Maps of the Antique
Arts and ceramics
Language and Writing
Already in the Neolithic period, the site of Ugarit was inhabited by a population which, at the Bronze Age, will settle on all the eastern bank of the Mediterranean Sea: the Canaanites, which are thought to come from the northern bank of the Red Sea. The main Canaanite cities were Ugarit, Arvad, Aradus, Tripoli (Tarablus), Byblos (Jbeil), Berytus (Beirut), Sidon (Saïda), and Tyre (Sour).
The Canaanites then divided into three areas, the Philistines in the south, the Hebrews in the center towards the inland, the Phoenicians in the north. There were perhaps incoming populations, but in the north, Phoenicians went on calling their country Canaan.
We call Phoenicians, from the name which was given to them by the Greeks, the people which lived on today’s Lebanese coast, between the invasions from the "People of the Sea" which disrupted the area about 1180 B.C., and its conquest by Alexandre the Great in 332 B.C.
Merchants and sailors… or pirates ?Origins|
Although the inland was far from hostile and allowed varied cultures (cereals, olive-tree, vine, fig tree, vegetable, palm tree) and had rich cedar forests, the Phoenicians, confined on a narrow shore strip, had to turn to the sea. They had therefore a considerable asset: the wood from their forests. Building their ships, they improved the Egyptian techniques, and knew how to sail by watching the stars.
They dominated the Mediterranean traffic from the beginning of the iron age (ca 1200 B.C.) and for several centuries. At that time, the Minoan people from Creta had vanished from the seas, Mycenians were declining and the Greeks were not present yet: they come up only at the end of the 9th century B.C. to set up colonies.
Tyre exploits the purple, gained from the murex. The craftsmen from Sidon know how to melt glass. Everything that can be bought and sold passes between their hands.
Although they were sometimes pirates and slaves traders, the Phoenicians contributed, throught their exchanges, to the evolution of the territories they reached. They brought the Greeks artworks from Sidon, and most of all the alphabetical writing. Their alphabet, which uses 22 letters, was a great progress compared to former writings. It probably appeared in Byblos, and then supplanted the old Eastern writings, was adopted by the Greeks as it will be by the Romans, with of course some adaptations: vowels are added or not, writing occurs from right to left or vice-versa…
The Phoenician maritime expansion aims merely at trading, and is not related with any population increase, like that which will lead the Greeks to settle down in the western Mediterranean area. Phoenicians create first of all trading points close to a harbour, at a place which is easy to defend. In the Mediterranean sea, attracted by trading places as well as by mining resources, they first settle in Cyprus (Kition and Paphos), then in Rhodos, Kythera, Samothrace, Thasos and its goldmines, and Crete.
In the 10th-9th century B.C., they settle on the African shore: Utique, Cirta, Hippone, then Carthage (in 814 B. C.) which will create its own colonies : Bizerta, Tabarka, Hadrumetum (Sousse), Rachgoun, Mogador). They settle in Malta about 725 B.C.; in Sicily, Motye, Eryx and Panormos (Palermo); in Sardinia, Tharros, Nora, Sulcis, where they meet with the Etruscans. Corsica and the Balearic Islands are stopovers for the trade with the Iberian peninsula, on which they are deeply established, and found many cities: Olisipo (Lisbon) Tartessos (perhaps the biblical Tarsis), Gades (Gadira, Cadiz), Nova Cartago (Carthagena), Onoba (Huelva), Toscanos, Trayamar, Malaca (Malaga), Abdera (Adra). Oea, Sabrata, Leptis Magna depend from Carthage, which takes over when Phoenicia declines (as in Malta in 480 B.C.).
Phoenicians visit the Black Sea, venture on the shores of the Atlantic Oocean, settle down in today’s Morocco (Essaouira). They perhaps sail up to the British coasts to trade with amber and tin. According to Herodotus, Phoenicians would have even succeeded in sailing all arond Africa and returned, passing by Gibraltar… The Phoenician trade seems to have reached its peak about the 8th century B.C.
If Phoecians call themselves Canaanites, they feel first of all as being citizens of Sidon, Tyre, Byblos or Arvad, of a city rather than of a state. Phoenicia is thus a very loose confederation of cities and small states having each one its king, its customs, its local divinity: Baal, El, Astarte (Tanit), Melqart, Eshmoun. Sidon and Tyre exerted a relative domination however, at some periods.
The Phoenician fleet and the shipyard’s skill were also a diplomatic and military force. The Phoenicians serve occasionally other powers, which they cannot really resist. From the 9th to the 7th century, Phoenicia has to fight against Assyria, which occupies it about 700. When Pharao Nechao defeats the Assyrians, Phoenicia recognizes him as ruler (ca. 606 B.C.). After the victory of Nabuchodonosor against Nechao, it accepts the authority of Babylon, then, at the fall of Babylon, of Persia. Phoenicia fights on Persian side against the Greeks, who are establishing their maritime supremacy. Later, when revolting against Persia, Sidon is completely destroyed. It is rebuilt, and when Alexandre invades the Persian empire in 332, it surrenders to him without difficulty. Tyre, which resists, is devasted. Phoenicia then falls under the domination of the Seleucides and shares the destiny of Syria. The Phoenician power however leaves a brilliant inheritage with Carthage.
Founded about 814 B.C. by Tyrians, this city experienced an uncommon destiny, as queen of the seas, creating numerous coastal settlements which will become large cities, then rival of Rome before disappearing completely. In 44 B.C. Augustus builds the roman Carthage, capital of the proconsulary Africa, and the imperial Carthage which takes over, honours arts and literature.
You'll find some more information about the phoenician cities in the "Coins" section, where we reproduced ancient coins, together with the historical notes drafted by CGB.