It is uncertain to what extent the Phoenicians viewed themselves as a single ethnicity. Their civilization was organized in city-states, similar to ancient Greece. Each city-state was an independent unit politically, although they could come into conflict, be dominated by another city-state, or collaborate in leagues or alliances. Tyre and Sidon were the most powerful of the Phoenician states in the Levant, but were not as powerful as the North African ones.
The Phoenicians were also the first state-level society to make extensive use of the alphabet, and the Canaanite-Phoenician alphabet is generally believed to be the ancestor of all modern alphabets. Phoenicians spoke the Phoenician language, which belongs to the group of Canaanite languages in the Semitic language family. Through their maritime trade, the Phoenicians spread the use of the alphabet to North Africa and Europe where it was adopted by the Greeks, who later passed it on to the Romans and Etruscans. In addition to their many inscriptions, the Phoenicians wrote many books, which have not survived. Evangelical Preparation by Eusebius of Caesarea quotes extensively from Philo of Byblos and Sanchuniathon.
The Phoenician's nickname "Purple People" came from the purple dye they manufactured in Mesopotamia and Mogador.
Stories of their emigrating from various places to the eastern Mediterranean are probably founded in 'oral fact', but researchers are pursuing DNA tests to verify this assertion. A written reference, Herodotus's account (written c. 440 BC) refers to a memory from 800 years earlier, which may be subject to question in the fullness of genetic results. (History, I:1).
According to the Persians best informed in history, the Phoenicians began the quarrel. These people, who had formerly dwelt on the shores of the Erythraean Sea, having migrated to the Mediterranean and settled in the parts which they now inhabit, began at once, they say, to adventure on long voyages, freighting their vessels with the wares of Egypt and Assyria...
An example of a 19th century view is that of John Denison Baldwin who thought that the ancient Phoenicians were of Cushite of Hamite origin. Speaking of their stupendous architectural remains, he wrote:- The Cushite origin of these cities is so plain that those most influenced by the strange monomania which transforms the Phoenicians into Semites now admit that the Cushites were the civilizers of Phoenicia. “Prehistoric Nations” pg 145.
In terms of archaeology, language, and religion, there is little to set the Phoenicians apart as markedly different from other local cultures of Canaan, because they were Canaanites themselves. However, they are unique in their remarkable seafaring achievements. Indeed, in the Amarna tablets of the 14th century BC they call themselves Kenaani or Kinaani (Canaanites). Note, however, that the Amarna letters predate the invasion of the Sea Peoples by over a century. Much later in the 6th century BC, Hecataeus of Miletus writes that Phoenicia was formerly called χνα, a name Philo of Byblos later adopted into his mythology as his eponym for the Phoenicians: "Khna who was afterwards called Phoinix". Egyptian seafaring expeditions had already been made to Byblos to bring back "cedars of Lebanon" as early as the third millennium BC.
Archaeologists argue that the Phoenicians are simply the descendants of coastal-dwelling Canaanites, who over the centuries developed a particular seagoing culture and skills. Other suggestions are that Phoenician culture must have been inspired from external sources (Egypt, North Africa etc.), that the Phoenicians were sea-traders from the Land of Punt who co-opted the Canaanite population; or that they were connected with the Minoans, or the Sea Peoples or the Philistines further south; or even that they represent the maritime activities of the coastal Israelite tribes like Dan, who from the Song of Deborah in Judges, are listed as being "amongst their ships".
The Middle East Phoenician - Aramaic derivative 'Semitic language' gave some evidence of invasion at the site of Byblos, which may suggest origins in the highly disputed 'wave of Semitic migration' that hit the Fertile Crescent between ca. 2300 and 2100 BC, some scholars, including Sabatino Moscati believe that the Phoenicians' ethnogenesis included prior non-Semitic people of the area, suggesting a mixture between two populations. Both Sumerian and Akkadian armies had reached the Mediterranean in this area from the beginning of recorded Hebrew history, but very little is known of Phoenicia before it was conquered by Thutmoses III of Egypt around 1500 BC. The Amarna correspondence (ca. 1411-1358 BC) reveals that Amorites and Hittites were defeating the Phoenician cities that had been vassals to Egypt, especially Rib-Addi of Byblos and Abi-Milku/Abimelech of Tyre, but between 1350 and 1300 BC Phoenicia was reconquered by Egypt. Over the next century Ugarit flourished, but was permanently destroyed at the end of it (ca. 1200 BC).
Historian Gerhard Herm asserts that, because the Phoenicians' legendary sailing abilities are not well attested before the invasions of the Sea Peoples around 1200 BC, that these Sea Peoples would have merged with the local population to produce the Phoenicians, whom he says gained these abilities rather suddenly at that time. There is also archaeological evidence that the Philistines, often thought of as related to the Sea Peoples, were culturally linked to Mycenaean Greeks, who were also known to be great sailors even in this period.
The question of the Phoenicians' origin persists. Archaeologists have pursued the origin of the Phoenicians for generations, basing their analyses on excavated sites, the remains of material culture, contemporary texts set into contemporary contexts, as well as linguistics. In some cases, the debate is characterized by modern cultural agendas. Ultimately, the origins of the Phoenicians are still unclear: where they came from and just when (or if) they arrived, and under what circumstances, are all still energetically disputed.
Spencer Wells of the Genographic Project has conducted genetic studies which demonstrate that male populations of Lebanon and Malta and other areas which are past Phoenician settlements, share a common m89 chromosome Y type, while male populations which are related with the Minoans or with the Sea Peoples have completely different genetic markers. This implies that Minoans and Sea Peoples probably didn't have any ancestral relation with the Phoenicians.
In 2004, two Harvard University educated geneticists and leading scientists of the National Geographic Genographic Project, Dr. Pierre Zalloua and Dr. Spencer Wells identified the haplogroup of the Phoenicians as haplogroup J2, with avenues open for future research. As Dr. Wells commented, "The Phoenicians were the Canaanites—and the ancestors of today's Lebanese. The male populations of Tunisia and Malta were also included in this study and shown to share overwhelming genetic similarities with the Lebanese-Phoenicians. See Genetics of the Ancient World.
Fernand Braudel remarked in The Perspective of the World that Phoenicia was an early example of a "world-economy" surrounded by empires. The high point of Phoenician culture and seapower is usually placed ca. 1200 – 800 BC.
Many of the most important Phoenician settlements had been established long before this: Byblos, Tyre, Sidon, Simyra, Aradus and Berytus all appear in the Amarna tablets; and indeed, the first appearance in archaeology of cultural elements clearly identifiable with the Phoenician zenith is sometimes dated as early as the third millennium BC.
This league of independent city-state ports, with others on the islands and along other coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, was ideally suited for trade between the Levant area, rich in natural resources, and the rest of the ancient world. Suddenly, during the early Iron Age, in around 1200 BC an unknown event occurred, historically associated with the appearance of the Sea Peoples from the north who were perhaps driven south by crop failures and mass starvation following the eruption at the island Thera. The powers that had previously dominated the area, notably the Egyptians and the Hittites, became weakened or destroyed; and in the resulting power vacuum a number of Phoenician cities established themselves as significant maritime powers. Authority seems to have stabilized because it derived from three power-bases: the king; the temple and its priests; and councils of elders. Byblos soon became the predominant center from where they proceeded to dominate the Mediterranean and Erythraean (Red) Sea routes, and it is here that the first inscription in the Phoenician alphabet was found, on the sarcophagus of Ahiram (ca. 1200 BC). However, by around 1000 BC Tyre and Sidon had taken its place, and a long hegemony was enjoyed by Tyre beginning with Hiram I (969-936 BC), who subdued a rebellion in the colony of Utica. The priest Ittobaal (887-856 BC) ruled Phoenicia as far north as Beirut, and part of Cyprus. Carthage was founded in 814 BC under Pygmalion (820-774 BC). The collection of city-kingdoms constituting Phoenicia came to be characterized by outsiders and the Phoenicians themselves as Sidonia or Tyria, and Phoenicians and Canaanites alike came to be called Zidonians or Tyrians, as one Phoenician conquest came to prominence after another.
From the 10th century BC, their expansive culture established cities and colonies throughout the Mediterranean. Canaanite deities like Baal and Astarte were being worshipped from Cyprus to Sardinia, Malta, Sicily, Spain, Portugal, and most notably at Carthage in modern Tunisia.
In the Phoenician homeland:
Phoenician colonies, including some of lesser importance (this list might be incomplete):
The Phoenicians were amongst the greatest traders of their time and owed a great deal of their prosperity to trade. The Phoenicians' initial trading partners were the Greeks, with whom they used to trade wood, slaves, glass and a Tyrian Purple powder. This powder was used by the Greek elite to color clothes and other garments and was not available anywhere else. Without trade with the Greeks they would not be known as Phoenicians, as the word for Phoenician is derived from the Ancient Greek word phoinikèia meaning "purple".
In the centuries following 1200 BC, the Phoenicians formed the major naval and trading power of the region. Phoenician trade was founded on Tyrian Purple, a violet-purple dye derived from the Murex sea-snail's shell, once profusely available in coastal waters of the eastern Mediterranean Sea but exploited to local extinction. James B. Pritchard's excavations at Sarepta in present day Lebanon revealed crushed Murex shells and pottery containers stained with the dye that was being produced at the site. The Phoenicians established a second production center for the purple dye in Mogador, in present day Morocco. Brilliant textiles were a part of Phoenician wealth, and Phoenician glass was another export ware.
From elsewhere they obtained other materials, perhaps the most important being silver from Iberian Peninsula and tin from Great Britain, the latter of which when smelted with copper (from Cyprus) created the durable metal alloy bronze. Strabo states that there was a highly lucrative Phoenician trade with Britain for tin.
The Phoenicians established commercial outposts throughout the Mediterranean, the most strategically important being Carthage in North Africa, directly across the narrow straits in Sicily and the island of Malta in the center of the Mediterranean; carefully selected with the design of monopolizing the Mediterranean trade beyond that point and keeping their rivals from passing through. Other colonies were planted in Cyprus, Corsica, Sardinia, the Iberian Peninsula, and elsewhere. They also founded innumerable small outposts a day's sail away from each other all along the North African coast on the route to Iberia's mineral wealth.
The date when several of these cities were founded has been very controversial. Greek sources put the foundation of many cities very early. Gades (Cadiz) in Spain was traditionally founded in 1110 BC, while Utica in Africa was supposedly founded in 1101 BC. However, no archaeological remains have been dated to such a remote era. The traditional dates may reflect the establishment of rudimentary way stations that left little archaeological trace, and only grew into full cities centuries later. (The World of the Phoenicians, Sabatino Moscati, 1965). Alternatively, the early dates may reflect Greek historians' belief that the legends of Troy (mentioning these cities) were historically reliable.
Phoenician ships used to ply the coast of southern Spain and along the coast of Portugal. It is often mentioned that Phoenicians ventured north into the Atlantic ocean as far as Great Britain, where the tin mines in what is now Cornwall provided them with tin, although no archaeological evidence supports this belief and reliable academic authors see this belief as hollow (see Malcolm Todd - 1987, reference below). They also sailed south along the coast of Africa. A Carthaginian expedition led by Hanno the Navigator explored and colonized the Atlantic coast of Africa as far as the Gulf of Guinea; and according to Herodotus, a Phoenician expedition sent down the Red Sea by pharaoh Necho II of Egypt (c. 600 BC) even circumnavigated Africa and returned through the Pillars of Hercules in three years.
The Phoenicians were not an agricultural people, because most of the land was not arable; therefore, they focused on commerce and trading instead. They did, however, raise sheep and sell them and their wool.
The Phoenicians are credited with spreading the Phoenician alphabet throughout the Mediterranean world. It was a variant of the Semitic alphabet of the Canaanite area developed centuries earlier in the Sinai region, or in central Egypt. Phoenician traders disseminated this writing system along Aegean trade routes, to coastal Anatolia, the Minoan civilization of Crete, Mycenean Greece, and throughout the Mediterranean.
This alphabet has been termed an abjad or a script that contains no vowels. A cuneiform abjad originated to the north in Ugarit, a Canaanite city of northern Syria, in the 14th century BC. Their language, Phoenician, is classified as in the Canaanite subgroup of Northwest Semitic. Its later descendant in North Africa is termed Punic.
The earliest known inscriptions in Phoenician come from Byblos and date back to ca. 1000 BC. Phoenician inscriptions are found in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Cyprus and other locations, as late as the early centuries of the Christian Era. In Phoenician colonies around the western Mediterranean, beginning in the 9th century BC, Phoenician evolved into Punic. Punic Phoenician was still spoken in the 5th century CE: St. Augustine, for example, grew up in North Africa and was familiar with the language.
He entered into other men's labors and made most of his heritage. The Sphinx of Egypt became Asiatic, and its new form was transplanted to Nineveh on the one side and to Greece on the other. The rosettes and other patterns of the Babylonian cylinders were introduced into the handiwork of Phoenicia, and so passed on to the West, while the hero of the ancient Chaldean epic became first the Tyrian Melkarth, and then the Herakles of Hellas.
Cyrus the Great conquered Phoenicia in 539 BC. Phoenicia was divided into four vassal kingdoms by the Persians: Sidon, Tyre, Arwad, and Byblos, and prospered, furnishing fleets for the Persian kings. However, Phoenician influence declined after this. It is also reasonable to suppose that much of the Phoenician population migrated to Carthage and other colonies following the Persian conquest, as it is roughly then (under King Hanno) that we first hear of Carthage as a powerful maritime entity. In 350 or 345 BC a rebellion in Sidon led by Tennes was crushed by Artaxerxes III, and its destruction was described, perhaps too dramatically, by Diodorus Siculus.
Alexander the Great took Tyre in 332 BC following the Siege of Tyre. Alexander was exceptionally harsh to Tyre, executing 2000 of the leading citizens, but he maintained the king in power. He gained control of the other cities peacefully: the ruler of Aradus submitted; the king of Sidon was overthrown. The rise of Hellenistic Greece gradually ousted the remnants of Phoenicia's former dominance over the Eastern Mediterranean trade routes, and Phoenician culture disappeared entirely in the motherland. However, its North African offspring, Carthage, continued to flourish, mining iron and precious metals from Iberia, and using its considerable naval power and mercenary armies to protect its commercial interests, until it was finally destroyed by Rome in 146 BC at the end of the Punic Wars.
As for the Phoenician homeland, following Alexander it was controlled by a succession of Hellenistic rulers: Laomedon (323 BC), Ptolemy I (320), Antigonus II (315), Demetrius (301), and Seleucus (296). Between 286 and 197 BC, Phoenicia (except for Aradus) fell to the Ptolemies of Egypt, who installed the high priests of Astarte as vassal rulers in Sidon (Eshmunazar I, Tabnit, Eshmunazar II). In 197 BC, Phoenicia along with Syria reverted to the Seleucids, and the region became increasingly Hellenized, although Tyre actually became autonomous in 126 BC, followed by Sidon in 111. Syria, including Phoenicia, were seized by king Tigranes the Great from 82 until 69 BC when he was defeated by Lucullus, and in 65 BC Pompey finally incorporated it as part of the Roman province of Syria.
There are many countries and cities around the world that derive their names from the Phoenician Language. Below is a list with the respective meanings:
2Ch 2:14—The son of a woman of the daughters of Dan, and his father [was] a man of Tyre, skilful to work in gold, and in silver, in brass, in iron, in stone, and in timber, in purple, in blue, and in fine linen, and in crimson; also to grave any manner of graving, and to find out every device which shall be put to him...
Later, reforming prophets railed against the practice of drawing royal wives from among foreigners: Elijah execrated Jezebel, the princess from Tyre who became a consort of King Ahab and introduced the worship of her gods.
Long after Phoenician culture had flourished, or Phoenicia had existed as any political entity, Hellenized natives of the region where Canaanites still lived were referred to as "Syro-Phoenician", as in the Gospel of Mark 7:26: "The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth..."
The word Bible itself ultimately derives through Greek from the word Byblos which means Book, and not from the Hellenised Phoenician city of Byblos (which was called Gebal), before it was named by the Greeks as Byblos. The Greeks called it Byblos because it was through Gebal that bublos (Bύβλος ["Egyptian papyrus"]) was imported into Greece. Present day Byblos is under the current Arabic name of Jbeil (جبيل Ǧubayl) derived from Gebal.