Imagine a merchant in the days when goods are carried on pack animals, or in wooden boats of a size to hug the shore. Show this hypothetical trader a map of the world. Ask him where, given the choice, he would ideally like to set up shop. If he is a wise man, with an eye for the main chance, the odds are that he will choose the eastern coast of the Mediterranean – the region now occupied by Israel, Lebanon and northwest Syria.
This is a natural crossing point of rich trade routes: north from the Nile, the coast of Africa and western Arabia up round the Fertile Crescent to Mesopotamia; west from Asia to the sea trade of the Mediterranean. It is no wonder that the area has been constantly fought over.
In the Old Testament the region is called Canaan, which possibly means the land of ‘purple’. Later the Canaanites are called Phoenicians, a word also meaning purple but now from a Greek source.
The names relate to a valuable local commodity, the rock whelks (in particular murex brandaris) from which a rich purple dye can be extracted. Robes coloured by this costly substance become a symbol of high status in Greek and Roman society. Purple is eventually associated with Roman emperors, and through them with cardinals of the Roman Catholic church – who are described as being ‘promoted to the purple’, though the colour of their robes is now closer to crimson.
Canaan, a land of promise: from the 3rd millennium BC
The Canaanites are Semitic tribes who enter the region during the 3rd millennium BC. They lead a settled agricultural life – occupying the site of Jerusalem, for example, in about 2600 BC – and they establish trading communities along the coast.
Politically the area does not achieve unity or independence at this stage (and only rarely in history will it do so). The Fertile Crescent, from Egypt to Mesopotamia, is too large to be controlled for any length of time as a single empire. So the narrow Mediterranean coastal strip becomes the focus of border conflict between the rulers of each end of the Crescent.
One of the contenders for power is invariably Egypt. From the 14th century their opponents to the north are the Hittites. Then, in about 1200 BC, this whole coastal region is raided and ravaged by the mysterious Sea Peoples. Some of them settle in the area. They are known to history as the Philistines.
Soon after the Philistines are established on the coast, the Hebrews begin to infiltrate the inland area – arriving from the south, through the Sinai desert. The Philistines and the Hebrews become, in the 11th and 10th centuries, the main rivals for the territory subsequently known as Palestine (a name commemorating the Philistines, though it is the Hebrews who prevail).
By the 10th century the Hebrews, or Israelites, are firmly installed in the southern part of the region with their capital at Jerusalem. The same period is one of prosperity and stability in the north, with several independent Phoenician cities developing along the coast. This is the period when the Phoenicians begin to establish a clear and influential identity.
The leading Phoenician city of the time is Tyre, which seems to have lived in peaceful coexistence with its larger neighbour, Israel. Hiram, the king of Tyre, is on good terms with both David and Solomon in the Bible. But Phoenicia and Israel are both subject, in the following centuries, to a succession of ever larger empires.
Imperial masters: 9th – 1st century BC
First the Assyrians dominate the region. They demand tribute from the Phoenicians in the 9th century; they destroy the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 and the Phoenician city of Sidon in 678. The Assyrians are followed by the Babylonians, who overrun the southern kingdom of Judah and destroy Jerusalem in 586.
Neither the Assyrians nor the Babylonians succeed in taking Tyre, almost impregnable on an offshore island. This leading Phoenician city survives long sieges by both these enemies. Even so, in every case the siege ends on terms leaving Tyre in in a subservient position.
Assyrians and Babylonians are brutal overlords. Any change from them can only be for the better. Both the Israelites and the Phoenicians welcome the next imperial power – the Persians in the 6th century.
The Persian system of imperial rule is less onerous than any previously known. Even so, subject peoples are inclined to see any new conqueror as a liberator and most of the Phoenician cities open their gates to Alexander the Great when he moves south towards Egypt in 333 BC. The exception again is Tyre, by now confident of withstanding any siege. In the case of Alexander the confidence is misplaced.
In the following centuries the eastern Mediterranean coast is under constant dispute between Alexander’s heirs – the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties, in respectively Egypt and Persia. In the 3rd century, under Egyptian control, the region is reasonably stable. In the 2nd century the interventionist policies of the Seleucids cause continual unrest, particularly in Palestine – where, for almost a century from 142 BC, an independent Jewish dynasty (that of the Maccabees) holds power.
By 63 BC there is a new imperial power. Phoenicia is brought within the Roman province of Syria, to which Palestine is linked as Syria Palaestina.