Ancient Phoenicia

The Reluctant Empire
By Ethan Gelber with the BikeAbout team

It all began in the Levant, the countries bordering on the eastern Mediterranean between Egypt and Turkey. It was only natural that it begin there too. At the western end of the Fertile Crescent, it was there that westward-bound refugees and explorers would first find the mythical waters of the Mediterranean. It was there that they would build their first communities. It was from there that they would launch the beginnings of their reluctant empire.

Byblos is believed to have been the first city of the Phoenician homeland. Sidon and Tyre followed soon after and gained in relative importance after the 13th century BC saw waves of raiders raze Byblos. As demands for commerce increased and trade relations developed, the Phoenician influence began to spread. Although by the 9th century BC, settlements had reached much farther afield - as far as the North Africa and Spanish coast, in the early years, Phoenician mingling remained centered along the Levantine coast. Ugarit, to the north of Byblos first fell under its spell. Later, points south grew into substantial settlements, some of which are still known to us today as cities in modern Israel, for example, Accho (today's Acre), Joppa (Tel Aviv-Yafo) and Dor (Nasholim).

After 1000 BC, when Tyre rose to prominence as the principal city of Levantine Phoenicia, the imperial overlord of the moment, the Assyrians, required regular tribute payments to their king. To satisfy this demand - and Phoenician curiosity - traders pushed west in search of new resources and commodities, founding great cities like Utica and Carthage. This expansion was further encouraged by alliances between Tyre and Israel and later by disruptive enemy raids. Unconfirmed tradition has it that they had already sailed as far as Spain and the North African coast as early as the 10th-12th centuries BC, but no evidence has been proven to confirm these dates.

Unfortunately, as with much of what was once Phoenicia, little remains of the great cities that stood at the center of this ancient maritime power. None of the original buildings they lived in and temples they built are still standing, and there is no great wealth of art depicting exactly how they lived. In fact, it has taken chance and persistent digging just to uncover some of the foundation traces of these intrepid people, despite the once heralded majesty of their municipalities. And, albeit informative, what has been physically brought to light does not pack the same kind of punch that tripping through Pompeii or the Roman Forum does. Nevertheless, the capital cities of Phoenicia's past - Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, Ugarit and Carthage - are worth the trip, both for the discovery of the people who inhabit the modern cities and for the academic thrill of writing a postcard home from the place that made writing a letter home possible in the first place.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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