According to ancient classical authors, the Phoenicians were a people who occupied the coast of the Levant (eastern Mediterranean). Their major cities were Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, and Arwad. All were fiercely independent, rival cities and, unlike the neighboring inland states, the Phoenicians represented a confederation of maritime traders rather than a defined country. What the Phoenicians actually called themselves is unknown, though it may have been the ancient term Canaanite. The name Phoenician, used to describe these people in the first millennium B.C., is a Greek invention, from the word phoinix, possibly signifying the color purple-red and perhaps an allusion to their production of a highly prized purple dye.
With the exception of Byblos, which had been a flourishing center from at least the third millennium B.C., the Phoenician cities first emerged as urban entities around 1500 B.C. As Egyptian and Near Eastern documents record, the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1600–1200 B.C.) was a time of economic prosperity for these trading centers. Confined to a narrow coastal strip with limited agricultural resources, maritime trade was a natural development. With the decline of Egyptian influence about 1200 B.C., the cities were freed from foreign domination. The ultimate collapse of Egyptian power in the region occurred about 1175 B.C. at the hands of the Sea Peoples, of whom the best known are the Philistines. Along with Israelites, they settled in the southern Levant. For reasons not yet fully understood, the massive disruptions caused elsewhere in the Levant appear to have had a minimal effect upon the Phoenician coastal centers. There is therefore much continuity in Phoenician traditions from the Late Bronze Age until the Hellenistic period around 300 B.C.
By the late eighth century B.C., the Phoenicians, alongside the Greeks, had founded trading posts around the entire Mediterranean and excavations of many of these centers have added significantly to our understanding of Phoenician culture. Sea traders from Phoenicia and Carthage (a Phoenician colony traditionally founded in 814 B.C.) even ventured beyond the Strait of Gibraltar as far as Britain in search of tin. However, much of our knowledge about the Phoenicians during the Iron Age (ca. 1200–500 B.C.) and later is dependent on the Hebrew Bible, Assyrian records, and Greek and Latin authors. For example, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, Phoenician sailors, at the request of the pharaoh Necho II (r. ca. 610–595 B.C.), circumnavigated Africa.
The main natural resources of the Phoenician cities in the eastern Mediterranean were the prized cedars of Lebanon and murex shells used to make the purple dye. Phoenician artisans were skilled in wood, ivory, and metalworking, as well as textile production. In the Old Testament (2 Chronicles), the master craftsman Hiram of Tyre was commissioned to build and embellish the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Homer’s Iliad describes a prize at the funeral games of Patroklos as a mixing bowl of chased silver—”a masterpiece of Sidonian craftsmanship” (Book 13). It also mentions that the embroidered robes of Priam’s wife, Hecabe, were “the work of Sidonian women” (Book 6). Phoenician art is in fact an amalgam of many different cultural elements—Aegean, northern Syrian, Cypriot, Assyrian, and Egyptian. The Egyptian influence is often especially prominent in the art but was constantly evolving as the political and economic relations between Egypt and the Phoenician cities fluctuated. Perhaps the most significant contribution of the Phoenicians was an alphabetic writing system that became the root of the Western alphabets when the Greeks adopted it.