The Phoenicians

Lebanon has a heritage that goes back in recorded history to around 3000 B.C. Its geographic location on the Mediterranean Sea gave it importance as a trading and commercial center. The tradition began with the Phoenicians and continued through many centuries, remaining almost unaffected by foreign rule and other calamities.

At different periods of its history, Lebanon has come under the domination of foreign rulers, including Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, and French. Although often conquered, the Lebanese take pride in their rebellions against despotic and repressive rulers. Lebanon's mountainous terrain has provided it with a certain protective isolation, enabling it to survive with an identity all its own.

The name Phoenicia comes form the Greek word “phoinikies”, a purple dye produced from the murex shell.

The Phoenicians are descended from the early Canaanites who inhabited the coast of Lebanon and the Sea People who invaded Lebanon about l200 B.C. The early Canaanites had a limited ship building technology, sailing only flat bottomed barges close to shore. The invading Sea People introduced a much more sophisticated shipbuilding craft. The Phoenicians appeared in history with an established maritime tradition and the technology to build ships with a keeled hull. This allowed them to sail the open seas, and to develop a flourishing sea trade.

They established trading colonies on rocky promontories which provided natural protected harbors on most of the Mediterranean shore. Tyre, Sidon in Lebanon and Carthage, now in Tunisia, are their most famous cities. Each of the coastal cities was an independent kingdom noted for the special activities of its inhabitants. Tyre and Sidon were important maritime and trade centers; Byblos and Berytus (Beirut) were trade and religious centers.

Among the items the Phoenicians exported were cedar, pine, fine linen, embroideries, metalwork, glass, wine, salt and dried fish. They imported papyrus for paper, ivory, ebony, silk, amber, ostrich eggs, spices, incense, horses, gold, silver, copper, iron, tin and jewels. Cedar was very important and much prized. Byblos was the first Phoenician city to trade actively with Egypt and the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 B.C.), exporting cedar, olive oil, and wine, while importing gold and other products from the Nile Valley. The Egyptian Pharoah Tutankhamen had artifacts in his tomb made of Phoenician cedar, and King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem was built of cedar.

As merchants, the Phoenicians needed a simple alphabet to keep track of their commerce. They therefore replaced the cumbersome cuneiform alphabet of 550 characters with a phonetic alphabet based on distinct sounds and consisting of 22 letters.

They left few if any written records. Much of what we know of them was recorded by Greek and Roman historians who mentioned their seamanship and commercial enterprises.

Excavations in the 1900s revealed a series of semi-intact royal tombs in Byblos that gave a glimpse of Phoenician treasure, including vessels of gold, silver, and obsidian, sandals and breastplates of gold, and an array of royal paraphernalia. The most important find was made in 1922, when an inscription in the Phoenician alphabet on an elaborate sarcophagus in Byblos was discovered: "This coffin was made by Ithobaal, the son of Ahiram, King of Byplos, as the eternal resting place for his father. If any ruler or governor or general attacks Byblos and touches this coffin, his sceptre will be broken...."

The primary god of the Phoenicians was El, protector of the universe, but often called Baal. The son Melkart symbolized the annual cycle of vegetation and was associated with the female deity Astarte in her role as the maternal goddess. She was called Asherar-yam, our lady of the sea, and in Byblos she was Baalat, our dear lady. Astarte was linked with goddesses of neighboring Greek and Persian cultures in her role as combined heavenly mother and earth mother. The Phoenician triad of Baal, Melkart and Astarte eventually took on the look of Greek deities.

During the years of their prosperity, the Phoenician invention of the alphabet facilitated communications and trade. They excelled in producing textiles and in carving ivory, in working with metal, and above all in making glass. The craft of glass making was raised to a fine art by Phoenician artisans, and they may have been the first to develop blown glass. Their terra cotta vessels and pots often show a thoughtful refinement of shape, as do their votive statues.

The Phoenicians reached the peak of their culture around l, 000 B.C, by which time they had established trading colonies in Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia, Africa and Spain. Their ships circumnavigated Africa a thousand years before those of the Portuguese.

Carthage was founded about 800 B.C. It continued to flourish, mining iron and precious metals from Iberia, and using its considerable naval power and mercenary armies to protect its commercial interests until it was finally destroyed by Rome around 149 BC at the end of the Punic Wars. The great city states of Phoenicia ended with the fall of Tyre to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 573 B.C. The glory of the Phoenicians began to decline, and in 332 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered Tyre, and the remnants of the Phoenician culture were swept into the Hellenistic empire.



Founding of Tyre, according to Herodotus.

B.C.1700 (circa)

Cadmus introduced the alphabet to the Greeks.


The Phoenician Canaanites are spoken of as battling against the Egyptians.

B.C.1500 (circa)

The Phoenicians settle Cyprus.


They make commercial treaties with Egypt.


War of Sidon against the Philistines, and possible devastation of Sidon.


Tyre becomes the chief Phoenician city at the time when the Trojan wars begin.


Cadiz and other colonies planted on the Atlantic shores.


Abibal, the earliest known king of Tyre.


Hiram succeeded Abibal, formed alliance with kings David and Solomon, built up Tyre, and sent out rich trading expeditions.

B.C.990 (circa)

Zadok the Priest, pagan Phoenician priest and king of Jerusalem anointed Solomon king.

B.C.970 (circa)

Hiram, king of Tyre, builds the Temple of Solomon


Eth-baal, the priest king, seizes the throne


Phoenician cities pay tribute to Assyria.

B.C.860 (circa)

Jezebel, princess of Tyre, married Ahab, king of Israel.


Phoenicians defeated by the Assyrians.


Carthage founded.


Tyre wins against the Assyrians the first naval battle of history, and withstands a five years' siege.


Spain becomes an independent Phoenician kingdom.


Sidon besieged for three years and captured by the Assyrians.


Phoenician cities escape from the weakened Assyrian empire.


Phoenician Thales of Miletus became known as the first known philosopher, scientist and mathematician.


Nebuchadnezzar begins his great thirteen year siege of Tyre. The city finally capitulates.


Phoenician Thales of Citium forecasted the solar eclipse of that year.

B.C.570 (circa)

Pythagoras, Phoenician mathematician and scientist was trained in the mysteries of Phoenician religion in the temples of Phoenicia.


Phoenicia becomes a Persian province; Carthage asserts its independence.


The Carthaginians drive the Greeks from Corsica.


Carthage acknowledged by Rome as ruler of the western seas.

B.C.500 (circa)

Hanno circumnavigates Africa.

B.C.510 (circa)

Himilco, Carthaginian voyager, the first known sailor from the Mediterranean to have reached the northwestern shores of Europe.

B.C.440 (circa)

Herodotus, the Greek historian, visited and wrote about Phoenicia.


The Phoenician ships under Persian rule defeated by the Greeks at Salamis and the Carthaginians defeated at Himera.


An African revolt against Carthage suppressed.


Tyre besieged by Alexander the Great and stormed after a remarkable contest.


Carthage besieged by the Greeks of Sicily.

B.C.306 (circa)

Zeno of Citium, Stoic philosopher, became well known for his work.


Carthage finally conquers Sicily.


Carthage begins her first war with the Romans and beginning of Punic wars.


The Carthaginian fleet was defeated at Mylae.


The Carthaginian fleeet was defeated a second time at Ecnomus; the Romans invade Africa, but are defeated and their army perishes.


Hamilcar repeatedly defeats the Romans in small battles in Sicily.


Hamilcar begins the building of an empire among the Phoenician cities in Spain.


Hasdrubal succeeds Hamilcar and continues his work in Spain.


Hannibal succeeds Hasdrubal and defies the Romans.


Hannibal crosses the Alps into Italy and wins repeated victories.


Hannibal's chief victory at Cannae; the Romans no longer dare meet him in the field.


Hannibal besieges Rome, but abandons the siege as hopeless.


The Romans victorious in Spain.


A second Carthaginian army, having crossed the Alps, is defeated at the Metaurus.


The Romans invade Africa.


Hannibal recalled to defend Carthage.


He is defeated at Zama.


Carthage submits to Rome.


Tyre came under the rule of the Seleucids.


Death of Hannibal.


The Carthaginians commanded to leave their city; they resist and withstand a two years' siege.


Fall of Carthage and end of Punic wars.


Zeno of Sidon, the philosopher, wrote on logic, atomic theory, biology, ethics, literary style, oratory, poetry, the theory of knowledge, and to mathematics as well as commentary on the philosopher Epicurus.


Tyre obtaining self-government from Seleucids.


A Roman colony rebuilds Carthage under Augustus Caesar; and it becomes a great city.

A.D.27 (circa)

Jesus Christ visited Sidon