The Phoenician Civilization

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Podcast Transcript

Sometime around 3,200 years ago, a new civilization became ascendent on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. 

This group wasn’t like the Empires that surrounded them. They weren’t focused so much on land acquisition and conquest so much as they were focused on commerce and trade. 

For centuries they ruled over trade and commerce in the Mediterranean until they finally succumbed to their more powerful neighbors.

Learn more about the Phoenician Civilization and what set them apart from other ancient civilizations, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The origin of the Phoenicians is shrouded in mystery. 

The Phoenicians lived in the area which is known as Canaan, which is today the area along the Mediterranean coast consisting of northern Israel, Lebanon, and the coast of Syria. 

If you are familiar with the term Canaan it probably comes from the Bible and the people known as Canaanites. There is a great deal of debate as to if the Phoenicians were separate from, or were the same as the Canaanites. 

The term Phoenicia is actually a Greek term they used to describe the people from the area. It could be that Phoenicians are equivalent to Canaanites, or it could be that Phoenicians are a subset of a larger group of people who had the label Canaanites. 

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus claimed that they came from the Arabian Peninsula, but other modern scholars say that they didn’t migrate from anywhere. 

What we do know is that they were definitely a Semitic people from that region, and lived close to the sea. 

The first we hear about the Phoenicians comes from the Egyptians in the 15th century BC.  The Phoenicians traded with the Egyptians and Phoenician goods were highly prized. 

The Phoenicians appeared to have been the route many goods took from Mesopotamia to Egypt. Likewise, Phoenician cities were an important source of bronze. If you remember back to my episode on the three-age system, this time period was smack dab in the middle of the Bronze Age. 

The notable thing about the Phoenicians and this was even evident at this time, was that they weren’t a top-down empire like many of the civilizations during this period. 

The Phoenicians organized themselves like the Greeks into smaller city-states that competed with each other. The major Phoencian city-states in the eastern Mediterranen were Byblos, Tyre, Sidon, Baalbek, and Beruit. 

While the Phoenicians were on the map at this point, what really brought the Phoenicians to prominence was an event known as the Bronze Age Collapse. 

The Bronze Age Collapse is one of the most important events in the ancient world, and it is very high on my list of topics to do a future episode on. 

Sometime between the years 1200 to 1150 BC, with the date usually given as 1177 BC, all of the great civilizations around the Mediterranean collapsed. They were invaded by a group known only to history as “the sea people”. 

The Egyptians, Babylonians, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Hittites, and Assyrians either totally disappeared from history or were significantly weakened. 

Trade, literacy, and standards of living around the region collapsed. 

What is relevant for the purposes of this story, is that in the aftermath of the Bronze Age Collapse, the Phoenicians appeared as a fully mature civilization. 

The Phoenicians filled the gap which was left after the Bronze Age Collapse in terms of trade and commerce. Some historians have dubbed this the “Phoenician Renaissance.”

The Phoenicians in a very short period of time developed a mastery of the sea and of sailing. This allowed the Phoenicians to become the overwhelming naval and trade power of the region. 

If you look at a map of the areas that the Phoenicians controlled, it actually isn’t very big. If you noticed, at no point did I ever call the Phoenicians an empire, because they weren’t. There was no Phoencian king or emperor. 

The Phoenicians were traders. 

If the ancient Mediterranean was the world of Star Trek, the Phoenicians would have been the Ferengi, not the Klingons. 

Instead of conquering territory, they established colonies. Trading colonies. 

The Phoenicians were, in this sense, very similar to the Greeks. In fact, they seem to have come to an understanding with the Greeks and divided up the Mediterranean. The Greeks settled and set up colonies along the northern coast, and the Phoenicians set up colonies along the southern coast. 

The Phoenician city-states became centers not just for trade, but also for manufacturing. 

As I mentioned before, they made bronze, which required the importation of tin, most of which came from what is today Afghanistan. 

They were also exquisite glass makers, producing most of the glass in the region. Everything from glass beads to cups to statues. They also had notable metal workers and ivory carvers. They might have been the first people to develop large-scale production of goods and have been the first to adopt a widespread division of labor for manufacturing. 

Their location in Lebanon gave them access to one of the most important commodities in the region, the Lebanese Cedar. The cedar trees made it possible for the Phoenicians to create the most advanced ships of the era. 

The Phoenicians invented the keel as well as the bireme, which is a ship with two rows of oars on each side.

The Phoenicians also developed the amphora. As I mentioned in a previous episode, they were clay containers used for shipping liquids such as wine and olive oil. 

The Phoenicians might have been one of the first people to cultivate grapes, but if they weren’t they almost certainly were the first to develop large-scale production of wine. 

Likewise, they were some of the finest makers of textiles. 

However, the one thing that they were best known for, and they had a literal monopoly on, was purple dye. 

There is very little purple in nature. It was a color that couldn’t be created by normal means using common dyes. The Phoenicians developed a purple dye from a sea snail found along the coast of Lebanon. 

Tyre was the center of purple dye production and the dye became known as Tyrian Purple. Some think that the word Phoenician might actually mean “purple”.

The dye was difficult and expensive to create and it was worth its equivalent weight in silver. 

The Phoenician city-states eventually spread out to seek other markets and access to other goods. They created a network of small colonies all throughout the southern Mediterranean. 

The first outposts they established were on the island of Cyprus. However, they expanded westward establishing colonies all the way to what is today Morocco

There were colonies on the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and Mallorca. They also established mainland colonies along the north coast of Africa in what is today Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, as well as southern Spain and France

The Greeks set up their system of colonies around the Agean, Black Sea, the Adradica, and Southen Italy. There was some competition between settlements in Sicily, but for the most part, the competition between the Phoenicians and Greeks wasn’t violent. 

Most of the Phoenician colonies were actually rather small, with few having populations over 1000 people. 

Over time, the dominant Phoenician city-state became Tyre, which was actually an island right off the coast of Lebanon. 

Many of the colonies established around the Mediterranean were established by Tyre. For the most part, the colonies had autonomy, but they were required to send a tribute back to Tyre every year. 

While most of the colonies were small, there is one that eventually grew into a power in its own right: Carthage. Carthage was located in modern-day Tunisia and eventually took control over most of the Phoenician colonies in the Western Mediterranean. 

Carthage is worth its own episode, but I will note that the three wars Carthage had with Rome were known as the Punic Wars. The word Punic refers to the Carthaginians, but it comes from the Latin word “punicus” which means “Phoenician”. 

Even after Carthage surpassed Tyre, they still sent a token tribute to the city every year. 

In addition to trade, there were other notable achievements of the Phoenicians as well. 

A big was one was their alphabet. About 3,000 years ago they developed their own system of writing for their language. It consisted of 22 letters, without any vowels. 

The Phoenician system was later adopted by the Greeks to form the Greek alphabet, which in turn was used by the Romans to create their alphabet.

The Latin alphabet, which much of the world uses today, can directly trace its origins to the Phoenicians. 

One of the most peculiar religious practices of the Phoenicians was documented by several of their neighboring cultures and is actually mentioned in the bible: child sacrifice. 

Not only did other people make note of it because they found it barbaric, but there is archeological evidence that does support it. It might only have been practiced by elites, and it isn’t clear if it involved killing living infants, or if it was offering children who died in infancy. 

The other thing which requires a mention is their seafaring abilities. The Phoenicians were unquestionably the best maritime ancient civilization in the west. We know they had colonies past the Strait of Gibraltar.

There is a great deal of speculation as to how far they might have gotten. It is pretty reasonable that some Phoenicians might have gotten as far as the Canary Islands and Great Britain. These islands can be seen from the shores of Africa and Europe respectively, and sailing there was well within the capabilities of the Phoenicians. 

As far as we know they didn’t establish any colonies, but they easily could have gone there. 

There is speculation as to if they might have made it as far as the Azores. This would have taken them a third of the way across the Atlantic, into deep ocean waters, which was generally avoided by Mediterranean ships. This theory is generally not accepted, although there are a few archeologists who advocate it. 

There are also some on the fringes who think that the Phoenicians might have made it as far as the Americas. This is really speculative because there is zero evidence to support this theory. Although, if anyone from that part of the world at that time could have done it, it would have been the Phoenicians. 

The Phoenicians had a run of about 400 years where they were the dominant trading culture in the Mediterranean. However, their city-state system didn’t provide much defense to larger empires. 

In 858 BC the Phoenician city-states fell under the control of Assyria, then over the next several centuries, the Babylonians, and then the Perisian. 

Tyre was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BC after a seven-month siege where he filled in the channel between the island of Tyre and the coast. To this day, over 2000 years later, Tyre is still not an island. 

After the conquest of Tyre, many of its citizens fled to Carthage, which itself was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC. 

The Romans finally conquered the Levant and Phoenicia in 62 BC, and that was pretty much the end of the Phoenicians as a separate civilization. 

Almost everything we know about the Phoenicians comes from archeological discoveries and from what was written about them by other cultures. There is little in the way of first-hand accounts from Phoenicians themselves. 

While the Phoenician culture disappeared, the Phoenician people did not. Genetic testing shows that the people in Lebanon today, and parts of Cyprus, are the most direct descendants of the Phoenicians. Many Phoenician genetic markers have also shown up in people in Spain and Portugal as well. 

Many of the Phoenician settlements are still occupied today. Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, and Byblos are still inhabited by humans after almost 3000 years.

In many ways, the Phoenicians were ahead of their time. Their mark on the ancient world didn’t come through conquest or military expansion. It came through trade, production, and commerce.