The Phoenicians

By Tim Lambert

The Phoenicians were people who lived in what is now Lebanon. They were a great trading people and they were at their peak between about 1200 BC and 800 BC.

The Phoenicians lived on a strip of fertile land between the sea and the Lebanon mountains. With the mountains as a natural barrier, they looked to the sea to expand.

However, the Phoenicians were not a single state. Instead, they were divided into several city-states. The greatest were Tyre, Byblos, and Sidon. Phoenician cities were usually built on islands off the coast or on promontories to make them easier to defend.

After 1000 BC the Phoenicians founded colonies in Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia, the Balearic Islands, and southern Spain. They also founded colonies in North Africa. One of these was Carthage (founded c. 800 BC). Carthage grew into a great empire that rivaled Rome.

The Phoenicians are also famous for their alphabet, which they invented about 1200 BC. This alphabet was passed on to the Greeks and is the basis of the alphabet we use today.

The Phoenicians were also craftsmen. They made tools and weapons from bronze and they carved ivory plaques that were used to decorate furniture.

Phoenician Ships

The Phoenicians were excellent sailors. They built warships with masts and sails. However, in battle, the ship would rely on its oars.

The Phoenicians are believed to have invented the bireme, a ship with two rows of oars, and the trireme with three rows. A man played a flute to help the oarsmen row in time.

Merchant ships were broader to carry cargo. A typical Phoenician merchant ship was 30 meters long and 7 meters wide and had a crew of about 20.

Phoenician ships did not have rudders. Instead, they were steered by large oars. Phoenician sailors usually sailed within sight of the coast. Because their ships were vulnerable to storms the Phoenicians normally sailed between March and October.

Phoenician Trade

The Phoenicians were merchants who sailed around the Mediterranean. They also sailed past the Straits of Gibraltar and around western Africa. They may have also sailed to southwest England in search of tin.

The Phoenicians exported cedarwood to Egypt. In return, they imported Egyptian papyrus (a type of paper made from the papyrus plant which grows in the Nile).

The Phoenicians also traded with the Greeks. (Their name Phoenician is derived from the Greek word for purple-red). The Phoenicians made purple dye from murex shells and they were famous for their cloth industry.

The Phoenicians also exported dishes made of precious metals, jewelry, and glass vessels. They imported copper from Cyprus and tin from Turkey (the two metals were combined to make bronze). Silver and tin were imported from Spain.

For centuries the Phoenicians dominated long-distance trade in the Mediterranean. However, in time the Greeks grew to be their rivals. Alexander the Great finally ended the greatness of the Phoenicians. In 332 BC he captured Tyre and the Phoenicians were absorbed into his empire.