Did the Phoenicians Even Exist?

Everybody in the Mediterranean around 3,000 years ago hated and envied these masters of seafaring, but who exactly were these Phoenicians?

Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Assyrian warship (probably built by Phoenicians) with two rows of oars, relief from Nineveh, c. 700 BC.  This ship was by Sennacherib. It is a bireme with two levels of oars. Shields are fastened around the superstructure, as on the fortifications of some city walls. The pointed bow is a ram, for holding enemy ships. From Nineveh, South-West Palace, Room VII, panel 11.
Assyrian warship (probably built by Phoenicians) with two rows of oars, relief from Nineveh, c. 700 BC.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom

The Phoenicians are famed for being master seamen who traded with the peoples around the Mediterranean, spreading their alphabet as they sailed. Yet although they established trade centers as far as Spain and North Africa and founded the city of Byblos, which gave its name to the most influential book ever published, surprisingly little is known about them. Even their name comes from Homer, who dubbed them "Phoenicians", meaning "purple men", a reference to the murex dye for which they were famed.

The Old Testament never actually mentions Phoenicians. The only reference to that name is in ancient Greek writings, and they were referring to merchants living in cities along the coast of modern-day Lebanon.

In other words, the "Phoenicians" mentioned by the ancient Greeks were part of what the biblical authors called "Canaanites", in terms of archaeology, religion and language. There was not much setting them apart from other Semitic cultures.

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The Phoenicians were both hated and admired by local peoples everywhere in the Mediterranean region, from the ancient Israelites to the Romans to the Greeks.

One of the reasons we know so little about them, is that they left behind almost no written records, only inscriptions (such as dedications at temples). A lot of them: Archaeologists have found more than 10,000 sanctuary inscriptions, but they are of little value, since they are all roughly the same. Their writings teach archaeologists a great deal of one particular kind of dedication to the gods, that's all.

Most of what is known of them springs from Hebrew, Roman and Greek authors, who missed no opportunity to belittle the Phoenicians' achievements.

The truth of the matter is, however, that the Greeks borrowed a great deal from them, especially in regard to seamanship.

In the centuries after 1000 BCE, after the collapse of the Bronze Age, the Greeks had become isolated, with little contact with the Near East. They lost their knowledge of the surrounding seas, as we learn from the legendary travels of much-suffering Odysseus.

One of the oldest surviving references to the Phoenicians is in fact from Homer. In the Odyssey, Phoenician merchants are busy in the Aegean, and Odysseus himself pretends to be a trader seeking profit (Hom. Odyssey 8.159-164).

That the Greeks were unwittingly aware of these cultural exchanges is reflected in the myth of Europa, a beautiful Phoenician princess whom Zeus seduced, disguised as a bull. When Europa came to pat the beautiful animal and even dared to sit on its back, the "bull" rushed away over land and sea to Crete, were he resumed his godly guise and poured out his declarations of love. Europa later became the mother of King Minos.

Terracotta figurine from Athens, c. 460–480 BCE: Europa, a beautiful Phoenician princess sitting on the god Zeus disguised as a bull. Credit: Bibi Saint-Pol, Wikimedia Commons

Back in the Holy Land, the city-state of Tyre was said to have helped make King Solomon rich and to construct a navy (Ezekiel 27). These Tyrians were among the Phoenicians of whom the Greek were so sour. This era, around the 10th century BCE or so we are told in the bible, was the only period in which the "united kingdoms" of David and Solomon actually flourished, if they existed at all, or to what degree, a matter of some debate.

Who were these enigmatic seafarers, feared and admired throughout antiquity? All we know about them, is from people who didn't like them. What were they really like?

Lords of the Sea

The Phoenicians may have spread their unique alphabet throughout the region, yet they left behind almost no historical records.

The Phoenicians are credited by the Greeks with inventing merchant ships. In the bible, these vessels came to be known as the ships of Tarshish – "The ships of Tarshish did sing of thee in thy market: and thou wast replenished, and made very glorious in the midst of the seas " (Ezekiel 27:25).

A Phoenician ship carved on the face of a sarcophagus.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

So, evidently, the Phoenicians were master shipbuilders. They were renowned for the maneuverability and speed of their ships, due to the paradigm-changing Phoenician invention of the cutwater, which attaches to the ship's hull. These oceangoing ships could undertake 4,000-km long journeys from Phoenicia to Spain.

In fact, the Phoenicians had already become expert seamen hundreds of years before they made their entrance into the history of the Bible.

The origin of the Phoenicians

The homeland of the Phoenicians who plagued the Mediterranean was a narrow strip of coast that more or less corresponds roughly to modern-day Lebanon. Where they may have originated beforehand, before their first appearance in Lebanon, is the subject of much debate.

Herodotus, the Greek historian, claims that they came from the Red Sea, implying that they arrived from the Arabian Gulf or Indian Ocean. However, both archaeological evidence and other ancient texts counter Herodotus' claims.

From 3400 BCE, a group of people were already living and farming in the coastal city of Byblos. By 3200 BCE these people seemed to have been established along the coastal plains of Lebanon.

Map of ancient Phoenician trade routes from their home turf on the coast of what is today Lebanon. Note the cities of Byblos, Tyre and Sidon, all Phoenician.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Contemporary historians think that the Phoenicians were a loose association of neighboring states, and that term Phoenicia is artificial. The peoples then would have identified themselves with their cites, Sidon, Tyre, Berytus, Byblos or other ports, rather then belonging to a unified civilization.

'Thou art become a terror'

In the Hebrew bible, the power of the Phoenicians (such as the king of Tyre) was associated with their ships. The Book of Ezekiel 27 says: "Who is there like Tyre ... thy wares went forth out of the seas, thou filledst many peoples: thou didst enrich the kings of the earth with thy merchandise and thy riches ... thou art become a terror..."

The Phoenicians gradually built a thriving merchant fleet. As their profits grew and their technology advanced, they constructed ever larger ships that could handle longer voyages.

After reaching Cyprus, Sardinia, and the Balearic Islands, the Phoenicians followed the North African coastline in a westerly direction until they reached Spain.

In many ways, the kingdoms that controlled the Eastern Mediterranean from the 9th century BCE until the time of Alexander the Great resembled later Greek poleis.

The city of Tyre - then, a city on an island with protected anchorages and access to mainland agriculture - can be seen as a blueprint for the colonies the Phoenicians established overseas, for instance the two in modern Spain, on the side of the Atlantic coast, and several more in France, Sicily, North Africa and more.

A naval action during the siege of Tyre in South Lebanon (350 BC). Drawing by André Castaigne, 1888–1889.Credit: Andre Castaigne, Wikimedia Commons

When the Phoenicians built these settlements is of course also debated, but apparently, their expansion also goes back some 3000 years.

But the Phoenicians may not have been set on conquering the world, only on extracting money from it. They did so by establishing trading outposts that sat on major trading networks, such as Carthage. Thus they became the lords of the sea.

Rich pickings in Spain

In their lust for profit, Phoenician explorers ventured into the Atlantic Ocean, trading tin with the British Isles and amber from Scandinavia.

Their fine red-wheeled pottery, their ivory and their storage jars containing wine and olive oil have been found all over the Mediterranean, as far as Southeastern Spain, where they founded cities located in today's Cádiz and Huelva in Spain.

Phoenician plate with red slip, 7th century BCE, excavated in Mogador island, Essaouira, Morocco.Credit: Uploadalt, Wikimedia Commons

Archeologists have uncovered thousands of Phoenician-type pot shards dating to the 10th and 9th century BCE underneath the modern port cities of Cádiz and Huelva.

The Phoenicians traded salt, wine, dried fish, cedar, pine, metalwork, glass, embroidery, fine linen, and cloth dyed with the famous Tyrian purple. What did they receive in exchange?

Southern Spain proved to be the Mediterranean’s richest source of silver and other valuable metals. Regarding Tyre, the principal port of the Phoenicians, the prophet Ezekiel said: “You did business in Spain and took silver, iron, tin, and lead in payment for your abundant goods.” (Ezekiel 27:12)

The origin of at least some of the metal was probably an area near the river Guadalquivir, not far from Cádiz, which seems to have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of these minerals. Today the region is known as Rio Tinto and ore is still being extracted to this day.

Phoenician sarcophagus, thought to have been designed and paid for by a Phoenician merchant, and made in Greece with Egyptian influence.Credit: Scientific American Supplement, No. 832, Wikimedia Commons

Beyond the 'United Monarchy'

According to the bible, King Solomon of Israel exchanged goods with the Phoenician King Hiram in the 10th century BCE.

Interestingly, Hiram sends cedar timber from the western slopes of Lebanon, as well as craftsmen skilled in working with wood and stone (2 Samuel 5:11; 1 Chronicles 14:1) to make the Temple in Jerusalem. In return Israel sends wheat, barley, olive oil and wine (1 Kings 5:2-6; 2 Chronicles 2:3-10) They then formed joint business ventures to trade with the Arabian Peninsula, peoples around the Red Sea and the Hejaz (today Saudi Arabia), where they acquired exotic fragrances.

The archaeological data supports, if not all the details, the big picture painted in the bible.

The discovery of the Tel Dan stele, mentioning a House of David, supports the existence of a David as a historical figure. Excavations at Tyre have revealed that the city was expanding at that time, becoming the leading Phoenician city on the coast, overtaking Byblos and Sidon. (However, the debate when the books of the Old Testament were written remains.)

The Tel Dan Stele, mentioning King David.Credit: Israel Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Sparring for power

The Phoenicians became successful merchants – but there may be good reason the ancients of the region couldn't stand them: they had their ruthless side.

Reportedly, they sometimes lured people aboard ship on the pretense of showing them their wares, only to enslave them.

In a 9th century BCE inscription, a Tyrian commander boasts about how his troops devastated Cyprus.

A bit later, when the Greeks began to build colonies beyond the Aegean, friction with the Phoenicians arose, that did not cease until after the fall of the greatest Tyrian colony, Carthage.

So determined were these armed traders to maintain the monopoly on their trade that the Greek geographer Strabo (III.5.11) reported a Phoenician captain running his ship aground, and drawing his enemies after him, rather than allow them to gain knowledge of his route.

Phoenicians were renowned as the ancient world’s greatest sailors and navigators. They pioneered the use of the Pole Star (Phoinike in Greek), enabling them to navigate at night, a capability of obvious strategic value.

The Sidonians – who were also Phoenicians - were the best sailors in the fleet fielded by the Persian emperor Xerxes, in the famous Battle of Salamis, in 480 BCE. Xerxes himself even travelled in a Sidonian ship. In fact, most of the Persian fighting fleet consisted of Phoenician ships, manned by Phoenician crews. (The Persians lost to the Greeks anyway.)

King Sennacherib of Assyria ordered the construction of “Mighty ships (after) the workmanship of their hand, they built dexterously, Tyrian, Sidonian and Cypriot sailors, captives of my hand, I ordered [to descend] the Tigris with them...” (ARAB.II.319).

As for their ships themselves, Xenophon (Oeconomicus VIII.14) quotes Ischomachus as saying, "I think that the best and most perfect arrangement of things I ever saw was when I went to look at the great Phoenician sailing vessel."

The Phoenicians considered their warships to be living creatures. They painted eyes on the side of the ships so they could guide the sailors through safe passageways.

The Roman writer Valerius Maximus mentions how Phoenicians consecrated newly built ships by rolling the hull over slaves or captives, so to avoid blood-letting while it was at sea.

In later times Sidonian ships performed peacetime patrols, to keep the Eastern Mediterranean clear of pirates, an activity with no doubt a long history.

In the shadow of Baal

Though they dispersed throughout the western Mediterranean, the Phoenicians remained united by their religious practices.

For centuries, Carthage sent a delegation to Tyre each year to sacrifice at the temple of the city-god Melqart. In Carthage itself, the chief deities were the divine couple Baal-Hammon, meaning “Lord of the Brazier,” and Tanit, identified with Astarte.

Figure of Ba'al with raised arm, 14th–12th century BC, found at ancient Ugarit (Ras Shamra site), a city at the far north of the Phoenician coast.Credit: Jastrow, Louvre, Wikimedia Commons

The most notorious characteristic of Phoenician religion was the practice of child sacrifice.

The area around the western Mediterranean (Carthage, Western Sicily, Southern Sardinia) is littered with burials of sacrificed children, but in truth, the practice was commonplace in the Phoenician cities all over the Levant.

Diodorus Siculus reports that in 310 B.C.E., during an attack on the city, the Carthaginians sacrificed over 200 children of noble birth to appease Baal-Hammon.

During excavations in Carthage, archaeologists discovered what came to be called the Tophet, after the Biblical expression used at 2Kings 23:10 and Jeremiah 7:31. Digs revealed multiple levels of urns containing the charred remains of animals (used as substitute sacrifices) and young children (1-2 months old), buried under stelae with votive inscriptions. It is estimated that the Tophet contains the remains of over 25,000 children who were sacrificed during just one 200-year period.

Tophet funerary stelae, showing (below moon and sun) a symbol of Tanit, queen goddess of CarthageCredit: Giraud, Wikimedia Commons

The Phoenician Legacy

Like all good businessmen, the Phoenician traders put their agreements in writing.

As they travelled west and established trading outposts along the Mediterranean, they brought their alphabet with them, planting the seeds of literacy in the Aegean. Even Hebrew letters as we know them derive from the Phoenician alphabet more than they do from ancient proto-Hebrew.

The Phoenicians are believed to have invented the 22-letter alphabet in about 1300 BCE. As they spread, other nations saw the advantages of the Phoenician alphabet that began with the letters Alep, Bet, Gimel, Dalet. It became in fact the bases for the Greek alphabet, which was in turn the precursor of the Latin script, one of the most widely used alphabets today.

Sarcophagus of Ahiram, found in Byblos. It was on this sarcophagus that the first inscription in the Phoenician alphabet was found.Credit: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Wikimedia Commons



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