Phoenicians in the Eyes of Modern Archaeological Studies

In its January 2010 issue «National Geographic Magazine» published an article written by Rick Gore about an American geneticist, Spencer Wells and a Lebanese scientist, Pierre Zalloua, tracing the origins of the Phoenicians by collecting samples of DNA from peoples from different parts of the world where our ancestors reached 5000 years ago.

The study proved that old inhabitants of the Syrian Coast were mentioned in old texts as smart merchants and clever sailors, although our detailed knowledge about them is still limited to a few texts.

Historians refer to them as Canaanites when talking about the culture before 1200 B.C. that is before the destruction of the kingdom of Ugarit (Ras Shamra), mwhile the Greeks said they are the <Phoinikes>, which means the red people, a name that became Phoenicians — after their word for a prized reddish purple cloth the Phoenicians exported. They, themselves did not like the name Phoenicians, rather they described themselves as Citizens of the Ports   from which they set their sales like Ugarit, Amrit, Arwad, Byblos, Sidon and Tyre.

During the 3rd millennium BC Canaanite cities developed and enlarged along the Syrian Coast and an era known as The Canaanite Phoenician Civilization started in the East. As from 1100 BC to the 5th Century BC, the power of this people increased and they dominated all the kingdoms of the Mediterranean.

They established emporiums and colonies starting from Cyprus in the East, through the Aegean Sea, Italy, North Africa, to Spain in the West. They imported precious metals and traded with wine, olive oil and timber from the cedar forests of the Syrian Coast.

Very few traces were left from the Phoenicians because the armies which invaded them either destroyed their cities or built over them. Their writings were fixed on the fragile papyrus, so they were disintegrated.

The few writings and literature texts they wrote were nearly totally lost, although the Phoenicians were the first who developed the written alphabet and spread it all over their ports of call. Through their legends, sciences and knowledge over Mesopotamia, the Levant and the Aegean islands. These thoughts and sciences were the spark that lit the flame of Greek revival and later the birth of western civilization.

The Phoenicians imported papyrus from Egypt in large quantities, and traded it in the Mediterranean kingdoms, an event which motivated the Greeks to name the first Phoenician port they knew as Byblos, derived from the ancient word «bible» which means book.

The progress of archaeological sciences and the new discoveries led us to understand the industrial developments and metal trading systems in the Canaanite kingdoms along the Syrian coast. Peoples of these kingdoms traded with precious metals since 1950BC. The wreckage of two Phoenicians ships from the seventh century BC which were discovered near the shores of Spain, exactly in the Gulf of Mazaron, near Carthage, we learnt how the Phoenicians built their ships, how they could define directions in the sea, and how they used to log timber, cut into pieces and assemble them into a ship. This was the first time we discover a real Phoenician ship without which we couldn't know all these information about this ancient people.

The question now is how and when the Canaanite Phoenicians arrived in the coasts of the Atlantic and may be beyond? The answer came through modern studies which presented various possibilities.

Traditional texts say that in 1100 BC they established a city named Cadis not far from Gibraltar, but the finds there told us that they belong to the eighth century BC. Spanish archaeologist Francisco Gills believes that a drawing discovered in a rocky resort in the mountains overlooking Gibraltar solves this question. The drawing was discovered in a remote area in a cork forest and it has the same style of drawings belonging to the late third millennium BC which has a sale ship surrounded by several still shapes.

Archaeological studies proved, behind any doubt, that these ships are Phoenician, and that the Phoenicians had settled there in the eighth century BC with many groups of them settling along the Spanish Coast which enabled them to trade with these remote areas to which they brought their products and from which they imported products of the Iberian island.

In 814 BC the Phoenicians established the city of Carthage on the Tunisian Coast which, within a period of 300 years, became the strongest stronghold dominating the western Mediterranean and gradually developed a civilization known by the Romans as the Punic civilization in the third century BC. With the rising of Rome and the spread of its hegemony in Central Mediterranean it was involved in a series of battles with Carthage labeled as the Punic Wars, and when Hannibal was preparing to invade Rome, he was defeated in 202 BC near Carthage. The Romans burnt Carthage down in 136 BC, destroying the last of the Phoenician cities.

The Phoenicians, masters of navigation, could link several parts of the world with each other. Since their early achievements on the Syrian Coast they succeeded in seafaring and could reach distant regions practicing trade and peaceful exchanges. They had an unusual capacity to acclimatize with any political regime in the countries they reached, because their main aim was trade, not war. The several stations and ports they established helped them succeed in their trade activity and to prosper.

Their experiences in the sea motivated them to establish two ports in every coastal city they settle in, whether in their home cities or in the far settlements west of the Mediterranean or south of Spain; one in the north and the second in the south. The main reason behind that is to guarantee the safety of their ships from natural hazards and sea storms, and they used to set sales in the northern port if the wind is south bound, and to set sales in the southern port if the wind is north bound. By this the Phoenicians could avoid sea storms in their early sea journeys.

But when they built strong piers and wave breakers to protect their ships the notion of two ports was used for strategic defensive purposes. What helped them in building ports is their instinct to establish their cities at bays or on islands near the shores.


Haifaa Mafalani