The Phoenicians

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The Phoenicians were a wide-ranging collection of city-states that dominated Mediterranean trade before the rise of the Roman Empire.

Among the main centers of trade and civilization in Phoenician culture were Arwad, Byblos, Carthage, Sidon, and Tyre. Through its production of purple cloth, Tyre rose to the head of the Phoenician class in the 2nd millennium B.C. In fact, the word Phoenician comes from the Greek word phoinikes, which was more a description of the reddish-purple tint of the Tyrian cloth than of the people themselves. The people who lived in Byblos considered themselves residents of Byblos, the people of Sidon considered themselves residents of Sidon, and so on. These people didn't refer to themselves necessarily as Phoenician. As with so many other elements of antiquity, however, the Greek term has stuck with us.

The earliest settled of the well-known Phoenician city-states was Byblos, which rose to prominence in the 3rd millennium B.C. From Byblos comes the word Bible, the collection of the Christian holy books.

Not much of these famous early city-states remains because they were conquered and then absorbed by warfaring civilizations. Most record-keeping by Phoenicians was done on papyrus, which has not survived. Most historians do, however, attribute the development of the modern alphabet to the Phoenicians.

Phoenician trade routes

Phoenicians were very good at sailing and trading, however, and they had trading posts and colonies throughout the Mediterranean area, plying their wares of cloth, dye, glass, olive oil, papyrus, timber, and wine from the Levant in the east to Spain in the west.

Powered by their advanced-tech ships, Phoenician traders reigned supreme economically throughout the development of the ancient Egyptian and Greek cultures. The Persian Empire was another matter, however, and Cyrus the Great conquered the eastern Phoenician centers in 539 B.C. Carthage had been established in 815, and many residents of Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre are thought to have migrated to Carthage to escape the Persian yoke.

The eastern centers changed hands again in 334 and 332, as Alexander the Great led the forces of Macedon and Greece to victory over victory over the Persian Empire and other eastern powers. Tyre, an island city-state, proved the lone holdout and was eventually conquered after Alexander ordered his forces to build a one-kilometer-long causeway that connected the island and the mainland.

Thereafter, the Phoenician city-states continued their existence under the reigns of Alexander and of subsequent Hellenistic and Roman rulers.

Carthage continued on independently for a few hundred years, building its dominance in the Mediterranean, before coming into conflict with the burgeoning Roman Republic.

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David White