The Phoenicians: History, Religion & Civilization

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  • 0:00 Who Were The Phoenicians?
  • 1:35 History Of The Phoenicians
  • 2:30 Religion Of The Phoenicians
  • 3:05 The Phoenicians &…
  • 4:25 The Phoenicians And…
  • 6:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Expert Contributor
Jeffrey Perry

Jeffrey Perry earned his Ph.D. in History from Purdue University and has taught History courses at private and state institutions of higher education since 2012.

Explore the history, religion and culture of the seafaring adventurers and traders known as the Phoenicians in this lesson. You'll also learn about their contributions to the ancient and modern world.

Who Were the Phoenicians?

Go ahead and thank a Phoenician. Why do the Phoenicians deserve our thanks? Well, they gave us and posterity something very important: their alphabet. You may even recognize it. Here are some examples of Phoenician letters:

b, j, and d

The Phoenicians were an ancient, seafaring civilization that traded all across the Mediterranean world and are responsible for creating the first written alphabet, the ancestral form of our own alphabet.

They originated in the Middle East on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, near present day Israel and Lebanon, sometime before 1200 BCE. They were descendants of the Canaanite people, and spoke a dialect of Canaanite called Phoenician.

When we use the term 'Phoenicians', we are using a label invented by the ancient Greeks to describe the cities with ports on the sea that were controlled by the Phoenician-speaking people. The Phoenicians probably would not have called themselves by this name because there was no great Phoenician kingdom or empire to unite them all.

The Phoenicians lived in city-states, independent governments centered around major cities. Like most cultures who lived in city-states, their identity was as members of a city, not as members of an empire or kingdom. The Phoenician city-states shared a language and culture and often worked together, but probably identified as independent groups.

History of the Phoenicians

After the decline of the Egyptian civilization, Phoenician city-states rose to power and became the dominant seafaring traders of the Mediterranean Sea. They established ports along the coasts of Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa. Their dominance lasted from roughly 1200-800 BCE.

The Phoenicians controlled their trade routes and ports until the Persian empire, under Cyrus the Great, conquered the Phoenician city-states in 539 BCE. He reorganized the city-states into four kingdoms under his control: Sidon, Tyre, Arwad, and Byblos. Alexander the Great later took control of Tyre in 332 BCE after a bloody battle, and soon conquered the rest of the Phoenician kingdoms peacefully. From this point on, Phoenicians were assimilated into the Greek civilization, and most of their culture slowly died away.

Religion of the Phoenicians

The Phoenicians were polytheistic, meaning they worshipped multiple gods. They shared in religious practices common to other Canaanite-derived people and correlated many of their gods to stars, planets, and constellations. Much of this religion seems to have been influenced by Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Greek cultures. For example, the Phoenicians recognized the Egyptian god Osiris and worshipped the Greek hero Hercules, and their division of gods may have influenced the understandings of Greek gods such as Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon.

The Phoenicians and Seafaring Trade

Phoenicians were very talented sailors and became famous across the Mediterranean as traders of a rare pigment used to create purple dye for clothing. This dye was so rare and expensive that it became the color of royalty in most places, and only the most powerful could afford to wear it. The word Phoenician actually comes from the Greek word phoínios, meaning purple.

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Additional Activities

Discussion Activity for The Phoenicians

With your classmates, discuss the impact the Phoenicians had on both the ancient and modern world. What advances did they make that shaped the world in which we live? How so? Which advances, whether in trade or language, do you think are the most important? Why? Would we live in a world of communication and trade without the actions taken by the Phoenicians?

The goal of this discussion is to articulate the impact ancient societies such as the Phoenicians have had on humanity while illuminating the connections between past and present.

Timeline Activity for The Phoenicians

Craft a timeline that details the major events or developments in Phoenician society from 1200-800 BCE. For each entry on the timeline write a brief annotation of 2-3 sentences explaining the significance of that date. So, for 1200 BCE, you might write something like: "Around 1200 BCE a Canaanite people we call the Phoenicians originated in the Middle East along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. They organized themselves politically through city-states, independent governments centered around major cities."

Additional Questions to Consider

  • Why do you think having an alphabet would help the Phoenicians in trade? Does written language help people not only communicate but also standardize business transactions and set expectations?
  • How did Cyrus the Great affect the power of the Phoenician city states? (Hint: He conquered the Phoenicians and reorganized their societies.)
  • How did both Greek and Egyptian culture affect the Phoenicians' way of life? (Hint: Religion)
  • Why did the Greek name these people the "Phoenicians"? (Hint: It has to do with trade.)

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