The Phoenicians were advanced and innovative ship-builders, the first to develop the curved hull and multi-level rowing stations in their sailing galleys (biremes). As they traversed the Mediterranean Sea, they brought with them a prized purple dye (used for royal garments and later Roman magistrate and senators’ togas) made from the Murex snail. This purple dye was worth fifteen to twenty times its weight in gold! It also dyed their skin, causing the Greeks to call them ‘the Purple People’.
Sagres, Portugal. Until 1492, this was the westernmost point of the known world. It was here that Prince Henry the Navigator, 1394-1460, established the first school for oceanic navigation where men learned navigation, map-making and science. This school, plus the astronomical observatory, helped Prince Henry begin the great Age of Discovery.
I became seriously interested in ancient history when I was still in my teens. Initially, it was because of my mother. When my youngest brother started elementary school, she followed her dream and obtained a university degree in classics (ancient history, literature, and languages). The other great influencers were books. I read voraciously as a teen and most of what I read had been written by English novelists, who made an education in classics sound rather romantic. The outcome was my undergraduate degree in classics (ancient history) and an enduring love of the subject.
Now, when I travel in Europe, I seek out the threads that bind us to these ancient civilizations; the legacy of each that still has meaning and impact in our world today. Portugal and Spain, part of the Iberian Peninsula, have deep and complex roots. Both can trace their histories back to the ancient classical civilizations of Phoenicia and Carthage and later became part of the Roman Empire.
When the Roman Empire collapsed, the Moors moved in to fill the void and they, in turn, were ousted the Roman Catholic Church. All came seeking to control Iberia’s vast mineral wealth.
Phoenicia (1500 BCE—300 BCE) was unique in its time for its remarkable sea-faring achievements and its great traders became known as the Princes of the Sea. They built colonies along the Mediterranean coast from its core city-states—in what is present-day Lebanon and Syria, as far west as Portugal and the Atlantic Ocean. While we currently assume the roots of the Phoenicians to be the western edge of the Middle East, there have been classical scholars, including the great ancient historian (and gossip) Herodotus, who place the roots of the Phoenicians in Bahrain.
These colonies were, for the most part, small with no more than 1,000 inhabitants, but they provided safe harbours for the Phoenician’s merchant fleets; allowed them to maintain control over the natural resources of the area; and trade freely without interference from the larger empires that surrounded them. Their role of traders in raw materials, oil, wine, silver jewellery, pottery, and other luxury goods was so necessary to all the other countries in the area they were allowed to pursue their business unmolested. This didn’t mean though that they were universally liked. Plato, rather sniffily, asserted in his Laws that the love of money had led the Phoenicians to develop skills in cunning and trickery rather than in the pursuit of wisdom (and demonstrating that throughout history humans have rarely said anything nice about people who 'aren't like us').
The alphabet is the Phoenicians’ real and long-lasting impact on Western civilization. The Phoenicians were the first state-level society to make extensive use of one. As they travelled, the alphabet was spread to North Africa and Europe. It was adopted first by the Greeks, where it has remained pretty much unchanged as the Greek alphabet. The Greeks passed it on to the Slavic territories (Cyrillic is derived from the Greek uncial script, augmented by letters from the older Glagolitic alphabet); and the Etruscans (who changed it), who in turn transmitted it to the Romans, where it became what we now call the Latin alphabet. It’s the Latin alphabet that I’ve used today to write this post. Our written word - a priceless legacy from the Princes of the Sea.
Coming up next: Legacy: Part II, Spanish Silver Rebuilds Carthage.
I'm Kirsten Marion. After a series of life-changing events, my husband and I decided to spend the kids’ inheritance and see as much of the world as possible. Our bible? A Thousand Places to See Before You Die.