Phoenicia is a narrow strip of land, about one hundred and fifty miles long and thirty miles wide, shut in between the Mediterranean on the west and the high range of Lebanon on the east, and consisting mostly of a succession of narrow valleys, ravines, and hills, the latter descending gradually towards the sea. On the north it is bounded by the River Orontes and Mount Casius, and by Mount Carmel on the south. The land is fertile and well irrigated by numerous torrents and streams deriving their waters mainly from the melting snows and rain-storms of the winter and spring seasons. The principal vegetation consists of the renowned cedars of Lebanon, cypresses, pines, palms, olive, vine, fig, and pomegranates. On this narrow strip of land, the Phoenicians had twenty-five cities of which the most important were Tyre, Sidon, Aradus, Byblus, Marathus, and Tripolis. Less important were Laodicea, Simyra, Area, Aphaca, Berytus, Ecdippa, Akko, Dor, Joppa, Gabala, Betrys, and Sarepta. The name “Phoenicia” is in all probability of Greek origin, phoiniks being a Greek derivative of phoinos,, blood-red. Our principal sources of information concerning Phoenicia are: first, numerous Phoenician inscriptions found in Phoenicia, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Sicily, Spain, Africa, Italy, and France, and published in the “Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum”, the oldest being a simple one of the ninth century B.C.; the rest of little historical value, and of comparatively late date, i.e., from the fourth century B.C. down; second, Egyptian and Assyro-Babylonian historical inscriptions, especially the Tell-el-Amarna letters of the fifteenth century B.C., in which are found frequent and valuable references to Phoenicia and its political relations with Western Asia and Egypt; the Old Testament, especially in III Kings, v, xvi; Isaias, xxiii; Jeremias, xxv, xxvii, and Ezechiel, xxvi—xxxii; finally, some Greek and Latin historians and writers, both ecclesiastical and pagan.
The oldest historical references to Phoenicia are found in the Egyptian inscriptions of the Pharaohs, Aahmes (1587-62 B.C.) and his successors, Thothmes I (1541-16 B.C.), and Thothmes III (1503-1449 B.C.) in which the Phoenicians are called “Dahe” or “Zahi”, and “Fenkhu”. In the Tell-el-Amarna letters is found much interesting information concerning their cities and especially Tyre, famous for her wealth. During all this period Egyptian suzerainty was more or less effective. Sidon was gradually eclipsed by the rising power and wealth of Tyre, against which the Philistines were powerless, though they constantly attacked the former. About the year 1250, after conquering Ashdod, Askelon, Ekron, Gaza, and Gath,. they forced the Sidonians to surrender the city of Dor. At this time Tyre became foremost in Phoenicia and one of the greatest and wealthiest cities of the Mediterranean region. Its first king was Hiram, the son of Abi-Baal and contemporary of David and Solomon. His reign lasted some forty years, and to his energy Tyre owed much of its renown. He enlarged the city, surrounding it with massive walls, improved its harbors, and rebuilt the temple of Melkarth. He forced the Philistine pirates to retreat, thus securing prosperity in maritime commerce and caravan trade, and Phoenician colonization spread along the coast of Asia Minor, Sicily, Greece, and Africa. He established a commercial alliance with the Hebrews, and his Phoenician artists and craftsmen greatly aided them in building the temple, and palaces of Solomon. He quelled the revolt in Utica and established Phoenician supremacy in North Africa where Carthage, the most important of all Phoenician colonies, was later built.
Hiram was succeeded in 922 by his son, Abd-Starte I, who, after seven years of troubled reign, was murdered, and most of his successors also met with a violent end. About this time hostilities arose between Phoenicia and Assyria, although two centuries earlier Tiglath-pileser I, when marching through the northern part of Phoenicia, was hospitably entertained by the inhabitants of Aradus. In 880 Ithbaal became King of Phoenicia, contemporaneous with Asshur-nasir-pal in Assyria and Achab in Israel. He was succeeded by Baal-azar and Metten I. Metten reigned for nine years and died, leaving Pygmalion, an infant son, but nominating as his successor Sicharbas, the high priest of Melkarth, who was married to Elissa, his daughter. The tale runs that when Pygmalion came to manhood he killed Sicharbas, upon which Elissa, with such nobles as adhered to her, fled first to Cyprus and afterwards to Africa, where the colony of Carthage was founded (c. 850 B.C.). Asshur-nasir-pal and his son and successor Shalmaneser II nominally conquered Phoenicia; but in 745 B.C. Tiglath-pileser III compelled the northern tribes to accept Assyrian governors. As soon as this scheme of complete absorption became manifest a general conflict ensued, from which Assyria emerged victorious and several Phoenician cities were captured and destroyed. The invasion of Shalmaneser IV in 727 was frustrated, but in 722 he almost sacked the city of Tyre. Sargon, his successor and great general, compelled Elulaeus, King of Tyre, to come to honorable terms with him. In 701 Sennacherib conquered the revolting cities of Syria and Phoenicia. Elulaeus fled to Cyprus and Tubaal was made king.
In 680 Abd-Melkarth, his successor, rebelled against the Assyrian domination, but fled before Esarhaddon, the son of Sennacherib. Sidon was practically destroyed, most of its inhabitants carried off to Assyria, and their places filled by captives from Babylonia and Elam. During the reign of Asshurbanipal (668-625 B.C.) Tyre was once more attacked and conquered, but, as usual, honorably treated. In 606 the Assyrian empire itself was demolished by the allied Babylonians and Medes, and in 605 Nabuchadonosor, son and successor of Nabopolassar, after having conquered Elam and the adjacent countries, subdued (586 B.C.) Syria, Palestine, Phoenicia, and Egypt. As the Tyrians had command of the sea, it was thirteen years before their city surrendered, but the long siege crippled its commerce, and Sidon regained its ancient position as the leading city. Phoenicia was passing through its final stage of national independence and glory. From the fifth century on, it was continually harassed by the incursions of various Greek colonies who gradually absorbed its commerce and industry. It passed repeatedly under the rule of the Medo-Persian kings, Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius, and finally Xerxes, who attacked the Athenians at Salamis with the aid of the Phoenician navy, but their fleet was defeated and destroyed. In 332, it was finally and completely conquered by Alexander the Great, after whose death and subsequent to the partition of his great Macedonian empire amongst his four generals, it fell to Laodemon. In 314, Ptolemy attacked Lao-demon and annexed Phoenicia to Egypt. In 198 B.C.., it was absorbed by the Seleucid dynasty of Syria, after the downfall of which (65 A.D.), it became a Roman province and remained such till the Mohammedan conquest of Syria in the seventh century. Phoenicia now forms one of the most important Turkish vilayets of Syria with Beyrout as its principal city.
The whole political history and constitution of Phoenicia may be summarized as follows: The Phoenicians never built an empire, but each city had its little independent territory, assemblies, kings, and government, and for general state business sent delegates to Tyre. They were not a military, but essentially a seafaring and commercial people, and were successively conquered by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, to whom, because of their great wealth, they fulfilled all their obligations by the payment of tribute. Although blessed with fertile land and well provided by nature, the Phoenicians, owing to their small territory and comparatively large population, were compelled, from the very remotest antiquity, to gain their livelihood through commerce. Hence, their numerous caravan routes to the East, and their wonderful marine commerce with the West. They were the only nation of the ancient East who had a navy. By land they pushed their trade to Arabia for gold, agate, onyx, incense, and myrrh; to India for pearls, spices, ivory, ebony, and ostrich plumes; to Mesopotamia for cotton and linen clothes; to Palestine and Egypt for grain, wheat, and barley; to the regions of the Black Sea for horses, slaves, and copper. By sea they encircled all the Mediterranean coast, along Syria, North Africa, Asia Minor, the Aegean Sea, and even Spain, France, and England. A logical result of this remarkable commercial activity was the founding in Cyprus, Egypt, Crete, Sicily, Africa, Malta, Sardinia, Spain, Asia Minor, and Greece of numerous colonies, which became important centers of Phoenician commerce and civilization, and in due time left their deep mark upon the history and civilization of the classical nations of the Mediterranean world.
Owing to this activity also, the Phoenicians developed neither literature nor arts. The work done by them for Solomon shows that their architectural and mechanical skill was great only in superiority to that of the Hebrews. The remains of their architecture are heavy and their aesthetic art is primitive in character. In literature, they left nothing worthy of preservation. To them is ascribed the simplification of the primitive, pictorial or ideographic, and syllabic systems of writing into an alphabetic one consisting of twenty-two letters and written from right to left, from which are derived all the later and modern Semitic and European alphabets. This tradition, however, must be accepted with some modification. There is also no agreement as to whether the basis of this Phoenician alphabet is of Egyptian (hieroglyphic and hieratic) or of Assyro-Babylonian (cuneiform) origin. Those who derive it from a Cypriot prototype have not as yet sufficiently demonstrated the plausibility and probability of their opinion. The recent discovery of numerous Minoan inscriptions in the Island of Crete, some of them dating as early as 2000 B.C., has considerably complicated the problem. Other inventions, or improvements, in science and mechanics, such as weights and measures, glass manufacture, coinage, the finding of the polar star, and navigation are perhaps justly attributed to the Phoenicians. Both ethnographically and linguistic-ally, they belong to the so-called Semitic group. They were called Canaanites, and spoke a dialectical variety of the Canaanite group of Western Semitic tongues, closely akin to the dialects of the Semitic inhabitants of Syria, Palestine, and Canaan. A few specimens of their language, as it was spoken by the colonies in North Africa towards the end of the third century B.C., may still be read in Plautus, from which it appears to have already attained a great degree of consonantal and vocal decay. The dialect of the inscriptions is more archaic and less corrupt.
Our information concerning the religion of the Phoenicians is meager and mainly found in the Old Testament, in classical traditions, and legends. Of special interest, however, are the votive inscriptions in which a great number of proper names generally construed with that of some divinity are found. Phoenician polytheism, like that of the other Semitic nations, was based partly on Animism and partly on the worship of the great powers of nature, mostly of astral origin. They deified the sun and the moon, which they considered the great forces that create and destroy, and called them Baal and Astaroth. Each city had its divine pair: at Sidon it was Baal Sidon (the sun) and Astarte (the moon); at Gebel, Baal Tummuz and Baaleth; at Carthage, Baal Hamon and Tanith. But the same god changed his name according as he was conceived as creator or destroyer; thus Baal as destroyer was worshipped at Carthage under the name of Moloch. These gods, represented by idols, had their temples, altars, and priests. As creators they were honored with orgies and tumultuous feasts; as destroyers, by human victims. Astoreth (Venus), whom the Sidonians represented by the crescent of the moon and the dove, had her cult in the sacred woods. Baal Moloch was figured at Carthage as a bronze colossus with arms extended and lowered. To appease him children were laid in his arms, and fell at once into a pit of fire. When Agathocles besieged the city the principal Carthaginians sacrificed to Moloch as many as two hundred of their children. Although this sensual and sanguinary religion inspired the surrounding nations with horror, they, nevertheless, imitated it. Hence, the Hebrews frequently sacrificed to Baal on the mountains, and the Greeks adored Astarte of Sidon under the name of Aphrodite, and Baal Melkart of Tyre under the name of Herakles. The principal Phoenician divinities are Adonis, El, Eshmon, Baal, Gad, Moloch, Melkarth, Sakan, Anath, Astaroth, Rasaph, Sad, and many others. (For the history of Christianity in Phoenicia and its present condition see Syria.)