Ancient Phoenicia

By Ethan Gelber with the BikeAbout team
The excavations at Byblos
The excavations at Byblos (BikeAbout)
The Alphabet

Phoenicia's greatest contribution to ancient history may be the way in which Phoenician traders helped spread an alphabet the precursor of our Western alphabet throughout the Mediterranean world. Many people know that the alphabets we use today grew out of the alphabet used and spread throughout the Mediterranean by the Romans. But what inspired the Romans has its origins in writing systems developed much earlier in Phoenicia.

It is believed that the alphabet was only developed in about 1700 to 1500 BC in Phoenicia (and perhaps, as some people believe, more specifically in Byblos. Old pictographic and ideographic systems were used and changed into a real alphabet called the Semitic alphabet. This alphabet developed branches and grew into many of the alphabets used today in the Middle East, Africa, parts of Asia, Europe and the Americas today. One branch of the original Semitic alphabet was Canaanite, which then split into two of its own branches: Early Hebrew and Phoenician. The Greeks adapted Phoenician and then carried it throughout the Mediterranean. The Romans picked it up and adapted it and then spread it even further. The alphabet we use today is therefore the Roman adaptation of the Greek adaptation of the Phoenician adaptation of the Canaanite branch of the original Semitic alphabet.


Byblos, believed to have been the first city of the Phoenicians, achieved its greatest renown beginning in the third millennium BC when it was a busy port used for trade. Ships from throughout the Mediterranean would come to Byblos in search of local materials, as well as those found in other further-distant lands. Egypt would send gold, papyrus, linen and alabaster, and exchange it all for oil and wood. The trunk and branches from cypress, oak, fir, and especially the famous, huge, and sometimes ancient Lebanese cedar trees that covered the Lebanese coast and nearby highlands, were extremely important materials in the barren and arid parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Byblos continued to be important until the first millennium BC. Following that, it was invaded, as was the whole region, successively by the Persians, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, and the Crusaders. Afterwards, many of its ruins were covered over and lost from memory.

Byblos is famous for three basic things: first, along with Acre (Israel) and Damascus (Syria), Byblos claims to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world; second, Byblos is believed by many to be the place where an alphabetic phonetic script was developed which grew into the modern alphabets we know today; and third, Byblos got its name from the ancient Greek word for papyrus bublos (which today means"book") because papyrus was delivered to the Greeks from Egypt via the port of Byblos (which also gave its name to the Bible).

The site today, right on the coast in the middle of Jbeil, Lebanon, is 22 miles north of Beirut. It is quite impressive, despite the rough and hodge-podge quality of the remains (one cannot criticize history for the lack of order). Standing proudly above it all is a heavy Crusader castle. Using the rock salvaged from older structures (even columns were used), the Crusaders built thick outer walls around an equally dense keep. From the roof of one of the outer walls, there is an excellent view over the site, the nearby beaches, and down the coast toward Beirut.

Surrounding the dominant Crusader castle are a wide variety of ruins: the remains of huts from the fifth millennium BC, a few third-millennium-BC temples, tombs and an obelisk temple from the second millennium BC, shrines and a rebuilt theater from Roman times, and, of course, some impressive Medieval walls.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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