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Phoenicia was an ancient civilization in the north of ancient Canaan, with its heartland along the coastal plain of what is now Lebanon and Syria. Phoenician civilization was an enterprising maritime trading culture that spread right across the Mediterranean during the first millennium BC. Though ancient boundaries fluctuated, the southern city of Sarepta, between Sidon and Tyre, is the most thoroughly excavated city of the Phoenician homeland. Although the people of the region called themselves the Canaani, the name Phoenicia became common thanks to the Greeks who called them the Phoiniki - Φοινίκη (Phoiníkē); the Greek word for Phoenician was synonymous with the colour purple/red or crimson, φοινίξ (phoinix), through its close association with the famous dye Tyrian purple (cf also Phoenix). The dye was used in ancient textile trade, and highly desired. The Phoenicians became known as the Purple People.
The Phoenicians spoke the Phoenician language, later called Punic since the Roman word for purple was Puniceus. In addition to their many inscriptions, the Phoenicians, contrary to some reports, wrote many books which have not survived. Evangelical Preparation by Eusebius of Caesarea quotes extensively from Philo of Byblos and Sanchuniathon. Further, the Phoenician Punic colonies of North Africa continued to be a source of knowledge about the Phoenicians. Saint Augustine (who spoke Punic, and calls it "our language") refers to their books as containing much wisdom.
Some of the Lebanese, Maltese, Tunisian and even some Somalis still consider themselves descendants of Phoenicians, along with certain other island folk in the Mediterranean. Interestingly enough, oral tradition is fairly constant among all these groups, but none more strikingly than among the Lebanese.
Herodotus's account refers to a faint memory from 1000 years earlier, and so may be subject to question (History, I:1):
- "According to the Persians best informed in history, the Phoenicians began to quarrel. This people, who had formerly reached the shores of the Erythraean Sea, having migrated to the Mediterranean from an unknown origin and settled in the parts which they now inhabit, began at once, they say, to adventure on long voyages, freighting their vessels with the wares of Egypt and Assyria..."
But this is merely a legendary introduction to Herodotus' brief retelling of some mythic Hellene-Phoenician interactions: he follows directly with succinct accounts of the abduction of Io from Pylos, and the retaliatory abduction of Europa by the Cretans. "The Cretans say that it was not them who did this act, but, rather, Zeus, enamored of the fair Europa, who disguised himself as a bull, gained the maiden's affections, and thence carried her off to Crete, where she bore three sons by Zeus: Sarpedon, Rhadamanthys, and Minos, later king of all Crete." Few modern archaeologists would confuse this myth with history.
In terms of archaeology, language, and religion, there is little to set the Phoenicians apart as markedly different from other local cultures of Canaan. However, they are unique in their remarkable seafaring achievements. Indeed, in the Armarna tablets of the 14th century BC they call themselves Kinahhi or Kinahni (Canaanites); and even much later in the 6th century BC, Hecataeus writes that Phoenicia was formerly called χνα, a name which Philo of Byblos later adopted into his mythology as his eponym for the Phoenicians: "Khna who was afterwards called Phoinix".
To many archaeologists therefore, the Phoenicians are simply indistinguishable from the descendants of coastal-dwelling Canaanites, who over the centuries developed a particular seagoing culture and skills. But others believe equally firmly, like Herodotus, that the Phoenician culture must have been inspired from an external source. All manner of suggestions have been made: that the Phoenicians were sea-traders from the Land of Punt who co-opted the Canaanite population; or that they were connected with the Minoans; or the Sea Peoples or the Philistines further south; or on the other side of the fence that they represent the activities of supposed coastal maritime Israelite tribes like Dan.
And so the debate has persisted. Professional archaeologists have now been at work on the origins of the Phoenicians for generations, basing their analysis in the mainstream of excavated sites, the remains of material culture, contemporary texts set into contemporary contexts, and the slipperier slopes of linguistics. Modern cultural agendas, both personal and national, have been brought to bear. But ultimately, the origins of the Phoenicians are still unknown: where they came from and just when (or if) they arrived, and under what circumstances, are all still energetically disputed.
The cultural and economic "empire"
Fernand Braudel remarked (in The Perspective of the World) that Phoenicia was an early example of a "world-economy" surrounded by empires. The high point of Phoenician culture and seapower is usually placed ca 1200 – 800 BC.
Many of the most important Phoenician settlements had been established long before this: Byblos, Tyre, Sidon, Simyra , Aradus and Berytus all appear in the Amarna tablets; and indeed the first appearance in archaeology of cultural elements clearly identifiable with the Phoenician zenith is sometimes dated as early as the third millennium BC.
This league of independent city-state ports, with others on the islands and along other coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, was ideally suited for trade between the Levant area rich in natural resources and the rest of the ancient world. Suddenly, during the early Iron Age in around 1200 BC, an unknown event occurred, historically associated with the appearance of the Sea Peoples. The powers that had previously dominated the area, notably the Egyptians and the Hittites, became weakened or destroyed; and in the resulting power vacuum a number of Phoenician cities established themselves as significant maritime powers.
Authority seems to have been stabilized because it derived from three power-bases: the king, the temple and its priests, and councils of elders. Byblos soon became the predominant centre from where they proceeded to dominate the Mediterranean and Erythraean Sea routes. However, Byblos was attacked by successive invaders, and by around 1000 BC Tyre and Sidon had taken its place. The collection of city-kingdoms which constituted Phoenicia came to be characterized by outsiders and the Phoenicians themselves as Sidonia or Tyria, and Phoenicians and Canaanites alike came to be called Zidonians or Tyrians as one Phoenician conquest came to prominence after another.
In the centuries following 1200 BC, the Phoenicians formed the major naval and trading power of the region. Perhaps it was through these merchants that the Hebrew word kena'ani ('Canaanite') came to have the secondary, and apt, meaning of "merchant". The Greek term "Tyrian purple" describes the dye which they were especially famous for and their port town Tyre. Phoenician trade was founded on this violet-purple dye derived from the Murex sea-snail's shell, once profusely available in coastal waters but exploited to local extinction. James B. Pritchard's excavations at Sarepta in Lebanon revealed crushed Murex shells and pottery containers stained with the dye that was being produced at the site. Brilliant textiles were part of Phoenician wealth. Phoenician glass was another export ware. Phoenicians seem to have first discovered the technique of producing transparent glass. Phoenicians also shipped tall Lebanon cedars to Egypt, that consumed more wood than it could produce.
From elsewhere they got many other materials, perhaps the most important being tin from Spain and Cornwall in Britain, which together with copper (from Cyprus) was used to make bronze. Trade routes from Asia converged on the Phoenician coast as well, causing the Phoenicians to also govern trade between Mesopotamia on the one side and Egypt and Arabia on the other.
The Phoenicians established commercial outposts throughout the Mediterranean, the most notable being Carthage in North Africa, with others in Cyprus, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Spain (the name Spain comes from the Phoenician word Sapan, which means ' that which is hidden', reflecting their penchant to jealously guard the locations of their mines and sources of wealth as trade secrets), and elsewhere. The Lebanese, Maltese and some Somalians still consider themselves descendants of Phoenicians, along with certain other island folk in the Mediterranean. Their ships ventured out into the Atlantic ocean as far as Britain, where the tin mines in modern Cornwall provided them with important material. They also sailed south along the coast of Africa. A Carthaginian expedition led by Hanno the Navigator explored and colonized the Atlantic coast of Africa as far as the Gulf of Guinea, and, according to Herodotus, a Phoenician expedition sent out by pharaoh Necho II of Egypt even circumnavigated Africa.
The Phoenicians were not an agricultural people, because most of the land was not arable; therefore, they focused on commerce and trading instead. They did, however, raise sheep and sell them and their wool.
The Phoenicians exerted considerable influence on the other groups around the Mediterranean, notably the Greeks, who later became their main commercial rivals. They appear in Greek mythology. Traditionally the city of Thebes was founded by a Phoenician prince named Cadmus when he set out to look for his sister Europa, who had been kidnapped by Zeus.
In the Bible, king Hiram I of Tyre is mentioned as co-operating with Solomon in mounting an expedition on the Red Sea and on building the temple. The temple of Solomon was built according to Phoenician design, and its description is considered the best description we have of what a Phoenician temple looked like. Phoenicians from Syria were also called Syrophenicians.
The Phoenician alphabet was developed around 1200 BC from an earlier Semitic prototype, which also gave rise to the Ugaritic alphabet. It was used mainly for commercial notes. The Greek alphabet, which forms the basis of all European alphabets, was derived from the Phoenician. The alphabets of the Middle East and India are also thought to derive, indirectly, from the Phoenician alphabet. Ironically, the Phoenicians themselves are largely silent on their own history. Other than inscriptions on stone, Phoenician writing has largely perished. They are described by Sallust and Augustine as possessing an extensive literature, but of this only a single work survives - in Latin translation: Mago's Agriculture. What we know of them comes from their neighbors, the Greeks and Hebrews.
With the rise of Assyria, the Phoenician cities one by one lost their independence, and afterwards were dominated by Babylonia and then by Persia. They remained very important, however, and provided these powers with their main source of naval strength. The stacked warships like triremes and quinqueremes were probably Phoenician inventions, though eagerly adopted by the Greeks.
Persian and Hellenistic Phoenicia
Information on Phoenician cities and their hinterlands under the Achemenid Persians is sparse. The famous event is the revolt of Sidon against Achaemenid rule in 345 BC and its destruction, dramatically, perhaps too dramatically described by Diodorus Siculus. The arrival of Alexander the Great in 333 – 332 BC is the main turning point, for Hellenistic Phoenicia lost its influential mercantile role, and the distinctive culture of its cities was Hellenized under Alexander and his Macedonian successors. The responses of the individual Phoenician cities to the conquest of Persia by Alexander varied: the ruler of Aradus submitted; the king of Sidon was overthrown (perhaps by internal plotters who valued the city more than their king). Tyre resisted with the most energy. It was captured after a prolonged siege, one of the most famous sieges in Antiquity, and Alexander was uncharacteristically harsh. He executed 2000 of the leading citizens but maintained the king in power. A popular king, who owed everything to Alexander, made a more secure city than a deeply rooted local oligarchy. If Tyre was meant to set an example, it was effective: the Phoenician resistance was utterly broken, and no Phoenician city seems to have resisted occupation. Shifting frontiers between Ptolemaic armies and Antigonid or Seleucid forces in the following decades required some flexible diplomacy and alacrity in accepting a new alliance. This is the period when the cult of Tyche, goddess of Fortune, reached a prominence it had never enjoyed before.
In 287 – 225 BC, after decades of meaningless violence and small empty victories that simply ravaged the countryside, the Ptolemies regained some stabilized control of the cities (except for Aradus), and the last of the old Phoenician city-kings disappeared. In their new forms the cities were scarcely different from the Greek cities interspersed along the coastal plain, all nominal republics with a very limited suffrage, an autonomy that was formal and local, while they were ruled from a distance by a great king at Alexandria. The center of Phoenician power had shifted westward to the Tyrian colony of Carthage which had not merely gained its independence, but had become a major power in the Western Mediterranean in its own right. At the beginning of the 2nd century BC, the Seleucid monarchy had finally reasserted its primacy on the former Phoenician coast, but the last Seleucid kings local power was increasingly a fiction, as the cities, now thoroughly Hellenistic, regained local independences.
Important Phoenician Cities & Colonies
From the 10th century BC, their expansive culture established cities and colonies throughout the Mediterranean. Canaanite deities like Baal and Astarte were being worshipped from Cyprus to Sardinia, Malta, Sicily, and most notably at Carthage in modern Tunisia.
In the Phoenician homeland:
Phoenician colonies (this list is very incomplete):
- Tripoli, three cities dependent on Carthage, known by their later Hellenic and Roman names:
- Leptis Magna
- Hadrumetum (modern Sousse, Tunisia)
- Abdera (Adra , Spain)
- Nova Cartago, now Cartagena, Spain
- Gadir (Cádiz)
- Kition (Cyprus)
- Lixus (Morocco)
- Malaca (Málaga, Spain)
- Motya (Sicily)
- Sexi (Almuñecár , Spain)
- Onoba (Huelva, Spain)
- Coastal Sardinia
Language & Literature
Though the Phoenicians are credited for developing the Phoenician alphabet, their alphabet is actually what is termed an abjad (different from an alphabet in that it contains no vowels). The Phoenician abjad, which first made its appearance in the 11th century BC, evolved out of the proto-Canaanite abjad, which originated around the 17th century BC. A cuneiform abjad originated to the north in Ugarit, a Canaanite city of northern Syria in the 14th century BC. Phoenician traders disseminated the concept along Aegean trade routes, to coastal Anatolia, Crete and eventually Mycenean Greece. Classical Greeks remembered that the alphabet arrived in Greece with the mythical founder of Thebes, Cadmus.
The Amarna letters, dated to the 14th century BC, although written in Akkadian the language of diplomacy at the time, contain solecisms that are not 'mistakes' but actually early Canaanite words and phrases. Because of their Lebanese provenance, some identify these as Phoenician; however, most scholars reserve that term for a later era.
The earliest known inscriptions in Phoenician come from Byblos and date back to ca. 1000 BC. Phoenician inscriptions are found in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Cyprus and other locations as late as the early centuries of the Christian Era. Punic, a language that developed from Phoenician in Phoenician colonies around the western Mediterranean beginning in the 9th century BC, slowly supplanted Phoenician, similar to the way Italian supplanted Latin. Punic Phoenician was still spoken in the 5th century CE: St. Augustine, for example, grew up in North Africa and was familiar with the language.
Phoenicians in the Bible
The Bible refers to the Phoenicians as Canaanites. In fact, the New Testament mentions the same woman from the Sidon and Tyre area as being Syro-Phoenician and/or Canaanite woman. Writers of the Old Testament did not like it when a princess from Phoenicia became Queen Jezebel of Israel and introduced the worship of her gods. Queen Jezebel was the great-aunt of Dido-Elissar who founded Carthage out of which came Hannibal.
- Encyclopedia Phoeniciana website largest and most comprehensive website on Phoenicia about 1,000 pages
- University of Pennsylvania Museum offers simplified but unbiased information on Canaan and Phoenicians, emphasizing common aspects of culture among Israel and the other kingdoms in Canaan.
- Phoenician history, from a patriotic Lebanese point of view.
- Phoenicians overview by Genry Joil.
- The History of Phoenicia, first published in 1889 by George Rawlinson is available under Project Gutenberg at: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=2331 Rawlinson's 19th century text needs updating for modern improvements in historical understanding.
- Maria Eugenia Aubet, The Phoenicians and the West: Politics, Colonies and Trade, tr. Mary Turton (Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 2001: review)
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