Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Phoenicia (1200-800 BC)

Early Greeks referred to the people living along the eastern Mediterranean coast of as Phoenicians. By the year 1200 BC, the Phoenicians had organized themselves into municipal states. The most important Phoenician cities were (from south to north) Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, and Byblos.

Beginning around 1200 BC, the Phoenicians entered their golden age and began to expand overseas. Increasingly profitable trade allowed them to build trading posts and then colonies along the coasts of northwestern Sicily (Palermo), southern Sardinia, the Balearic Islands, southern Iberia (Cádiz, Málaga, and Cartegana), and North Africa (Carthage and Hippo). Their expansion was helped by the contraction of both Mycenean and Egyptian power during this period. Egyptian power had been broken by repeated attacks of invaders called the Sea Peoples.

The prosperity of the separate Phoenician municipal states was built on maritime trade. From the legendary cedars that grew on nearby hills, Phoenicians built a strong merchant fleet and also traded cedar lumber.

Another valuable product of Phoenician cities was purple dye. Artisans made this dye from mucus secreted by a marine snail unique to the Levantine coast. The extremely limited supplies of this mucus, plus the large amount of human labor needed to make dye using it, made the dye quite expensive. Only the rich and powerful could afford it. Eventually, this purple came to be synonymous with rulers.

In earlier days, each municipal state was ruled by a king who also served as high priest. Eventually, wealthy merchants demanded participation in making and enforcing the rules of their city. In time, small councils of the most powerful merchants took control of the state from the king.

According to one tradition, a woman named Dido ruled Tyre until her brother murdered her husband and forced her to flee. She then founded the new city of Carthage. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, Dido greeted Aeneas, prince of Troy, after he fled from his burning city and the conquering Myceneans.

When the militant Assyrians poured out of their Mesopotamian homeland in the late 800s BC, many wealthy Phoenicians abandoned the Levant for the greater safety and prosperity of Carthage and helped make it the center of Mediterranean trade.

Merchants need records to keep track of goods and profits. Brisk trade requires a way of writing that is quick and easy. For this reason the Phoenicians developed a simple yet accurate and effective phonetic alphabet. Greeks borrowed it, followed by the Romans, and through them it came to serve as the basis of the English alphabet we use today.

Copyright © 2012 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.