The Ancient Phoenicians

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Phoenicians

Unlike the Hebrews, who came to the area from Mesopotamia, the Phoenicians were the descendants of the original settlers of Canaan. The age of Phoenician supremacy began around 1200 BC in present-day Lebanon, just north of the Kingdom of Israel. The Phoenicians built the free city-states of Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre. They developed a thriving mercantile economy and began establishing trading posts and colonies throughout the Mediterranean region.

By the end of the ninth century, the Phoenician civilization included a long stretch of the North African coast, well west of Egypt; the North African city of Carthage was a major trading center for the Phoenicians. They also established footholds on the southernmost tip of Spain and on the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Cyprus. Although Phoenicia was absorbed into the Assyrian Empire in the eighth century, the Phoenicians maintained their trading supremacy in the Mediterranean.

Competition for trade appeared with the rise and geographical expansion of the Greek civilization. By around 750, the Greeks had established footholds throughout the Mediterranean, which was the beginning of the end for Phoenician supremacy. The Phoenicians were eventually absorbed into the Persian Empire.

The Phoenicians are historically notable for the Phoenician alphabet, which appeared about 1050 BC. This alphabet was revolutionary because each of its letters represented a sound; writing systems of the time were usually pictographic, using a character or hieroglyph to represent a word or an idea. The Persian Empire and the Greek civilization both adapted the Phoenician alpha- bet to their own uses. The Persians developed it into the Aramaic alphabet, which later gave rise to the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets. The Greeks modified it only slightly by making it represent vowel sounds more consistently. The Greek alphabet later gave rise to the Latin alphabet, used throughout most of the West, and the Cyrillic alphabet, used in Russia and the Russian republics.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Ancient Middle East Practice Test

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