had adopted the Phoenician alphabet, adding vowels to make it even more efficient. This formed the basis of the Greek, Aramaic, and Etruscan systems of writing. It also influenced Latin and dozens of other Indo-European languages. The Phoenician alphabet influenced a significant portion of ancient writing systems, with the notable exception of East Asian writing. This simple but powerful system of writing created by the Phoenicians has had a lasting impact on the world and continues to shape the way we communicate today.
PART IX – Conclusion
The Phoenicians were, without doubt, a nation of tireless and skilled workers, whose legacy can be seen throughout the lands they once inhabited. From the bustling workshops of their cities to the far-reaching corners of the earth, they left their mark through their unending pursuit of knowledge, industry, and trade.
In their quest for resources and new opportunities, they ventured to distant lands, building ports and colonies, and introducing new technologies and ways of life to the people they encountered. They mined for precious metals, established fisheries, and organized trade routes, leaving behind a wealth of evidence of their skill and determination.
From the mines of Thasos in the East to the Scilly Islands in the West, the Phoenicians left their mark on the metalliferous islands and coastal tracts they explored, with tunnels, adits, and air-shafts still visible today. Their expertise in craftsmanship is evident in the silver, bronze, and terra-cotta vessels they produced, as well as the intricate figures and gems of their unique Phoenician style.
Historians debate what happened to this innovative, seafaring society. As empires like Persia expanded, Phoenicians strategically played these empires against each other and accepted their control when it was necessary. But over time, the original city-states lost their power. Eventually, the colonies were the only independent Phoenician societies left. As the Phoenicians traveled and traded, they spread cultural ideas, mixed with indigenous populations, and came up with some of the most innovative technologies in world history.
The Phoenician homeland was under threat from the Assyrian empire; their security depended on being able to pay tribute. Spain had rich sources of copper, tin, and above all, silver that could be used to buy off the Assyrian threat. These early Phoenician colonies were simply the support system for the metals trade — despite the appearance on the map, they were not big blocks of territory but a constellation of individual settlements, only loosely connected to the peoples around them.
Phoenicia was conquered by the Persians in 539 BCE. The Persians still wanted tribute, but they were not as interested in extorting precious metals from the Phoenicians; Phoenicia was then divided into four vassal kingdoms: Sidon, Tyre, Arwad, and Byblos. Though these vassal kingdoms prospered on their own and furnished fleets for the kings of Persia, Phoenician influence declined after this period. Around the same time, the Greek cities were starting to field navies on par with the Phoenicians (the two would face off at Salamis when the Persians invaded Greece in 480 BCE). These two developments disrupted the old trading-based system, cutting the Punic colonies in the western Mediterranean loose from their mother country and forcing them to find a new economic foundation.
Carthage emerged as the most important of these and it drew the other Punic settlements into its orbit, although they were not always happy to be commanded by Carthage. Carthage developed a strong navy that came to dominate the western Mediterranean, enabling the Carthaginians to monopolize important trade routes. The Carthaginians worked hard to keep foreign shipping out of their end of the seas — the Greeks knew very little about the Atlantic coasts of Europe (and beyond) because the Carthaginians, who controlled all of the important anchorages west of Sicily, would not let them pass.
The Carthaginians came into conflict with the Greeks of Sicily. The Greeks were far from united, so it was easy for Carthage to back different factions whenever it was useful. Only the wealthy city of Syracuse was a serious rival, but many of the other Greek cities were content to ally with Carthage because they feared Syracuse.
After a long series of increasingly bitter conflicts, Sicily ended up divided between a Carthaginian sphere of interest in the south and west and a Greek zone, dominated by Syracuse, on the eastern and northern coasts of the island. Sicily was not heavily settled by Carthaginian people — although there were Punic towns, particularly Motya at the western end of the island. Much of the “Carthaginian” population of Sicily were actually mercenaries of many different backgrounds — Berber, Spanish, Celtic, and Greek. Carthage actually referred to the Sicilian territory as the “camp”, that is, the military zone.
In 264 BCE, the Carthaginian-Syracusan rivalry expanded to include Rome, which intervened on behalf of Syracuse beginning the First Punic War. This 20-year conflict ended with a Roman victory, reshaping the Carthaginian empire into its final form, eventually wiping out this marvelous civilization from the pages of history, along with most of its literary remains.
- Concluding Remarks
The Phoenicians were renowned for their unmatched seafaring abilities, sailing far and wide throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. They were the first to venture out of sight of land, relying on their knowledge of the stars, weather, and tides to guide them on long journeys. They were credited with many nautical inventions, such as the keel, battering ram on the bow, and caulking between planks, which helped them to make their ships more seaworthy and their journeys more successful. They also developed a method of calculating the rate of a ship’s sailing, although the details of this method are unknown. Furthermore, they created charts and maps to help them navigate the seas, although these were kept secret due to the Phoenicians’ rivalry with other trading nations. As a result, the Phoenicians established an impressive maritime network that stretched from the coasts of the Levant to Britain and the Atlantic coast of Africa, and most probably, the New World, firmly establishing their reputation as the greatest mariners of the ancient world.
There was no way I could write a small article regarding such a grand page of history, so I had to use many words to present a generalized overview. I hope you found this article informative & intuitive. Thank you for reading.