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The Phoenicians: Master Sea Traders
Sometime around 1130 BC an Egyptian priest named Wen-Amon traveled to the Phoenician city of Byblos to buy cedarwood for a religious festival. The gods were apparently not looking after Wen-Amon, however, for midway through his voyage he was robbed of most of his gold. Worse, when he stepped ashore at Byblos the city's king, Zakar-Baal, refused to barter with him and told him to leave. But Wen-Amon was loath to return to Egypt without completing his mission, so he waited in the harbor at Byblos for his luck to change. For 29 days in a row he endured the same sharply-worded message from the king: "Get out [of] my harbor!"
Tracing of a bas-relief at Nineveh depicting a Phoenician ship (~700 BC)
On the thirtieth day, just when Wen-Amon had lost hope and was preparing to return home, the Phoenician King relented and granted him an audience. "I found the King," Wen-Amon writes, "sitting [in] his upper room, with his back turned to a window, so that the waves of the Great Syrian sea broke behind him." Taking out a scroll that recorded past transactions, King Zakar-Baal bluntly pointed out that he had stopped giving tribute to the Egyptians some time ago, and if Wen-Amon wanted timber, he had better pay for it. With the king's permission, Wen-Amon was allowed to dispatch a Phoenician messenger to carry word of his situation to his superiors in Egypt and to ask for more funds. In a few months he duly received several jars of gold and silver, twenty sacks of lentils, and hundreds of cowhides, ropes, and papyrus rolls, and many other goods. With these items he purchased his cedarwood and then made preparations to return home.
The Phoenician Commercial Empire
Wen-Amon's adventures, described in an Egyptian papyrus dating from about 1100 BC, provide us with a rare glimpse of the Phoenicians, the master sea traders of the ancient Mediterranean. A Semitic people related to the Hebrews, the Phoenicians were confined by more powerful neighbors to a narrow strip of land on the coast of Lebanon. Their homeland possessed few natural resources, but these the skilled Phoenician merchants and craftsmen turned to extraordinary effect. Out of the sand on their beaches the Phoenicians created superb glasswork, and from a kind of sea snail in nearby waters, the murex, they extracted a brilliant purple dye. Due to its rarity and expense, this dye became the color of royalty throughout the ancient world. From the cedar trees that carpeted nearby mountains—the same cedarwood that Wen-Amon came to purchase—Phoenician shipwrights built seaworthy sailing ships to transport their glasswork, dyes and other goods to Egypt, Greece, Anatolia, and the Aegean. Along their way they founded trading camps and developed sheltered harbors, and over time these grew into independent towns and cities. By the eighth century BC the Phoenician home cities of Tyre and Sidon were the hub of a commercial network that spanned the Mediterranean.
Phoenician sailors journeyed to the limits of the known world in search of markets and raw materials. A Phoenician from Carthage, Hanno, sailed down the coast of West Africa, where he saw rivers infested with crocodiles and hippopotamuses, was terrified by nocturnal drumming in the jungle, and skirmished with a group of "wild people with hairy bodies" which his guide called Gorillas. In a three-year voyage, Phoenicians in the service of Pharaoh Necho of Egypt (610-595 BC) probably even sailed all the way around Africa—two thousand years before Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese navigator who is usually given credit for this difficult feat, was even born. We can only partly guess at the appearance of the ships that accomplished these feats of exploration, for no complete Phoenician shipwreck has yet been found.
The Phoenicians and the Alphabet
Most people who have heard of the Phoenicians have also heard that they invented the alphabet. This has been a common belief since ancient times, but it is not quite true. The Egyptians were actually the first to develop the beginnings of an alphabetic script, though they had little awareness of the value of their invention and largely ignored it. But the Egyptians may have passed the idea on to their neighbors in Syria and Palestine, some of whom later developed into the seafaring Phoenicians. Phoenician merchants then passed the alphabet on to the Greeks, who mistakenly gave them the credit for its invention.
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