A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE PHOENICIANS
By Tim Lambert
The Phoenician Achievement
The Phoenicians were a 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 a number of 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 on 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 which rivalled Rome.
The Phoenicians are also famous for their alphabet, which they invented about 1200 BC. This alphabet was passed onto 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 which were used to decorate furniture.
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 metres long and 7 metres 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.
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 cedar wood to Egypt. In return they imported Egyptian and 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, jewellery 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.