Phoenicians (2,500-539 BCE)

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Astarte plaque, Gaza Strip
Baal bronze, Ras Shamra
Ivory Sphinx plaque, Nimrud
Gate showing Phoenician tribute, Assyria
Sphinx Horse Blinker
Lionness devouring a boy
Reshef, God of the Underworld
Sarcophagus of Ahiram
Bronze Bowl, Nimrud
Gold Scarab Seal
Phoenician glassware
Phoenicia – Wikimedia commons

The Phoenicians created a thalassocratic, or seaborne, empire. It formed at the Canaanite ports, and along the coast of today’s Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Palestine. It then spread throughout the Mediterranean as far as the Iberain peninsula. Like the Sumerians they were a group of city-states – Byblos, Sidon, Tyre – and there is no evidence that they saw themselves as a nation.

Avid seafarers and traders, Phoenicians profited from the decline of others in the Late Bronze Age. Its trade was initially in its cedar wood, in papyrus and a sought-after dye. They later developed industries in glassware (flasks, beads…), pottery, woodworking and metals.

Phoencian Trade Routes – Wikimedia commons

Its inter-trading with others was instrumental in expanding various cultures through the region.

Its port of Gebal was its religious centre and believed to be its oldest city. But it became better-known as Byblos, its Greek name. Phoenicians had traded heavily in papyrus and thus the Greeks awarded their city with its name for books.

They also traded heavily in a Tyrian purple dye, this was extracted, with some difficulty from the Murx sea-snail along its shoreline. The Phoenicians set up a second ‘production’ site in Mogador, Morocco, but their ongoing exclusivity maintained the dye as expensive. Greeks and Romans would later consider purple-dyed clothes as a status symbol.

The Fertile Crescent created a number of cultures and empires and this essentially drove the Phoenicians from their lands. In 814 BCE they did however spawn the Carthaginians, originally a colony of Tyre. Carthage was today’s Tunis. [1134-10]

It took its independence from Tyre in 650 BCE. But after three Punic Wars the Roman Republic destroyed Carthage in 146 BCE.



Image source: brewminate.com

Phoenician gold plaque of Canaanite goddess of fertility, Astarte. This was discovered at Tell-el-Ajjul in the Gaza Strip. and is on show at The British Museum. It is dated to 1650-1500 BCE. A significant deity in Tyre, Astarte had a temple built to her by King Hiram (10th c BCE).
The kings of Sidon were termed as priests to Astarte, but the most important deity here was Baal. He was placed at the head of their pantheon, too important for everyday worship. This bronze figure of Baal was found at Ras Shamra (or Ugarit) and is dated between 14th and 12th centuries BCE. The inter-trading led to many different cultures deities becoming somewhat muddles. Baal has similarities to Tammuz in Babylon and Osiris in Egypt.

Image source: brewminate.com


Image source: the961.com

This intermingling also led to cross-overs. Here an Egyptain sphinx is shown complete with pharaonic crown and apron in a Phoenician ivory plaque. Motifs and notions crossed cultural bounds. This was found in Nimrud, part of the ‘Nimrud ivories’. It dates to 911-612 BCE and is on show at the British Museum.
These strips from an Assyrian palace gate depict another interaction. Phoenicians from Sidon and Tyre are delivering tribute to the Assyrians.
While successful traders, the Phoenicians lacked large populations and from 858 BCE came under attack from the Assyrians. Their large cities were able to survive only as vassals who had to offer tribute to their more powerful neighbour. The gate is dated to 859-824 BCE.


Image source: Wikimedia commons


Image source: the961.com

This Phoenician horse blinker also features an Egyptian sphinx. The sphinx wears a cobra and a sun disk on its head. Made in ivory this is dated to the 8th c BCE. It is on show at the Met Museum NY.
Another Nimrud Ivory piece originally formed part of an ornate furniture item from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II of Nimrud. It is dated to 9th-8th c BCE.

Image source: the961.com


Image source: the961.com

This c850 BCE gilded bronze is a depiction of the divinity Reshef, the God of the Underworld, who dealt in plague and pestilence. This image is oddly reminiscent of the traditional clown blanc from French circus. But then clowns derive from the Egyptian 5th dynasty, c 2400 BCE. The role of clown and priest was often interchangeable at around that time.
This is the Sarcophagus of King Ahirim, the ruler of Byblos in the 10th c BCE. It has a series of bas-reliefs. But significantly there is an inscription that is the earliest example found to-date of the fully developed Phoenician alphabet.
The inscription is a curse against potential grave-robbers and intended to protect the sarcophagus and its contents.
It is on show at the Beirut National Museum.



Images’ source:


Image source: ancient.eu

Dated to 8th c BCE this bronze bowl was discovered in Nimrud’s north-nest palace. They are often linked with the Nimrud Ivories that bear similar Phoenician decoration. It is assumed that the Assyrians took it as tribute or spoils of war. It is on show at the British Museum.
This Phoenician gold and sardonyx seal is dated as 750-500 BCE. It bears two Egyptian cultural synbols. The hawk symbol of Horus holding an ankh (the symbol of life) and the feather of Maat a symbol of harmony and justice.

Image source: the961.com

Image source: ancient.eu
Glazing objects had been a Near East practice since the 5,000 BCE. A powder applied to the surface vitrified the surface. But the first examples of man-made glass, came from 3,000 BCE when Mesopotamia and Egypt began to make glass beads. Glass vessels were rare, so that they tended to be the property of princes and buried with them in tombs. the very rich could afford them. Though some temples and shrines found ways to fund them for their display. The pictured Phoenician glassware dates to 5th-3rd century BCE and is on show at the Museum kunst Palast, Dusseldorf.

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