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The Phoenicians: Purple People of the Sea

Updated on October 31, 2014
Phoenician Ships
Phoenician Ships | Source
Phoenicia and colonies in red
Phoenicia and colonies in red | Source

Creation of City-States

Who were the Phoenicians? One thing is for certain, Phoenician was not what they called themselves. Most scholars believe that the Phoenicians were, in reality, Canaanites who lived along the Mediterranean Sea on the western edge of Asia Minor, in modern day Lebanon and Syria. In fact, the Phoenicians probably did not consider themselves one single unified group. Instead, they were a collection of individual city-states, like those in Greece, who shared a language, a similar culture and a propensity for sailing. The name Phoenicia is what the Greeks called them.

The original city-states of the Phoenicians were Byblos, Tyre and Sidon. The Greek mythological founding of what was to become Phoenicia is tied to Agenor, the son of the god Poseidon and Lybia, the daughter of Epaphus and Memphis. Epaphus was the son of Zeus and Io. According to some historians, including Quintus Curtius Rufus of Rome, Sidon was founded by Agenor while more common history tells that Agenor was the King of Tyre. The name Phoenicia comes from one of the sons Agenor sent out to find their sister Europa when she was taken away by Zeus in the form of a bull. The king ordered his sons not to come back without their sister. She was taken to Crete, but the boys never found her, so none of them returned home. Each of the sons founded their own city-state with Phoenix's city close to that of his father.

Tyre was founded in 2750 BC, though Sidon is considered older. Tyre is believed to have been settled by people sent from Sidon for that purpose. From a Jewish historical point-of-view, Sidon was a son of Canaan who was the grandson of Noah. Canaan was considered the father of the Canaanites, which correlates to the people of the territory.

Each of the city-states most likely did or at least tried to dominate the others in their history, but Tyre has long been considered the leader in the region.

Bronze Age Collapse
Bronze Age Collapse | Source

Rise to Power

Because of the port locations, the Phoenicians began building ships and had a considerable reputation in trade all over the Mediterranean Sea. The Amarna letters, found in the ancient city founded by Pharaoh Akhenaton in the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, showed a trade relationship with Canaan. Much of the Mediterranean world suffered from an invasion by unknown "Sea People" around 1200 BC resulting in the destruction or set back of many nations including Mycenae in Greece, Cyprus, Hatti, Phoenicia and Egypt. This time of invasion lasted a little over fifty years, and still today, the exact identity of these invaders is unclear. Following this period of decline, known as the Late Bronze Age Collapse and/or the Dark Ages of Greece, however, the Phoenicians fared much better than their neighbors and emerged as the strongest region in the Mediterranean all because of their trade.

The Phoenician's began developing trading colonies in other parts of the Mediterranean Sea during this time. Most of the locations were along northern Africa with the most noted being Carthage, Tripoli and Gibralter. Phoenicia also gained control of the southwestern portion of Sicily.

Phoenician glassware
Phoenician glassware | Source
Toga of the Roman Senate
Toga of the Roman Senate | Source
Jezebel and Ahab with Elijah
Jezebel and Ahab with Elijah | Source

Phoenician Trading

Life in the Phoenician city-states was relatively peaceful, as most of the neighboring countries were in such need of the goods they produced that they were not willing to risk destroying their relationship by attempting an attack. In addition to their ship making expertise, the people of Phoenicia were excellent artisans. Some even credit the Phoenicians with being the first to use mass production because they could reproduce the exact same objects repeatedly with minor differences.

The workers in Sidon were the best in the world at glassmaking. Their work in metals like bronze, silver and gold were also prized. The Phoenicians were also skilled in marketing, as they would create religious objects not just of their own beliefs but also for the beliefs of their trade partners like Egypt. If there was a market, the Phoenicians would make it and sell it.

The top seller by the Phoenicians, however, was purple die. Tyrian purple was in high demand but was also outrageously expensive. Created by the secretions of Bolinus brandaris snails, the purple was the choice for royal costume throughout the Mediterranean, including the famed togas of the Roman Senate. It was so expansive that even Roman senators could only afford enough for a single stripe of purple.

One of the most noted trading partners for the city of Tyre was King Solomon. Solomon relied on supplies of timber and men for the building of the first temple for the Arc of the Covenant in Jerusalem. According to Kings I and II, Sidon also had a rich trading relationship with the kingdom of Israel until one of its daughters, Jezebel, refused to give up her religious beliefs and accept those of her husband, King Ahab of Israel. Because Jezebel brought her gods into Israel, the prophet Elijah foresaw that Ahab would die in battle and she would be eaten by dogs. When Jezebel was thrown out a window and the dogs got her, the relationship between the two kingdoms ended, but by 600 BC, the Phoenicians were ready to set sail around the entire continent of Africa developing new trading partners along the way.

Baal receiving a human sacrifice
Baal receiving a human sacrifice | Source

Phoenician Religion

Despite Jezebel's demise, the gods of Phoenicia were respected throughout the Mediterranean. In fact, some historians believe that the Greeks took several of the Phoenician deities and made them their own including El/Kronus, father of Baal, Yam and Mot, and his sons Baal/Zeus, the storm god who was the ruler, Yam/Poseidon, the god of the sea and Mot/Hades, god of death. Historians also believe that just as Greek religion was influenced by the Phoenicians, the Phoenicians were influenced by the Egyptian and Mesopotamian religions. This could account for why the Greek and Egyptian religions were so easily blended during the reign of the Ptolemies in Egypt.

One story from the Phoenician religion is that, El was the son of Sky and Earth. Earth was upset with Sky because he tried to destroy their children, but Sky continued to force himself on her. El gets advice from Thoth, the Egyptian god of knowledge, to take revenge on his father, Sky. El, with the help of his daughter, takes a sickle to his father and castrates him. This, of course, is very close to the story of Uranus, Gaia and Kronus.

Greek religion is not the only one influenced by that of the Phoenicians, however. Baal in his storm god persona of Hadad is frequently compared not only to Zeus/Jupiter but also with the Egyptian Set and the Hittite god Teshub. One particular myth involving Baal/Hadad and a battle with his brother Yam has been compared to several ancient myths, as Yam is seen as a serpent. These include:

  • Zeus's battle against Typhon in the Greek religion
  • Indra's battle against Vritra in the Hindu religion
  • Thor's batttle against Jormungandr in the Norse religion
  • Ra's battles against Apophis in the Egyptian religion
  • God's battle over Satan in the Christian religion

The Phoenicians also recognized Osiris, Isis and Amun starting in the second millennium BC.

Sarcophagus of King Ahiram
Sarcophagus of King Ahiram | Source
Phoenician Alphabet
Phoenician Alphabet | Source

Phoenician Alphabet

By far, the biggest impact the Phoenicians had was giving the world their alphabet. The Phoenicians modified an alphabet that may have come from an earlier Canaanite alphabet, though many believe it originated in ancient Egypt. Like the Egyptians, the Phoenicians wrote without the use of vowels. The oldest remaining inscriptions in Phoenician were found on the sarcophagus of Ahiram, King of Byblos. It is from the eleventh century BC.

The Phoenician alphabet was spread to many city-states in the Mediterranean by trade, but the Greeks came by the alphabet when Cadmus, son of the afore mentioned Agenor, having not found his sister instead founded the Greek city-state of Thebes and passed the language and alphabet on to his people. Cyrillic and Etruscan eventually developed from Greek. The Etruscans had their alphabet taken by the Romans while Cyrillic is the alphabet still used by languages such as Macedonian, Bulgarian, Mongolian, Aleut and Russian to name just a few. Aramaic is also said to have developed from Phoenician with both Arabic and Hebrew coming from Aramaic, however, it is more difficult to see this connection. As many northern Africa city-states started as Phoenician colonies, the alphabet also spread throughout this region of the world.

The Fall of Phoenicia

In 539 BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia invaded and conquered Phoenicia. Though the Phoenicians created ships for the Persian king, many of the people boarded ships and left for Carthage in northern Africa. Though the old Phoenician cities continued to be inhabited, they were no longer the dominant force they had been before. As for Tyre, the onshore city was all but abandoned with the remaining inhabitants taking up residence on their island fortress that provided significantly greater protection.

Siege of Tyre by Alexander the Great
Siege of Tyre by Alexander the Great | Source
Siege of Tyre
Siege of Tyre | Source
Hannibal crossing the Alps
Hannibal crossing the Alps | Source
Battle of Zama
Battle of Zama | Source

Tyre remained protected from further invasion until 332 BC when Alexander the Great and his army marched into the city. He first attempted a peaceful takeover by sailing out to the gates of the island city and asking to make a sacrifice to Melqart, a Phoenician god associated with Heracles, in their temple. Knowing that allowing an invading force to worship in your temple was tantamount to surrender, they refused telling Alexander there was a perfectly good temple in the onshore city for him to go use. Alexander tried again by sending messengers to give the Tyrians one more chance. The messengers were killed and tossed into the sea. Alexander was outraged.

He knew the city walls that extended under the water would be difficult to breach by ship. Instead of attacking by sea, he had his men start constructing a causeway from land to the island. When Alexander's troops were close to being finished, the people of Tyre attacked by ship and all but destroyed the causeway. Undaunted, Alexander made his men start again. Eventually, they reached the island walls but not before a fleet of Persian ships, now under Alexander's control, arrived to create a blockade of the island. The Tyrians tried several times to stop Alexander but had no success. Using rams to attack the walls and his infamous siege towers, Alexander and his troops attacked the city.

Once the walls were breached, Alexander was ruthless. The Macedonians killed six thousand warriors. Another two thousand were crucified. The people who ran to the same temple Alexander had asked to worship in were spared death, but thirty thousand of the remaining Tyrians were sold as slaves.

Sidon had also fallen to Alexander the Great the year before with much less effort.

Following the conquest of Alexander the Great, all of the original Phoenician lands in Asia Minor became Hellenized, and passed between former generals of Alexander following his death. Carthage, however, continued to be a dominant force until it faced three wars against Rome, called the Punic Wars. Following Carthage's defeat in the First Punic War in which Hamilcar Barca proved his success as a military leader, his son Hannibal led the Second Punic War in which he marched his troops and elephants from Iberia, modern day Spain, across the Pyrenees and Alps mountains. Arriving in northern Italy, Hannibal was successful, too successful. The Romans decided to stop fighting in Italy and go to Carthage believing that Hannibal would be recalled. The tactic worked. A peace treaty was attempted, but in the end, Hannibal and his war elephants were defeated by Scipio Africanus at the Battle of Zama. Carthage endured years of siege by the Romans then was completely destroyed by fire resulting in the end of a once great civilization.

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    • anitajsmith profile image
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      Anita Smith 3 years ago from Tampa, Florida

      thank you suzette

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Great article! I enjoyed reading this. The Phonecians were a great people and civilization at that time. The added so much to the world culture. Wonderful history you have written here !