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Origin of the Phoenician Empire -- Accurately Dating Phoenician History

Paper presented by Sanford Holst to the
Annual Conference of the World History Association
on June 19, 2004, at Fairfax, Virginia.

© 2004, S. Holst

By kind courtesy of the website: The Phoenician Experience

It is widely known that the Phoenicians were the master sea-traders of the ancient Mediterranean and expert builders of sea-going ships. Those who are knowledgeable about these people also understand that they founded Carthage and other colonies, as well as brought the first alphabet and papyrus to the Greeks.i Thereafter, a considerable amount of confusion seems to occur. This uncertain state of affairs is conveyed to students of history through the widely divergent dates and data regarding the Phoenicians which are contained in current texts and references.

To take a step toward resolving this unfortunate situation, the present paper examines in some depth the origin of the Phoenician empire. In doing this we address when that event took place, what actually constituted their empire, and place this occurrence in the context of those times—which is to say, the Phoenicians’ interactions with, and impacts upon, the other ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean.

To clearly illustrate the problem being addressed here, consider the conflicting and vague nature of comments made in standard texts and references pertaining to the date of origin of the Phoenician empire. While many sources incorporate "hedging" words into their statements, they each commit to a particular date…leaving the reader with the definite impression they have been told the proper "origin" date.

Most of the sources reviewed in this survey presented dates in the neighborhood of 1200–1000 B.C. Among these are:

"The Phoenician civilization flourished from about 1200 B.C. until the capture of Tyre by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. " From The Hutchinson Dictionary of World History.2

"…The Phoenicians turned to the sea and by the eleventh century B.C. had become the greatest traders, shipbuilders, navigators, and colonizers before the Greeks." From Civilization Past & Present.3

The next reference attributes the name Canaan to all lands between Asia Minor and Egypt prior to 1200 B.C. It then looks at a region within this area and states, "…Phoenicia now generally refers to this region in the Iron Age (c. 1200–332 B.C.), even though the culture had earlier antecedents." This is from the distinguished Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East.4

In contrast to this, other sources assert origin dates in the neighborhood of 1600–1550 B.C.

"Of these Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos, all flourishing towns in the Late Bronze Age 1600–1200 B.C., remained important throughout most of the first millennium B.C." From the well-respected Cambridge Ancient History.5

"…Phoenician history over a period of 1200 years, from the beginning of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550 B.C.)—when the Phoenician cities (with the exception of Byblos) first emerged as urban entities—to the start of the Hellenistic period around 300 B.C." From Peoples of the Past: Phoenicians.6

One brave textbook states an even earlier date.

"By about 2500 B.C. Phoenician merchants and ships already dominated trade in the Mediterranean basin." From Traditions & Encounters.7

Clearly these wide discrepancies—not just of time but of understanding—need to be addressed.

As historians, I am sure you will agree we have an obligation to those who read history: to convey to them the clearest possible understanding. We all recognize things which happened hundreds and thousands of years ago will have some degree of uncertainty about them…due to incomplete information, or the natural biases of individuals recording the events of the time, or even conflicting facts presented by different observers.

Yet we have powerful tools which can be brought to bear upon these problems, to bring greater clarity. We have archaeological evidence which—due to dedicated efforts in the field which are still going on as we speak—is producing valuable new facts and information. We have the ability to go back to original texts written in ancient languages…and make new translations which may remove misinterpretations or vagueness. We also have the tool of context—often used in solving jigsaw puzzles—where completing the parts of a picture around the unclear area allows us to proceed to a reasonable solution. We will use all of these tools in resolving the question of which portrayal of the origin of the Phoenicians is the most accurate…and should properly be reflected in future editions of texts and references.

Let us begin by considering archaeological evidence for two of the oldest Phoenician cities: Byblos and Tyre. If it were found that these cities were created after 1550 B.C., then we could eliminate all of the earlier dates and proceed immediately to our answer.

However by examining archaeological evidence at Byblos we straightaway discover a clear consensus that the city was founded ca. 6000 B.C., as shown by Grantand Meyers.8 These sources also reveal to us that Byblos began as a small fishing village on the shore of the Mediterranean at a place where the Lebanon mountains came down to the sea. The prized cedars of Lebanon which grew on these mountains provided strong wood for their fishing boats and good stock-in-trade for local exchange up and down the seacoast. By 4500 B.C. the village had become well enough established that it consisted of hundreds of small houses.9 I have been to the Byblos site in Lebanon and examined the foundations of these houses…still there amid the pottery remnants from the earlier occupation. In addition, Byblos is identified as one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world.10 In other words, the early founding of Byblos is well established.

At Tyre, a very thorough archaeological excavation was performed in 1974 which went all the way down to bedrock.11 This produced clear evidence of a founding date for this city occurring in the first part of the third millennium B.C. This was confirmed by Herodotus, often called the father of history, who traveled to Tyre around 450 B.C. He gave us the following report in The Histories (2:44).12

"I wanted to understand these matters as clearly as I could, so I also sailed to Tyre in Phoenicia, since I had heard that there was a sanctuary sacred to Heracles there, and I found that the sanctuary there was very lavishly appointed with a large number of dedicatory offerings. In it were two pillars, one of pure gold, the other of emerald which gleamed brightly at night. I talked to the priests of the god there and asked them how long ago the sanctuary of the god was founded, and I discovered that they too disagreed with the Greek account, because according to them the sanctuary of the god was founded at the same time as Tyre, which was 2,300 years ago, they said."

When we add 2,300 years to the date of Herodotus’ visit (450 B.C.) we get 2750 B.C. As it turns out, this falls exactly in the range given to us by Bikai’s archaeological evidence. We can therefore have a reasonably high degree of confidence in this beginning point for Tyre.

What we have seen, then, are a founding date for Byblos of ca. 6000 B.C. and for Tyre of ca. 2750 B.C. Both of these times occur prior to any of the proposed dates for the origin of the Phoenician empire (2500–1000 B.C.). This means we must probe further.

The disparity in origin dates found in most sources suggests a misunderstanding exists and—after studying the Phoenicians for 28 years—I began to suspect the issue turned on whether the Phoenicians were a great land power or a great sea power. Let us look deeper into this issue for a moment by considering some of the other great empires of antiquity.

To begin with, we need a reasonable definition of "empire." The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged 13 gives as its first and most frequently used definition: "A group of nations or peoples ruled over by a…powerful sovereign or government: usually a territory of greater extent than a kingdom."

It also contains a secondary definition: "A powerful and important enterprise or holding of large scope that is controlled by a single person, family or group."

The first definition clearly applies to nations such as Assyria and Persia, whose kings ruled many lands and peoples.14 In fact, this measuring stick seems to work well for evaluating most countries and nations because they are almost invariably land-based. But what happens when we consider a sea-based people such as the Phoenicians?

The short answer is that we get confusing results and a wide discrepancy in answers. This is amply demonstrated by the quotations with which we began this discussion.

If we forget for a moment that the Phoenicians were a sea-based people widely known as the great sea-traders of antiquity, and turn a blind eye to all their accomplishments upon the seas, with what are we left?

Stripped of their greatest attributes, we are left only with an insignificant handful of land on the coast of Lebanon. This description would exist until the Phoenicians began to create land colonies around the Mediterranean circa 1100 B.C. As they added Gades (now Cadiz), Malaka (Malaga) and Ibiza in Spain, added Lixus and Tingis (Tangier) in Morocco, Carthage (Tunis) in North Africa, plus colonies on Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica—then those individuals with a land-based focus would be moved to agree a Phoenician empire was in existence. And in their view it would have come into existence between 1200 and 800 B.C.

That interpretation is, in fact, exactly what we see in most histories. However for the Phoenicians, who were the major sea-power of those times, this assessment quickly breaks down. Most historians, as we have seen, feel compelled to add hedge-words acknowledging the existence of the Phoenician cities in Lebanon long before 1200 B.C. Others change the dates, being willing to attest to the Phoenicians’ power and influence at earlier times such as 1600–1550 B.C. One bold team of researchers gives a date as early as 2500 B.C. What is the correct assessment for the origin of the Phoenician empire?

To borrow from sailing terminology, let us try a new tack and come at the question from a different direction. What happens if we consider the Phoenicians not as a land-power, but as a sea-power? What conditions would then apply? What criteria would we use to assess their sea-power and to determine at what point their sea-trading empire was created?

As pointed out by Bentley & Ziegler15, among others, true assessment of the history of nations requires that we consider not only what happens within the borders of the country, but also the interactions of that country with others. This concept is gaining great currency, and we see it being employed in more world history texts. This concept is very useful in the present case because—as the dominant sea traders of the ancient Mediterranean—the Phoenicians’ interactions with other nations were the source of their lifeblood and their power.

In evaluating the Phoenicians, therefore, let us look at these interactions with some of the other great nations around the Mediterranean. Also, since we are seeking the origin of the Phoenician empire and not the totality of their history, we narrow our search to early occurrences of major impacts on other societies.

Early interactions with, and impacts upon, the Greeks

Beginning with the Greek people of the mainland and the Aegean islands, we note the widely documented fact that they received the written alphabet from the Phoenicians around 900 B.C.16 While the Greeks would rise to become major sea-travelers at a later time, the early Greeks knew the Phoenicians as an already-ancient and well-established nation of sea-traders. The Phoenicians by this time had acquired or developed their alphabet many years earlier, and were using it in their trades and contracts with peoples throughout the Mediterranean region. The importance of this discovery cannot be overestimated. I am sure you are aware that prior to the alphabet, virtually all writing in the region had been in hieroglyphics or cuneiform, which used symbols first to represent complete words and then to represent syllables. Instead of having to learn hundreds or thousands of symbols, a writer now needed to know only the 22 letters of the alphabet. This vast reduction took the art of writing out of the hands of a few scribes in palaces and temples, and put it into the hands of any person who wanted to learn. And the Greeks wanted to learn.

Much to their credit, the Greeks were not passive participants in this process. They took the Phoenician alphabet of 22 consonants and added vowels, making the alphabet more robust. They then used it to write the philosophies of Socrates, the theater plays of Euripides and many, many other works of ancient literature which are widely credited with being the foundation of Western Civilization.

The Phoenicians contributed not only the basic alphabet but also the papyrus on which to write these creations. So close was this identification in the Greek mind between the art of writing and the Phoenicians that they called the major Phoenician city "Byblos," from the Greek word for book (βίβλος).

This was clearly not the only impact of these sea-traders on Greek society. Long before the "classical" Greeks came into existence, the Phoenicians had been trading with the Mycenaeans who emerged about 1600 B.C. on the Greek mainland and islands.17 These interactions exposed the Mycenaeans to Phoenician innovations in areas such as shipbuilding, stonemasonry and the purple dye used in coloring cloth, all of which were of great interest to latter-day Greeks.

The time period of early Phoenician impacts on the Greeks, if we include the Mycenaeans, is then on the order of 1600 to 900 B.C. Clearly more impacts continued to come after these dates, especially during the Persian Wars, but our focus here is on the Phoenicians’ early impacts on other societies.

Early interactions with, and impacts upon, the Romans

We next consider the Romans, who received many Phoenician gifts indirectly via the Greeks. This includes the written alphabet, which the Romans further adapted into the alphabet we use today. But the Romans also received something else of great value—they received an empire.

Rome engaged in substantial trade with the Phoenicians at Carthage, signing a treaty with them in the late sixth century B.C.18Carthage at that time was a major power, essentially ruling all of the Phoenicians’ western colonies. These extended from Spain and Morocco to the islands of Corsica and Sardinia at Rome’s front door. Prior to the Punic Wars, which could also be called the Phoenician Wars, Rome was a relatively small state confined to the Italian peninsula. After this three-part war with Carthage, Rome acquired all of the Phoenicians’ western colonies and turned them into the first Roman foreign provinces, giving rise to the Roman Empire.

This was one of the watershed moments in Roman history, and clearly had a huge impact on their society. However, all these impacts came between 550 and 146 B.C.—long after the Greek impacts. So this is not the "earliest major impact on other societies" we are seeking.

Early interactions with, and impacts upon, the Egyptians

Egypt, however, offers many opportunities for early social impacts as a result of Phoenician trade, since they are a much older civilization. The earliest of these impacts I have been able to find in archaeological records is at the temple of Hierakonpolis in Egypt. Archaeologist Michael Hoffman was digging near that city’s known temple—which itself was quite old, dating back to c. 3100 B.C.—when he came upon a temple which was even older. The most remarkable aspect of the older temple was that it had a façade made of four huge wooden pillars, with the wood being identified as cedar of Lebanon.19 The cedar pillars for this temple, dated to c. 3400 B.C., are the first clearly documented proof of a major trade between the Egyptians and Phoenicians.

That this was not an isolated incident becomes evident when we note also that the "newer" temple in Hierakonpolis was where Narmer’s Palette was found. King Narmer is often credited with unifying Egypt and greatly expanding trade between Egypt and other countries. However no written record tells us with whom he traded…so let us take a look at some additional archaeological evidence.

We know with hindsight that Egypt traded heavily with the Phoenicians for most of the next 3000 years. Is there any evidence of this at the time of Narmer?

We find two records of interest. Pottery seals stamped with the name of Narmer were found in the area south of Tyre20 indicating some of the goods went in that direction.

The second interesting find is at Byblos where we see through excavations that the city went through a great burst of growth around 3000 B.C.21 Public buildings were erected, roads built and city walls constructed. The people of Byblos seem to have come into a great deal of good fortune at the time of Narmer. This is not conclusive proof, of course, but we can find no other Phoenician trading partner other than Egypt which flourished in the Mediterranean basin at this time.

Evidence of strong, ongoing trade between Egypt and the Phoenicians continued in historical records thereafter, including a scribe’s dutiful documentation on the Palermo Stone of King Snefru "bringing forty ships laden with cedar" in c. 2600 B.C.

Did all of this trade have a major impact on Egyptian society? Among their many other wares, consider the cedar provided by the Phoenicians. It was used in Egyptian temples, palaces, burial chambers and embalming treatments. If we try to imagine Egypt without temples, palaces, burial chambers and mummies, it virtually cannot be done. Those things are among the most central elements of their civilization which have come down to us. Therefore we see the Phoenicians’ role was an essential one.

One scribe put this into words in the latter part of the third millennium B.C. when trade was temporarily interrupted: "Today no one sails north to Byblos any more. How will we get cedar for our mummies?"22

This major impact by the Phoenicians on another society in the Mediterranean region is the early occurrence we have been seeking, and it predates their impacts on the Greeks and Romans by many years.

Since this took place in the third millennium B.C., it also predates the appearance of the Greek and Roman navies on the Mediterranean. Those societies would not come into existence until many years later. At this time we see the Phoenicians were conducting large amounts of sea-trade and appear to have enjoyed unfettered dominion on the sea.

At what point then, was this trade extensive enough and the impact great enough that we can say the Phoenicians had created a powerful sea-trade empire?

Was it in 3400 B.C. when they delivered cedar pillars for what may have been Egypt’s greatest temple of that day? Realistically, this may be too early a date, since such trade might have been only occasional at that time.

Was it in 3150 B.C. when King Narmer expanded trade and Byblos appears to have been a major beneficiary of that trade? This could possibly be it, but the evidence found to date is not sufficiently conclusive to support this.

Was it in 2750 B.C. when we see the Phoenicians flourishing to the point of creating a new city at Tyre to help handle their burgeoning trade? This is almost certainly the appropriate date. It benefits from the additional weight of involving a territorial acquisition and multiple kings, which can be more readily supported by people with a land-based perspective. Byblos, Tyre and Sidon were all ruled by kings and, at each point where history gives us a view of them, one king was always recognized as supreme, above the others.

Although the evidence supporting 2750 B.C. is very strong, it may yet be best to take a conservative position at this time since we are breaking new ground here. In this vein, we review all the surveyed texts and look for the one statement which most accurately reflects the emergence of the Phoenicians as a major player in the affairs of nations in the Mediterranean. In doing this, we see that the statement in Traditions & Encounters most truly reflects the facts and evidence in front of us:

"By about 2500 B.C. Phoenician merchants and ships already dominated trade in the Mediterranean basin."

Since this statement is fully consistent with the information we have in our hands today, it is recommended that it be adopted in all future editions of textbooks and references as the most accurate description available for the origin date of the Phoenician empire.

-- © 2004, Sanford Holst
The Phoenician Experience


  1. Bikai, Patricia "The Phoenicians," Archaeology Magazine 43:2 (Long Island City, New York, 1990), p. 23. 
  2. Speake, Jennifer et al (ed.) The Hutchinson Dictionary of World History (Oxford: Helicon Publishing, 1993), p. 461. 
  3. Wallbank, T. Walter et al Civilization Past & Present (Sixth Edition) (Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman & Co., 1987), Volume 1, p. 24. 
  4. Meyers, Eric (ed.) Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), Volume 4, p. 313. 
  5. Boardman, John et al (ed.) Cambridge Ancient History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), Volume 3, Part 2, p. 461. 
  6. Markoe, Glenn Peoples of the Past: Phoenicians (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), p. 11. 
  7. Bentley, Jerry and Herbert Ziegler Traditions & Encounters (New York: McGraw Hill, 2000), p. 51. 
  8. Grant, Michael The Ancient Mediterranean (New York: Meridian, 1988), p. 30. See also Meyers, Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, Volume 1, p. 391. 
  9. Dunand, Maurice Byblos (French, translated into English by H. Tabet) (Paris: Librairie Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1973), p. 15. See also Grant, The Ancient Mediterranean, p. 30. 
  10. Meyers, Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, Volume 1, p. 391. 
  11. Bikai, Patricia The Pottery of Tyre. (Warminster, UK: Aris & Phillips, 1978), pp. 5, 72. 
  12. Herodotus The Histories (Greek, translated into English by Robin Waterfield) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), Book 2, section 44 
  13. Flexner, Stuart (ed.) The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged (New York: Random House, 1987), p. 638. 
  14. Colby, Frank Outlines of General History (New York: American Book Co., 1899), pp. 39-41, 65-66. 
  15. Bentley, Traditions & Encounters, p. xxviii. 
  16. Garraty, John and Peter Gay (eds.) The Columbia History of the World (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 87. 
  17. Wallbank, Civilization Past & Present (Sixth Edition), Volume 1, p. 38. 
  18. Markoe, Peoples of the Past: Phoenicians, p. 66. 
  19. Davies, Vivian and Renee Friedman Egypt Uncovered (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1998), pp. 27-28. 
  20. Redford, Donald (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), Volume 2, p. 495. 
  21. Dunand, Byblos, pp. 18-21. 
  22. Moscati, Sabatino (ed.) The Phoenicians (New York: Rizzoli International, 1999), p. 25. 

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