Origin of the Phoenicians



Byblos in the 1970s


Despite the fact that the Phoenicians invented the writing system which comes down to us as our alphabet today, little was known of the Phoenicians until archaeological research started in the mid nineteenth century . Until then, most knowledge of the Phoenicians came from the Greeks and Romans, who competed against and fought the Phoenicians and their colonies . Greeks and Romans authors often painted the Phoenicians as a cruel and greedy race, but did acknowledge their skill in seamanship and trading . Now, more information is known, but the Phoenicians, along with the Etruscans and Hittites are one of the least known ancient peoples . Part of this is due to the secrecy they used to maintain their commercial empire .


 Map of Major Phoenician Cities


 Click map for a larger view .


The Bronze Age inhabitants of stretch of coast from Tartus to south of mount Carmel which was to become Phoenicia were the Canaanites . The Canaanites were a Semitic group . The Phoenicians as a people cannot be distinguished from the general mass of Canaanites until the later half of the second millennium B.C. the name, Phoenicians was given to them by the Greeks and Mycenaens, who come into trading contact with them in the later part of the second millennium B.C. . First it was probably applied to all Canaanites, later it would come to mean the trading Canaanites of the coastal belt .


Brone figure of Baal with pointed cap,

Beirut c. 1300 B.C.


The earliest references to the Canaanites, the stock from which the Phoenicians sprung are cuneiform tablets from Elba in modern day Syria from mid 3000 B.C. there are also Egyptian inscriptions from this period mentioning ships from Byblos transporting cedar and oil .


The cities which were to develop into the most important cities of Phoenicia laid along a 200 mile stretch of the Syro-Palestinian coast with Tartus in the north, then Byblos, Sidon and Tyre . Their cities were fiercely competitive, especially Sidon and Tyre .


Recorded information about the Phoenicians from the Late Bronze Age (c.1550 B.C.) is limited comes mostly from tablets found in Syria (Ugarit) and Egypt (Amarra tablets) and describe Phoenicia as a flourishing area of trade . For reasons unknown, the marauding 'Sea Peoples' had minimal impact on the Phoenician cities . The expulsion of the invading Hyksos from Egypt,ushered in the prosperous New Kingdom in Egypt , which along with the Hittites  figured prominently in the history of the Late Bronze Age Levant .


Why did the Phoenicians become seafarers ? Their cities occupied an area of limited agricultural opportunities along the now Lebanese coast and they were the home of the famous cedars of Lebanon, perfect for shipbuilding . Usually between mighty empires such as Egypt, the Hittites , Assyria and others, they expanded toward the sea .






Byblos was the first major Phoenician city and the site has a continuous record of occupation from the early Bronze Age to the first millennium B.C. and is the only site to yield a large number of artifacts from before 1500 B.C. It reached its height of economic prosperity from 1900 to 1800 B.C. as a trade conduit to Egypt, the Aegean and Mesopotamia . The Egyptians were keenly interested in Byblos as a source of wood  . During the reign of Solomon it was celebrated for its stone-cutters and later on for its " caulkers," who were employed by the Tyrians to make their vessels watertight .


Sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos c. 1000 B.C. An inscription of 38 words is found on parts of the rim and the lid of the sarcophagus. It is written in the Old Phoenician dialect of Byblos and is the oldest example of Phoenician alphabet of considerable length discovered to date. Above the king's head is a frieze of Lotus blossoms some open, some closed in alternating fashion .


Close up of the sarcophagus of King Ahiram with the king seated on a throne carved with winged sphinxes, called a cherub throne. In the dead king's hand is a drooping lotus blossom.



The principal cities of Phoenicia were Tyre, Sidon, Aradus, Berytus, Byblus, and Tripolis. Besides these there were several other smaller towns and settlements, some of which appear, at one time or another of their existence, to have been of a certain importance. Among the cities above mentioned, Tyre, the Phoenician Sur, although perhaps not the most ancient, stands out pre-eminent as having been, for a considerable period, by far the most powerful and important, its strength, its splendour, and its commerce fully entitling it to take precedence over all its sister-towns. Had Phoenicia been a confederated state, under one ruler. Tyre might justly at one time have laid claim to be considered as its capital, and, in point of fact, Tyre appears, for a considerable time, to have had a certain ascendancy over the other cities, and to have been looked up to by them as their leader. The natural strategic position of Tyre, or " the Strong City," as it was called, no doubt contributed greatly towards its strength and immunity from attack, and, as in this particular respect, as well as in some others, the colony of Motya in Sicily somewhat resembled Tyre, it may be interesting here to give a short description of the site and environment of the great Phoenician stronghold. The most southerly settlement of any importance in Phoenicia, Tyre seems to have been formed of two distinct cities, one built on the sea-shore of the mainland, the other placed on a small island, or what were originally two small islands connected with each other, lying immediately opposite, and separated from the mainland by a channel or strait about half a mile in width. The former town, which was probably the older of the two, and was afterwards

Owing to the comparatively limited space available, the island Tyre was probably very thickly populated, the houses, like those of Motya, having apparently been very lofty and with several storeys. The fortification walls also, particularly those on the side of the mainland, are said to have been very lofty and solidly constructed. The water supply, as in the case of Motya, appears to have been obtained, in great part, from the mainland, being conducted by pipes under the sea ; but, as at Motya, cisterns were also largely used for collecting the rain-water, and we read of the islanders, when besieged, having been obliged to depend entirely on the supply contained in the latter and on the brackish water obtained from wells sunk in the soil.

According to Josephus, the relations between King Hiram and King Solomon were of a most friendly and intimate nature, the former being chiefly attracted to the Hebrew king by his great wisdom, while the latter, in his turn, seems greatly to have admired the energy and activity of the Tyrian monarch and his people. According to some accounts, Hiram gave his daughter in marriage to Solomon, and it is said that through her influence Solomon was induced to worship Astarte.

In the entire annals of history there is probably no town which ever offered so stubborn and heroic a resistance as Tyre did to the repeated attacks made on it by forces superior to its own. Its brilliant repulse of the Assyrians under Shalmaneser IV., in 725 B.C., was particularly noteworthy and deserving "of all praise, and not less so was the determination with which it gallantly and unflinchingly held out, for a period of no less than thirteen years, against the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar, 598 to 585 BC. Nothing, however, can surpass the noble and resolute resistance the un- daunted city offered to Alexander the Great in 332 b.c, when, after seven months of supreme and superhuman efforts, the brave defenders were at last vanquished and Tyre, for a time, ceased to exist.


Next in importance to Tyre came the city of Sidon, one of, if not the most ancient of all the Phoenician towns. For a certain time, indeed, it seems to have been of more consequence than even Tyre, and was known among the Hebrews as " Great Sidon " ; but its supremacy, apparently, was not of long duration. Situated on the sea-coast, like most of the Canaanite towns, and about twenty miles to the north of Tyre, its relations with that place were naturally more or less intimate, and the two cities appear to have been, at one time, federated together. The fame of the Sidonians as mariners was at least equal to, if not greater than, that of the Tyrians, while in some of their industries, such as, for instance, those of weaving and glass-work, the Sidonians apparently surpassed the Tyrians. Sidon naturally experienced the same vicissitudes of fortune as other Phoenician cities, and, like them, was successively under the dominion of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Macedonians.

Coffin of Eshmunazar II, king of Sidon, imported Egyptian coffin of black basalt, 5th century B.C.

She seems to have heroically withstood a siege on the part of the Persians under Ochus, but, betrayed by her own king, the traitor Tennes, was completely destroyed by her own citizens, who, anticipating either slavery or death at the hands of their enemies, pre- ferred to set fire to their dwellings and perish in the flames. Rebuilt, however, after a lapse of some years, Sidon again became an important town, under the Persians, continuing tributary to that power until the invasion of Alexander, when, still smarting under the recollection of her treatment eighteen years previously, she welcomed the newcomers with open arms, and, unlike Tyre, passed over to them without striking a blow.


Aradus, the most northerly town of any importance in Phoenicia, was, like Tyre, built on a small island, but at a greater distance from the mainland, on which, however, also stood a sister-town, Antaradus, almost opposite. In many respects Aradus closely resembled Tyre, its buildings being very lofty and crowded together, and its fortifications most solidly constructed. Cisterns were also used here for storing the rain-water, but, in addition thereto, an abundant supply of fresh water appears to have been obtained from a submarine spring rising in mid-channel between the island and the mainland.

Berytus (Beirut)

Though at the present day the site of a fairly large and prosperous town, Berytus, the modern Beyrout, appears to have been of comparatively small importance in the time of the Phoenicians, little indeed being heard of the place in those days. It seems, however, to have been one of the oldest Phoenician towns, and its site was well chosen, being situated on a promontory jutting out for a considerable distance into the sea about the centre of the Phoenician coast-line.


Tripolis, now Tarabulus, lies still further north, and, like Bertyus, is situated on a promontory running out into the sea. The old town was divided into three separate quarters, each a small town itself, which were said to have been founded by settlers from Tyre, Sidon, and Aradus. The river Kadisha finds its way into the sea at this point, flowing from the central ridge of Lebanon, and above the source of this river rise the loftiest summits in Syria, attaining more than nine thousand feet in height. Some of the finest cedar forests of Lebanon are to be found in this neighbour- hood and are within easy distance of Tripolis. Of the remaining Phoenician towns the most worthy of notice are Akka, or Acre, the ancient Ptolemais, near Carmel and Sarepta, in the south; Marathus, Simyra, and Laodicea in the north, the last three settlements being all celebrated for their antiquity.

The race appears to have originally inhabited the shores of the  Persian Gulf, but at some early period, prior to the Trojan War,  abandoning that country, it migrated by land westward, and  eventually settled on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.  Whether this migration took place in consequence of an earthquake, as stated by Justin, or whether it was due to differences  and warfare with neighbouring people, or whether again it was  simply out of a spirit of enterprise and love of adventure, it is  difficult, not to say impossible, to tell. Be this as it may, it seems  certain that the Phoenicians were not aboriginal in Syria ; indeed,  according to Herodotus, they themselves stated that they had  migrated from the Red Sea.   The date of their settlement on the eastern shores of the  Mediterranean is obscure. Like the Egyptians, the Phoenicians  themselves claimed a very remote antiquity, but this probably  referred to a period of their existence anterior to their migration  from further east. Herodotus, when visiting  Tyre in the fifth  century before Christ, was told by the priests of the temple of  Hercules that two thousand three hundred years had elapsed since  the foundation of that city. If this were true, and as Tyre was  not founded until some time after the arrival of the Phoenicians  on the Mediterranean coast, it would take the date of their settlement back to about 2800 B.C. Little, however, is heard either of  the people or their country until a much later date.   

During the late Bronze Age, copper and tin was of great importance in the eastern Mediterranean, Bylbos was an important bronze working center with local copper deposits and was a terminus for the tin trade from Afghanistan . There was great demand in Egypt for cedar for ships,beams , coffins and more .








History of the Phoenicians

 in their homeland