Ancient Phoenicia

By Ethan Gelber with the BikeAbout team
Ancient Trade Goods
Given the ambitiously grand arena within which the Phoenician traders plied their wares, goods and knowledge from one end of the Mediterranean easily reached the far limits of the other. The prophet Ezekiel in his Biblical foretelling of the fall of one of Phoenicia's great cities,Tyre, reviews the extensive scope of Phoenician trade, mentioning silver, iron, tin, lead, horses, ebony and ivory, linen, the famous Tyrian purple dye (an extract from sea snails sometimes worth its weight in gold and which when applied to cloth came to be identified with wealth and royalty), coral, honey, spices, oil and precious stones."These were the merchants of all things," he wrote, "in blue clothes, and embroidered work, and in chests of rich apparel, bound with cords, and made of cedar, among the merchandise."

The Phoenicians formed a reluctant empire. Having first made their mark on the ancient Mediterranean world as consummate merchant traders and then established protected colonial outposts along their shipping byways, they accepted the mantle of imperial power by accident. However, unlike the successive waves of conquest and subjugation led by their marauding contemporaries - Egyptians, Assyrians/Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans - the Phoenicians never really had dreams of domination. Nor, for that matter, were they ever really a nation, or a classic empire.

The earliest record of the Phoenicians is from the 16th century BC, although it is believed that around 3000 BC they settled in what became known as Phoenicia (from the Greek name, Phoinikes), an area equivalent to the coast of modern-day Lebanon. A Semitic people perhaps originally from the Persian Gulf area, they turned their backs on the sere land they had crossed and developed one of the earliest ancient and great seafaring Western cultures, using commerce as their principal motivation and source of influence. In fact, their name for themselves seems to have been Kena'ani (or Canaanites), a word which in Hebrew means"merchants."

The early Phoenicians were constantly subject to the suzerainty of greater powers that vied for control of the Old World. Between the 16th century BC and the 1st century AD, these enterprising levanters watched the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks under Alexander, and then the Romans sweep in, exact tribute, and then disappear. Throughout it all they maintained a fierce sense of independence, and often an envied autonomy. The first order of business was... business. As long as the political maneuvering - internal or imposed - did not interfere with trade and prosperity, it did not really matter which throne laid claim to the land.

Nevertheless, not content to suffer the vicissitudes of foreign manipulation and ever wary of the importance of freedom of movement throughout the Mediterranean, the Phoenicians were eager and able colonizers. As early as the 2nd millennium BC, there were Phoenician settlements throughout the Mediterranean. The most important of these was at Carthage, a center that grew to become the biggest city in the western Mediterranean and the principal maritime and commercial center. Eventually, however, conflict with Rome in the 3rd century BC led to its total destruction, dispersion of its forces and people, and, for all practical purposes, the end of the era of Phoenicia's part in the development of the Mediterranean. It's people continued to thrive, trade in their able hands continued to flourish, and despite Phoenicia's incorporation into the Roman province of Syria, its original eastern city centers at Sidon and Tyre remained self-governing. Still, Rome had become the paramount player in the region.

In short, the Phoenicians were instrumental in establishing and following a pattern that still prevails in Mediterranean (and world) history. They arrived from a foreign land, bringing with them imported knowledge and skills. These they applied to their new environment, adding new cultural advances learned locally. Having excelled at seafaring in a sea-turned land, they traveled and traded widely, thereby also gathering and spreading knowledge throughout the region. Thus it was the cultures mingled, ushering in a period of growth and development; thus too it was that cultures collided, leading ultimately to the demise of this peripatetic culture.

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


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »