Phoenicia: A Forgotten Civilization and History’s First Global Empire


Lebanon’s history is one of the least talked about but one of the oldest in history, dating back to the ancient civilization of Canaan or Phoenicia. The influence of the Phoenicians was felt far and across the ancient world. The Phoenicians managed to spread their influence because they ventured beyond their homeland both physically and intellectually to explore the world and the riches it had to offer. For example, they invented the phonetic alphabet; they were the first great maritime civilization whose people: were innovators in maritime trade, navigation, sailing, and shipbuilding. The Phoenicians were also pioneers of the first overseas trade network and colonial empire. The Phoenicians were also cultural interlocks between civilizations such as Egypt, Babylonia, and Assyria. Moreover, Lebanon/Phoenicia is also blessed with a rich history. It is home to the famous cedar woods of Lebanon, which were imported and used in abundance by ancient civilizations. It is also the land of Byblos, the oldest continuously living city in the world; and Baalbek, the largest city in the ancient Roman world (outside Rome) and home to two of the most famous Roman Temples: Jupitar and Bacchus (the God of Wine). Nevertheless, it was during the height of Phoenician civilization were the land of Lebanon had its most enduring legacy on humanity, a legacy that was often forgotten but whose light will never fade.


The Origins of the Phoenicians

The Evidence

The Canaanites are the forefathers of the Phoenicians. Proof of this direct link can be retrieved from monetary, inscribed linguistic and archeological evidence and ancient geo-historical documentation. For example, one of the most significant finds concerning this subject was the discovery of an ancient Hellenistic coin in Beirut (the capital of modern Lebanon); which was inscribed in both the Phoenician and Greek languages and described Beirut in the former language as “being ‘in Canaan’ (b-kn’n)” and in the latter language “as being in Phoenicia” (Salibi 1985, p. 11). The second piece of evidence is provided by Herodotus, who wrote about the origins of the Phoenicians and did not hesitate in his belief that their origins lay in West Arabia. “‘This nation (Phoenicia/Canaan), according to their account, dwelt anciently upon the Red Sea, but crossing thence, they fixed themselves on the sea-coast of Syria, where they still inhabit’” (Salibi 1985, p. 11).


The Phoenician Golden Age

1500-332 BC

When thinking of global civilization, one might think of ancient Rome, Hellenistic Greece of antiquity, the Spanish, French or English-speaking worlds or a specific religion or sect. However, the civilization that propelled the world’s first global spread and created history’s first universal colonial empire was the Phoenicians of modern-day Lebanon. The first Phoenician settlements in the Levant rose across the coastal towns of Sidon, Tyre (Sur), Byblos (Gebal) and Aradus/Arwad (today part of Tartus), with Beirut and other regional coastal cities colonized over subsequent periods. Their transition from settlements to city-States took around half millennium to complete starting around 3200 BC and eventually becoming established independent polities by 2750 BC (Mark, 2018; Scott, 2018). However, the golden age of Phoenician power lasted from around 1500 BC-332 BC (Mark, 2018).

Figure 1: “The Temple of the Obelisks in Byblos was an ancient Phoenician temple built in the Late Bronze Age (1600-1200 BCE)” (Lord 2014)

The Phoenician Shipbuilding Industry

Despite the historical records praising the Phoenicians as exceptional seafaring people who exalted in maritime trade, there is a tendency to dismiss or at least forget that the Phoenicians also built one of antiquity’s great navies. The Phoenician navy or navies (the term navies is used since Phoenicia never united into one political polity) were held in high regard by the ancient powers, and respect derived principally from the agility and speed of Phoenician warships. For example, according to Herodotus, Tyrian (from Tyre), Sidon and Arwad naval squadrons were highly sought after by the ancient world’s great powers, such as the Persian imperial navy (Markoe, 2005). The main allure of the Phoenician war vessels and the main reason for the strength of the Phoenician military-naval fleet was the addition of the war galleys in the 8th century BC. It was the “raised deck which made possible the creation of a double-banked galley, or bireme.” This included “two superimposed, staggered lines of rowers working their oars from inside the vessel, the upper on gunwale itself, the lower through ports in the hull” (Markoe, 2005, p. 89). The double-banked galley ships, also known as two-level galley vessels, were the preeminent warships of the Phoenician navy in the 6th and 7th centuries BC, in addition to most probably being a Phoenician invention (Markoe, 2005). In addition to Tyre, Sidon and Arwad, Byblos, the oldest Phoenician city (Rivers 2016), was also in shipbuilding like other Phoenician city-states. This specific type of industry allowed Byblos and other Phoenician city-States to build massive fleets, which, coupled with being strategically located at the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean, provided the Phoenicians, including Byblos, with direct access to conduct maritime trade relations with regional powers such as Egypt, (Gilboa, 2005).
Nevertheless, Phoenicia was principally a great seafaring trading civilization that, by around 1200 BC, had entered the business of mass commercial shipbuilding through the construction of massive merchant vessels (Scott, 2018). There are probably two primary factors that can help explain the reasons behind the development of large ships of a trade by the Phoenicians around the late 2nd millennium BC. The first is the Phoenicians pioneering of mass production, which provided both Phoenician city-States and colonies with ample luxury and shared goods with which to trade with other polities and privateers around the world. The most luxurious and expensive of these was the famous Phoenician purple die produced in Sidon and Tyre and became Phoenicia’s most famous export (Scott, 2018), except the renowned Cedar Wood of Lebanon and the Phoenician-invented phonetic alphabet. In addition, to producing and exporting purple die, the Phoenicians also mass-produced other products, such as glass. Phoenicia proper became the leading power in glass production (Scott, 2018). While Carthage, the most famous Phoenician colony which eventually became an empire in its own right, “mass-produced ships” (Scott, 2018, p. 30); coupled with its position as “a thriving port and trading center” was a prime factor in Carthage’s rise into a significant Mediterranean power (Hunt, 2020). Additionally, the second explanation is provided by naval historian Richard Woodman in his book, ‘The History of the Ship: The Comprehensive Story of Seafaring from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. In the book, Woodman (2012, chapter 1) describes how the Phoenicians were “the first true seafarers, founding the art of the pilotage, sabotage, and navigation, documenting the process and jealously guarding their trade routes with tales of improbable denizens of the outer deeps.”


The Sea Peoples

Despite the Phoenicians’ industrious and exploratory nature and a ‘foreign policy’ driven mainly, if not entirely, by economic and commercial considerations; it is, nevertheless, difficult to isolate Phoenician expansion from the changing international relations environment that took place between the Bronze and Iron Ages. This change occurred when the Sea Peoples, one of history’s most mysterious peoples and one of Antiquity’s most feared races, emerged from the Aegean region and invaded the ancient lands of the Eastern Mediterranean world in around 1200 BC. The results were beyond horrific. At one moment in history: nations, kingdoms, empires and even civilizations across the Levant, North Africa and Southeast Europe were either severely weakened or destroyed, with some being wiped off the map, ceasing to exist. Fallen or weakened nations included: the historical ancient Canaanite Kingdom of Ugarit, which was destroyed indefinitely; the Hittite Empire, one of Antiquity’s superpowers which also fell; Pharaonic Egypt, which began its long decline in power and prestige; and the Mycenean civilization whose collapse paved the way for the fall of ancient Greece, which “entered its “Dark Age” (Scott, 2018, p. 29). However, unlike some of the major powers of the age, the Phoenicians held their own by surviving the Sea Peoples’ onslaught on the old Mediterranean order (one theory suggests that they may have made a deal to survive (Scott, 2018)). The destruction or fall of many of Antiquity’s greatest civilizations left a massive power vacuum to be filled across the Aegean and the wider Mediterranean world, a void the Phoenicians gladly occupied. One can trace the origins of the rise of the Phoenician commercial-colonial empire to this period in ancient history (Gilboa, 2005; Scott, 2018).


Phoenicia’s Maritime Destiny: An Accident of Geography

Unlike most of their surrounding neighbours in the Near East, the Phoenicians never developed a recognized land/territorial force. The strength of the Phoenician army was limited to ‘light infantry, cavalry and archers’ who were either volunteers or conscripts rather than a professional army (Markoe, 2005, p. 89). Instead, Phoenician rulers looked across and beyond the seas and oceans as inspiration for their ambitions – building massive and highly respected fleets (Markoe, 2005) to help serve their commercial and colonial policies and interests. However, the Phoenician city-States decision to pursue maritime objectives at the expense of enhancing their land strength was the result of the Canaanites’ (being the direct ancestors of the Phoenicians (Gilboa, 2005)) earlier decision to settle along the coastal area of the Levant; “since they (the Canaanites) were hemmed in by the Lebanon Mountains” (Scott, 2018, p. 25). In other words, it was not by choice but the result of geographic and topographic conditions and circumstances that pushed the Phoenicians to settle along the coastline of the Levant.
Moreover, as coastal settlers hemmed in by very tall mountains – the Phoenicians were naturally more inclined to develop into a maritime and not a land-based civilization. As famed Lebanese Phoenician historian Dr. Antoine Khoury Harb (2017, p. 139) put it: “when the Phoenicians found themselves locked between mountain and sea, they became navigators who never knew fear.” The possession of such fearlessness proved key to the Phoenician’s success as the ancient world’s greatest navigators and sailors, a tribute given to them by two of ancient history’s greatest writers, Herodotus and Homer (Cartwright, 2016).


Read More: Contribution of Muslim Rulers in the Society of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain)


Transitioning From A Commercial Into A Colonial Superpower

It was a combination of their bravery, creativity, industriousness, commercial talents, and knowledge of the seas (in addition to surviving the geopolitical upheaval caused by the Sea Peoples in the late Bronze Age) that gave the Phoenicians the appetite to go beyond the known and into the unknown. Through this sense of adventure, the Phoenicians searched for new commercial opportunities in places never dared to be visited and hitherto undiscovered. As a result, gradually, the Phoenicians “discovered the whole Mediterranean and filled its shores with their trading posts and the shipyards they constructed. Thus they had existence everywhere, in Asia Minor, the Aegean Sea, Greece, Southern Italy, Sicily, and Libya (North African coast (Mediterranean)), and especially in the major colonies they founded, such as Carthage and Cadix in Spain in the middle of the XIth century B.C. after they had ventured and discovered the Atlantic Ocean and reached Senegal to the south and the British Isles to the north” (Harb, 2017, p. 139); even exploring and colonizing new places beyond the dangerous Strait of Gibraltar also known as the Pillars of Hercules (Scott, 2018).
At the beginning of the 1st Millennium BC, the Phoenicians limited themselves to the establishment of warehouses, bases (these were marine commercial and not naval bases), ports, emporia (a commercial center/market during Antiquity), and trading stations at geostrategic locations that provided potential economic opportunities across the southern Black Sea region, the Mediterranean and even expanded to the Atlantic Ocean (Scott, 2018). Phoenicia’s initial global or, more specifically, westward expansion, whether it was setting up bases, ports, and trading stations, did not have a militaristic element. It was purely for commercial purposes. In other words, the Phoenicians, more specifically the Sidonian Phoenicians of Sidon and Tyre, had created a trading empire, the first of its kind in world history (Woodman, 2012) but certainly not the last. It was only under the leadership of Tyre that the Phoenicians expanded from a purely commercial power into a colonial empire, which naturally required possessing a solid navy. As a result of this dramatic change in policy and under Tyre’s stewardship and example, the Phoenicians developed a network of territorial colonies (despite being a Thalassocracy/sea-based empire) across a vast region which included ‘Cyprus, Iberia, Sardinia (which was rich in minerals), Sicily, Malta, agriculturally prosperous North Africa (initial colonies were established in Carthage and Utica both in present-day Tunisia) and the Balearic Islands (Scott, 2018, p. 29). In addition, the Phoenicians understood the importance of coordination in conducting trade, which helped clarify their decision to set up colonies along the Mediterranean coast from France through Spain, Corsica, Sardinia and Carthage (Woodman, 2012).



Figure 2: A map showing Phoenicia’s colonial and commercial networks (Khalaf 2021)


Finding The Americas

However, arguably the Phoenicians greatest yet rarely discussed achievement was their voyage to the Americas, a theory that several scholars have claimed to be authentic. One such scholar was Thomas Crawford Johnston (1913), an Honorary Member of the Geographical Society of California, who claimed that millennia before Christopher Columbus and the Vikings, Phoenician sailors reached the shores of the New World (Johnston, 1913). Mr. Crawford Johnston supported his case by using a methodological and systemic approach. In his research, he found strong evidence showing relics of Phoenician trade, artwork, and commercial and colonial settlements worldwide, including on the coasts of Spain, Britain and the Levant. He compared these to ancient remnants that were discovered in the Americas, which he concluded were too similar to those found in the places mentioned above, Britain, Spain and the Levant and that, therefore, they must have originated from the same source, which is Phoenicia (Smeaton in Johnston 1913).
In addition, there is scientific and archeological proof supporting Mr. Johnston’s theory. For example, in 1872, in Pouso Alto of Paraiba State in northeast Brazil, workers found a stone plate inscribed in an unfamiliar language. The inscribed text on the Stone, which was given the name the Paraiba Stone (after the region in which it was discovered), was confirmed to have been written in the Phoenician language by Dr. Netto, a famous 19th Century Brazilian expert on Phoenician archeology and the curator of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. The inscriptions on the Stone read as a story of a Phoenician voyage to the New World. “We are the Sons of Canaan from Sidon, the city of the King. Trading has cast us on this distant shore, a land of mountains. We gave incense offerings to the exalted gods and goddesses in the nineteenth year of our mighty King Hiram. We embarked from Ezion-Geber into the Red Sea and voyaged with ten ships. We were at sea together for two years around the land of Ham (Africa). Then we were separated by the hand of Baal (God of Fertility and the Storm and Mlk/Malik/King of the Gods), and we were no longer with our companions. So we have come here, twelve men and three women, on a shore which, Mutastarte, the chief, took possession of” (Harb, 2017, p. 198). In order to prove the authenticity of the Paraiba Stone text, in h1967 Dr. Cyrus Gordon (an expert in ancient Semitic languages and chair, Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University) studied, translated and described the inscriptions on the Paraiba Stone and confirmed that the Stone was a genuine discovery and that the text was authentically Phoenician (Harb, 2017).
Further proof of the Paraiba Stone’s authenticity was provided by Reverend Dr. Branden, one of the world’s imminent Phoenician linguistic scholars. They affirmed Stone’s validity by imparting his translation, including an explanation of the religious and historical context of the inscriptions. He could even provide an approximate date of the text, which he relayed back to between the 9th and 10th centuries BC (Harb, 2017) when Phoenicia was at the height of its global expansion. Therefore, there is enough evidence proving that so far, the Phoenicians were the first people in history to sail to and find the Americas.


Figure 3: Line 1 of the Pariba Stone (Messiah 2013)


Conclusion: Phoenician Exceptionalism

The Phoenician’s achievements read as follows: the Phoenicians of Byblos invented a 22-word alphabet in the late Bronze Age, the world’s first phonetic alphabet (Scott, 2018); which Harb (2017, p. 120) describes as “the mother of all modern languages.” Its importance to humanity’s development cannot be understated: it was the first egalitarian form of communication in the world, meaning anyone could understand it. Additionally, its simplicity allowed the Phoenicians to establish a very organized form of correspondence, contracts and record-keeping. It was essential to Phoenicia’s ability to establish the world’s premier trading empire during the Iron Age (Scott, 2018). There is growing evidence to suggest that democracy originated not in Greece but in Phoenicia. From as early as the Bronze Age, Phoenicia was organized into a series of independent monarchal city-States with active peoples’/popular assemblies and councils of elders (Scott, 2018) playing active roles in governance decision-making.
Furthermore, the Phoenician traders, similar to modern Lebanon prior to 1975, acted as direct intermediaries between Asia and Europe or, more specifically, between the Near East and the unexplored Western world (Scott, 2018). The Phoenician’s reputation as global intermediaries might prove the authenticity of the debated theory suggested by Herodotus in 450 BC that Phoenician navigators in the year 600 BC, if not prior – were the first peoples in history to circumnavigate Africa also known as the Cape of Good of Hope (Harb, 2017). Finally, the Phoenicians provide an example of how a true global power should behave on the international stage. Unlike most empires and colonial powers throughout history, the Phoenicians did not venture abroad for conquest and plunder but for commerce and profit (Scott, 2018). It makes Phoenicia unique in the history of empires.


Phoenician civilization
Figure 4: A map showing Phoenicia’s global trade routes (Akigka in Cartwright 2016)



Simon Nasr 

MA, King's College, University of London, UK.


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