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Less than precise scholarship has led to the confusion of Phoenicians with Canaanites of the lands they occupied. Consequently much that may be read about them may not actually refer to the Phoenician conquerors themselves but rather to the peoples who inhabited the Canaanite coasts which they conquered. The reader is advised to approach this entry with caution.

Table of contents
1 Origins
2 The 'Empire'
3 Phoenician Merchantry
4 Important Phoenician Cities & Colonies
5 Ancient Sources
6 Language & Literature
7 Phoenicia and Canaan in Archaeology
8 Sources


The Lebanese, Maltese, Lybians and even some Somalians still consider themselves descendants of Phoenicians along with certain other island folk in the Mediterranian. Interestingly enough oral-tradition is fairly constant, but none more strikingly than the Lebanese. Phoenicians left few written records, and the first places that can be looked to to back up traditions that the Phoenicians were not indigenous to the area where they flourished, are Egyptian records, Herodotus, the geographer Strabo and Pliny. All indicate that the cultural homeland of the Phoenicians lay with colonies to the south in the Red Sea. Where they came from and just when they arrived and under what circumstances have long been argued among archaeologists. With the rise of ethnic nationalism in the 19th century and the destructive clashes of ethnicities in former Phoenecian lands during the 20th century, theories of foreign or autochthonous ethnic origins of Phoenicians have erased, promoted or misapplied with sometimes rabid urgency to further modern agendas. They are 'not' to be confused with the Biblical Canaanites which applies only to the pre-Hebraic aboriginals of mainland Canaan.

Egyptologists have established that the name comes from their Puntian origin. One modern origin theory asserts that the Phoenicians descend from the early Afro-Asiatic Poenite mariners who navigated the Nile & Red Seas from a base somewhere on the southern shores of Yemen or Eritrea. These were the ancestral Iry-Paut ('the ones who belong to the Pat clan') of Egyptian tradition who established the port of Buto in lower Egypt. From Buto they split into eastern & western branches. The Paut founded ports along the mediterranian coasts particularly in North Africa, whilst the ancestors of the Canaanites moved to the west & north where they would later establish towns like Zidon. Later the Paut would re-assert their influence over many of related Canaan's (Syria-Palestine's) coastal cities (roughly the area that is now Lebanon and northern Israel) bringing their ancient Poen self-designation on the area.

The 'Empire'

Phoenicians established independent city-states like Byblos, Tyre, Tripolis as well as Berytus on the islands and along the coasts of the Mediterranian Sea. This league of ports was then ideally suited for trade between the Levant area rich in natural resources and the rest of the ancient world. During the early Iron Age, when powers that had previously dominated the area like Egypt and the Hittites were weakened or destroyed, a number of northern Phoenician cities established themselves as significant maritime powers. Power seems to have been stabilized because it derived from three power-bases: the king, the temple and its priests, and councils of elders. After Buto Byblos soon became their predominant center from where they proceeded to dominate the Mediterranian and Erythraean Sea routes. However, Byblos was attacked by successive invaders, and by around 1000 BC Tyre and Sidon had taken its place. The collection of city-kingdoms which constituted Phoenicia came to be characterized by outsiders as Sidonia or Tyria and Phoenicians & Canaanites alike have been called Zidonians or Tyrians as one Phoenician conquest came to prominence after another.

Phoenician Merchantry

Phoenician merchants had been employed to handle Egypt's trade from as early on as the Old Kingdom. By the 3rd Dynasty, it was no longer exotic goods like lapis-luzuli being transported to the nile by Poenite ships, but, through the thriving Phoenician ports like Byblos, the famous wood of the cedars of Lebanon and pine woods from the levantine coast to the timber-poor Nile Valley in exchange for the gold that came up the Nile from the south.

In the following centuries, the Phoenicians formed the major naval and trading power of the region. Perhaps it was through these merchants that the Hebrew word kena'ani ('Canaanite') came to have the secondary, and apt, meaning of "merchant". The Greek term Tyrian purple derives from the dye which they were especially famous for and their port town Tyre which may have been named after their ancestral island of Tyros/Dilmun (Bahrain). Phoenician trade was founded on this violet-purple dye derived from the Murex sea-snail's shell, once profusely available in coastal waters but exploited to local extinction. Excavations at Sarepta in Lebanon revealed crushed Murex shells and pottery containers stained with the dye that was being produced at the site. Brilliant textiles were part of Phoenician wealth. Phoenician glass was another export ware. Phoenicians seem to have first discovered the technique of producing transparent glass.

From elsewhere they got many other materials, perhaps the most important being tin from Spain and Cornwall in Britain, which together with copper (from Cyprus) was used to make bronze. Trade routes from Asia converged on the Phoenician coast as well, causing the Phoenicians to also govern trade between Mesopotamia on the one side and Egypt and Arabia on the other.

The Phoenicians established commercial outposts throughout the Mediterranean, the most notable being Carthage in North Africa, with others in Cyprus, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Spain (the name Spain came from a Phoenician word, which means 'rabbit coast'), and elsewhere. The Lebanese, Maltese and some Somalians still consider themselves descendants of Phoenicians, along with certain other island folk in the Mediterranian. Their ships ventured out into the Atlantic ocean as far as Britain, where the tin mines in modern Cornwall provided them with important material. They also sailed south along the coast of Africa. A Phoenician expedition led by Hanno the Navigator explored and colonized the Atlantic coast of Africa as far as the Gulf of Guinea.

The Phoenicians exerted considerable influence on the other groups around the Mediterranean, notably the Greeks, who later became their main commercial rivals. They appear in Greek mythology. Traditionally the city of Thebes was founded by a Phoenician prince named Cadmus when he set out to look for his sister Europa, who had been kidnapped by Zeus.

In the Bible, king Hiram I of Tyre is mentioned as co-operating with Solomon in mounting an expedition on the Red Sea and on building the temple. The temple of Solomon was built according to Phoenician design, and its description is considered the best description we have of what a Phoenician temple looked like. Phoenicians from Syria were also called Syrophenicians.

The so-called Phoenician alphabet, which was developed around 1500 BCE and actually inherited from Ugarit, was very important because it was the first true alphabet consisting of single letters. From this alphabet the Greek alphabet, which forms the basis of all European alphabets, has been derived. The alphabets of the Middle East and India also derive, indirectly, from the Phoenician alphabet. Ironically, the Phoenicians themselves are largely silent on their own history, because Phoenician writing has largely perished, since their characteristic writing material was papyrus from Egypt, which has distintegrated. What we know of them comes from their competitors, Greeks and Hebrews.

With the rise of Assyria, the Phoenician cities one by one lost their independence, and afterwards were dominated by Babylonia and then by Persia. They remained very important, however, and provided these powers with their main source of naval strength. The stacked warships like triremes and quinqueremes were probably Phoenician inventions, though eagerly adopted by the Greeks. Phoenicia lost its influential role after the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great, who besieged and destroyed the dominant city of Tyre in order to cripple the enemy navy. However, by that time the western Phoenician colony Carthage had not just gained its independence, but had become a major power in the Western Mediterranean in its own right, until it was conquered by the Romans.

Important Phoenician Cities & Colonies

From the 10th century BCE, their expansive culture established cities and colonies throughout the Mediterranean. Canaanite deities like Baal and Astarte were being worshipped from Cyprus to Sardinia, Malta, Sicily, and most notably at Carthage in modern Tunisia.

Ancient Sources

The Phoenicians (a Greek name for them, known to the Hebrews as
Phut) were originally Puntians (from which their name derives) a mercantile, Sea People. They were the ancient Mediterranean Sea's (and beyond) best navigators (their talents hired by Egyptians and Persians alike). They are classified by biblical traditions as one of the nations in the four directions from Israel Gomer being the north, Persia to the east, Cush to the south, and Put in the mediterranean to the west.

Language & Literature

The Phoenicians left few written records. Though they are often credited for developing the first alphabet, they 1. had was is termed an abjad ( different from an alphabet in that it contains no vowels), and 2. did not orignate this idea. The Phoenician abjad, which first made its appearance in the 11th century bce, evolved out of the proto-Canaanite abjad, which originated around the 17th century bce. An cuneiform abjad originated to the north in Ugarit, a Canaanite city of northern Syria in the 14th century bce. Phoenician traders disseminated the concept along Aegean trade routes, to coastal Anatolia, Crete and eventually Mycenean Greece. Classical Greeks remembered that the alphabet arrived in Greece with the mythical founder of Thebes, Cadmus.

Their language has been named Punic and was a North-East Afroasiatic languages, those languages that include Arabic, Ethiopic, Akkadian and the so called Canaanite languages that include Hebrew, Amorite, Aramaic and Phoenician and also Ugaritic. The Canaanite languages constitute a group of closely-related languages and dialects spoken in the ancient Near East, with written records going back to about 1500 BC.

Letters from the 14th century BCE, written in Akkadian, the language of diplomacy at the time, which were discovered at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt, contain solecisms that are not 'mistakes' but actually early Phoenician Canaanite words and phrases.

The earliest known inscriptions in Phoenician come from Byblos and date back to ca. 1000 BC. Phoenician inscriptions are found in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Cyprus and other locations as late as the early centuries of the Christian Era. Punic, a language that developed from Phoenician in Phoenician colonies around the western Mediterranean beginning in the 9th century BCE, slowly supplanted Phoenician, similar to the way Italian supplanted Latin. Punic Phoenician was still spoken in the 5th century CE: St. Augustine, for example, grew up in North Africa and was familiar with the language."

Knowledge of Hebrew aided the reconstruction of Pheonician inscriptions. An early essay in Phoenician language studies was Wilhelm Gesenius (1786 - 1842), Scripturae linguaeque phoeniciae monumenta, 1837, analyzing texts from coins and monumental inscriptions. Nowadays one can study Phoenician in the U.S. at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan and University of Chicago (the only place to study advanced Phoenician).

Details of the historical inter-relations of the Semitic languages are debated by linguists. Especially controversial are the relationships of languages that are not themselves well known, like Amorite, or archaic languages like Eblaite which has features of both Akkadian and Canaanite languages.

See also Phoenician language, Phoenician alphabet.

External link

Phoenicia and Canaan in Archaeology

In archeological terms Phoenecian refers to a period of cultural dominance along the coasts of the Levant. After a period of Egyptian domination in the area, the high point of Phoenician power is usually placed ca 1200 - 800 BCE (orthodox chronology). However, the first appearance in archaeology of cultural elements clearly identifiable with that period is sometimes dated as early as the third millennium BCE. Thus archaeology seems to show that Phoenician culture developed out of Late Bronze Age Canaanite culture without a severe break. Even the pantheon of gods apparently adopted by the Phoenicians seem to have originally been Ugaritiic deities. Accusing such finds as driven by foreign agendas, nations claiming descent from Phoenicians are consistent in their own legends describing origins from the coasts of the Arabian sea.


External links


The History of Phoenicia, first published in 1889 by
George Rawlinson is available under Project Gutenberg at: " class="external">

Please note that Rawlinson's text was written in the nineteenth century, and needs updating for modern improvements in historical understanding.