The Phoenicians, a civilization that rose to prominence over the third millennium BC, had a near-legendary reputation for maritime prowess and skill as traders. Phoenician craftsmen manufactured luxury items that commanded high prices around the Middle East and Mediterranean, and Phoenician sailors employed revolutionary navigation techniques in their transport of goods. Four of the Phoenicians’ technological breakthroughs had clearly observable impacts on modern Western life.
Open Sea Navigation
In addition to their skill in manufacturing, the Phoenicians’ success as traders hinged on their ability to carry goods over long distances. The Phoenicians revolutionized maritime travel through the development of open-sea navigation. Prior to this, sailors kept their boats within close sight of land, so as not to get lost. The Phoenicians developed a system of navigation based on the constellation Ursa Minor and the North Star, which let them travel farther out to sea. The ability to approximate the boat's location based on the North Star led to the modern concept of navigational latitude.
The most emblematic Phoenician invention in the ancient world, purple dye, helped establish fashion as a signifier of wealth and prestige. The word "Phoenicia" actually developed from the Greek "phoinikes," which means Tyranian purple, a reference to the Phoenician city of Tyre. Mesopotamian rulers signified their rank through robes colored with the Phoenician dye, which generated such a demand among upper classes that its value, pound for pound, overtook that of gold. The Phoenicians developed the iconic dye from mollusks native to the Phoenician coast.
The Mother of Alphabets
Around 1,000 BC, the Phoenicians began to use a system of 22 phonetic letters derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics and created a system of writing easily taught and shared among cultures. In the ninth century BC, the Aramaeans used Phoenician letters to formulate an alphabet for their language, Aramaic, which eventually evolved into Arabic. The Greeks took the Phoenician letters and added vowel sounds for their own alphabet, which became the basis of the Latin alphabet.
Molded and Blown Glass
The Phoenicians achieved such distinction for their skill with glassworks that they sometimes receive credit for the invention of glass manufacturing. Though the Mesopotamians made small glass baubles as early as 2,500 BC, the Phoenicians and Egyptians developed the molding techniques that allowed for the fabrication of glass vessels. The Phoenicians single-handedly changed the nature of glass manufacturing in 50 BC, when Phoenician glassworkers invented glass blowing. Blown glass has a thinness and lightness absent in molded glass and requires less time to manufacture.
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