The Phoenician civilization flourished along the eastern coastlines of the Mediterranean Sea (the present-day coasts of Syria, Lebanon, and northern Israel) from approximately 2000 BC to 500 BC. Organized as a loose confederation of independent city-states (including Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre), the Phoenicians were the preeminent maritime traders of their time. During the height of their civilization (1200–600 BC), the Phoenicians established trading posts and colonies throughout the Mediterranean region, including northern Africa, Sicily, and Spain. See also: Anthropology; Archeology; Earliest seafaring; Mediterranean Sea
The Phoenicians likely referred to themselves as Canaanites. The ancient Greeks were the originators of the term “Phoenicia,” which derives from an ancient Greek word (phoinikes) for the color purple. The significance of the color purple has been attributed to the valuable purple dye (obtained from Murex snails) that was one of the most important trading products of the Phoenicians. In addition to this rich dye, other notable commercial products for trade included olive oil, wine, and cedar timber. See also: Caenogastropoda; Cedar; Dye; Dyeing; Forest timber resources; Olive; Prosobranchia; Wine
By the standards of their time, the Phoenicians were supreme in their maritime endeavors. They were experts and innovators in the practice of shipbuilding. The bireme, which was a galley with a double row of oars, was one of the most notable ships invented by the Phoenicians. See also: Naval architecture; Ship design; Shipbuilding
Phoenician civilization and influence gradually collapsed over several centuries, starting with the conquest of its city-states by the Persians in 539 BC. After Alexander the Great later claimed the city-states from the Persians, starting in 332 BC, Hellenistic Greece ascended throughout the Phoenician motherland, although traces of Phoenician culture survived in Carthage in northern Africa until the end of the Punic Wars (a series of three wars fought between Rome and Carthage from 264 to 146 BC).
The most important legacy of the Phoenician culture is today’s modern alphabet. Along with the products of maritime trade, the Phoenician alphabet (which was a consonant-based script; vowels were added later by other cultures) was disseminated across the Mediterranean region and became the basis for the Greek, Etruscan, Latin, Aramaic, Arabic, and Hebrew alphabet writing systems. See also: Linguistics; Phonetics