The Phoenicians were not a nation-state in the usual sense, as much as a loose affiliation of independent maritime cities, typically ruled by kings and sharing a common cultural history. The Phoenicians were master traders and seafarers, and their system of writing forms the basis of most Western written systems. The term “Phoenician” is a Greek word. In the Bible they are referred to as the Caananites, from the Akkadian “Kinahna.” Modern archeologists believe they referred to themselves as Kena'ani.
Their four major cities—Tyre, Sidon, Arwad, and Byblos—were all in the Levant, in the area today of Lebanon and Syria. The area around Byblos has been occupied for almost 10,000 years, according to the archaeological evidence, with many archeologists tracing the start of the Phoenician presence in the region to about 3000 BCE. For much of their early period, they were subject to the Pharaohs of Egypt, with a distinctively Phoenician identity by about 1500 BCE. Records of trade between Egypt and the Phoenicians help provide some of the earliest records of their culture.
The Phoenicians came through the worst of the Late Bronze Age Collapse surprisingly well. The defeat of the Egyptians opened more of the Levant for expansion, as far south as Israel today, and the Phoenicians seem to have moved easily into the political vacuum. Their trade networks expanded, and they appear to have begun a program of exploration and colonization across the Mediterranean, potentially as far as the British Isles in search of tin. Herodotus records Phoenician sailors circumnavigating Africa during this time.
Alexander the Great conquered their cities, but allowed them to maintain their role as traders. The Romans incorporated their Eastern cities into the province of Syria, but allowed them to operate as quasi-independent entities. The Phoenician colony of Carthage occupies a special place in history as the foil of the implacable early Romans during their period of expansion. The Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome mark the start of Rome as the preeminent Mediterranean power and the final decline of Phoenicia as the same.
Phoenician shipwrights seem to have been the first to add a second, staggered bank of rowers on the galley designs common to the era, creating the bireme (see that entry for more detail). They also provided shipbuilding services for numerous kingdoms, empires, and peoples around the Mediterranean, with Herodotus describing Phoenician contractors building vessels for the Persian invasion of Greece. It is often difficult to determine what constitutes a “Greek” or “Persian” ship in the historical record, as opposed to a Phoenician-built ship sold to a client. They build extensive harbors and lighthouses to aid navigation, with the Cothon of Carthage being a particularly splendid example of the form.
The Phoenicians come down to us in the historical record as master traders, capable of moving precious commodities (like tin, Lebanon cedar, and ivory) across the region. They were associated most closely with the purple dye created from murex shells, having the monopoly on this luxury dye production. Sources as diverse as the Iliad and the Bible attest to the skills of their metalworkers, and archaeologists have found gilded bronze statues of great value, apparently sacrificed in their rituals. Hiram, the master craftsman of Tyre, is the legendary builder of the Temple of Solomon. Phoenician artists may have invented glassblowing as an art form in the 1st Century.
Contemporaneous records of the Phoenicians do not speak well of them in many cases, mixing awe at their fabulous wealth and access to luxuries with disdain for the business of the import-export trade. The individual Phoenician cities had a fractious relationship with each other, and Phoenician expansion and settlement of cities frequently brought them into dispute with their neighbors for land and prestige. Indeed, the Punic Wars with Rome were caused by these tensions.
The Phoenicians worshipped a pantheon of gods, usually connected to local pantheons and often known by many names. Most scholars agree that the pantheon was headed by the great god El and that Astarte (or Ashtart) was the principal female deity, and a major cultic figure throughout the Phoenician territories in the Mediterranean. The authors of the Levant's great work of monotheism, the Bible, had a special and intense dislike of the Semitic polytheism of Phoenicia, which they do not bother to mask.
But the Phoenicians' longest-lasting contribution to history may have been the basis for their system of writing. This system used individual glyphs to represent different sound components of a word, and required the scribe to memorize fewer glyphs than any other logographic system (such as Egyptian hieroglyphics) meaning that literacy could be taught more easily. The wide circulation of Phoenician traders spread the system to the Phoenician's trading partners in a relatively short time. The earliest known traces of the written language are no younger than the mid-16th Century BCE, and may be centuries older than that. Greek (and its descendents), Hebrew, and Aramaic (and by extension Arabic) scripts are all derived from Phoenician. Consider that the first two letters of the Phoenician script are “alep” and “bet,” and reflect that the “alphabet” is one of the first educational experiences of a small child, and then ponder the great chain of human history that connects you to Phoenicia.