Phoenician ship

Phoenician ship.

For a thousand years (1400-400 BC) a collection of people, living on a tract of land between the mountains of Lebanon and the sea, played a great part in history. They were called Phoenicians and they lived in harbours on the coast of what is now Syria and Lebanon. Who were they and where did they come from? They were a Semitic people and were descended, like the Hebrews, from the Canaanites. They probably came from Mesopotamia in about 2000 BC; they started to build towns on the coast and became in a few years the greatest seafaring nation in the world. In their love of the sea, as in many other ways, they were quite unlike their religious-minded Hebrew cousins living in Israel.


Phoenician history begins in about 1600 BC. Their most famous towns were Tyre, Sidon, Aradus and Beirut. All these towns are today silted up except Beirut, which is still a lively harbour.


For most of their history the Phoenicians were under foreign rule or influence: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Macedon and Rome. But for them commerce was more important than politics; love of profit and adventure guided their lives. They were not thinkers or religious-minded, but traders and men of action.


In their sturdy ships they circumnavigated Africa, passed through the Pillars of Hercules to the Atlantic and reached the shores of Britain. They mined tin in the Scilly Isles. Wherever they went they traded – in timber, slaves, spices, amber, gems, copper.


Phoenicians at home

At home in their city states they were shipbuilders, miners, dyers, engravers and engineers. They made textiles and wrought ornaments in silver and gold. They were called Phoenicians from the Greek word 'Phoinos', which means blood-red, because of their sunburnt skins. We can read about their way of life in the Old Testament, where the prophet Ezekiel describes how they sold the products of Egypt and Babylonia throughout the Mediterranean.


Colonial power

The Phoenician cities were self-governing and sometimes had kings. But more powerful than the kings were the rich merchant families, who were the real rulers. Tyre and Sidon founded their own colonies in the Mediterranean; there were Phoenician colonies in Cyprus, North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and Spain. Carthage was founded by Tyre in 813. We know from the Greek philosopher Plato that the Phoenicians were hated for their love of gain. They were also grudgingly admired for their cleverness and enterprise.



Because the land where the Phoenicians settled was very poor, they turned to the sea and became fishermen instead of farmers. At first in their Mesopotamian days they made boats like water casks, out of skins. Then they began to build ships strong enough to stand up to rough seas.


Very soon the Phoenicians became expert sailors. They knew the bays and cities along the coasts and the people who lived there. In their ships the Phoenicians explored routes which no one had ever followed before; they discovered the first principles of navigation at sea by observing the stars and the sun.


Foreign domination

The Phoenicians only enjoyed freedom from foreign control for the short period of 52 years (928-876 BC). It was during this time that Tyre became the richest and most powerful of the city states. Its king, Hiram, was a friend of King Solomon and supplied him with cedar wood for building the temple in Jerusalem. This brief period of political freedom was ended with the coming of Assyrian rule. Throughout their history the Phoenicians never bothered to fight for their liberty against the great empires which followed one another from the fifteenth to the fourth centuries BC. All they wanted was freedom to trade. In 333 BC Alexander the Great destroyed the city of Tyre. In 64 BC the Romans came and trampled the civilization of Phoenicia to death. This marked the end of Phoenicia and she never recovered.


These shrewd sailors, after they discovered profitable sources of metal and purple dyes beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, spread tales that there were horrible monsters in the ocean, large enough to swallow whole ships. People believed these stories and no one dared go through the straits for a long time.


Sometimes they landed at a coastal village. They would offer liberal quantities of wine to the villagers until they fell into a drunken sleep. Then they kidnapped the young men and carried them off in their ships to sell as slaves.


Phoenicians navigating by the stars
Phoenicians navigating by the stars


The Phoenicians were expert shipbuilders. They were the first to build ships with a keel and ribs, on which wide planks were laid.


The wood they used was that of the great cedars which grew on the mountains of Lebanon with straight trunks up to a height of 120 feet. Their ships had a curious mast in the form of an inverted 'V'. Sometimes they used two sails on the one mast, one on each arm of the 'V'.


Naturally these sails could not be turned and so could only be used when there was a favourable following wind. (Otherwise oars had to be used.)


The polar star guided the route of Phoenician ships In northern parts of the Earth, the Pole Star (Polaris) appears high in the sky. As one approaches the Equator, it appears nearer to the horizon.


The Phoenicians were the first to notice this fact on their long voyages; they learned that, to steer correctly towards the islands where they found tin, they had to see the Pole Star getting higher in the sky every night. When, on the other hand, they ran down the African coast in search of specie (gold), the Pole Star had every night to get nearer and nearer to the horizon. This knowledge was for centuries the sailor's only means of navigation.


Table of Phoenician history
BC 1600-928 Egyptian rule
928-876 Independent city states
876-605 Assyrian rule
605-538 Neo-Babylonian period
538-333 Persian period
333-69 Macedonian period
64 Roman rule