The Phoenicians: Great Seafarers, and More

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

      The Phoenicians occupied the southern shore of the Mediterannean of what is now Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. Their principal cities were Tyre and Sidon. The golden age was between 1200 BC and 800 BC, although excavations reveal a history that goes back to at least 2800 BC. Their legendary seafaring carried them as far as the "Tin Isles" in the north (Britain), to the lower western coast of Africa to the south, some claims having them rounding Africa to reach the East Indies. During this time they established many colonies such as Carthage and Syracuse. A Cannanite people, they worshipped fertility gods and godesses, chief of which was Bael (or Baal), a god which required the sacrifice of first borns, whether animal or human.

These people did not call themselves "phoenicians" - that name was given to them by the Greeks, the root word of which means "purple", (see also: phoenix) and refers to the brilliant purple pigments (derived from shellfish) and cloth these people created and which were so valuable as trade goods. They had a monopoly on the ancient world's most favored timber, the Cedars of Lebanon. (Long since exhausted.) They were skilled metal workers and skilled architects, often employed in the service of Egypt, and well known for ivory sculpture. In their time the reputation of the Phoenicians rested securely on their prowess at sea, both commercial and military. They contributed to the growth of the Persian empire, and later contributed to its end by joining the Greeks to defeat the Persians at Salamis .

Their greatest contribution to civilization, however, was the invention of an alphabet. Heretofore, a picture or symbol (in cuneiform, heiroglyphs, pictograms, etc) represented an entire idea or thing , which then had to be further explained, defined, or modified by a "modifier symbol". This is a terribly clumsy and inefficient system of communication. With an alphabet, a small symbol represented a sound or a character. The Phoenician system derived from the Egyptian in the sense that the Egyptian glyph for "bear" would be simplified by the Phoenicians into a single stroke representing "b", and so on.

The Phoenician cultural influence was gradually weakened by the emerging Greeks, and ended entirely when Tyre and Sidon were captured by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. However, the Greeks admired the Phoenician alphabet, and distributed it to the world they conquered, as did the Romans when their turn came.

A nice animation from the University of Maryland illustrates the evolution
of the modern alphabet from the Phoenician. Go here to see it.

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