The History of Phoenicia

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Phoenicia was an ancient country located on the eastern coast of Mediterranean Sea in 2500 B.C. This country is not in existence now. Phoenicia was existent in the present areas of Syria, Lebanon and North Israel. The name Phoenicia is derived from the word ‘Phoinike’ which means purple colour. The inhabitants of Phoenicia meansPhoenicians were good sailors and had rich business in maritime trade. Their main export item was the purple colour. So, their country is also named after it. There are many reasons why the Phoenicians became outstanding sailors in the sea. One reason is that their country was located in the sea coast. The second reason is their country was full of forest. So, that was not profitable to agriculture.

Therefore, the residents of Phoenicia resorted to trading, and that too in the sea route. The availability of timber in their country became helpful for making ships to go into the sea. These are some of the main reasons which led them to venture into the sea in maritime trade. First, they were sailing near to the sea coast because at the time of danger they may come back to their land immediately.

But later on, they ventured into the deep sea and sailed to distant countries like Egypt, Cyprus, and other countries. They were not only engaged in trading but started colonising the people with whom they traded. So, they became colonisers. So, Phoenicians may be called the first business of the world and the first colonisers of the world. Even the Bible has mentioned the cities of Phoenicia for their trading activities and culture.

                   The Phoenicians were probably Cannanite race and of Semitic origin. The Phoenicians were masters of sea at that time. Phoenician trade also helped the exchange of cultures, ideas and knowledge between many countries such as Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia and other countries.

                   The main cities of Phoenicia were Tyre, Sidon and Byblos. Each city state was politically independent and had their own religion and culture and life style. Carthage was an important Phoenicians colony in north-west Africa and it became a major civilization in the 7th century B.C.The Phoenicians were reputed for their ship building, navigation, industry, agriculture and government. Their maritime trade facilitated the economic, political and cultural foundation of classical western civilization. The greatest contribution of the Phoenicians to the modern civilization is their alphabets. The present English alphabets have been derived from Phoenicians alphabets. 

Little has survived of Phoenicians record and literature. So, their origin becomes obscure. We can know their origin from the records of other civilizations.

                   For many thousand years, Phoenicians had a flourishing business in the sea. But later on, Phoenicia was attacked by foreigners like Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Greeks. At last, Phoenicia was conquered and destroyed by Alexander the Great. Alexander’s main target was the city of Tyre. The Phoenicians resisted to the last breath. But they were defeated by the cunningness and courage of Alexander. When Alexander entered the city of Tyre the Phoenicians did not allow the Greek hero to enter the precincts of the temple of Melkarth which was their pride and sentiment. But it touched Alexander’s pride. So, Alexander after defeating the Phoenicians massacred the whole city of Tyre and this was the last day of the Phoenicia in the history

of the world. Then Phoenicia went into the oblivion. Phoenicia met with her nemesis and Alexander was fully responsible for it. But the Phoenicians cannot be forgotten because of their contribution of alphabets to the modern

civilization. We are much indebted to them because the English language which is an international language now has its origin in Phoenicia. For example, the capital English ‘A’, when we reverse it, it becomes a symbol of an instrument of agriculture like plough. It means their livelihood. Then the capital English ‘B’, it means a two roomed house. According to their style of life, culture and religion they invented different alphabets which we are using today with some modification. So, without the Phoenicians there would not have been English language.

Again, the Phoenicians discovered the use of money which is very much essential for business and also for daily transactions of any householder. This is a unique contribution to the modern world. Before this, there was a barter system i.e. exchange of goods. But with the introduction of money, trading became easier and social life also became convenient and peaceful. This also heralds the modern world which was possible only for the Phoenicians.

                   Phoenician society was highly stratified and predominantly monarchical. Kings were usually hereditary and with absolute power in civil, commercial and religious matters. Senior noble men, merchants and priests were also given priority in the administration. The king was believed to be agent of God. So, they carried many religious duties for the welfare of the public.

Therefore, priests were very influential in the general administration of the kingdom. The Phoenicians kept records of their rulers in the form of tomb inscriptions. Historians have been successful in determining the clear line of succession over centuries for some city-states like Byblos and Tyre. The wealth and prosperity of all the city-states dependent on maritime trade which required good relations with other countries. They also lacked territory and an agricultural base to support a population large enough. So far as the military is concerned, Phoenicians were mainly defensive.

                   Phoenicians had also love for art and culture. There art was mainly tied to their commercial interest. They crafted goods to appeal to particular trading partners of different countries. Phoenicians had the keen interest in the profit and loss in the business. That’s why the modern poet T.S. Eliot has written in his poem ‘The Wasteland’-

          “Phlebas the Phoenicians

                   they knew only profit and loss;        

          And met their death in the depth of the Mediterranean Sea.”

                   However, the contribution of the Phoenicians can not be underestimated. Without them, there would not have been the definition of modernity and a convenient lifestyle in which we are now living. They might have gone to oblivion but their contributions are still with us and we will carry that into the future. So, long live Phoenicians for their unique discoveries and inventions in the social, economic, religious, and political life of humanity. For which the entire humanity will remain grateful to them. This is no exaggeration but the testimony of a race who have rendered incalculable service to mankind.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own.)

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Radhakanta Seth is an Income tax officer in Sambalpur.  He is a freelance writer and his articles have been published in some Oriya dailies like Sambad, Samaj, Dharitri, and English dailies like The Telegraph and in a sociological journal ‘Folklore’ published from Kolkata.

He can be reached at [email protected]