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Where they came from

By Nick Nutter | 6 Sep 2018

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 Neolithic allowed the development of permanent settlements. At first settlements were capable of housing a family or extended family, then what we would think of as hamlets, a few families, followed by many families, villages and so on. The larger the settlement the more infrastructure, work specialisation and administration was required to sustain the settlement. Between 6,000 and 5,000 BCE a fishing settlement was established at the coastal site of a modern city, Byblos in Lebanon. By 4,500 BCE it was a small town.

We now jump to Egypt where, between 3,500 and 3,200 BCE a temple was built at Heirakonpolis, then the largest city on the Upper Nile. The front edifice was supported by four huge cedar pillars. The cedar originated in the Lebanon and had been towed down the coast by the seamen of Byblos and, at the mouth of the Nile, the logs had been handed over to Egyptian seamen who used reed river boats totally unsuitable for journeys at sea who had in turn taken the logs upriver to Heirakonpolis. In treeless Egypt cedar became a valued and desirable commodity amongst the expanding elite and the people of Byblos apparently benefited from the trade.

The archaeological record shows that Byblos began to grow. Houses became larger and more elaborate, civic buildings and temples were constructed and, by 3000 BC, the whole was surrounded by a fortified wall. Objects found within the walls show that by this time the people of Byblos had a trade network extending in every direction, north, south, east and west with Egyptian articles predominating.

About 250 years later, around 2,750 BC, a remarkable and so far unexplained event occurred. The people of Byblos emerged from their citadel to establish a number of other coastal towns, in particular Tyre, Sidon and Sarepta. It is fair to surmise that each was in competition with the other as regards trade and markets. It was to be the men of Tyre that made it to Andalucia but first they had to develop the ships that could make it that far.

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.

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