Monday, December 31, 2018

Rise and Fall of the Phoenicians

From obscure and mysterious origins, though they never ruled over a vast land empire nor even united into a single powerful state, the Phoenicians made a name in history as talented merchants and navigators.

Early Beginnings

The origin of the Phoenicians remained an enigma. Few sources narrated their beginnings, as they left little to no written history telling about the roots of their people.

Most of the details of their history came from their neighbors such as the Israelites, Egyptians, Persians, and especially the Greeks. The Greeks made the name Phoenician well known starting in 1,100 BCE. The word came from the Greek word Phoines, meaning purple referring to the famous color of the dye they produced. The Phoenicians, however, labelled themselves differently calling themselves Canaanites. The word also used by Hebrews to describe them which came from the word Kena’ani or merchant. A reference to the impeccable skills of Phoenician traders.

Phoenicians said to have been migrants from the coast lands of the Persian Gulf before leaving for the historical region of Levant which now composed of modern day Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. They arrived in the region about 3,000 BCE and thrived until they began to fade in history in the 3rd century BCE.

Despite being known as prominent traders, the Phoenicians did not formed into a large united political entity unlike their contemporaries such as Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians. They contented with themselves in forming several independent city-states like Beyrut and Byblos. Sidon which meant fishing town referring to its humble origins grew to prominence with another city-state – Tyre. Other less prominent Phoenician city-states included Arvad, Tarsus, Ugarit, and Katna. Each state had their own ruling princes and kings.

Rise of the Phoenicians

Rather than mustering their energy into establishing a powerful kingdom, the Phoenicians devoted their lives in economic development. They mastered their commercial skills being famous merchants while others developed sought-after luxury goods. With such skills, they developed into an economic powerhouse becoming the Dutch and the British of the ancient world.

The Phoenicians began to make a name as merchants about 2,200 BCE. Phoenician city states such as Byblos fostered close relations with the Egyptians. By the end of the 2,000 BCE, the Phoenicians fell to the influence of the Amorites. The Amorites introduced agrarian reform that gave lands to individuals without any obligations to local rulers. As a result, entrepreneurship grew and strengthened among the Phoenicians.

During 1,800 BCE, the Phoenicians fell yet again to another invader – Hyksos. The Hyksos also invaded Egypt, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia. The unity of prosperous lands under the Hyksos became an opportunity for the Phoenicians to further their economy. However, with wealth and power came ambition for independence and from 1,600 to 1,500 BCE the Phoenicians rebelled.

But their fight for liberation coincided with the aggressive expansion of the New Kingdom of Egypt. During the reign of Thutmose III from 1,504 to 1,450 BCE, Egypt pushed the Hyksos out of Egypt and Sinai before proceeding to the Levant and the Phoenician cities. The Phoenicians found themselves free from the Hyksos, but only to fall into the sphere of influence of the Egyptians. Nonetheless, the skilled Phoenicians merchants found opportunity in crisis. As the New Kingdom mustered wealth from gold and grain, the Phoenicians served as traders of Egyptian produce and supplier of luxury items such as dye and jewelry.

Pinnacle of Phoenician Civilization
Ships and Navigation

Phoenicians commercial success rooted in their shipbuilding and navigational skills. This along with their skills as shrewd negotiators and procurers led to their prosperity.

The Phoenicians ship builders first began to produce tub-shaped ships called by the Greeks as Gauloi. These ships had a short hull and powered by a single row of oars and a single square sail. It had no rudder and relied on the rowers and the sails to direct the ship’s course. Goods went into the deck and hull while it towed its timber shipments in the back.

By 1,000 BCE, they developed sleeker ships than the Gauloi. They also added rudders and steering oars that improved the maneuverability, while new added keels increased stability. By the 8th and 7th century, the Phoenicians ships developed twin decked oars that later came to be known as biremes.

Alongside ship design, the Phoenicians developed their navigational skills. Trading voyages in the ancient world paralleled to gambling. Cargo ships lose in sea or shipwrecked meant loss of enormous capital and investment from Phoenician merchants. Thus, development of navigation techniques relaxed traders and investors. The Phoenicians use of stars gave their seamanship a legendary status in history. Their skills led them to venture beyond the Strait of Gibraltar reaching as far as the Azores Island, Cromwell in England. This allowed them to be hired by different navies. For example, Phoenicians manned the expedition sponsored by Pharoah Necho II that said to have circled Africa. Some Phoenicians served in the navies of great military powers such as Egypt and Persia. On the other hand, some Phoenicians used their navigational skills for their own interest and became dreaded pirates.

Commercial Empire

Commerce meant survival to Phoenicians. Due to Phoenicians states lacking large tracks of land to feed their population, their profits from trading bought them essential needs such as clothing, food, gold, copper. It also financed importation of luxurious goods such as pearl and slaves. Fostering good commercial relations took paramount importance. Such as the case with Egypt, where Phoenicians sold goods to Egyptians and in turn bought Egyptian agricultural products. 

Besides trade, Phoenicians also specialized in production of certain goods that became legendary. Tyre made a reputation as a luxury power-brand with its purple dye extracted from murex shells found in its shallow coastline.  Herodotus described the production of the famous dye produced n in his work HistoriesThe dye’s color even produced the word Phoenicians. The dye’s expensive price turned it to a status symbol to the point royals used it for their robes to symbolize wealth and power. It remained as a symbol of power beyond the time of the Phoenicians as Roman Emperors garbed purple robes for centuries. Furthermore, little to no flags used purple due to its high price.

On the other hand, Sidon developed a glass industry which Pliny detailed in his work Naturalis Historia. Phoenicians learned glass making from the Egyptians and developed it to be a major industry. The Sidonians even had been credited by inventing glass blowing. They offered a variety of glass ranging from transparent to stripped color as well as opaque glass. Sidon also made glass beads some of which reached as far as England, specifically near the site of Stonehenge, a testament to the extent of the Phoenician economic network.

Byblos made a name as a papyrus trading center. So much of the city’s success in trading this Egyptian product its city became synonymous with the early paper. Many words pertaining to paper materials had a root word from the city such as Bible and Bibliography.

Cedar tree shared a part in the Phoenician economy. Towed behind ships, Phoenicians traded the tree across the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. It became a popular material for countries that had massive infrastructure projects such as the Egyptians and Assyrians. Tyrian King Hiram used the cedar tree as a gift of friendship with Israel. He offered to King Solomon cedar wood, gold, silver, and craftsmen as contributions to the construction of the Great Temple of Jerusalem.

Other Phoenician products included olive oil and wine produced from the grapes and wines planted in the little fertile lands Phoenician had.

Colonial Empire

Before the famous mercantile Empires of the Venetians, Dutch, and British, the Phoenicians established a colonial empire that began around 1,100 BCE. Early colonies served as trading stations where Phoenicians dropped their exports and bought necessities and goods for transshipment. Among their early colonies included Cyprus, an island which its name came from the tree called Cypress that the Phoenicians probably exploited. They also established the colony of Hippo Then the Phoenicians also established Hippo. which later became a major center in North Africa even beyond the time of the Phoenicians and home of the famous Christian saint St. Augustine.

Then Carthage also emerged as a child of Phoenicia. Tyrians founded the city in 814 BCE in the lands of modern day Tunisia. Legends tell that the Tyrian Queen Dido escaped political upheaval and sought refuge in North Africa. Through her resourcefulness and cleverness, she founded the Kart hadasht, which in Phoenician meant New City.

Phoenician colonies sprang across the Mediterranean such as in Corsica, Sardinia, Malta, Gibraltar, Portugal, and Cadiz, where they discovered silver mines. They extent of Phoenician colonization made the Mediterranean a Phoenician lake.

Phoenician Culture

With the economy booming and its people spreading their wings across the Mediterranean, Phoenician culture developed. Society, religion, and culture mirrored the openness of Phoenicians. Some of their cultural legacy contributed to the progress of man.

Phoenicians cities grew to cosmopolitan centers where different cultures existed together. This mainly to the trade relations the Phoenicians had and a testament to their openness and progressiveness.

Merchants dominated Phoenician society. Self-made merchants and craftsmen earned high place in society and politics with their skills and talent. Women also had better rights in Phoenician society. They had right to own property and inherit from their patents. If Dido really exist, she displayed the degree of sophistication of Phoenician women – bold, cunning, and resilient.

In religion Phoenicians worshiped variety of deities. They address their gods as Baal or Lord as well as Baalat or Lady to which they offered sacrifices known as tophets. El came to be known as the supreme Baal worshiped by the Phoenicians, while Astarte took a prominent position as a Baalat. Though the Phoenicians had their own pantheon of gods and goddess, Phoenician cities welcomed the worship of foreign gods, such as the case of Re and Hathor of Egypt as well as Hadad of Mesopotamia.

Many of Phoenician writings, however, failed to survive the passage of time and the remnants had religious nature. Nonetheless, the surviving Phoenician records displayed the simple figures that served as Phoenician alphabet. The simplicity of Phoenician alphabet compared to Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs became the basis of the Greek alphabet adapted during the 8th and 7th century. Even the word alphabet derived from names of the first 2 letter in the Phoenician aleph and beth or alpha and beta.

The Phoenicians also displayed their skills in the arts. Their jewelry showed influence of Egyptian and Mesopotamian motifs. They also produced faience and sculpted limestone sarcophagus, such as for King Ahiram of Byblos. They made carvings from ivory and wood, which craftsmen sold to the wealthy or even exported to other countries.

Decline and Fall

With wealth, the Phoenicians bought prestige and strength. They built fortifications and maintained their independence as much as possible. And so despite foreign invasions, they kept their resilience and fought to maintain their independence as much as possible.

In the 9th century, the Assyrian Empire marched against the Levant and Phoenician. In 868 BCE, they maintained their independence by paying tribute to King Ashurnasirpal II. This Assyrian scheme of levying tribute in exchange for peace continued for centuries. The uncertainty of peace led to some Phoenician to find new lands to settle, leading to further colonization of lands around Mediterranean. Phoenicians maintained peace and independence until King Ashurbanipal finally subjugated them.

After the Assyrians, more foreign powers controlled the Phoenicians. In the 7th century, the Assyrians fell to the Babylonians who established supremacy over Phoenicia from 685 to 636 BCE. Some Phoenicians fought to maintain their independence. Tyre rebelled in 587 BCE and defended their city from King Nebuchadnezzar II for staggering 13 years until they surrendered in 574 BCE.

By the latter years of the 6th century the Persian Empire rose. Once again, the Phoenicians submitted to the Persians in exchange for autonomy. The administration of the Persians earned the loyalty of some Phoenicians with some serving in the Egyptian campaign of King Cambyses II. They also fought in the botched Persian assault in the Battle of Salamis suffering heavy casualties.

As the Persian Empire declined, a new power emerged in form of Macedonia and its legendary conqueror Alexander the Great. In 330 BCE, Tyre declined to surrender to Alexander offering stiff resistance from their island fortress. However, the siege ended when Cyprus, the once colony of Phoenicia turned into an independent Kingdom, joined Alexander. As a reprisal, Alexander had the city laid in ruin.

The rise of Alexander marked the spread of Hellenistic culture. This spread led to the decline of the Phoenician’s. Eventually, Phoenicians continued to be occupied by other powers, especially by Greek successor states to the Empire of Alexander the Great. Furthermore, Phoenician city-states also faced tough competition as new economic centers emerged in Alexandria and Antioch.

Phoenicia’s declined continued until the cities fell to Rome. Centuries of Roman occupation led to the fading of the Phoenician culture until it finally vanished and left only in the pages of history.

Summing Up

Phoenicians showed a different legacy compared to other ancient civilizations. They did not boast a large empire, a powerful military, or strong conquerors. Rather, they showed the strength of commerce and navigation to leave an equally indelible mark as other empires in history. Strength of the Phoenicians came from the skills of its people and their resourcefulness that led them to thrive for more than a millennium. 

General Reference
"Phoenicians." In Encyclopedia of the Ancient World. Edited by Shona Grimbly. Chicago, Illinois: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000.

Oliver, Graham. "Phoenicians." In Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece. Edited by Nigel Guy Wilson. New York, New York: Routledge, 2006.

Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. "Phoenicia." In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on October 28, 2018. URL:

Hutchinson's Story of the Nations. London: Hutchinson & Co., Ltd., n.d.


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