We explain who the Phoenicians were, what their religion and society was like. Also, what are their characteristics and cultural traits.

The Phoenician cities led the trade of the Mediterranean Sea between 2800 and 700 BC. c.

Who were the Phoenicians?

The Phoenicians were the ancient inhabitants of the Levant, on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, a region then known as Canaan. They were great navigators, establishing trade routes throughout the Mediterranean, the Aegean and the Black Sea.. Between 2800 and 700 B.C. C., the Phoenician cities of Byblos, Sidon and Tire managed to control trade in the region alternately and maintain their political autonomy.

The Phoenicians they called themselves canaanitesreferring to the region they inhabited. Other civilizations they traded with gave them other names. The ancient Greeks called them phoinikes (“red, purple”), due to the purple dyes they traded. From this word also derives the name Punic used by the Latinos and the name Phoenician used by specialists today.

See also: Byzantine Empire

Characteristics of the Phoenicians

The main characteristics of the Phoenicians were:

  • They inhabited the Levant region, north of Palestine, between 2800 and 700 BC. c.
  • From their main cities, such as Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre, they controlled the trade of the Mediterranean Sea.
  • They founded dozens of colonies and trading factories on the Mediterranean coasts, and left a marked influence in North Africa, southern Spain and southern Italy.
  • They maintained the independence of their cities, and formed commercial and political alliances to defend themselves against the other powers in the region.
  • They organized their politics and society around commercial activity, controlled by merchant aristocrats who formed governing councils in each city and limited the power of kings.
  • They influenced the cultures of the region, by exchanging goods, services and ideas between distant territories and very different populations.
  • They created an alphabetic writing system that was later used by the Greeks and the Latins.

Geographic location of the Phoenicians

The Phoenician civilization developed on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Phoenicians settled in the Levant, a territory that stretches along the Mediterranean coast., between the sea and the mountains of Lebanon, from the mouth of the Orontes River, in the north, to the bay of Haifa in the south. Currently, this space is occupied by the countries of Lebanon, Israel, Syria and Palestine.

History of the Phoenicians

The Phoenician city of Tire dominated Mediterranean trade between 1200 and 700 BC. c.

Specialists divide the history of the Phoenicians into three major periods:

  • 2800-1600 BCE C.. At this stage, the city of Byblos predominated, which had commercial relations with the kingdom of Egypt. His support allowed him to impose himself and influence the rest of the Phoenician cities. However, it ended up subjected to the Egyptian government and lost its commercial predominance in the region.
  • 1600-1200 BCE C.. The city of Sidon became more important and came to extend its trade routes through the Mediterranean, the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea. Towards the end of the period, the Greeks drove the Phoenicians out of the Aegean Sea, and the Sea Peoples began a series of attacks on the city.
  • 1200-700 BCE C.. In this period, the city of greatest preponderance was Tire, located on an island near the coast of the Levant. Its merchants used the routes opened by the Sidonians and extended them: they reached the western Mediterranean, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and reached the British Isles. On their way they founded trading colonies, such as Carthage on the African coast. The growth of the city and its commercial power brought internal disputes and the empires of the region began to intercede. This weakened the city, which ended up losing its economic and political autonomy and, around 700 BC. C., came under the rule of the Assyrians.
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Social organization of the Phoenicians

The Phoenicians they had a stratified society that was organized around trade. The upper class consisted of an aristocracy from the great families of merchants and slave traders. Then, there was a class of medium merchants, who dealt with the smaller scale trade routes. Sailors and artisans made up the lowest class of society.

Political organization of the Phoenicians

The Phoenician cities created alliances to defend themselves against neighboring empires.

The Phoenicians never had a centralized government. In its place, there was a group of city-states that had a greater or lesser level of regional influence according to their wealth and political power. These cities were independent and formed political and commercial alliances to maintain their autonomy from the rest of the kingdoms and empires in the region.

Each city was ruled by a king and his power was believed to be of divine origin. However, the power of him was not absolute: the king exercised military and economic functionsbut shared the government with a Council of Elders, made up of the parents of the aristocratic families.

The Phoenicians did not conquer the territories they reached with their trade routes. Instead, they founded their own colonies and commercial factories (enclaves dedicated to production). In this way, they developed a network of support, production and distribution points for their trade routes.

Economy of the Phoenicians

The Phoenicians traded oil, wine, resin, and perfumes in ceramic vessels.

The Phoenician economy was essentially maritime, with a strong exchange dynamic between their own cities and abroad. They became a commercial power in the region, which is why they are considered the great merchants of Antiquity.

The main commercial activity was the slave trade., which were captured by the merchants themselves or bought in local markets. In addition, they traded silk and linen fabrics, oil, wine, resin, perfumes and all kinds of luxury goods. Their routes connected the Nile river delta in Egypt with the Mediterranean Sea, the islands of the Aegean Sea and the cities of Asian Mesopotamia.

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They also devoted themselves to boat building, for which they used cedar wood from the forests of Lebanon. They founded dozens of factories in which the work of metals, such as gold, silver and bronze, and ceramic production, decorated with a purple dye that they extracted from mollusks, predominated. murice.

religion of the phoenicians

The city of Byblos dedicated its main temple to the goddess Astarte.

The Phoenicians They were polytheists and worshiped different gods.. Although each city had its main pantheon, the cult of Baal and Astarte was practiced in all of them, the divine marriage that represented the sun and the moon.
Some of the main gods of their mythology were:

  • astarte. Main goddess of the cities of Sidon and Byblos (although with a presence in other Phoenician cities), she was the representation of fertility. She was also worshiped as a goddess of the hunt, war, and patroness of sailors. She came to be assimilated with the Greek Aphrodite or the Egyptian Isis, and is depicted with a lion, and holding a lotus flower and snake, often bare-breasted or nursing.
  • Eshmun. Worshiped in Sidon and Cyprus, and assimilated to Apollo and Aesculapius in the Greco-Roman tradition, he was a healing god, in whose honor games similar to the Greek Olympians were held, and whose winner was rewarded with a purple cloth.
  • Baal. It was a solar divinity to which the inhabitants of Asia Minor worshiped, and those peoples over whom they had influence, such as the Phoenician. She was the deity of rain and war, and was one of the central gods of the Phoenician cult.
  • Chusor. God of the armorers, blacksmiths and fishermen, he is supposed to be the first of the navigators of humanity and the builder of the first temple to Baal. In addition, he was credited with the invention of fishing, navigation, and the forge.
  • Hadad. He was the Phoenician god of the air, storms and lightning, rain and wind. The Phoenicians thought that it was his voice that resounded in the midst of storms.
  • Melkart. He was the Phoenician divinity of the city of Tyre, equivalent to a Phoenician version of Baal. He was originally an agricultural and spring god, who was venerated through sacrificial rites, and acquired a maritime content in Phoenicia, in a clear example of religious syncretism. His name means “King of the city” and in Tire he was venerated as such, and he was also considered a god of navigation and especially of colonization.
  • dagon. Possible syncretism between three gods (one Ugaritic: Ben Dagon; one Sumerian: Dagan; and one Phoenician: Dagon), he was a maritime divinity represented as a half-man, half-fish creature. However, other interpretations associate him with agricultural words (“ear” in Hebrew), although he is perhaps one of the few national gods of the Philistines.
  • Moloch. Supreme god and protector of Carthage, he was a bull-deity similar to the minotaur. In honor of him, four young people a year were sacrificed, locked in a structure that was later burned.
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culture of the phoenicians

Phoenicians culture writing
The Phoenicians invented a phonetic alphabet that made words with vowels and consonants.

The main cultural features of the Phoenicians were:

  • art and architecture. For centuries, the Phoenicians used Egyptian and Assyrian styles in their artistic and architectural designs. Artistic production was for commercial purposes, so ceramics and handicrafts took shapes and designs from those regions with which they were traded.
  • Writing. The Phoenicians created an alphabetic writing system, made up of 22 phonetic signs. The signs differed in vowels and consonants, which combined to form words. This system was easy to learn and use, making it highly suitable for commercial use. It spread through Phoenician trade routes and enclaves, and ended up being adopted by other peoples, such as the Greeks and Latins, who took it as the basis for their own writing systems.
  • maritime exploration. Throughout their history, the Phoenicians were expanding their commercial routes towards ever more distant maritime spaces. In this sense, the foundation of colonies was key, which allowed them to secure ports and warehouses for merchandise. They traveled through the Mediterranean between March and October, using two different routes (the southern one, along the African coast; and the northern one, between the Aegean islands).
  • economic exchange. For commercial exchanges, the Phoenicians had different methods: they negotiated directly from the ships to the ports they arrived at, they disembarked on the beach and negotiated with the local inhabitants, or they unloaded the merchandise on the beach and waited for the local inhabitants. will make their offers.
  • culture exchange. Through trade relations, the Phoenicians became carriers of culture between the different regions. With their constant contact, they favored the diffusion and mutation of diverse cultural traditions.

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  • “Did the Phoenicians ever exist?” in Haaretz.

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