The Phoenicians were a seafaring Canaanite people who lived in a confederation of independent city-states in the Eastern Mediterranean from about 1500 B.C. to 300 B.C. Major cities of the confederation included Byblos and Tyre. These cities, located in present-day Lebanon, are now small, picturesque seaports. Knowledge of Phoenician civilization is primarily derived from the Hebrew Bible, Assyrian records, and Greek and Latin authors. Recent archaeological finds have enhanced that knowledge.

Alphabet Without Vowels

The earliest known Phoenician alphabetical writing is from Byblos (now Jubayl) around 1000 B.C. The word “byblos” meant “papyrus” and became identified with writing and books. The Phoenician writing system was the ancestor of the Greek alphabet and is the root of Western alphabets. The 15th-century B.C. Proto-Canaanite writing system supplanted a cuneiform-type script. The Phoenician alphabet may have been the first alphabetic script to be widely adopted. As Phoenician traders sailed throughout the Mediterranean, they carried their writing system to southern Europe and northern Africa. The most notable features of the alphabet were “abjad,” or consonant alphabet with no vowel indication, right to left direction in horizontal lines, 22 letters and “acrophonic” letters, meaning derived from the initial sound of an object. Egyptian hieroglyphs pictured various objects and the Phoenicians developed the names and shapes of the letters from these hieroglyphs. For example, the first letter, “aleph,” meant “ox” and originally looked very much like an ox’s head.

Royal Purple

The Greeks called the Phoenicians “phoinios,” meaning “purple” because of the purple-red dye on their hands. The dye, extracted from the shell of the Murex sea-snail, was a major Phoenician trade item. They produced it in Tyre, so it was often called “Tyrian Purple.” They established another shipping and production center in Mogador (now called Essaouira) in present-day Morocco where they produced brilliantly colored textiles. The popularity of the dyes and textiles, especially with Mediterranean royalty, contributed to the Phoenicians’ wealth.

Great Traders

In addition to textiles, many Phoenicians were accomplished craftsmen whose glass, ivory, wood and metal work were prized throughout the area. They began trading mostly with Greece but eventually engaged in trade with most of the southern Mediterranean. They also developed and traded breeds of hunting dogs, traded in metals with Britain and the Iberian Peninsula, supplied wine to Egypt and created the terracotta containers for transporting that wine.

Shipbuilders and Seamen

The Phoenicians were highly skilled shipbuilders and sailors. Their merchant vessels were strong, swift and large enough to accommodate their trade goods. Their warships were designed with sharp pointed ramming devices on the bow that could penetrate an enemy vessel and sink it, protecting their merchant ships. They developed systems of navigation even using the North Star to sail at night. According to Greek historian Herodotus, Phoenician sailors may have circumnavigated Africa. It is possible that they even sailed as far as Britain. They built ports along their trade routes, some of which became large cities. Carthage was one of those cities. Phoenician skill as traders made them valued shippers for other countries' trade goods, including linen and papyrus from Egypt, copper from Cyprus, embroidered cloth from Mesopotamia and spices from Arabia.