Phoenicia (fĬnē´shə), ancient territory occupied by Phoenicians. The name Phoenicia also appears as Phenice and Phenicia. These people were Canaanites (see Canaan), and in the 9th cent. BC the Greeks gave the new appellation Phoenicians to those Canaanites who lived on the seacoast and traded with the Greeks.
The geographic boundaries of the territory are vague, and the name Phoenicia may be applied to all those places on the shores of the E Mediterranean where the Phoenicians established colonies. More often it refers to the heart of the territory where the great Phoenician cities, notably Tyre and Sidon, stood (corresponding roughly to the coast of present-day Lebanon).
At the dawn of history in the Middle East, a people speaking a Semitic language moved westward and occupied a very narrow coastal strip of the E Mediterranean. Recent excavations of the Phoenician city of Byblos have somewhat clarified the date of settlement by revealing that trade existed between Egypt and Byblos c.2800 BC and also that other important Phoenician centers existed at this time at Jerusalem, Jericho, Ai, and Megiddo. In the 2d millennium the Phoenicians were pushed by the Jews farther westward along the Mediterranean.
By 1250 BC the Phoenicians were well established as the navigators and traders of the Mediterranean world, enjoying the commerce that had once been in the hands of the Aegeans. Their communities were organized into city-states; the greatest of these were Tyre and Sidon; others were Tripoli, Aradus, and Byblos. These were the home cities, but wherever the Phoenicians ranged across the Mediterrean they founded posts and colonies that later became independent states. Of these the most important were Utica and Carthage (founded in the 9th cent. BC).
The Phoenicians were more or less under the intermittent influence and control of the Egyptians, but with the weakening of Egyptian power in the 12th cent., Phoenician mariners came to dominate the Mediterranean. They went to the edges of the known world, trading from the Iberian Peninsula to the Dardanelles. Some authorities believe they went as far as Cornwall, seeking tin. There is evidence that in Egyptian service they may have sailed down the western coast of Africa, and possibly their ships even rounded Africa and reached the East Indies. The Phoenician carrying trade was enormous, and their wares were varied. They had an important monopoly on the great cedars of Lebanon from their homeland.
The Phoenicians had a language and culture like those of other Semitic peoples in the general area and may be said to have been identical with the Canaanites of N Palestine except for the development of their seagoing culture. The Phoenicians made a variety of metal articles. They also colored cloth the famous Tyrian purple (Phoenicia is the Greek word for
) with dye obtained from shellfish and were famous for their finely carved ivories. They worshiped fertility gods and goddesses generally designated by the names Baal and Baalat; sacrifice of the first-born, both of humans and of animals, was practiced. Astarte and Adonis were also known.
Phoenician artisans, who were skilled architects, were imported by the Egyptians, and Hiram, King of Tyre, lent assistance to Solomon in building. Their greatest contribution to Western civilization, however, was the development of a standardized phonetic alphabet, which was a great improvement over the more ambiguous cuneiform and hieroglyphic. The Phoenician alphabet served as a basis for the Greek alphabet and was a key factor in the development of Greek literature.
The great Phoenician cities were so well defended that they were able to withstand most of the attacks of the Assyrian kings. In the 6th cent. BC, however, they submitted to the tolerant empire of the Persians, keeping their own autonomy but gradually being more and more absorbed into the Persian pattern. Phoenician sailors, architects, and artisans were all prominent in Persian service. They also served elsewhere, and Phoenician ships were in the Greek navy that defeated Xerxes I at Salamis.
The individuality of the Phoenicians was dwindling, and with the rise of Greek naval and maritime power the importance of the Phoenicians disappeared. They were, however, able in the 4th cent. BC to offer serious resistance to Alexander the Great, who took Tyre only after a long and hard siege (333–332 BC). In Roman times the cities continued to exist, but Hellenistic culture had absorbed the last traces of Phoenician civilization.
See G. Rawlinson, Phoenicia (1889, repr. 1972); R. Weil, Phoenicia and Western Asia (1980); S. Moscati, ed., The Phoenicians (1989).