Of all the peoples of the ancient Near East, the Phoenicians are among the most recognizable but also perhaps the least understood. The Phoenicians never built an empire like the Egyptians and Assyrians; in fact, the Phoenicians never created a unified Phoenician state but instead existed as independent city-state kingdoms scattered throughout the Mediterranean region. However, despite the fact there was never a Phoenician empire, the Phoenicians proved to be more prolific in their exploration and colonization than any other peoples in world history until the Spanish during the Age of Discovery.
The Phoenicians were well-known across different civilizations throughout the ancient world, and their influence can be felt across much of the West today because they are credited with inventing the forerunner to the Greek alphabet, from which the Latin alphabet was directly derived. Nonetheless, the Phoenicians left behind few written texts, so modern historians have been forced to reconstruct their past through a variety of ancient Egyptians, Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman sources. It's not even clear what the Phoenicians called themselves, because the name Phoenician is derived from the Greek word phoinix, which possibly relates to the dyes they produced and traded (Markoe 2000, 10).
The mystery of the ancient Phoenicians is further compounded by the fact that archaeologists have only been able to excavate small sections of the three primary Phoenician cities: Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre. A network of this size, with hundreds of colonies and thousands of ships, had to be well-coordinated, and it was thanks to important cities along the Mediterranean coast. One of the most crucial cities in the system was hidden beneath the Greek, Roman, and Crusader ruins of Lebanon: the ancient city of Tyre. "Seated at entrance to the sea," according to the prophet Ezekiel, Tyre was constructed on a purportedly impenetrable island. As one of the oldest cities in the world, Byblos is a fascinating place, with its successive layers of debris representing millennia of human occupation. From the earliest times this coastal strip played a key role in connecting Arabia, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Aegean. Because of this, the history of the city cannot be told in isolation of its neighbors. From the Bronze Age Byblos had a special connection with Egypt, which ceased only with the invasion of the mysterious Sea Peoples at the end of the 2nd millennium BCE. Between the Phoenicians, Asia Minor, Israel, and Roman Palestine, it is not surprising that many divergent religions have and continue to exist in the region.
The history of Sidon, as with other Phoenician cities, constantly fluctuated between freedom and subjection. Its privileged geographical position on the coast was the source of its commercial development and its openness to foreign cultures, but in doing so the prosperous city became coveted by numerous conquerors. It passed through the successive influence of Egypt, the neighboring Phoenician city-state of Tyre, and eventually flourished under Persian rule as the seat of a satrap for the whole Euphrates region. The Persian king frequently made use of the renowned Sidonian fleet during his military campaigns, and the kings of Sidon were greatly rewarded for their services. However, during the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Sidon opened its doors to the young Macedonian, who chose to depose the long lasting dynasty of Sidonian kings. It later became the battleground between the Arab caliphates and European Crusaders during the Middle Ages in a conflict that in many ways continues to shape the region to this day.
©2016 Charles River Editors (P)2016 Charles River Editors