Often times, especially in the history classroom, important events and civilizations are missed in favor of other, more well-known civilizations. Phoenicia (pronounced foe-nee-shuh) is a notable example of this, being skipped over in favor of other civilizations with little impact on modern society. So who were the Phoenicians? Why were they important? Those are the two questions that form the point of this paper.
The Phoenicians lived in what is today the country of Lebanon. Phoenicia, as the land was called, was a collection of city-states each ruled by a king. Since there was no fertile soil, the Phoenicians couldn’t grow their own food, and relied on trade with other peoples across the Mediterranean to survive. Initially, all the Phoenicians had to trade was lumber and purple cloth. Both of those were highly valuable; lumber was used as a building material, and purple cloth was very valuable. The cloth was so valuable, in fact, that only royalty could afford it, hence the term “royal purple”. The Phoenicians traded foreign goods as well once they had them.
The Phoenicians didn’t just trade, but also colonized parts of the western Mediterranean, including the coasts of the present-day countries of Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Famous cities such as Carthage and Leptis Magna were founded by the Phoenicians. In addition, the Phoenicians explored the western coast of Africa under the command of Hanno the Navigator. Hanno’s goal was to establish colonies on the western coast of Africa, particularly in Morocco, in order to protect Phoenician ships sailing to the Madeira and Canary Islands to gather murex shellfish. Most of these colonies were established from around 1000 to 700 B.C., however some date back to 1300 B.C. Phoenician trade reached its height during this time as well, mainly because the Egyptian and Hittite Empires had collapsed, and therefore Phoenicia was free to trade without two powerful, rival empires watching its back.
However, probably the most important reason why the Phoenicians did so well as a whole was because of competition between the city-states. This competition drove the members of the city-states to make better products. Two city-states in particular, Sidon and Tyre, were fierce rivals. Sidon, initially, was the more powerful of the two. However, as time passed, Sidon grew weaker and weaker. Tyre eventually became more powerful than Sidon, partly due to a prospering alliance with the nation of Israel to the south. Sidon tried to form an alliance with Israel through marriage; however, the alliance soon fell apart after the prophet Elijah led a coup against Jezebel and Ahab and took hold of the Israeli throne. Meanwhile Tyre had maintained its prosperous alliance with Israel. Another, rather symbolic sign of Tyrian supremacy was the fact that the term “royal purple” was also known as “Tyrian purple”.
Besides connecting the ancient Mediterranean through trade, the Phoenicians had one other great contribution; the alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet was not the first alphabet, but it was the alphabet that eventually led to our own alphabet; the Latin alphabet. The Phoenicians used this writing to record contracts and to draw up bills. The alphabet was then taken by the Greeks and improved upon, and further improved by the Romans.
After 700 B.C., Phoenician civilization still continued onwards, up until 332 B.C., when Alexander the Great came to conquer Phoenicia. The Phoenicians peacefully surrendered to Alexander. However, Alexander didn’t just want to conquer Phoenicia, he also wanted to perform a sacrifice in the city of Tyre. Tyrian religion prohibited foreigners from attending services, let alone performing sacrifices. However, the Tyrians couldn’t just be rude and say “no” to Alexander, so they instead offered a compromise. The Tyrians allowed Alexander to make a sacrifice in the old city of Tyre, however, he would not be allowed in the newer island city of Tyre. Alexander found this to be unacceptable and sent envoys demanding Tyre’s surrender. The Tyrians then killed the envoys and threw their remains over the city walls.
Alexander then launched an invasion of the city by building a causeway to the city that was made from debris, fallen trees, and the ruins of the older city. After seven months of hard work, Alexander broke through the city walls. 30,000 Tyrians were either killed or sent into slavery, and only the richest Tyrians were able to bribe Alexander to spare their lives. Eventually, the remnants of Phoenicia were assimilated into the Roman Empire, where Phoenicia supplied purple cloth to Rome. Afterwards, Phoenicia just faded from history.
In conclusion, the Phoenicians played an important role in the ancient world. They relied on trade to survive, but ended up prospering from it, binding the ancient Mediterranean together while making their own advancements and sharing them as well. From the exploration of the West African coast led by Hanno the Navigator to the alphabet, the Phoenicians spread ideas and knowledge across the Mediterranean that would be used for centuries to come. Despite having little recognition, the Phoenicians had a large footprint in history, a footprint that others, such as the Assyrians, simply couldn’t match.
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