Recent interest and consequential research into the people known as Phoenicians has thrown new light on who they were, where they came from, when they arrived in Spain and their effect on the indigenous populations. Over the next few days we will take a look at these enigmatic people and their legacy in Andalucia.
First we should look at where the Phoenicians actually came from, including their name. The people we now call Phoenicians would certainly not have thought of themselves as such. The word Phoenicia has its origins in the word Phoinikes which is Greek and means purple people. It is a reference to the purple dye produced by the people of Tyre that used to dye the workers as well as the cloth. The Phoenicians were known by the Greeks as ‘Purple People’. The area of land influenced by the Phoenicians was a thin coastal strip, never much more than 100 kilometres deep, extending from Lebanon in the north, south to Tel Aviv. At the time the Phoenicians were active as traders the people of this land shared a common linguistic, cultural and religious inheritance and recognised a shared ethnic identity as Can’nai, inhabitants of Caanan. However they were never united under one ruler, each city had its own king so the inhabitants of each city had their own identity and loyalties.
In 2004 a DNA study was undertaken in the Lebanon and other parts of the Mediterranean. It was designed to track the course of the Phoenician people over time. Without going into the technicalities the study revealed the origin of a group of people in the Levant over 12,000 years ago. This is quite a significant geological period since it is slap bang in the middle of the Younger Dryas, a period from 12,900 to 11,700 years ago. The Younger Dryas was the most recent cold snap during the gradual warming period experienced since the last glacial maximum that occurred about 27,000 to 24,000 years ago.
The people who inhabited the Levant between 12,500 and 9,500 BCE are known as Natufians. The Natufians were unusual during this time of nomadic hunter gatherers in that they were semi sedentary or even fully sedentary before the advent of the Neolithic agricultural revolution. It was they that initiated the Neolithic in the western world, probably sparked off by the aforementioned Younger Dryas. It is interesting to note that even at this early period the people of the Levant had connections with Egypt to the south as shown by shellfish from the Nile valley found at Ain Mallaha in northern Israel, Anatolia to the north as shown by the obsidian found at Ain Mallaha and of course direct and probably frequent communication with the Fertile Crescent to the east, an area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers which was the first area to benefit from the innovations of the Neolithic that originated in the Levant.
The first sailing ship appeared on the River Nile about 3,400 BC. It was a simple affair consisting of bundles of papyrus reeds tied together with a short mast and a square sail. Totally unsuitable for voyages over the sea. In the Mediterranean boats at this time were canoes, seaworthy but limited in their range and carrying capacity. Even so there was a great deal of trade between the islands in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. The Phoenician contact with Egypt undoubtedly gave them contact with this novel means of propulsion.
They went on to develop a style of vessel they called a hippoi. It was broad of beam, planked on a keel and frame and propelled by oars and a square sail. It became the ‘tramp steamer’ of the ancient world.