The Major Enduring Achievements of the Phoenicians
by John Tuttle
The Phoenicians - great seafarers, craftsmen, and traders of ancient times when the known world was much smaller than it is today. "They are history," you might say, and indeed they are. Yet without its history humanity would not be where it is in our current age. The Phoenicians were pioneers and inventors. Like all people, the Phoenicians possessed those human qualities of learning and developing. They were associated with the founding of Carthage and have long been considered synonymous with the Biblical race the Canaanites.
As one of the early major civilizations on the globe, their endeavors were obviously influential in both their own day as well as in present times. Perhaps their most notable contribution to their descendants was the formulation and passing down of the phonetic alphabet. Without the early alphabet created by the Phoenicians and the variations based on it, the article you are reading right now would probably look and sound very different.
The Purple Dye
Written documentation on the art and practice of dying cloth goes back to 2600 BCE in China. To achieve various pigments and hues, dye makers would employ a range of flora, insects, or marine creatures. For instance, crimson came from kermes, a type of insect which was native to the Meditteranean area, and is even mentioned in the Biblical book of Exodus. Indigo was produced with the use of the indigo shrub as a key ingredient. One of the biggest enterprises the Phoenicians were known for was their stupendous purple dyeing.
In the case of the Phoenicians' "Tyrian purple" as it was referred to (since it originated from the city of Tyre) the dye was produced by elements acquired from either the Murex, a snail-like mollusk, or the crustacean the Trumpet Shell, otherwise known as the Purple Fish. While the Trumpet Shell was primarily found and harvested on the Mediterranean coast near Tyre, the Murex was present all over the ocean.
Phoenicians sent professional divers to collect the shellfish. With regards to the Murex, it has a small sac behind the head containing a thick whitish secretion. When that liquid was mixed together, spread over silk or linen, and then exposed to air, it would cause whatever fabric to which it was applied to change from green to blue to purple. And if a purple cloth which had the dye applied to it was washed with a strong soap it would actually become a shade of crimson.
But it was the purple color that was most desirable and saleable, and it was always in great demand while the Phoenicians were producing it. It has been estimated that it could have required some 8,500 shellfish to make one gram of the dye alone. This would explain its high costliness in the production time and inevitably in the cost. In fact, the precious dye was worth more than its weight in gold. In the ancient Roman Empire, clothing graced by Tyrian purple was a rare jewel and was worn solely by noblemen to distinguish them. In addition to working with dyes and textiles, the Phoenicians were fine glassmakers and metalsmiths. (It is believed the Phoenicians invented glass.)
The Coinage System
Shekels were the coinage and unit of weight used in the Middle East and especially Israel in ancient times. The term is mentioned several times throughout the Old Testament and New Testament. For centuries the Phoenicians were minting shekels as well as half shekels in Tyre, located in modern-day Lebanon. By the year 50 BCE, these coins had become a major currency of the Judaeo-Phoenician parts of the globe. Once the Roman Empire gained control over Israel, the country was not permitted to mint their own coins.
This is where the shekels of Tyre came in handy. The Jews were required by law to pay a Temple tax. One of the stipulations of this law was that the currency used as payment for the tax had to have a high content of pure silver, and the silver which the Tyrian-produced shekels happened to be made from was particularly pure. Yet there was one problem in using the Phoenician shekels for the Temple tax.
The issue was just this: the images printed on the coins were blasphemous. These shekels featured the face of Baal, a Phoenician deity, on one side, and on the flipside an Egyptian eagle with a claw lying upon the rudder of a ship. (The depiction of a false god went against the First Commandment.) Since most devout Jews would not carry something with a graven image on their person, deviously smart money exchangers decided to move business to the Temple courtyards. Because they were so conveniently close to the Temple itself the money changers also charged exorbitant prices.
Later, the shekel itself came to represent political defiance following the First Jewish Revolt (65-70 CE) because it was during that war that the rebels minted their own shekels, half shekels, and quarter shekels in Jerusalem. And even today the shekel is the title of Israel's basic unit of money.
Travel and Trade
The ancient nation of Phoenicia, after which its inhabitants were called, was a narrow country which skirted the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea on North Africa. This geography in and of itself brought on the use of water vessels as a main means of transportation and eventually exportation. The people that would come to be known as the Phoenicians arrived in the Mediterranean area sometime during the third millennium BCE.
Among Phoenicia's prime cities were Simyra, Zarephath, Byblos, Leptis, Sidon, Tripolis, and Tyre. Though the citizens of Phoenicia thought of themselves as a united nation, they were far from unified. Phoenicia was more of a cluster of "city-kingdoms" that were governed by one of the cities. Two of them in particular, Sidon and Tyre, were the most powerful. On a number of occasions, the power of ruling the country shifted hands between these two cities.
Under the virtual self-rule enjoyed by the Phoenicians, they were able to make something unique out of themselves. They turned into keen seamen, expert sailors and divers. It was the core of their lifestyle. Many documenters from antiquity pointed out that the Phoenicians were major traders and colonizers. In fact, they eventually became the most renowned seafarers of the ancient world, making their way as far even as the Atlantic Ocean.
They were traders and merchants of reputation, and they used their knowledge of boats and the seas to their advantage. Already previously mentioned was the richness and apparent need of Tyrian purple. Other valuable imports and exports which commonly appeared in the hulls of their trading vessels included amber (a fossilized tree resin) and metals such as copper, British tin, and Spanish silver.
The merchant ships had broad hulls in which trading goods were kept, and the revolutionary sail was the means of movement employed by the vessels. The sea travel alone was not the Phoenicians' sole concern; pirates sailed the ancient Mediterranean too. For protection from the plunderers, the merchant ships and their precious cargoes were often accompanied by war galleys. The Phoenicians themselves became a sort of commodity that was in demand; other countries competed in hiring Phoenician ships and crews in their own naval fleets.
Carthage and the Punic Wars
The North African city of Carthage is situated close to the modern-day city of Tunis. It is likely that the Phoenicians founded it as a trading outpost nearing the close of the 9th century BCE. During the 7th century BCE, the two dominant Phoenician cities were ruined. Sidon was demolished, and the daughters of the king of Tyre were taken away by invaders. The Phoenician-established city of Carthage would evolve into a city-kingdom more powerful than Sidon and Tyre ever were.
Carthage was actually called the "new city" by the Phoenician or Punic people which dwelled there. It was actually blessed with two harbors which were linked together via a canal, and on a hill beyond the harbors stood erect the fortress of Byrsa. With the annexing of the older Phoenician city-kingdoms, Carthage ruled the whole of the North African coast from the Atlantic Ocean to the western border of Egypt by the 6th century BCE. At this time Sardinia, Malta, the Balearic Islands, and a portion of Sicily were also in the possession of Carthage.
This empire was devoted to and built upon commercial trade. The Carthaginians mined silver and lead, exported ivory and gold, exported wild beasts from the jungles of Africa, and produced basic jewelry, glassware, and pottery. They themselves did not create a lot of artistic works by today's standards. Much of what they did make was not very creative or unique since it was heavily influenced and inspired by the artworks of Greece, Egypt, and old Phoenicia. However, the religious beliefs held and practiced by the people of Carthage were unique and involved the sacrifice of human lives to the deities, particularly Baal.
The Punic Wars were a result of political and economic competition between Carthage and Rome and were fought between these two countries. In a sticky situation, Rome exasperated a declaration of war which started it all. The Romans who recently formed their first large-scale navy emerged victorious over a Carthaginian fleet in 260 BCE at the Battle of Mylae. Roughly four years later, Marcus Atilius Regulus and his Roman army built a military base in North Africa, but Carthage forced the army to move again in 255 BCE.
The first of the Punic Wars was brought to a close in 241 BCE. It was during the Second Punic War that the famed Carthaginian general Hannibal made the rugged, daring venture over the Alps and into Italy. Hannibal started out on this quest with 37 massive North African elephants in his army, but many died along the way. The Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus overcame and defeated Hannibal in the Battle of Zama around 202 BCE.
The Third (and final) Punic War lasted from 149 to 146 BCE, and Carthage was destroyed under the Roman guidance of Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemelianus Africanus Numantinus. (Whew! What a mouthful!) The Carthaginians' downfall was a combination of several factors including their war-like tendencies, their habit of talking big, and the fact that their fleets gradually lost their estimable reputation.
The Language and the Alphabet
The ancient Phoenician language was a member of the Canaanite group of the Semitic languages family. Also classified under the Canaanite language group were Hebrew (which actually much resembles Phoenician), Moabite, and Ugaritic. Phoenician can then be subdivided into two dialect factions: the eastern dialects spoken in Phoenicia and the western (or Punic) dialects used in and near Carthage.
Probably the Phoenicians' most important contribution to humanity was the Phonetic alphabet. The Phoenician written language has an alphabet that contains 22 characters, all of them consonants. Vowels are absent. It is therefore referred to as a "consonantal alphabet." The Phoenician alphabet is actually an offshoot of the Proto-Sinaitic script.
What truly shows that the Phoenician alphabet is a major contribution to history is that its offspring languages include Arabic, Greek, and Latin due to the widespread use of the alphabet employed by Phoenician traders. Those languages affected by the Phoenician alphabet would in turn greatly influence modern the structure of languages such as English, Spanish, and French. It is particularly in this way that the heritage of the Phoenicians lives on.