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The Phoenician Empire

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The Phoenician Empire


The Mediterranean Sea has spawned many civilizations through history. The Phoenicians, which originated around 1200 BCE, is one example. Despite the rather small size of this civilization, its impact on our world has been considerable. Being a seafaring nation, the Phoenicians established colonies all over the Mediterranean area, including the present-day cities of Carthage and Tripoli. As notable traders, they shared cultures with many nations, which allowed their invention of the alphabet to spread throughout Eurasia. The Phoenician Empire continued to evolve until its eventual incorporation into the Persian and Macedonian Empires, around 400 BCE.

Phoenicia is an ancient region lying on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The Empire peaked at around 1000 BCE, and developed until around 700 BCE. Phoenicia, now known as Lebanon, Syria, and Israel, was naturally isolated from other civilizations by the Lebanon Mountains in the east, and the great sea on the west. The small region stretched about 320 kilometers long and about 25 kilometers wide. This geographical isolation gave the Phoenicians enough protection to evolve into a strong nation, while giving it the freedom to trade and explore across the Mediterranean.

Although little is known about the ancient civilization, it is known that the government was, at least in part, a monarchy. Royalty was considered a matter of divine descent, so kings could not be chosen outside of the royal family. The merchant families also held much power in Phoenicia, due to their great influence in public affairs. Although the name Phoenicia implies that the civilization was a unified state, the nation consisted of separate city-kingdoms. Each Phoenician City was considered independent from one another, and was ruled by its own king.

Phoenicians were known as the most distinguished seafaring traders and merchants of the ancient world. In fact, they called themselves Kena'ani (or Canaanites), which is Hebrew for "Merchant". They established trading colonies all over the Mediterranean Sea, including Carthage, Simyra, Zarephath, Byblos, and Tyre (Sur). Maritime trading also reached into the Atlantic Ocean to England. Some of the goods traded included glass, color dyes, metals, horses, ebony and ivory, linen, coral, honey, spices, oil and precious stones.

Maritime trading would not be possible for the Phoenicians without developed nautical technology. Phoenicians were known for having extremely advanced ships and navigation. Ships were built with a keeled hull, which allowed them to travel on the open seas. These ships used both oars and large square sails that were supported on high masts to propel themselves. Phoenicians also built strong warships complete with battering rams and iron bows to defend against enemy ships. Phoenicians are also credited as the first civilization to use Polaris (the North Star) in navigation.

Phoenician crafts were an important part of their trading industry. The civilization was famous for its Tyrian purple dye, often considered worth its weight in gold, which was extracted from Murex sea snails. The dye was used on expensive linen, and later used in royal garments of the nations the traded with Phoenicia. Using imported materials, Phoenicians also specialized in glass production, and perfected the production of transparent glass. Other crafts include wine making and metallurgy. The latter was used in currency. Interestingly enough, a coin produced in Phoenicia, which bares a map of the world, included what resembles the American continents! However, questions on weather the Phoenicians actually discovered the Americas remain unanswered.

One of the most important Phoenician contributions to humanity was its 22-character alphabet. It was a revolutionary in that it highly simplified the process of reading and writing. Prior to this invention, societies had to create thousands of symbols for the thousand of words in their language. The Phoenician alphabet uses the 22 characters to represent 22 different sounds, which when put together, form a word.

Although the alphabet leaves out vowel sounds, it directly led to the Greek alphabet. Later, it evolved even further to become our Modern Roman alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet also closely compares to the Early Aramaic, Nabatian, and Arabic alphabets.
Although the Phoenician Empire did not leave a very conspicuous trail in its path, its contributions to human civilization are of great importance. Being the most noteworthy seafaring and trading nations of its time, the Phoenicians connected Mediterranean cultures by establishing trade routes throughout Eurasia. Specialized crafts of the society included glass production, metallurgy, and textiles. The biggest contribution of the society was the phonetic (the word usage is not a coincidence) alphabet, which later evolved into the Modern Roman alphabet we use today.

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