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Phoenicia (fĭnēˈshə), ancient territory occupied by Phoenicians. The name Phoenicia also appears as Phenice and Phenicia. These people were Canaanites (see Canaan), and in the 9th cent. B.C. the Greeks gave the new appellation Phoenicians to those Canaanites who lived on the seacoast and traded with the Greeks.

The geographic boundaries of the territory are vague, and the name Phoenicia may be applied to all those places on the shores of the E Mediterranean where the Phoenicians established colonies. More often it refers to the heart of the territory where the great Phoenician cities, notably Tyre and Sidon, stood (corresponding roughly to the coast of present-day Lebanon).


At the dawn of history in the Middle East, a people speaking a Semitic language moved westward and occupied a very narrow coastal strip of the E Mediterranean. Recent excavations of the Phoenician city of Byblos have somewhat clarified the date of settlement by revealing that trade existed between Egypt and Byblos c.2800 B.C. and also that other important Phoenician centers existed at this time at Jerusalem, Jericho, Ai, and Megiddo. In the 2d millennium the Phoenicians were pushed by the Jews farther westward along the Mediterranean.

Phoenician Dominance

By 1250 B.C. the Phoenicians were well established as the navigators and traders of the Mediterranean world, enjoying the commerce that had once been in the hands of the Aegeans. Their communities were organized into city-states; the greatest of these were Tyre and Sidon; others were Tripoli, Aradus, and Byblos. These were the home cities, but wherever the Phoenicians ranged across the Mediterrean they founded posts and colonies that later became independent states. Of these the most important were Utica and Carthage (founded in the 9th cent. B.C.).

The Phoenicians were more or less under the intermittent influence and control of the Egyptians, but with the weakening of Egyptian power in the 12th cent., Phoenician mariners came to dominate the Mediterranean. They went to the edges of the known world, trading from the Iberian Peninsula to the Dardanelles. Some authorities believe they went as far as Cornwall, seeking tin. There is evidence that in Egyptian service they may have sailed down the western coast of Africa, and possibly their ships even rounded Africa and reached the East Indies. The Phoenician carrying trade was enormous, and their wares were varied. They had an important monopoly on the great cedars of Lebanon from their homeland.

Phoenician Culture

The Phoenicians had a language and culture like those of other Semitic peoples in the general area and may be said to have been identical with the Canaanites of N Palestine except for the development of their seagoing culture. The Phoenicians made a variety of metal articles. They also colored cloth the famous Tyrian purple (Phoenicia is the Greek word for “purple”) with dye obtained from sea snails and were famous for their finely carved ivories. They worshiped fertility gods and goddesses generally designated by the names Baal and Baalat; sacrifice of the first-born, both of humans and of animals, was practiced. Astarte and Adonis were also known.

Phoenician artisans, who were skilled architects, were imported by the Egyptians, and Hiram, King of Tyre, lent assistance to Solomon in building. Their greatest contribution to Western civilization, however, was the development of a standardized phonetic alphabet, which was a great improvement over the more ambiguous cuneiform and hieroglyphic. The Phoenician alphabet served as a basis for the Greek alphabet and was a key factor in the development of Greek literature.


The great Phoenician cities were so well defended that they were able to withstand most of the attacks of the Assyrian kings. In the 6th cent. B.C., however, they submitted to the tolerant empire of the Persians, keeping their own autonomy but gradually being more and more absorbed into the Persian pattern. Phoenician sailors, architects, and artisans were all prominent in Persian service. They also served elsewhere, and Phoenician ships were in the Greek navy that defeated Xerxes I at Salamis.

The individuality of the Phoenicians was dwindling, and with the rise of Greek naval and maritime power the importance of the Phoenicians disappeared. They were, however, able in the 4th cent. B.C. to offer serious resistance to Alexander the Great, who took Tyre only after a long and hard siege (333–332 B.C.). In Roman times the cities continued to exist, but Hellenistic culture had absorbed the last traces of Phoenician civilization.


See G. Rawlinson, Phoenicia (1889, repr. 1972); R. Weil, Phoenicia and Western Asia (1980); S. Moscati, ed., The Phoenicians (1989).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



an ancient country on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, occupying the coasts of what are now Lebanon and Syria, and populated by the Phoenicians. According to tradition, the Phoenicians migrated from the shores of the Eritrean Sea (evidently the Indian Ocean), although some early Phoenician authors considered them to be the indigenous inhabitants of Phoenicia.

Probably as early as the fifth and fourth millennia B.C., the Phoenicians founded settlements along the Mediterranean Sea, which gradually grew into major handicrafts centers and ports, including Sidon, Tyre, and Byblos. In the second millennium B.C., Phoenicia was a confederation of city-states, possessing agricultural lands, on which the overwhelming majority of the population lived. By virtue of its favorable geographical location, Phoenicia carried on an active overland trade with Mesopotamia and the Nile River valley and controlled the Mediterranean sea routes. The Phoenicians had long extracted Tyrian purple and manufactured purple wool; they were also known for the casting and stamping of metal, the production of glass, and shipbuilding.

At the beginning of the second millennium B.C., Phoenicia came under the domination of the Egyptian pharaohs, despite which the kings of the city-states continued to maintain diplomatic ties with the states of northern Mesopotamia, such as Mari. In the middle of the second millennium B.C., the Phoenician cities were embroiled in a political struggle, seeking liberation from Egyptian domination, a goal that was realized at the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 12th centuries B.C. In the tenth century B.C, Ahiram, the king of Tyre, established a united Tyrian-Sidonian kingdom in Phoenicia, which exercised hegemony over the entire Phoenician coastline. Under his reign, a close military and political alliance was formed with the united kingdom of Israel and Judea. Tyre gradually lost its dominant position, and at the end of the tenth century B.C, the Phoenician cities gained independence.

The most important event in Phoenician history at the end of the second millennium B.C. and the beginning of the first was the colonization of the central and western Mediterranean, where Phoenician merchants and pirates had evidently penetrated as early as the middle of the second millennium. Having discovered deposits of iron ore on the island of Thasos, in the northern part of the Aegean Basin, the Phoenicians began to exploit them. Evidently, Thebes and Boeotia were colonized by the Phoenicians; colonies were also founded in southern Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, and North Africa. From the ninth to seventh centuries B.C, these western colonies attained political independence and gradually were incorporated in the Carthaginian empire, headed by the Phoenician colony of Carthage.

In the eighth and seventh centuries B.C, the Phoenician cities were continually invaded by the Assyrians. During the second half of the eighth century, an Assyrian vicegerency was established in northern Phoenicia, with its center in Simirra. The Assyrians imposed heavy taxes on the Phoenicians and ruthlessly put down popular uprisings. However, the Phoenician cities retained internal autonomy and their own kings. Tyre ruled over an extensive territory and maintained friendly ties with the kingdoms of Damascus and Israel. In 722 B.C the Assyrians put down an uprising by the inhabitants of Tyre, and in 701 they pacified rebellious southern Phoenicia, where Sidon was the center of disturbances. After renewed anti-Assyrian outbreaks, Sidon was destroyed in 677, and Byblos, Tyre, and Aradus recognized the authority of the Assyrians.

After the downfall of Assyria in 605 B.C., Phoenicia was the site of conflicts between the New Babylonian Empire and Egypt. From 539 to 332 B.C. it was part of the Persian empire of the Achaemenids. In the fifth century B.C, the Phoenician fleet fought on the Persian side in the Greco-Persian Wars, seeking to strengthen the Phoenicians’ position as monopoly traders in the Aegean. During the fourth century B.C., the Phoenician cities aligned themselves with Greece, and from the mid-fourth century there were anti-Persian outbreaks centered in Sidon, which was eventually razed by the Persians. In 332 B.C, Phoenicia came under the rule of Alexander the Great, whose death triggered a struggle among the Diadochoi, which ended with Phoenicia coming under the domination of the Ptolomies.

In the mid-third century, rule passed to the Seleucids. From this period, Phoenicia underwent intensive Hellenization. Phoenician merchants established trading posts in the most important commercial centers of the Mediterranean, including the island of Delos and Athens. A Greco-Phoenician kingdom arose on Cyprus in the second and first centuries B.C In a number of Phoenician cities royal power was eliminated and tyrannies established, which existed for some time. In 63 B.C, Phoenicia became part of the Roman province of Syria. Gradually, the Phoenicians merged with the rest of the population of Syria, and after the second century A.D., the term “Phoenicia” was used to designate a province arbitrarily carved out of the territory of Syria.

Architecture, fine arts, and decorative and applied arts. Phoenician architecture uniquely incorporated ancient Egyptian and Hittite construction techniques; however, Phoenician builders also mastered the technology of concrete. The oldest, poorly preserved temples date from the third millennium B.C Dating from the beginning of the second millennium B.C is the Obelisk Temple at Byblos, a roofless stone structure, with an irregular floor plan, that surrounds obelisks of unworked stone monoliths. The architecture of the second half of the second millennium B.C. was characterized by structures of the bit-hilani (“house of the court”) type. These structures had a porticoed entrance or hall approached by steps through pillars. According to the Bible, precious cedars and bronze ornaments were used to decorate the temples. Sanctuaries took the form of a gigantic obelisk under the open sky.

By the end of the first millennium B.C, Hellenistic-type temples and sanctuaries were constructed in Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean; these were rectangular structures of moderate size, equipped with pediments and containing statues within. Funerary structures of the beginning of the second millennium B.C. consisted of underground crypts, which were reached by passing through an inclined dromos that led from a vertical shaft. During the first millennium B.C, the megaziles became widespread. The megaziles comprised a circular base decorated with sculptured lions and supporting two stone cylinders of diminishing size; an example is located near Amarit. The Phoenician cities, usually situated on peninsulas or islands and surrounded by thick, crenelated fortress walls with towers, were characterized by multistory buildings with moderate-size windows in the upper floors. Such cities are depicted in Assyrian reliefs of Tyre, dating from the ninth and eighth centuries B.C. The Phoenician city, with outbuildings and temples built into several rows of fortifications, frequently had several harbors, as was the case with Carthage (ninth to second centuries B.C.).

The decorative articles made by the Phoenician masters were renowned, particularly the multicolored woolen fabrics and glass vessels and ornaments. Glass articles were translucent and decorated with applied polychrome geometric, plant, and zoomorphic designs; animal figurines were also produced. During the second half of the second millennium B.C, Phoenician pottery-making flourished. The Phoenicians produced elegant, carefully polished pear-shaped vessels with two handles, decorated with monochrome and polychrome painting. Having assimilated the influence of Cypriot and Creto-Mycenaean art, Phoenician pottery, in turn, influenced the art of archaic Greece in the first millennium B.C.

Phoenician masters attained a high level in the art of jewelry-making and the minor plastic arts. They produced static and precisely rendered copper and bronze statuettes of various deities, ornamented daggers, and ivory articles, such as the Ugaritic head of a deity, encrusted with gold and semiprecious stones (second half of the second millennium B.C). The Phoenicians were also skilled goldsmiths, as evidenced by an Ugaritic cup and bowl decorated with refined ornamentation and depictions of animals and sphinxes (15th or 14th century B.C). These articles combine ancient Egyptian, Cretan, Hittite and Hurrian, and Mesopotamian formal elements (seeBABYLONIAN AND ASSYRIAN CULTURE). A unique example of Phoenician art is the stone sarcophagus of King Ahiram (tenth century B.C), which is covered with bas-reliefs of court scenes and lions.

A unique “Greco-Punic” style developed in the western colonies of Phoenicia during the first millennium B.C., absorbing both Phoenician and Greek artistic traditions. The “Greco-Punic” style is represented in terra-cotta statuettes and masks, tomb stelae, and axes used for religious services and engraved with holy scenes. An outstanding example of sculpture in this style is the Lady of Elche, from the second half of the fifth century B.C. (limestone; Prado, Madrid).


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


an ancient maritime country extending from the Mediterranean Sea to the Lebanon Mountains, now occupied by the coastal regions of Lebanon and parts of Syria and Israel: consisted of a group of city-states, at their height between about 1200 and 1000 bc, that were leading traders of the ancient world
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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