The Phoenicians inhabit the region of modern Lebanon and Syria from about 3000 BC. They become the greatest traders and the best sailors and navigators of the pre-classical world. They are also the first people to establish a large colonial network based on seafaring. In all these skills they build on the example of their maritime predecessors, the Minoans of Crete.
An Egyptian narrative of about 1080 BC, the Story of Wen-Amen, provides an insight into the scale of this activity. One of the characters is Wereket-El, a Phoenician merchant living at Tanis in the Nile delta. As many as 50 ships carry out his business, plying back and forth between the port of Sidon and the Nile.
The most prosperous period for Phoenicia is the 10th century BC, when the surrounding region is stable. Hiram, the Phoenician king of Tyre, is an ally and business partner of Solomon, king of Israel.
For Solomon’s great Temple in Jerusalem Hiram provides skilled craftsmen and materials – particularly timber, including cedar from the forests of Lebanon. And the two kings go into trade in partnership. They send out Phoenician vessels on long expeditions (three years for the round trip) to bring back gold, sandalwood, ivory, monkeys and peacocks from Ophir – an unidentified place, probably on the east coast of Africa or the west coast of India.
Phoenicia is famous for its luxury goods. The cedar wood is not only exported as top-quality timber for architecture and shipbuilding. It is also carved by the Phoenicians, and the same skill is adapted to even more precious work in ivory. The rare and expensive dye, Tyrian purple, complements another famous local product, fine linen. The metalworkers of the region are famous, particularly in gold. And Tyre and Sidon are known for their glass.
These are only the products which the Phoenicians export. As traders and middlemen they take a cut on a much greater Cornucopia of precious goods – as the prophet Ezekiel grudgingly admits.
The phonetic alphabet: from the 2nd millennium BC
The extensive trade of Phoenicia requires much book-keeping and correspondence, and it is in the field of writing that the Phoenicians make their most lasting contribution to world history. The scripts in use in the world up to the second millennium BC (in Egypt, Mesopotamia or China) have all required the scribe to learn a large number of separate characters – each of them expressing either a whole word or a syllable.
By contrast the Phoenicians, in about 1500 BC, develop an entirely new approach to writing. The marks made by their scribes (working in the cuneiform tradition, with a stylus on damp clay) now attempt to capture the sound of a word. This requires an alphabet of individual letters.
The first colonials: from the 9th century BC
The trading and seafaring skills of the Phoenicians result in a network of colonies, spreading westwards through the Mediterranean. The first is probably Citium, in Cyprus, established in the 9th century BC. But the main expansion comes from the 8th century onwards, when pressure from Assyria disrupts the patterns of trade on the Phoenician coast.
Trading colonies are developed on the string of islands in the centre of the Mediterranean (Crete, Sicily, Malta, Sardinia, Ibiza) and also on the coast of north Africa. The African colonies cluster in particular around the great promontory which forms, with Sicily opposite, the narrowest channel on the main Mediterranean sea route. This is the site of Carthage.
Dido’s city: 814 BC
Carthage is the largest of the towns founded by the Phoenicians on the north African coast. It rapidly assumes a leading position among the neighbouring colonies. The traditional date of its founding (by Dido) is 814 BC, but archaeological evidence suggests that it is probably settled around the middle of the 8th century.
The subsequent spread and growth of Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean, and even out to the Atlantic coasts of Africa and Spain, is as much the achievement of Carthage as of the original Phoenician trading cities such as Tyre and Sidon. But no doubt links are maintained with the homeland, and new colonists continue to come west.
Loss of independence: 8th – 1st century BC
From the 8th century BC many of the coastal cities of Phoenicia come under the control of a succession of imperial powers, each of them defeated and replaced in the region by the next – first the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, Persians and Macedonian Greeks.
In 64 BC the area becomes part of the Roman province of Syria. The Phoenicians as an identifiable people fade from history, merging into the populations of the modern regions of Lebanon and northern Syria.