The Phoenicians


The Phoenicians had many strong qualities throughout their history. Among the most dominant of these traits were their seafaring abilities, trade and merchant abilities, and their expansion into the Mediterranean Sea.


The Phoenician settlement in the Mediterranean has been estimated to the year 2500 BC. The Phoenicians were actually descendants of the Canaanites to the south who had settled Palestine several hundred years earlier. They were also heavily influenced by the Sumerian and Akkadian culture near Babylon. The Phoenicians occupied the cities of Simyra, Zarephath, Jubeil, Arwad, Byblos, Acco, Sidon, Tripolis, Tyre, and Berytus. These city-states and their inhabitants were not a unified state, but rather a group of city kingdoms. Two of these city kingdoms, Tyre, and Sidon, were considered the most dominant.


The Phoenicians for some centuries confined their navigation within the limits of the Mediterranean and land- locked seas, which are tideless and far less rough than the open ocean. But before the time of Solomon they had confronted the dangers of the Atlantic. Their vessels, relatively small at the time, proceeded southwards along the West African coast, as far as the region near Gambia and Senegal, while northwards they coasted along Spain, into the heavy seas of the Bay of Biscay, and passing Cape Finisterre. They ventured across the mouth of the English Channel to the Cassiterides. Similarly, from the West African shore, they steered for the Fortunate Islands (the Canaries), visible from elevated points on the coast, even at a 170 mile distance. Whether they proceeded further, in the south and in the north is uncertain. It is possible that from time to time some of the more adventurous of the Phoenician traders may have reached farther; but their regular, established navigation did not extend beyond the Scilly Islands and coast of Cornwall to the northwest, and Cape Non and the Canaries to the southwest.


The distances they ventured from their homeland depended on the ships they took to the seas. There were mainly two kinds of Phoenician vessels, according to the Greek writers, merchant ships and war-vessels. The merchant ships were broad and round, referred to as tubs. They were propelled both by oars and sails, but depended mainly on sails. Each of these vessels had a single mast of meduim height, on which a single square sail was attached. This kind of sail was only suited for sailing with the wind directly behind. When the wind died away, or became unhelpful they made use of their oars.


The war-galleys of the Phoenicians were the other type of boats they had. They were long open rowboats, in which all the rowers sat on one level, the number of rowers on either side was usually between fifteen or twenty-five. The front of each of these ships was armed with a sharp metal spike, which was its chief weapon of offence. Commonly, vessels of this class ran down their enemy. After a time these vessels were replaced by biremes, which were decked, had masts and sails, and were propelled by rowers sitting at two different heights in the boat.


Phoenician trade was made possible by its excellent navy, which in connection with its other city states, made trade easily possible within the Mediterranean. The exports of Phoenicia as a whole included cedar and pine wood, fine linen from Tyre, Byblos, and Berytos, cloths dyed with the famous Tyrian purple, embroideries from Sidon, metalwork and glass, glazed faience, wine, salt, and dried fish. In return, they received raw materials, such as papyrus, ivory, ebony, silk, amber, ostrich eggs, spices, incense, horses, gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, jewels, and precious stones.


Their most notable of these exports were the purple dye, Tyrian purple, made from the snail Murex, glass manufacture and the use of the Phoenician alphabet, the prototype for the western Roman and Greek alphabets.


The downfall of the Phoenicians occurred when Alexander the Great defeated Persia in 333 BC, almost all of the Phoenician cities including Sidon, Byblos, and Arwad conceded to Macedonia. Tyre, the only city which didn\'t concede to the Macedonians, held strong until Alexander waged a 7 month siege in 332 BC. After the siege of Tyre, the Phoenician Empire dwindled, and in 64 BC the name of Phoenicia disappeared entirely, becoming a part of the Roman providence of Syria.