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READ: Phoenicians - Masters of the Sea

The Phoenicians were master seafarers and traders who created a robust network across—and beyond—the Mediterranean Sea, spreading technologies and ideas as they traveled.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How do historians know about Phoenician society?
  2. What system of production and distribution sustained Phoenician society?
  3. What aspects of Phoenician sailing technology helped them become “masters of the sea?”
  4. Describe women’s roles in Phoenician society, according to the author.
  5. What’s the significance of Phoenician colonies?
  6. Where did the Phoenician script come from? What was special about it, and what were its benefits?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. How was Phoenician community organization unique compared to other states during this era? How was it similar?
  2. Phoenicia was a complex society, with a state structure, and it arguably even became an empire. But it had an unusual system of production and distribution. How does this fit with the narrative of most complex societies during this era?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Phoenicians: Masters of the Sea

Black and white line drawing of a ship leaving a big city. The ship holds several men and has a horse head carved into the mast.
By Eman M. Elshaikh
The Phoenicians were master seafarers and traders who created a robust network across—and beyond—the Mediterranean Sea, spreading technologies and ideas as they traveled.

A seafaring people

When we think about societies that had a massive impact on world history, we often forget about the "purple people." The Greeks gave this name to their seafaring trade partners, the Phoenicians, because of the rare purple dye they made from snail shells. And although the Phoenicians called themselves Can'ani (Canaanites), the name the Greeks gave them seems to have stuck.
This is partly because historians mainly used Greek, Assyrian, and Latin sources along with Biblical references to learn about Phoenician society. The Phoenicians are perhaps best known for creating the first alphabet, which influenced writing systems everywhere. The Phoenicians used this alphabet to record their histories on papyrusstart superscript, 1, end superscript. Unfortunately, almost all of their original writings were lost due to changing environmental conditions and multiple migrations and invasions. Still, historians and archaeologists are able to piece together a story about the Phoenicians.
Historians think "Phoenicia" was never a unified society. Rather, it was a loose alliance of many city-states in modern-day Lebanon and Syria, including Tyre, Byblos, Beirut, and Sidon. Phoenician cities were also often controlled by other regional powers like the Egyptians and Assyrians.
Photo of three different colors of perfect next to the shells of the sea snails that leave such dyes.
Dyed purple fabric with their corresponding sea snail, Museum of Natural History, Vienna. By Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Though the Phoenician people didn't form a powerful empire, they were still incredibly influential. As master seafarers and traders, they created a robust network across and beyond the Mediterranean Sea. Phoenician ships carried technologies and ideas. As a result, Phoenician merchant communities absorbed and adapted foreign ideas. They formed critical connections between places, and drove cultural exchanges that would impact the world for millennia.
Map of Phoenicia, a very small area near Cyprus, and the vast trade routes that stemmed from it.

Masters of the sea

Driven to the coast, probably by their aggressive Assyrian neighbors, Phoenicians were not able to develop extensive farming. The environmental conditions inland were not favorable to large-scale agriculture. Living in a narrow coastal corridor that connected Asia to Africa, Phoenicians took advantage of their location to foster trade.
Image of land jutting into a wide expanse of deep blue sea.
A satellite image of Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, jutting into the Mediterranean Sea. By NASA Earth Observatory, public domain.
Ancient writers describe the Phoenicians as expert sailors. They were first to venture from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. By 1200 BCE, they were the dominant maritime power, and they continued to dominate until around 800 BCE. They built commercial colonies in Rhodes, Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, and north Africa. This gave them a network of ports in the Mediterranean. There's also evidence that they ventured far west to what is now Spain and beyond to the Atlantic coast of Africa. According to ancient Greek historian Herodotus, they traveled as far as South Africa!
Their success was due to their ships. They were known for their speed and their ability to maneuver harsh seas. In fact, the ancient Egyptians called boats that could travel in the deep seas "Byblos boats," after the Phoenician city-state. Phoenician boats had room for many rowers and were built to sail long distances. One key ship technology was the cutwater, a sharp point that allowed ships to, well, cut through water. Phoenician ships were so advanced that both Persian and Assyrian royalty used Phoenician ships to sail. Phoenician sailors themselves were also skilled. They were some of the first people to use stars to navigate.
Fragment of a detailed rock carving depicting a ship on the sea, with men rowing the ship using oars. The sea is shown with wavy lines, and there is a fish swimming beneath the boat.
Along with their famous purple dyes, Phoenician sailors traded textiles, wood, glass, metals, incense, papyrus, and carved ivory. In fact, the word "Bible," from the Greek biblion, or book, came from the city of Byblos. It was a center of the trade of papyrus, a common writing material in the ancient world. They also traded wine, spices, salted fish and other food.
The Phoenician political structure supported this trade. Foreign policy was determined by the dominant merchant class. They had an economic interest in maintaining sea lanes and making it easy to get raw materials.
A photo of a yellowed, torn piece of papyrus that has been written on.

The Phoenician community

Trade was at the center of the Phoenician economy, so merchants were at the center of the political structure and community. Merchant families made up the Phoenician senate, which determined the affairs of the city-state. This created a kind of merchant aristocracy (upper class). But unlike other aristocracies, this wasn't a closed group for those of noble birth.
Painting depicts four people, two in the forefront of the painting and two in the background. The frontmost two are seated, mostly nude, the woman's arms draped around the man's shoulders.
Dido and Aeneas, from a Roman fresco, Pompeii, Italy (10 BCE – 45 CE). By Stefano Bolognini, public domain.
In general, there was a lot of social mobility in Phoenician communities. Phoenicians frequently married non- Phoenicians, and women had more freedom than many other women in the ancient world. There are few sources about Phoenician life in general and even less about women. But evidence suggests that women had a seat at the table—literally. Carvings and inscriptions show women at banquets and large gatherings alongside their male family members. They are also seen at religious events. There were many respected female deities (gods). The Phoenicians also had famous female leaders, including Dido, the Queen of Carthage.
Photo of a sculpture of a person holding up one arm.
Figure of the god Ba’al with raised arm, 14th–12th century BCE, found at ancient Ugarit (Ras Shamra site), a city at the far north of the Phoenician coast. By Jastrow, public domain.
But hierarchies did exist. There were many enslaved people in Phoenician society. Many of these slaves were captured enemy soldiers. There were also reports that Phoenician sailors tricked people onto ships, pretending to show them goods, then capturing them as slaves. But since these reports came from Phoenicia's competitors, we should be aware of historical bias from these sources.
Historians have a better understanding of Phoenician's belief system. This may be because it's one of the main things uniting the many Phoenician communities. Even the faraway colony of Carthage in modern-day Tunisia sent people back to Tyre annually to participate in a sacrifice at the temple of the god Melqart. There were multiple Phoenician deities. Like the Greek gods, they were seen as powerful and unpredictable.
Many of these religious beliefs were based on Mesopotamian traditions. Indeed, much of Phoenician culture was a kind of adaptation. Phoenician art borrowed a lot from Asian and Egyptian styles, probably partly because Phoenicians had customers in those regions. But although Phoenicians borrowed a lot, they also innovated. In fact, the incredibly innovative Phoenician alphabet—which we'll come back to in a moment—may have begun as an experimentation based on Mesopotamian and Egyptian systems of writing.

Phoenicians abroad

Phoenicians were often under pressure by aggressive neighbors. Without enough land to feed their growing population, Phoenicians ventured abroad looking for land, resources, and trading partners. Some colonies, most notably Carthage, came to be more powerful than the original city-states. By 500 BCE, Carthage was one of the biggest cities in the world, with nearly half a million residents.
These colonies played a critical role in the production and distribution of goods. They formed the basis of a lively trade network. Over two dozen ports and colonies were strung together, linking Mediterranean and Atlantic trade. Colonies were ethnically diverse. Phoenicians, indigenous people, and migrants from across the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa lived in them. Though the Phoenicians built colonies, they didn't really build an empire, because they didn't directly rule over a large territory. However, they did have power over the colonized people. For example, in fertile Carthage, enslaved people and indigenous peasants farmed to provide a stable food supply. Carthage also had a powerful military. It was therefore the most empire-like of the Phoenician city-states.
Many commercial colonies became vibrant city-states. In fact, some historians argue that these Phoenician urban centers became the model for the Greek city-state. But perhaps the most influential thing the Phoenicians introduced to Greece was their alphabet.

A revolutionary script

The twenty-two characters of the Phoenician script revolutionized the written language. But where did it come from, and why was it so revolutionary? The Phoenician alphabet basically simplified writing. Both Egyptian and Mesopotamian early systems of writing used pictographs, which are pictures used as symbols. And there's evidence that Phoenicians were drawing on both of these systems of writing. But instead of using pictures to represent things, Phoenicians used symbols to represent sounds. This might sound pretty unexciting, but it was a huge leap. Once you learned the sounds symbolized by the letters, you could read without having to know the meanings of countless little pictures. This made literacy a lot easier, and writing a whole lot faster.
Photo of two square-shaped rocks that have been carved with symbols.
The Kish tablet, a limestone tablet from Kish with pictographic, early cuneiform, writing, 3500 BCE. Possibly the earliest known example of writing. Ashmolean Museum. By José-Manuel Benit, public domain.
This simplified alphabet made trade and accounting easier. As Phoenicians traveled across their networks, their system of writing moved with them. By 800 BCE, the Greeks had adopted it, adding vowels to make it even more efficient. It formed the basis of the Greek, Aramaic, and Etruscan systems of writing. By extension, it influenced Latin and dozens of other Indo-European languages. It influenced a big fraction of ancient writing systems, with the notable exception of East Asian writing.

Where did the Phoenicians go?

Historians debate what happened to this innovative, seafaring society. As empires like Persia expanded, Phoenicians strategically played these empires against each other and accepted their control when it was necessary. But over time, the original city-states lost their power. Eventually, the colonies were the only independent Phoenician societies left. As the Phoenicians traveled and traded, they spread cultural ideas, mixed with indigenous populations, and came up with some of the most innovative technologies in world history.
Author bio
The author of this article is Eman M. Elshaikh. She is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East and written for many different audiences. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences and is currently pursuing her PhD. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

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