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The Phoenicians were a Semitic people who inhabited the coast of Syria-Palestine (roughly the area that is now Lebanon and northern Israel) in ancient times. The name comes from the Greek, from the Tyrian purple dye which they were especially famous for; in the Bible they are called Canaanites (although that term is actually somewhat broader, also encompassing the pre-Israelite inhabitants of Palestine) or Sidonians (after the city of Sidon). This was then an area rich in natural resources and ideally suited for trade.

During the early Iron Age, when powers that had previously dominated the area like Egypt and the Hittites were weakened or destroyed, a number of northern Phoenician cities established themselves as significant maritime powers. The city of Byblos was originally predominant, but this was attacked by successive invaders, and by around 1000 BC Tyre and Sidon had taken its place.

In the following centuries, the Phoenicians formed the major naval and trading power of the region. From their own country came the purple ink as well as the famous wood of the cedars of Lebanon. From elsewhere they got many other materials, perhaps the most important being tin from Spain and Britain, which together with copper (from Cyprus) was used to make bronze. The trade routes from Asia converged on the Phoenician coast as well, causing the Phoenicians to also govern trade between Mesopotamia on the one side and Egypt and Arabia on the other.

The Phoenicians established commercial outposts throughout the Mediterranean, the most notable being Carthage in North Africa, with others in Cyprus, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Spain (the name Spain came from a Phoenician word, which means 'rabbit coast'), and elsewhere. Their ships ventured out into the Atlantic ocean as far as Britain, where the tin mines in modern Cornwall provided them with important material. They also sailed south along the coast of Africa. According to Herodotus, a Phoenician expedition led by Hanno of Carthage[?] circumnavigated Africa for the Egyptian pharaoh Neco II; even if this is not true, it is certain that Phoenicians visited a large part of the African coast.

The Phoenicians exerted considerable influence on the other groups around the Mediterranean, notably the Greeks, who later became their main commercial rivals. They appear in both Greek mythology and the Bible. Traditionally the city of Thebes was founded by a Phoenician prince named Cadmus when he set out to look for his sister Europa, who had been kidnapped by Zeus.

With the rise of Assyria, the Phoenician cities one by one lost their independence, and afterwards were dominated by Babylonia and then by Persia. They remained very important, however, and provided these powers with their main source of naval strength. The stacked warships like triremes and quinqueremes[?] were probably Phoenician inventions, though eagerly adopted by the Greeks. Phoenicia lost its influential role after the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great, who besieged and destroyed the dominant city of Tyre in order to cripple the enemy navy. However, by that time the western Phoenician colony Carthage had not just gained its independence, but had become a major power in the Western Mediterranean in its own right, until it was conquered by the Romans.

The Phoenician alphabet, which was developed around 1500 BCE, was very important because it was the first true alphabet consisting of single letters. From this alphabet the Greek alphabet, which forms the basis of all European alphabets, has been derived. The alphabets of the Middle East and India also derive from the Phoenician alphabet.

In the Bible, king Hiram I of Tyre is mentioned as co-operating with Solomon in mounting an expedition on the Red Sea and on building the temple. The temple of Solomon was built according to Phoenician design, and its description is considered the best description we have of what a Phoenician temple looked like. Phoenicians from Syria were also called Syrophenicians.

Important Phoenician cities:

Important Phoenician colonies:

The History of Phoenicia, first published in 1889 by George Rawlinson is available under Project Gutenberg at: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=2331

Please note that Rawlinson's text was written in the nineteenth century, and needs updating for modern improvements in historical understanding.

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

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