Phoenicia, Phenicia

PHOENICIA, PHENICIA (fē-nĭsh'ĭ-a, Gr. Phoinikē). A strip of coastal territory between the Lebanon range, the uplands of Galilee, and the Mediterranean Sea, containing the trading ports of the great maritime people that bore its name. Exact definition of boundaries is not possible, for the Phoenicians were associated with their cities rather than with their hinterland, after the fashion of the Greek colonies. It can be said, however, that to the north Phoenicia never extended beyond Arvad or Arados on the modern island of Ruad, eighty miles (one hundred thirty-three km.) north of Sidon. The southern limits were Acco, modern Acre, just north of Carmel, and, according to the Egyptian papyrus that tells the story of Wen-Amon, Dor, just south of Carmel. The Semitic name for the land was Canaan, the “Kinachchi” or “Kinachna” of the Tell-el-Amarna Letters, and the “Chua” of Phoenician coins. The name is of doubtful significance, but may mean “lowland,” as distinct from the uplands parallel with the coast, which are a geographical feature of the eastern end of the Mediterranean. The term Phoenicia is from a Greek work meaning “dark red,” but there is no clear reason why this was applied to the land. “Phoenix,” in fact, may mean “dark red” because the Phoenicians were the discoverers of the crimson-purple dye derived from the murex shellfish. “Phoenix” also means a date palm, and there may be a clue in the fact that the palm is a symbol on Phoenician coins.

The Phoenicians were Semites who came to the Mediterranean as one ripple of the series of Semitic migrations that moved west and south round the Fertile Crescent during the second millennium b.c. Abraham was part of this historical process, but the movement brought major tribal elements, the Amorites, for example, to Palestine, the Kassite dynasty to Babylon, and the Hyksos to Egypt. The tribes who occupied the coastal strip turned their attention to the sea because of the pressure on the agricultural lands in the narrow lowland strip, never more than twenty miles (thirty-three km.) wide, behind them. A tradition of seafaring may have accompanied the immigrants from the Persian Gulf, itself the first scene of human navigation and seaborne trade. Such was the challenge and stimulus that made the Phoenicians the most notable sailors of the ancient world and led to their feats of colonization, which spread their trading posts around the African coast from Carthage westward and established them in Spain and Sicily.


Phoenicia first appears in recorded history in the Egyptian account of the northern campaigns of Thutmose III. In his campaign against the Hittites of 1471 b.c., the pharaoh found it necessary to secure the Phoenician coastal strip as an essential avenue of communications. He punished severely the revolt of Arvad, the northernmost town of the Phoenicians, and went to considerable pains to organize the series of Phoenician ports as supply depots. Sporadically, as with the rest of the lands to the north, Egypt asserted or relaxed her authority. The Tell-el-Amarna Letters show Phoenicia in the same state of disunity and internal rivalry as Palestine during the weak reign of the mystic Amenhotep IV. Seti I (1373-1292) pushed his conquests as far as Acco and Tyre, Ramses II (1292-1225) as far as Biruta (modern Beirut). The whole coast revolted in the reign of Merneptah (1225-1215), including Philistia, for Pharaoh boasts, “Plundered is Canaan with every evil.”

Egyptian influence fluctuated over the next century, and when Ramses XII (1118-1090 b.c.) sent the priest Wen-Amon to buy cedar for his funeral barge, the Egyptian envoy was treated with the scantest courtesy in Dor and Tyre. An entertaining papyrus tells his story. A century later found Hiram, king of Tyre, in alliance with David, a partnership that developed into a trade alliance in the days of Solomon. Solomon’s fleet of “ships of Tarshish” at Ezion Geber on the Gulf of Aqabah seems to have been part of a combined trading venture whereby the Phoenicians used Solomon’s port and piloted Solomon’s ships to southern Arabia and India (1Kgs.10.22; 2Chr.9.21). If indeed “ivory, and apes and baboons” are Tamil words (a language of India), Tarshish in these passages must be sought in East rather than the West. The cargoes are certainly not Spanish.

With the division of Israel, Phoenicia became the neighbor and partner of the northern kingdom, while Judah lay along the communication route with the Gulf of Aqabah and the Red Sea. Hence Ahab’s alliance with Jezebel, the prosperity of the north (Ahab’s “Ivory House”), and the sequence of events that led to Elijah’s protest and the contest on Carmel. The Assyrians had dealings with Phoenicia. Ashurnasirpal (884-860 b.c.) imposed tribute on Tyre and Sidon after his thrust to the sea. Shalmaneser II added Arvad. Tiglath-Pileser (745-727) reasserted the Assyrian authority, which had lapsed. Shalmaneser IV (727-722) unsuccessfully besieged Tyre for five years. Sennacherib (705-681) besieged Sidon, took tribute from Sidon and Acco, but left Tyre undisturbed. Tyre was a formidable task for a besieger. Ashurbanipal (668-626) claimed to have reduced Tyre and Arvad, but by the end of his reign Phoenicia was free again, as Assyria lapsed into one of her phases of fatigue. Nebuchadnezzar (604-562) beseiged Tyre for thirteen years and seems to have captured the city (Ezek.26.1-Ezek.26.21-Ezek.29.1-Ezek.29.21) or received its surrender on terms. Hence, probably, the preeminence of Sidon in Persian times. According to historians Diodorus and Herodotus, Sidon provided Xerxes with his best ships for the great raid on Greece. All the Phoenician cities submitted to Alexander after Issus (333), except Tyre, which Alexander took after a vigorous siege of seven months. Under the successors, the power of the Ptolemies of Egypt first extended far up the Phoenician coast, but after 197 the Seleucids of Syria controlled the land, until the whole area passed into Roman hands in 65. The reference to a woman “born in Syrian Phoenicia” in Mark.7.26 reflects the fact of the century and a half of Syrian rule.

The Phoenician stock must by this time have been heavily diluted by immigrant blood, principally Greek. The whole area figured largely in the early evangelism of the church (Acts.11.19; Acts.15.3; Acts.21.2). Phoenicia’s achievement was principally in the realm of trade and in her simplification and diffusion of the alphabet, as a tool and means, no doubt, of commerce. Ezek.27.1-Ezek.27.36 and Ezek.28.1-Ezek.28.26 give some notion of the extent and variety of Phoenician trade, but the Phoenicians did nothing to spread or communicate the knowledge, geographical and social, that their voyaging won. Tyre’s colony at Carthage blockaded the Straits of Gibraltar for many generations in an attempt to guard the western and Atlantic trade routes, and this secrecy was a Phoenician principle. The land made no contribution to art and literature, and its religious influence, heavily infected with the cruder fertility cults, was pernicious.——EMB