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Phoenicians
History and Society

What we now call Phoenician culture already existed 3,000 years before Christ in Levant, a coastal area that comprised Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Nevertheless, only around 1100 BC after a period of social collapse in Levant that the Phoenicians aroused as a significant cultural and political power.

From the 9th to 6th century BC, the Phoenicians ruled the Mediterranean Sea and founded markets and colonies from the isles of Cyprus in the East to the Aegean Sea, Italy, North Africa and Spain in the West. They became rich with the trade of products such as olive oil, wine and especially wood from Lebanon cedars.


1.1 - Cities and Trade

The Phoenician cities, urban centers and trade points shared similar aspects. With rare exceptions, the settlements of the Phoenicians were small and located near navigable coasts, as they were great traders and preferred areas near natural bays, ponds or estuaries. The important harbor of Byblos, for instance, was located on a small bay. From this harbor came the most ancient information on the Phoenicians, as archaeologists found evidences that this people occupied the area since 5000 BC. In Byblos, around 3000 BC, stone buildings replaced buildings made of wood and the city was already completely formed with walls, temples and a draining system.

Lebanese cedar. This tree was widely used in the Phoenician trade. Due to the extensive use of cedar wood, it is now rare in the area.
However, Byblos lost its place as the most important Phoenician city after the invasion of the Sea People. It took place around 1200 BC and defines the end of the Bronze Age. The Sea People were tribes from the north that brought the first iron weapons to Greece and then went to Phoenicia and Palestine, where a group called Philistine lived. The Sea People gave many contributions to the Phoenicians, especially techniques to build boats and to navigate. One example is the use of keels in boats (a heavy wood beam fixed in the bottom of the boat), which allowed them to navigate with great precision, regardless of wind direction and force.

After Byblos, younger cities, such as Tyre and Sidon, became more and more important. Around 1000 BC, king Hiram from Tyre rose the eastern part of the settlement by creating an artificial embankment and converted Tyre into a fortified harbor.

In the Book of Ezekiel (Old Testament, Book of Ezekiel, chapter 27: 8-25), we can find comments on trade activities in Tyre taken place around the 7th century BC. According to these reports, Tyre kept commercial relations with different places in Anatolia, Palestine, Syria, Arabia, among others. The Phoenician city obtained silver, iron, tin, bronze, ivory, ebony, slaves, horses, pearls and linen in these places in trade for manufactured products.

The Phoenicians actually produced many luxurious products and the most famous were purple textiles used only by socially advantaged groups. Its use was restricted due to the complex dye process that used glands of thousands of sea snails called murex to produce only one piece. Depending on the quantity of the liquid used and the quantity of time in which the textile was left under the sun, the color ranged from a soft pink to an intense violet.


1.2 - Assyrian Presence and Innovations on Navigation and Engineering

Assyrians entered Phoenicia around 877 BC and continued there until 612 BC, when the Assyrian Empire was devastated by the Babylonians.

During the time under the Assyrian power, the Phoenicians had their territories annexed to the Assyrian Empire, which required a tax payment, but it allowed the presence of a government free from foreign command. Therefore, despite the Assyrian command, Phoenician cities continued to prosper.

Mapa das rotas fenícias
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, after the decline of the Assyrian power, Pharaoh Necho II of Egypt ordered Phoenician navigators to travel around Africa. The route should start in the Dead Sea, go towards south, turn the Cape of Good Hope and then return to the Mediterranean Sea. Such an enterprise shows the high sophistication of the Phoenician navigation techniques, which were advance at that time. Also in this period, Pharaoh Necho II of Egypt was helped by Phoenician engineers in the construction of a waterway that would connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. The waterway was finished after the Pharaoh’s death and used until the 8th century AD when the sea level lowered, which made the waterway muddy and impossible to be used in navigation. The modern Suez Canal is similar to the Pharaoh’s waterway, but it was only constructed approximately a thousand years later.


1.3 - From Persian Domination to the Arrival of the Army of Alexander, the Great

Around 539 BC, the Persian ruler Cyrus II conquered Babylonia and Phoenicia remained under his control. However, this episode did not have serious results to the Phoenician cities, for a long time used to foreign authority, either Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian or Persian. As mentioned before, it happened because the power and prosperity of the Phoenician cities were mainly due to their control over the sea and over the Mediterranean trade.

When the Greek cities in Asia Minor stood against the Persian ruler Darius I, Greeks and Persians started a series of wars that forced the Phoenician cities to support Persians. That is why the Phoenicians gave their ships to be used in battles, which destroyed a great part of their fleet and made them lose the control of the sea afterwards.

In 352 BC, however, the Phoenician cities lead by Sidon decided to stand against Persian rule. Artaxerxes, the Persian ruler at that time, immediately reacted and marched towards Sidon. Most of the city was destroyed by fire and other cities were annexed again to the Persian Empire. Although the Phoenicians preserved their autonomy, they were never able to regain the control over the Mediterranean Sea, which was now controlled by Greeks and Carthaginians.

In 333 BC, Persians under the command of Darius III were defeated in the battle of Issus by the Greek-Macedonian ruler Alexander, the Great. All Phoenician cities opened the gates to the emperor, except for Tyre. One year later, Alexander ordered the construction of a pier-like structure to connect Tyre to the coast. In the end of the work, Alexander’s army had access to the city walls and completely defeated Tyre.

Under the command of Alexander and his successors the Phoenician cities were unable to regain their former commercial and political status. Many Greeks stayed in the territory and the Phoenician language gradually disappeared. Trade made by Phoenicians was now carried out by Egyptians, Greeks and Carthaginians. It was a new time when Rome arrived in the region.

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