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According to biblical and ancient Greek authors, the Phoenicians, an Iron Age people inhabiting the coast of modern Lebanon, had superior skills in craft production, seamanship and trade.

Thither came Phoenicians, men famed for their ships; greedy knaves bringing countless trinkets.
Homer, The Odyssey 13.270

 



murex shells

The name Phoenicians (phoinikes) was given to these people by the ancient Greeks and was related to the word for the red-purple color of the dye for which they were famous. This royal purple dye was produced by removing, soaking and heating the glands of mollusks belonging to the genus Murex.

At Sarepta in Lebanon, the excavators discovered crushed Murex shells and pottery sherds stained purple -- indicating that the purple dye was produced there. As many as 10,000 mollusks were needed to produce a single gram of the dye. The purple dye was a highly valued commodity and garments dyed royal purple were very expensive.

In many ways, the Phoenicians continued the religious and artistic traditions of the Late Bronze Age Canaanites -- excelling in fine metal work, ivory carving and dyed textiles. The Phoenicians traded these goods as well as luxury objects from other cultures, from Assyria to Spain. The Phoenicians worshipped a Canaanite pantheon of deities, whose attributes they adopted for their own city gods. Phoenicia was never a unified nation, but rather a coalition of independent city-states such as Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos with a shared culture and language.

Due to overpopulation and pressure from the Assyrian Empire to the east at the end of the 10th century BCE, the Phoenicians sent out colonies westward to settle along the trade routes of the Mediterranean Sea. The worship of basically Canaanite deities, such as Ba'al and Astarte, revered by the Phoenicians, was spread to these new colonies in Cyprus, Tunisia, Malta, Sardinia, Sicily and Spain. The Phoenicians were also responsible for the spread of the alphabet, which was quickly adopted by the Greeks and passed on to western Europe.




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