Around 675 BC, Phoenician sailors conquered the eastern Mediterranean, because they were highly skilled shipbuilders and sailors who built strong and fast sailing vessels to carry their goods. Given their location on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and the fact that they only had a narrow strip of fertile coastal land to live on, it was natural for the Phoenicians to take to water. The Phoenicians had to look outwards for any hope of development and because of this Man commenced his navigation westwards, to conquer ever more territories. They used their strategic position at the crossroads of eastern and western cultures to build a trading empire that extended from the Fertile Crescent in the east, through the islands of the Mediterranean Sea, and as far west as the Iberian Peninsula and the Atlantic Ocean.
Their high level of skill in ship-building allowed them to navigate the often turbulent waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Ship building seems to have been perfected at Byblos where the design of the curved hull was first initiated. The Phoenicians sailed enormous distances as they were driven by the desire to acquire new and more cost-effective sources of raw materials and to sell their products to markets other than in their homeland. It is thought that they even might have sailed as far as Britain and around the southern tip of Africa.
Phoenicians are descendants of the Canaanites and originally the city of Byblos was called Gebal, which way back then was just a small town off the Mediterranean Sea that was made up of farmers and fishermen. Once the Phoenician people discovered that the cedars growing on the sides of their mountains, made excellent wood for boats, because of their high resistance to rotting, they started building sailing ships. The lumber and the oil that was derived from harvested cedars, was desired by the Egyptians, who used it for embalming, and thus they became valuable for trading with other civilizations. They exchanged it for gold, alabaster, papyrus rolls, papyrus rope and linen. The Phoenicians expanded to Sidon, which is south of Byblos on the coast, and then they spread out even farther south to the island of Tyre. Byblos became a strong religious city, while Sidon and Tyre became cities of business, industry, and navigation.
Phoenicians used the pole star Polaris (aka the North Star) as a navigational aid which allowed them to travel where no one else would dare to go. Its position in the sky was so close to the northern end of the Earth’s axis that it appeared static throughout each night and became a reliable indication of due north. The Phoenicians also build up a store of information about winds and currents, which they carefully guarded as valuable trade secrets. The famous Lebanese cedar tress covering the slopes of mountains of their native land were the perfect material for construction of strong seaworthy ships. The Phoenicians often traded by means of a galley, a man-powered sailing vessel. They were the first civilization to create the bireme. The Phoenicians were peaceful traders, who were only interested in building up their commerce and they founded many colonies. To fight off pirates who often harassed their trading ships, the Phoenicians designed special warships to accompany their trading fleets. Oarsmen would propel a sharp ramming device at the front of the boat into an enemy’s vessel, putting a hole into it that would cause it to sink.
After Egypt was invaded by the Sea Peoples and the Bronze Age ended, the ancient civilizations that once flourished in the Mediterranean world were weakened and they went into decline. This shifted the political and economic centers which allowed the Phoenicians to start dominating Mediterranean sea travel, trade and commerce. This lasted for hundreds of years, which made the Greeks slightly envious. Yet, for most of their glorious history the Phoenicians were not a maritime military power, as Phoenicia was never an empire. During most of its history, Phoenicia was essentially a peaceful, loosely united confederation of independent city-states, very similar to the way Greece was structured, and they usually maintained good relations with their powerful neighbors to the East and South. The Phoenicians were experienced sailors, because they had been at sea before the Greeks, however they were traders, rather than warriors and they were not concerned with territorial expansion and therefore they did not use sea power as an instrument of conquest.
The Phoenicians were an adventurous race, who adapted their fragile ships to conquer the Eastern Mediterranean sea. They bravely explored this unknown sea and survived the perils of waves and storms, along with the dreaded monsters of the deep, being guided in their daring voyages only by their knowledge of the North Star. The mighty tides, blinding rains and frequent fogs were not the only dangers that they had to deal with, as they often came into contact with savage races of treacherous, bloodthirsty men. They sailed mostly in the dry summer months when the seas were calm and the stars were visible for navigation. They generally sailed in vast fleets of cargo ships paired with fighting vessels, to discourage pirates. The Phoenicians earned the respect of other civilizations because of their improvements in shipbuilding, navigation and for their geographic knowledge.
The Phoenicians created and manufactured the first see through glass, which they traded along with their cedar and slaves, but their main trade was purple dyes. The name Phoenician means ‘of purple merchants’ and this name came from the Greeks who knew about the famous Tyrian purple dye that was used in ancient textile trade, and was highly desired. Phoenicians traded their precious purple dye that they made from the Murex snail, which they had a monopoly on and this was used for royal clothing among other things. It is said that Hercules discovered this dye when his dog’s mouth was stained purple after he munched on some snails along the Levantine coast. This brilliant purple dye is applied to many garments, which become highly prized for their beauty. A high cost is associated with this, as it takes 60,000 murex shellfish to produce one pound of this dye. The dye became known as royal purple, because it is worn in ceremonial robes by the by Egyptian Pharaohs and Roman emperors.
The Phoenicians were among the greatest traders of their time and they owed much of their prosperity to this trade. Many great landlocked Mesopotamian cities depended on the Phoenicians for their seaports, so they could exchange their goods. The cost of transport over land was much higher than it was to move goods on ships. Land transport was done in two or four wheeled carts and it was dependent on roads and animals, which both needed costly maintenance, and this was also much slower and it had a more limited capacity. Two things made the Phoenicians great traders, their ships and their alphabet. The Phoenicians made the most high tech ships of their time, which used mostly sails, but occasionally oars and rowers were employed and these cargo ships were much faster and more efficient than any others, until the Greeks finally took over.
Phoenician interactions with other nations became the source of their lifeblood and their power. Their merchants bartered just about anything they got their hands on, acting as middlemen for their neighbors, so needing to learn foreign languages and becoming familiar with other civilizations customs, was an essential skill for them to acquire. The extensive trade that the Phoenicians conducted required a great deal of book keeping and correspondence, as merchants and traders had to record contracts, receipts, and lists of goods. The Egyptians had developed a method of writing which used pictures to symbolize their words, however the Phoenicians simplified this down from word symbols to syllable symbols, which they called the alphabet.
Phoenician words were able to be formed from a few simple and regular laws with this new method. Twenty two symbols in different combinations were able to replace thousands of more complicated symbols. Once the Phoenicians began using the alphabet to keep track of their trade records, others that were exposed to this, saw it as a much more simple and easy way of keeping business records. When money and wealth are involved, people become highly motivated to learn the system and make sure that transactions are being accurately recorded. The Phoenician alphabet gained momentum as it proved to be so much better than any of the previous methods being used by other people and many foreigners modified it for their own languages. The Phoenicians not only contributed the basic alphabet, but they also were responsible for making papyrus the common substance for writing, as once their written language was established, it was inscribed on Egyptian papyrus. The Greeks associated their love of writing with the Phoenicians so much that they called the major Phoenician city Byblos, which was derived from the Greek word for book.