The World of the Ancient Phoenicians

The Phoenicians: History | Culture


Archaeologists argue that the Phoenicians are simply the descendants of coastal-dwelling Canaanites, who over the centuries developed a particular seagoing culture and skills. Other suggestions are that Phoenician culture must have been inspired from external sources (Egypt, North Africa etc.), that the Phoenicians were sea-traders from the Land of Punt who co-opted the Canaanite population; or that they were connected with the Minoans, or the Sea Peoples or the Philistines further south; or even that they represent the maritime activities of the coastal Israelite tribes like Dan, who from the Song of Deborah in Judges, are listed as being "amongst their ships".

The Mediterranean Phoenician - Aramaic derivative 'Semitic language' gave some evidence of invasion at the site of Byblos, which may suggest origins in the highly disputed 'wave of Semitic migration' that hit the Fertile Crescent between ca. 2300 and 2100 BC, some scholars, including Sabatino Moscati, believe that the Phoenicians' ethnogenesis included prior non-Semitic people of the area, suggesting a mixture between two populations. Both Sumerian and Akkadian armies had reached the Mediterranean in this area from the beginning of recorded history, but very little is known of Phoenicia before it was conquered by Thutmoses III of Egypt around 1500 BC. The Amarna correspondence (ca. 1411-1358 BC) reveals that Amorites and Hittites were defeating the Phoenician cities that had been vassals to Egypt, especially Rib-Addi of Byblos and Abi-Milku/Abimelech of Tyre, but between 1350 and 1300 BC Phoenicia was reconquered by Egypt. Over the next century Ugarit flourished, but was permanently destroyed at the end of it (ca. 1200 BC).

In terms of archaeology, language, and religion, there is little to set the Phoenicians apart as markedly different from other local cultures of Canaan, because they were Canaanites themselves. However, they are unique in their remarkable seafaring achievements. Indeed, in the Amarna tablets of the 14th century BC they call themselves Kenaani orKinaani (Canaanites). Note, however, that the Amarna letters predate the invasion of the Sea Peoples by over a century. Much later in the 6th century BC, Hecataeus of Miletus writes that Phoenicia was formerly called χνα, a name Philo of Byblos later adopted into his mythology as his eponym for the Phoenicians: "Khna who was afterwards called Phoinix". Egyptian seafaring expeditions had already been made to Byblos to bring back "cedars of Lebanon" as early as the third millennium BC. Stories of their emigrating from various places to the eastern Mediterranean are probably founded in 'oral fact', but researchers are pursuing DNA tests to verify this assertion. Herodotus's account (written c. 440 BC) refers to the Io and Europa myths. (History, I:1).

High Point: 1200–800 BC

Fernand Braudel remarked in The Perspective of the World that Phoenicia was an early example of a "world-economy" surrounded by empires. The high point of Phoenician culture and seapower is usually placed ca. 1200–800 BC.


Many of the most important Phoenician settlements had been established long before this: Byblos, Tyre, Sidon, Simyra, Arwad, and Berytus all appear in the Amarna tablets; and indeed, the first appearance in archaeology of cultural elements clearly identifiable with the Phoenician zenith is sometimes dated as early as the third millennium BC.

This league of independent city-state ports, with others on the islands and along other coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, was ideally suited for trade between the Levant area, rich in natural resources, and the rest of the ancient world. Suddenly, during the early Iron Age, in around 1200 BC an unknown event occurred, historically associated with the appearance of the Sea Peoples from the north who were perhaps driven south by crop failures and mass starvation following the Thera eruption. The powers that had previously dominated the area, notably the Egyptians and the Hittites, became weakened or destroyed; and in the resulting power vacuum a number of Phoenician cities established themselves as significant maritime powers.

Authority seems to have stabilized because it derived from three power-bases: the king; the temple and its priests; and councils of elders. Byblos soon became the predominant center from where they proceeded to dominate the Mediterranean and Erythraean (Red) Sea routes, and it is here that the first inscription in the Phoenician alphabet was found, on the sarcophagus of Ahiram (ca. 1200 BC). However, by around 1000 BC Tyre and Sidon had taken its place, and a long hegemony was enjoyed by Tyre beginning with Hiram I (969-936 BC), who subdued a rebellion in the colony of Utica. The priest Ittobaal (887-856 BC) ruled Phoenicia as far north as Beirut, and part of Cyprus. Carthage was founded in 814 BC under Pygmalion (820-774 BC). The collection of city-kingdoms constituting Phoenicia came to be characterized by outsiders and the Phoenicians themselves as Sidonia or Tyria, and Phoenicians and Canaanites alike came to be called Zidonians or Tyrians, as one Phoenician conquest came to prominence after another.

Decline: 539-65 BC

Cyrus the Great conquered Phoenicia in 539 BC. Phoenicia was divided into four vassal kingdoms by the Persians: Sidon, Tyre, Arwad, and Byblos, and prospered, furnishing fleets for the Persian kings. However, Phoenician influence declined after this. It is also reasonable to suppose that much of the Phoenician population migrated to Carthage and other colonies following the Persian conquest. In 350 or 345 BC a rebellion in Sidon led by Tennes was crushed by Artaxerxes III, and its destruction was described, perhaps too dramatically, by Diodorus Siculus.

Alexander the Great took Tyre in 332 BC following the Siege of Tyre. Alexander was exceptionally harsh to Tyre, executing 2000 of the leading citizens, but he maintained the king in power. He gained control of the other cities peacefully: the ruler of Aradus submitted; the king of Sidon was overthrown. The rise of Hellenistic Greece gradually ousted the remnants of Phoenicia's former dominance over the Eastern Mediterranean trade routes, and Phoenician culture disappeared entirely in the motherland. However, its North African offspring, Carthage, continued to flourish, mining iron and precious metals from Iberia, and using its considerable naval power and mercenary armies to protect its commercial interests, until it was finally destroyed by Rome in 146 BC at the end of the Punic Wars.


As for the Phoenician homeland, following Alexander it was controlled by a succession of Hellenistic rulers: Laomedon (323 BC), Ptolemy I (320), Antigonus II (315), Demetrius (301), and Seleucus (296). Between 286 and 197 BC, Phoenicia (except for Aradus) fell to the Ptolemies of Egypt, who installed the high priests of Astarte as vassal rulers in Sidon (Eshmunazar I, Tabnit, Eshmunazar II). In 197 BC, Phoenicia along with Syria reverted to the Seleucids, and the region became increasingly Hellenized, although Tyre actually became autonomous in 126 BC, followed by Sidon in 111. Syria, including Phoenicia, were seized by king Tigranes the Great from 82 until 69 BC when he was defeated by Lucullus, and in 65 BC Pompey finally incorporated it as part of the Roman province of Syria. Genetic studies showed them to be closely related to the Maltese people today.

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Source: Wikipedia

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