Ancient History & Civilisation


Feeding the Beast: The Phoenicians and the Discovery of the West


Sometime in the second quarter of the ninth century BC, the Great King of Assyria Ashurnasirpal II marched his army to the Phoenician coast, where he ostentatiously washed his weapons in the waters of the Mediterranean and made offerings to the gods. This ominous gesture elicited exactly the response it was supposed to: ‘I received the tribute of the kings of the seacoast–namely, the lands of the peoples of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, Mahallatu, Maizu, Kaizu, Amurru and the city of Arvad, which is in the middle of the sea–silver, gold, tin, bronze, a bronze vessel, multicoloured linen garments, a large female monkey, a small female monkey, ebony, boxwood, and ivory of sea creatures. They submitted to me.’1

This was not the first visit that an Assyrian king had made to Phoenicia, but it marked a new chapter in Assyria’s interest in the region.2 Assyria was in the ascendant, and the Phoenician cities would now be expected regularly to provide considerable quantities of tribute in exchange for their continued political autonomy.3 We are fortunate that the Assyrians understood the power of the image and the authority of the word. In their ruined cities, archaeologists have uncovered considerable numbers of inscriptions and bas-reliefs setting out their blueprint for empire. They present a striking portrait of a formidable military machine manned by legions of warriors sporting trademark carefully curled beards and hair. With their graphic depictions of endless battles, sacked cities, mass deportations and slaughter on a grand scale, the bas-reliefs of Assyria bring home the ruthlessness required to carve out and maintain an empire which at its height took in large parts of Iraq, Iran, Arabia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Cyprus.4


Being intimidated by much larger and more powerful neighbours was not a new experience for the Phoenicians.5 Hemmed in by steep mountain ranges to the east and the vast expanse of the Mediterranean to the west, the cities of Phoenicia were spread out along a narrow strip of coastline much of which is now the modern state of Lebanon. Although the inhabitants of these cities certainly did not call themselves Phoínikes, the name that was given to them by their great commercial rivals, the Greeks, they did recognize a shared ethnic identity as Can’nai, inhabitants of the land of Canaan, an extensive territory that took in all of the coastal plains of the Levant and northern Syria.6 Yet, despite a common linguistic, cultural and religious inheritance, the region was very rarely politically united, with each city operating as a sovereign state ruled over by a king or local dynast.7 Indeed, Phoenicia did not exist as a united political entity until over a thousand years later, when the Romans created the province of that name. However, despite these weaknesses and the threat posed by the major powers of the Near East, the Levantine coastal cities had–very much against the odds–long managed to safeguard their political independence.

The key to continued Phoenician autonomy and indeed prosperity, often in the face of considerable external pressure, was unrivalled mastery of sea. The exchange of luxury goods had long been at the heart of inter-state diplomacy in the Bronze Age Near East,c.3300–1200 BC, and had ensured that the palace authorities had kept a tight control over long-distance trade. Merchants stationed in foreign ports were essentially royal agents acting in the interests of the monarch. As his representatives and not merely private individuals, these merchants were expected to be offered commercial and legal protection by their hosts, and were treated rather like embassy staff.8 Indeed, in order to engage seriously in high-level diplomatic activity, the great powers of the Near East needed a ready source of luxury goods to exchange with one another. Although some of these materials were readily accessible –such as the cedarwood for which the mountains of the Levant were famed–others had to be fetched from lands across the sea. The problem for Assyria and its rivals was that, however great their reach on terra firma, none could claim to control the vast expanse of water which many knew simply as the ‘Great Sea’.9 For the landlocked Assyrians, the Mediterranean was a force that even their almighty god Assur could not subdue, and was therefore to be held in awe and reverent fear. Even the Egyptians, whose very existence relied upon the ebb and flow of the waters of the Nile, were hopelessly ill-equipped when it came to transmarine travel. Their flat-bottomed river craft could not cope with the turbulence that even the gentlest sea produced. If they wanted access to the precious goods and materials that lay across the sea, especially in the Aegean world, then they would have to rely on middlemen, a crucial role that the Phoenician city states, whose ‘borders are in the midst of the seas’, would make their own.10


As early as the third millennium BC, sailors from the Phoenician city of Byblos had developed ships whose curved hulls were able to meet the challenges of the sea, and were using those craft to deliver cargoes of cedarwood to Egypt. Over the following centuries, Byblos and other Phoenician states such as Sidon, Tyre, Arvad and Beirut created an important niche for themselves by transporting luxury goods and bulk raw materials from overseas markets back to the Near East.11 These new trade routes took in much of the eastern Mediterranean, including Cyprus, Rhodes, the Cyclades, mainland Greece, Crete, the Libyan coast and Egypt. Invaluable information on what was being transported has come from a number of shipwrecks. There were ingots of copper and tin, as well as storage vessels which are thought to have contained unguents, wine and oil, glass, gold and silver jewellery, precious objects of faience (glazed earthenware), painted pottery tools, and even scrap metal.12

This crucial niche role as the logistics experts of the Near Eastern luxury-goods market offered the coastal cities of the Levant and northern Syria protection from the vagaries of Near Eastern politics, because all the great powers needed and valued their services. Indeed change, even in its most turbulent form, presented further opportunities rather than catastrophe. When, at the end of the twelfth century BC, the eastern Mediterranean suffered a series of calamities at the hands of disparate bands of pastoralists, nomads, landless peasants and disbanded mercenaries (those with no stake in the narrow world of the Bronze Age palace), many of the old power structures that had dominated the region for millennia simply collapsed. Some states, such as the northern Syrian state of Ugarit, and the Hittite Empire in Asia Minor, simply disappeared, whereas others, such as Assyria and Egypt, were seriously weakened.

The top-heavy structure of the priestly scribal and military elites had ultimately provided monarchs with too shallow a power base to overcome any serious challenge. Social problems were exacerbated by a rigidly centralized and controlled economy which simply did not allow enough wealth to trickle down to the poorer classes. Once raiders had made agriculture difficult, and maritime trade in copper and tin impossible, the end for many Bronze Age palace societies was nigh. One might have thought that the dramatic decline of the very structures which they had serviced would have spelled disaster for the Phoenician city states. Instead, it ushered in a golden age of nearly three centuries, during which they were able to operate without serious external interference.

The disappearance of state-controlled commerce liberated traders from the restrictions that had previously inhibited their operations. Long-distance trade was transformed from being a palace monopoly into a commercial venture entered into by businessmen in order to make profits for themselves.13 In the coastal cities of Phoenicia, groups of traders organized themselves into ‘firms’, which appear to have revolved around extended families, in order to exploit commercial opportunities. Although commerce was no longer under their strict control, the Phoenician kings were still heavily involved in trading operations. Indeed, the palace often appears to have operated as a bank or moneylender for mercantile ventures. The relationship between business and the state was further reinforced by the presence of the patriarchs of the mercantile firms–referred to in the Bible as the merchant princes or the ‘princes of the sea’–on a powerful council of elders who advised the king.14

With no threatening neighbour to appease, and many of their commercial rivals in northern Syria destroyed, the Phoenician cities were able to extend their trading networks greatly.15 The new Phoenician mercantile elite would also increasingly expand its commercial activities to take in the manufacture of luxury goods. Precious materials were unloaded at the docks and transported to workshops to be processed. Ivory from northern Syria, Africa and India was carved into delicate furniture inlays. The most luxurious pieces were further embellished by the skilful insertion of precious stones and coloured glass (Phoenicia was also a centre for the manufacture of glass and faience). Egyptian-and Assyrian-themed designs show the extent to which these luxury products were manufactured for the foreign rather than the home market. Metalwork was another speciality, with Phoenician craftsmen displaying an extraordinary level of skill in producing bronze and silver bowls, often in a bewildering array of different styles. Traditionally, art historians have tended to treat this work as little more than talented mimicry, but what makes it uniquely Phoenician is its extraordinary eclecticism.16 Gold and silver jewellery, often embellished with semiprecious stones and exhibiting an astonishing degree of detail, was produced in considerable quantities. Favourite motifs included Egyptian magic symbols such as the eye of Horus, the scarab beetle and the solar crescent, and these were thought to protect their wearers from the evil spirits that prowled the world of the living, such as the ‘flyers’ or ‘stranglers’ of the night and the serpent demon Mzh.17

However, not all the goods produced in the Phoenician towns were connected to luxury. Large numbers of ordinary domestic utensils and agricultural tools made of iron were also exported, as well as weapons such as javelins and lance heads. But, the products for which the Phoenician cities would become most renowned were luxuriously embroidered garments and cloth dyed in deepest purple. Their quality would be recognized in ancient literature from the Bible to Homer’s Odyssey. Indeed, the Greeks would name the people of the Levantine coast after their word for purple or crimson: phoinix.18 The dye was obtained from the hypobranchial glands of two species of mollusc that proliferated in the region. Installations for the production of the dye have been found by archaeologists in a number of Phoenician towns. First the molluscs were caught in nets, before the shells were smashed and the molluscs left for a period of time to dry out. They were then added to salt water in whatever ratio was required to produce a particular purple hue. Although the stench that emanated from the rotting molluscs was so overpowering that the dye factories were located right on the edge of town, production was often on a huge scale, with the mound of discarded murex shells at Sidon measuring over 40 metres high.19

It was also during this period of relative freedom that a number of Phoenician cities were able to rise to a position of regional prominence. Indeed, the lack of predators in the political food chain entailed that a reasonably extensive and fertile agricultural hinterland was a distinct advantage, in the Levant as in other regions. Better protected, but therefore more isolated, settlements on an island site, such as Tyre, now tended to be overshadowed by their more richly endowed neighbours who controlled the resources of the mainland, including access to fresh water.

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