Punic ostrich egg from Villaricos
The Phoenicians were the greatest seafaring civilization of the ancient world. They dominated trade in the Mediterranean for nearly a thousand years. The word “Phoenician” is Greek for "People of the Sea."

Phoenician seafarer usually hugged the coast and set up their colonies and camps on easily defended islands or peninsulas. They determined their direction by looking at the sun and the stars. For many years the North Star was known as the Phoenician Star.

The Phoenician sailed mostly during the day and only in good weather between March and October. They headed to shore the first sign of a storm or some other problem. They traveled around five knot an hour. They could make 100 miles in 24 hours but usually traveled around 25 to 30 miles.

The Phoenicians were merchant marines. Their ships traveled under many flags. From what can best be ascertained Phoenician ships had crews of about a half dozen sailors and the typical meal was fish stew. Seamen carried images of god to protect them from storms and pirates. Incense offerings to the gods were made at the beginning and end of every voyage. They might also have also been lit on voyages during violent storms.

Phoenician Trade

Pliny once wrote, the "Phoenicians invented trade." Phoenicians engaged in three types of trading activities; 1) exporting material, namely cedar, from their traditional homeland in Lebanon; 2) earning transport and middleman fees from shipping goods and materials such as silver using its Mediterranean trade network; and 3) controlling supply markets in the places they colonized. The Phoenicians made huge profits selling high-end luxury items like purple cloth. Cedar from Lebanon, a highly valued building material, was also quite profitable. They also moved large amounts of wine and olive oil. Trading posts eventually grew into colonies. Little is known about the specifics of Phoenician trade: exactly what route they took, and the amount and types of cargo they carried.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art:“Confined to a narrow coastal strip with limited agricultural resources, maritime trade was a natural development. By the late eighth century B.C., the Phoenicians, alongside the Greeks, had founded trading posts around the entire Mediterranean and excavations of many of these centers have added significantly to our understanding of Phoenician culture. [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. "The Phoenicians (1500–300 B.C.)", The main natural resources of the Phoenician cities in the eastern Mediterranean were the prized cedars of Lebanon and murex shells used to make the purple dye. [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004]

The Phoenicians traded with the pharaohs of Egypt and carried King Solomon's gold from Ophir. There are Egyptian records, dating to 3000 B.C., of Lebanese logs being towed from Byblos to Egypt. From 2650 B.C. there is record of 40 ships towing logs. Phoenicia competed with the Greeks and Etruscans and later the Romans. A 2,500-year-old gold plate with Phoenician letters found in Prygu, Italy in 1964 is offered as proof that they traded with the Etruscans by 500 B.C., before the rise of Rome. The majority of the trade between the eastern and western Mediterranean passed through the strategic waterway off Cape Bon, Tunisia, between North Africa and Sicily.

Phoenician Traded Goods

The Phoenicians traded purple cloth, glass trinkets, perfumed ointments, and fish. They were the first to trade glass items at a large scale. Around the 6th century B.C. the “core glass method” of glass making from Mesopotamia and Egypt was revived under the influence of Greek ceramics makers in Phoenicia in the eastern Mediterranean and then was widely traded by Phoenician merchants. During the Hellenistic period, high quality pieces were created using a variety of techniques, including the cast glass and mosaic glass.

The Phoenicians grew rich selling timber from the mountains of Lebanon. The timber was used for making ships and columns for houses and temples. Neither Egypt nor Mesopotamia had good sources of wood and civilizations all over the Middle East looked to Lebanon for timber. The Phoenicians traded timber for papyrus and linen from Egypt, copper ingots from Cyprus, Nubian gold and slaves, jars with grain and wine, silver, monkeys, precious stones, hides, ivory and elephants tusks from Africa.

Cedar was perhaps the most valuable source of income for the Phoenicians. An alabaster relief from the Assyrian King Sargon II, dated to 700 B.C., shows the transportation of logs by ship. The relief shows cedars logs being loaded on small rivercraft called “ hippos” that carried and pulled the logs. Papyrus was the main item from Egypt traded for timber. From Byblos papyrus was distributed to other places.

Trade Between the Ancient Greeks and Phoenicians

After the power of the Phoenicians declined, the ancient Greeks became the main traders and economic power in the Mediterranean. On the relationship between the Greeks and Phoenicians, Herodotus wrote in “Histories,” Book I, '1-2 (480 B.C.): “The Phoenicians, who had formerly dwelt on the shores of the Persian Gulf, having migrated to the Mediterranean and settled in the parts which they now inhabit, began at once, they say, to adventure on long voyages, freighting their vessels with the wares of Egypt and Assyria. They landed at many places on the coast, and among the rest at Argos, which was then pre-eminent above all the states included now under the common name of Hellas. [Source: Source: Herodotus, “Histories”, translated by George Rawlinson, New York: Dutton & Co., 1862]

“Here they exposed their merchandise, and traded with the natives for five or six days; at the end of this time, when almost everything was sold, there came down to the beach a number of women, and among them the daughter of the king, who was, they say, agreeing in this with the Hellenes, Io, the child of Inachus. The women were standing by the stern of the ship intent upon their purchases, when the Phoenicians, with a general shout, rushed upon them. The greater part made their escape, but some were seized and carried off. Io herself was among the captives. The Phoenicians put the women on board their vessel, and set sail for Egypt. Thus did Io pass into Egypt, and thus commenced the series of outrages. . . .At a later period, certain Greeks, with whose name they are unacquainted, but who would probably be Cretans, made a landing at Tyre, on the Phoenician coast, and bore off the king's daughter, Europa. In this they only retaliated. The Cretans say that it was not them who did this act, but, rather, Zeus, enamored of the fair Europa, who disguised himself as a bull, gained the maiden's affections, and thence carried her off to Crete, where she bore three sons by Zeus: Sarpedon, Rhadamanthys, and Minos, later king of all Crete.”

Phoenician trade

In “Histories” Book V, '57-59, Herodotus wrote: “Now the Gephyraean clan, claim to have come at first from Eretria, but my own enquiry shows that they were among the Phoenicians who came with Cadmus to the country now called Boeotia. In that country the lands of Tanagra were allotted to them, and this is where they settled. The Cadmeans had first been expelled from there by the Argives, and these Gephyraeans were forced to go to Athens after being expelled in turn by the Boeotians. The Athenians received them as citizens of their own on set terms. These Phoenicians who came with Cadmus and of whom the Gephyraeans were a part brought with them to Hellas, among many other kinds of learning, the alphabet, which had been unknown before this, I think, to the Greeks. As time went on the sound and the form of the letters were changed. At this time the Greeks who were settled around them were for the most part Ionians, and after being taught the letters by the Phoenicians, they used them with a few changes of form. In so doing, they gave to these characters the name of Phoenician. I have myself seen Cadmean writing in the temple of Ismenian Apollo at Boeotian Thebes engraved on certain tripods and for the most part looking like Ionian letters.

Phoenician Colonies in the Mediterranean and Spain

The Phoenicians are credited with creating the first colonies and pioneering the concept of trading consumer products for raw materials on a large scale.

The Phoenicians began migrated to the eastern Mediterranean around 1200 B.C. beginning with Cyprus. They expanded when the Minoans, who dominated trade in the Mediterranean, were overthrown by Mycenaeans between 1400 and 1200 B.C.

The Phoenicians set up colonies in northern Israel, and spread around the east and west of the Mediterranean, setting up settlements in Tunisia, Sicily and Sardinia, Their trading centers in the eastern Mediterranean were connected to those in the east by a set of ingenious way stations.

The Phoenicians sailed into Atlantic and set up a colony in present-day Cadiz, Spain on the Atlantic Ocean. In the 1st century B.C., Diodorus of Sicily wrote: “They planted many colonies throughout Libya...amassed great wealth and essayed to voyage beyond the Pillars of Hercules into the sea men call the ocean.” Phoenician statues have been found all over Spain.

Phoenician cedar trade

The Phoenicians set up outposts on Sardinia and Ibiza in Spain. This led some scholars to the conclusion they frequently engaged in open sea travel and didn’t just hug the shores. Carthage expanded into Spain between 237 and 218 B.C. in part to prepare for an invasion of Rome.

Phoenician Explorers

The Phoenicians were the greatest explorers of the ancient world. They discovered the Atlantic and ventured as far away as Britain and Africa. Punic coins were reportedly found in the Azores. The Phoenicians are said to have sailed around Africa in 610 B.C. Some believe they may have made it to India and even America. The Greek historian Diodorus said they traveled to west to a “an island of considerable size...fruitful, much of it mountainous. Through it flow navigable rivers.”

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Sea traders from Phoenicia and Carthage (a Phoenician colony traditionally founded in 814 B.C.) even ventured beyond the Strait of Gibraltar as far as Britain in search of tin. However, much of our knowledge about the Phoenicians during the Iron Age (1200–500 B.C.) and later is dependent on the Hebrew Bible, Assyrian records, and Greek and Latin authors. For example, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, Phoenician sailors, at the request of the pharaoh Necho II (r. ca. 610–595 B.C.), circumnavigated Africa. [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004]

Herodotus wrote around 600 B.C. that Phoenician ships circled Africa to pay homage to the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II. "The Phoenicians...sailed the southern seas,” he wrote, "whenever autumn came they would put in and sow the land....then, having gathered in the crop, they sailed on, so that after two years had passed, it was in the third that they rounded the Pillars of Hercules and came to Egypt. There they said (what some may believe, though I do not) that in sailing round Libya they had the sun on their right hand [an indication they were in the southern hemisphere].

Classical texts suggest a colony may have been established beyond the Strait of Gibraltar on Cadiz in present-day Spain by 1100 B.C. The oldest archeology remains linked to the Phoenicians however date only to the 8th century B.C. Some archeologist believe a rock painting dated to the 2nd millennium B.C., of stick figures surrounding a ship is of Phoenicians.

In the 5th century B.C. boat launched from Carthage traveled beyond Gibraltar. The Phoenician voyager Himilco who set out looking for tin and an ocean passage to avoid overland routes may have reached Britain. The Carthaginian navigator Hanno may have carried colonists to the Gulf of Guinea, where his logbook described crocodiles, hippopotamuses and "women with shaggy bodies...called Gorillas."

Some modern scientist say the Phoenicians may have reached America based on similarities between Phoenician cultures and cultures in the Americas.

Phoenician Ships

The Phoenicians sailed the most advanced ship in the world during their time. The Greek historian Polybius wrote in the 2nd century B.C. they " were far superior, both in the speed of their ships and the way they built them, and also in the experience and skill of their seamen.” Romans based their boat designs on Phoenician ships that were captured and copied exactly

The Phoenicians traveled in deep-laden "round ships" with horse head bows, a single square sail and ballast stones balanced on green branches. Hulls were lined with brush, which absorbed shocks, and kept the cargo from shifting in the hold. Food such as olive oil and garum fish sauce as well as wine was stored in amphorae. Some ships were outfit with wooden anchors filled with lead. Large cargo-carrying ships were over a 100 feet long. The discover of small 25-foot-longboats indicates they may have used small craft to ferry supplies from large cargo ships to shore.

Phoenician ships used mortise-and tenon technology as did the ships of the ancient Greeks and Romans. On ancient Greek and Roman ships the hulls were built first and then strengthened with an internal frame. The practice of building ribs onto the keel and then attaching hull planks to the skeletons did not become commonplace until the Middle Ages. Instead planks in the hull were held together with mortises and tenons (slots and wooden pieces) that were fit together with great skill.

The mortises (slots) were drilled into the planks and spaced from five to 10 inches apart. Adjoining planks had mortise in the same places. Tenons (wooden pieces) were placed in the slots to hold the planks together. Wooden pegs or copper nails were then hammered into the tenons to hold them in place. The fit was so tight that caulking wasn’t needed. The hull was tarred and sheathed in lead primarily as protection from shipworms. The thickness of the planks varied from one inch to four inches. Hulls with thin planks had two layers of planks around the keel.

Large sea-worthy war ships such as the 50-oar galleys known as “penteconter” were sheathed in bronze and built to ram other ships. They had two banks of oars and a swan neck poop.

Discovery of Phoenician Ships

Phoenician boat
For a long time no one was sure what Phoenician boats looked like. One had never been found. Details were gleaned from ships used by cultures that lived at the same times as the Phoenicians.

In 1999, two Phoenicians vessels were located by deep sea robots. Dated at 750 B.C. the vessels were found in 1,000- to 3,000-foot-deep waters off the off the coast of Israel and Egypt near the Mediterranean port of Ashkelon. Each vessel was carrying around 10 tons of wine stored in ceramic jugs called amphorae. One vessel was 58 feet long and the other was 48 feet long. They appeared to have sunk in a storm and landed on the sea floor about a kilometers and half apart. The large one carried about 400 amphorae that held 20 liters each.

The site was located in 1997 by a U.S. Navy research submarine that noticed hundreds of large amphorae, arrayed roughly in the shape of a ship on the sea floor. The site was investigated by the ROV Jason submersible by a research team lead by Bob Ballard. They were the first Iron Age ships found in the Mediterranean The vessels were dated by the distinctive mushroomed-shaped lids of the amphorae which were common between 750 and 700 B.C. The amphorae were in excellent condition. The robots also found stone anchors, crockery for food preparation, a wine decanter and an incense sand.

Two 7th century B.C. Phoenician shipwrecks have been found in the Bay of Mazaron near Cartagena in Spain. Excavations revealed mortise-and -tendon joints, lead from wooden anchors, intact Phoenician knots, amphorae, and millstones use to grind wheat. Another Phoenician ship was pulled from the sea near Kyrenia, Cyprus. It went down in the 4th century B.C. and carried mostly wine jars.

Shipwreck Found in Spain Yields Clues About Phoenician Trade

Between 2007 and 2011, a Phoenician shipwreck was excavated at Bajo de la Campana, 30 kilometers northeast of Cartagena in southeast Spain by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA). James P. Delgado wrote in Archaeology magazine: “The first Phoenician shipwreck to be excavated by archaeologists, the wreck at Bajo de la Campana, a submerged rock reef off Spain’s coast near Cartagena, dates to some 2,700 years ago. The ship ran aground and spilled its cargo onto the seabed, where a number of finds ended up clustered in a sea cave. [Source: James P. Delgado, Archaeology magazine]

“Under the direction of Mark Polzer and Juan Piñedo Reyes, archaeologists recovered fragments of the hull along with a large number of ceramic and bronze artifacts, as well as pine nuts, amber, elephant tusks, and lead ore. The tusks include examples engraved with the Punic names of their owners. The Bajo de la Campana ship was likely a trader from the Eastern Mediterranean that journeyed west, at least as far as today’s Cadiz, in its quest for goods. Most were raw commodities, such as the ivory and lead ore, which the ship’s crew had acquired through trade with the indigenous people of this part of Spain.

“The wreck at Bajo de la Campana is still undergoing analysis by Polzer and Piñedo at Cartagena’s Museum of Underwater Archaeology but has already yielded evidence of a wide maritime trade network. The Bajo de la Campana ship demonstrates, like the earlier Cape Gelidonya and Uluburun ships, that commerce by sea linked cultures and helped build trading empires—in this case, that of the Phoenicians. In time, they dominated the Western Mediterranean, established port cities and colonies such as Cartago Nuovo (today’s Cartagena), and ultimately clashed with the growing power of Rome.”

Phoenician Economics and Agriculture

Under Phoenician control Ashkelon minted coins starting in the 4th century B.C. The industry continued to the 12th century. Some small hoards of silver coins known as obols that date to around 400 B.C. can be seen at the Israeli Museum. Although they were made in a region under Persian control they have the head of Athena on them.

The Phoenicians introduced advanced agricultural methods, the cultivation of olives and grains, sheep herding and urban living to the Berbers. They grew pomegranates and possessed large olive groves. Phoenicians introduced advanced agricultural methods to the Berbers. A Carthaginian named Mago is regarded as greatest agronomist in antiquity.

Phoenician Purple Dye

Vestiges of purple
dye industry
Tyre grew rich from the sale of a purple-dyed textiles that were used to denote royalty. The dye was produced from murex, a trumpet-shaped marine snail still found among rocks in the eastern Mediterranean today. Piles of the shells and large vats indicated that dye production was carried out on an industrial scale. In Sidon, archeologist found a 300-foot-long mound of murex shells.

According to legend purple was discovered by the Phoenician god Melkarth, whose dog bit into a seashell, resulting in his mouth becoming a rich shade of purple. Other have said the dye was discovered by noting that people who ate the snail had purple lips.

Royal purple was produced as early as 1200 B.C. The dye was made of urine, sea water and ink from the bladders of the murex snails. To extract the snails, the shells were put in a vat where their putrifying bodies excreted a yellowish liquid. Depending on how much water was added the liquid produced hues ranging from rose to dark purple.

"Born to the purple" became a common expression to describe royalty. Purple cloth was treasured by the Greeks and Romans and remained extremely valuable through Byzantine times. One gram of pure purple die was worth 10 to 20 times its weight in gold. Some of the richest people in ancient Phoenician were purple dye merchants.

Purple is no longer made from sea shells in the eastern Mediterranean but it is still is done in Oaxaca, Mexico. In the winter “ Purpura” mollusks are collected from rocks and opened and the purple dye is applied to yarn right there in the spot.

Phoenician Metallurgy and Gold, Silver and Tin Trade

The Phoenicians traded for iron from mined in Ebla, gold from Andulusia and tin from Cornwall. By the 9th century B.C. they established a whole series of communities along the southern coast of Spain to move metals and minerals mined in Iberian mines.

The Phoenicians monopolizes the tin trade. Tin was needed for bronze. It was carried from Britain to Cadiz in Spain and carried overland to Mediterranean ports. Silver that came from Spain may have gone through the Straits of Gibralter. The presence of ivory tusks indicates they probably traded ivory too.

The Phoenician usually landed and stayed in a defensible position until inhabitants brought enough gold or other valuables to trade and then withdrew. The traders would come ashore and examine the gold. If there was enough they would take it and leave their trading goods. If not they would go back to their boats and leave the gold behind and wait for a better offer. Neither side agrees until they are satisfied," wrote Herodotus, "The Carthaginians don't touch the gold until it equals the value of their goods, nor the natives their goods till the ships have taken the gold."

CT scans of ancient bellows unearthed in Carthage reveled sophisticated intake valves that regulated airflow in hearths to raise the temperature in iron-making furnaces. The Carthaginians strengthened their metals with calcium, using a metallurgical technology similar to the Bessemer process, which was not invented until the 19th century. The source of the calcium was the same murex snails that were the source of the valuable purple dye.

Riotinto Mines in Spain

For 5,000 years what today are known as the Riotinto Mines in southwestern Spain produced wealth that sustained civilizations, riches that created cash economies and pollution that spread around the globe. Barry Yeoman wrote in Archaeology Magazine, “Riotinto is part of the Iberian Pyrite Belt, a mineral deposit that stretches from Spain into Portugal. It is one of the largest known mining complexes in the ancient world. Starting as a surface operation focused on copper minerals, it eventually became an industrial-scale enterprise until it finally closed in 2001 amid falling copper prices. [Source: Barry Yeoman, Archaeology Magazine, September-October 2010]

"The name Riotinto has something of a magical connotation," wrote University of Sevilla archaeologists Antonio Blanco Freijeiro and José María Luzón Nogué in 1969. "It has been called the geologist's paradise because at almost no other place on the earth has nature exposed in one spot such richness and variety of minerals." Visiting in the late 1980s, archaeologist Lynn Willies of England's Peak District Mining Museum described it as a landscape turned upside-down: "The hills have literally been turned into valleys, and the valleys made into hills." Even more striking than the topography is the landscape's color palette: crimsons, blue-grays, and ochres, which give the place an otherworldly feel. Naturally dissolving iron, a process believed to predate the mines, has dyed the acidic river "tinto," or wine-colored. So otherworldly is Riotinto that NASA has used robots to drill its soil-practice for the search for underground life on Mars.

wood trade

Local folklore places King Solomon's mines at Riotinto, though a more factual history has been more difficult to write. "Its birth is shrouded in the mists of antiquity," wrote William Giles Nash, a Rio Tinto Company employee, in 1904. Archaeologists now know that the area's Copper Age inhabitants were extracting malachite and azurite, two copper-rich minerals, during the third millennium B.C. Inside Riotinto's museum is a 5,000-year-old stone hammer found in one of the mines during the 1980s. These hammers were used to cut trenches in the slate outcroppings-the earliest form of mining at the site.

Riotinto Mines Under the Phoenicians

Barry Yeoman wrote in Archaeology Magazine, “The Phoenicians arrived in Spain around 1100 B.C.-their ships filled with ceramics, jewelry, and textiles for trading-and moved inland during the 9th century B.C.” "They didn't bring weapons," says Thomas Schattner, a professor of classical archaeology at Germany's University of Giessen. "They walked in, they exchanged goods with the indigenous people, and they were received." There is no archeological evidence of hostile attacks, Schattner says, which lends credence to the written accounts of peaceful trading. [Source: Barry Yeoman, Archaeology Magazine, September-October 2010]

At Riotinto, the Phoenicians found the silver and copper mines run by an indigenous people called the Tartessians. Even after the foreigners' arrival, the mining operations remained in local hands-though the amount of Phoenician influence remains a point of contention. "None," says Delgado, dismissing those who believe, in his words, that "without the arrival of foreigners, the indigenous people would still be like Adam and Eve." He argues that that only a few Phoenicians lived in the area, where they served as commercial agents. Schattner calls that answer "one-dimensional," noting that both written evidence and the size of the slag heaps show that silver production spiked at mines like Riotinto after the Phoenicians' arrival. Delgado contends this is solely because of higher demand; Schattner disagrees. Among the finds at Riotinto, Schattner says, are rectangular clay nozzles that had been attached to leather bellows, which pumped air into smelting furnaces. "The introduction of bellows is one of the most important contributions of Phoenician technology," he says. "It permits bigger ovens, higher temperatures, more successful melting, and much bigger amounts of metal. It's the beginning of industrial production. You would not obtain this amount of silver by using the old-fashioned technology."

Beyond mining, the Phoenician arrival sparked "a kind of globalization," says Schattner. In the seventh century B.C., the eastern Mediterranean was shifting toward a coin-based economy, and the Phoenicians needed silver to decorate their temples and pay their debts to the Assyrian empire. Silver-which was shipped off the Iberian Peninsula in bars or ingots, according to shipwreck evidence-was the perfect currency, he says: rare enough for coins to have value but common enough for many people to participate in the economy. "Without the silver mines of southern Spain, the development of money would have been quite different-based on a medium that was less ideal," Schattner says.


The globalization was cultural, too, Schattner argues. He has been excavating at Castro Cerquillo, a Phoenician-era village outside the Tharsis mines, 40 miles west of Riotinto. There, he says, "we made the astonishing observation that the new settlements of the indigenous people are being built in an Eastern manner, with orthogonal streets like New York, at right angles, making blocks-a very modern manner for that time." While the Phoenicians were extractors of wealth, Schattner says, they were also "distributors of ideas-for cities, for material culture, for houses, for living."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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