<Standard 7.17 ................................................................................................................Standard 7.19>

Identify the Phoenicians as the successors to the Minoans in dominating maritime trade in the Mediterranean from c. 1000-300 BC/BCE. Describe how the Phoenician writing system was the first alphabet (with 22 symbols for consonants) and the precursor of the first complete alphabet developed by the ancient Greeks (with symbols representing both consonants and vowels).

Ancient Phoenician coin.
Ancient Phoenician coin.

This page explores the rise of the Phoenician civilization in the Mediterranean world including the importance of its system of alphabetic writing. Topics on this page:
The Rise of the Phoenicians
Navigation and Ship-Building
Circumnavigation of Africa
Trade and Settlement
Music and the Hurrian Hymns
Tyrian Purple, Phoenician Purple Dye
Phoenician System of Writing

Focus Question: Who were the Phoenicians and what impact did they have on the Ancient Mediterranean world?

Multimedia.pngFor a quick overview of the Phoenicians, check out this video or this article

See also Ancient Ships and Sea Trade from the Phoenician Experience, BBC

1) The demise of the sea-based Minoan civilization allowed the Phoenicians to strengthen their mastery of the Mediterranean.
  • The Minoans were a civilization based on the island of Crete, and they dominated trade by sea until their collapse around 1400 BCE. They traded goods around the Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean, including copper, tin, ivory, and gold.
    • Little is known about the nature of their society, but evidence of their trade goods has been found all around the Aegean and Asia Minor (modern Turkey), and Minoans are even depicted in Egyptian art of the time.
    • Theories on the demise of the Minoans are often disputed.
      • Recent studies indicate that the eruption of Thera generated a tsunami which devastated coastal settlements as well as ships. Some archaeologists speculate that this left them vulnerable to invasion by the Mycenaeans from mainland Greece. The Mycenaeans were more land-based than the Minoans, leaving a power vacuum in the Mediterranean for the sea-based Phoenicians to grab.
      • However, it's important to remember that there was a period of time when the Minoan and the Phoenician civilizations existed contemporaneously, and these groups greatly influenced each other. To look more into that, click here.
Multimedia.pngClick Here Brief History Video of the Phoenicians

See The Phoenicians and the Phoenician Experience in Lebanon Cambridge and Boston Press for more extensive information on the Phoenicians.

National Geographic Article "Who were the Phoenicians?"

Click here for an article about ancient dress to help paint a picture of what the Phoenicians may have looked like.

2) The superior navigation and ship-building skills of the Phoenicians allowed them to travel greater distances, control trade routes, and collect highly sought-after goods for trade.
  • The Phoenicians can be thought of as successors to the Minoans, in that they also built their civilization around intensive maritime trading in the eastern Mediterranean region.
  • Their best-known trade good was a purple dye extracted from Murex snails, called Tyrian Purple after their capital city Tyre.
    • This purple dye was highly sought after, but the Phoenicians also traded in many other goods such as glass, wine, salt, cedarwood, and fish.
  • Their trade was wider-ranged, however, due to their superior naval abilities.
    • Their ships had keels rather than flat bottoms, which permitted them to sail further away from shore.
    • The Phoenicians are credited with inventing the bireme, an oared ship that was later adopted by the other Mediterranean peoples, including the Greeks and Romans.
    • Click here to play online Phoenician Trade Game and choose your own path through ancient trade routes
Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 12.30.07 PM.png

  • They are thought to be the first people to make use of Polaris, the North Star, for navigation.
    • They maintained their control over long-distance trade by keeping their trade routes, including a knowledge of regional winds and currents, a secret from outsiders.

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 3.55.03 PM.pngDid Phoenicians Complete the First Circumnavigation of Africa?

When the Egyptian Pharaoh, Necho II, organized an expedition to sail all the way around Africa (610-595 BCE), it was Phoenician sailors who completed the voyage for him.
primary_sources.PNGInformation about Herodotus' account of the first circumnavigation of Africa can be found here.

Circumnavigating Africa--In The Wake of the Phoenicians. Modern sailors recreate the ancient journey
Round Africa on a Phoenician Ship -- modern sailors recreate Phoenician ship and set sail (BBC video)

A map of the Mediterranean, showing Phoenician cities and colonies
A map of the Mediterranean, showing Phoenician cities and colonies

3) Though their empire was centered on the coastline of present-day Lebanon and Syria, Phoenician settlements were spread all along the Mediterranean coast.
  • The Phoenicians established colonies all around the Mediterranean, from the island of Cyprus to Southern Spain.
  • One of the best known of these colonies was the city of Carthage, which would later become a major rival to Rome in the Western Mediterranean and a center of a dispute in the Punic Wars.
  • Much as in Greece, these colonies functioned as city-states which would sometimes come into conflict with each other and sometimes ally together.

Click here for a detailed account of Phoenician trade, navigation, and shipbuilding.

Tyrian Purple, a Youtube video explaining the process of making Phoenician purple dye which was a major trading commodity.


Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 11.16.22 AM.png4) Music was an important part of ancient civilizations. The oldest known written music, the Hurrian Hymns (c. 1400 BC/BCE), was discovered in modern-day Syria.
  • Music written on clay tablets was discovered in the 1950s in Ugarit, an ancient Canaanite city-state near what was Phoenicia
  • Usually played on lyres, songs were usually odes to rulers or gods and goddesses

  • Link here to listen to musician Michael Levy play the modern interpretation of Hurrian Hymn No. 6, the only text in good enough condition to be interpreted, on the lyre

More information on Phoenician music: https://phoenicia.org/music.html

Focus Question: What was the Phoenician writing system?

1) The Phoenician alphabet is one of their most important contributions to the world today.
  • Probably developed to help keep records of their trading, the Phoenician alphabet is the first documented alphabet in the world to use symbols to represent sounds rather than whole words, as is the case with Egyptian hieroglyphs.
  • This type of writing devised by the Phoenicians is where the word "phonetic" derives from.
  • Their alphabet had 22 letters, each representing a consonant. Through trade, their alphabet spread to others such as the Greeks, who developed it further by adding letters for vowels.
  • Phoenician is a Canaanite language, and it is closely related to other Canaanite languages.

For more, see Phoenician Alphabet from the Phoenician Experience from the BBC

2) The Greek alphabet was the basis for nearly all of the alphabets in Europe, and some other alphabets as far away as India. Even the modern English alphabet today would not be possible without the contributions made by the Phoenicians thousands of years ago.


external image Beautiful_red_apple.jpgThe Phoenicians and the Beginnings of the Alphabet and a worksheet where students translate a message written in the Phoenician alphabet.

Short Video on the Start of the Alphabet

lgbtflag.jpg Homosexuality existed in ancient civilizations, and there has been substantial evidence of this specifically in Ancient Greece (a culture very closely related with the Phoenicians). Is was viewed as very normal, and same-sex unions were common. This is discussed in the book Greek Homosexuality from 1978 by KJ Dover. For an analysis of a few different sources, look at this article.

Documents and Sources:
[1] 2007. http://www.ancient-greece.org/history/minoan.html
[2] 2009 http://wsu.edu/~dee/MINOA/HISTORY.HTM
[3] 2007. http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory/aegean/theculturesofgreece/phoenician.html
[4] 2007. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0410/feature2/index.html?fs=www3.nationalgeographic.com&fs=plasma.nationalgeographic.com
[5] 2009 http://phoenicia.org/imgs/maps/pages/zzzzphoecolontradeposts.htm
[6] 2007. http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/aneancientmaps/a/ancneareastmaps.html&Horde=b151af4fc3984c212991a9e32f7695e5|http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/aneancientmaps/a/ancneareastmaps.html]]
[7] 2009 http://phoenicia.org/alphabet.html
[8] 2009 http://looklex.com/e.o/phoenicia.ht
[9] 2011http://www.omniglot.com/writing/phoenician.htm
[10] 2007 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6568053.stm
[11] 2018 https://phoenicia.org/music.html
[12] http://www.history.com/news/ask-history/what-is-the-oldest-known-piece-of-music