First Rulers of the Mediterranean

First Rulers of the Mediterranean

The ancient Phoenicians built a maritime civilization around the Mediterranean Sea.


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Anthropology, Archaeology, Geography, Social Studies, World History

Before the Greeks and Romans, the Phoenicians ruled the Mediterranean. The core of Phoenician territory was the city-state of Tyre, in modern-day Lebanon. Phoenician civilization lasted from approximately 1550 to 300 BCE, when the Persians, and later the Greeks, conquered Tyre. The Phoenicians are primarily remembered as adept sailors and cunning merchants. They used their strategic position at the crossroads of eastern and western cultures to build a trading empire that extended from the Fertile Crescent in the east, through the islands of the Mediterranean Sea, and as far west as the Iberian Peninsula and the Atlantic Ocean. The Phoenicians did not have a central government. Similar to the Greeks, their civilization consisted of a number of independent city-states. Their settlements and trading partners lined the coast of the Mediterranean, touching three continents. According to Jonathan Prag, historian and co-director of the Oxford Centre for Phoenician and Punic Studies, their location at the intersection of important trade routes is part of the reason the Phoenicians developed such impressive maritime skills. “They’re at that transition point for the movement of goods, trade, and people out of the Mediterranean,” he says. Despite their prominent place in history, researchers know little about the Phoenicians beyond what other civilizations have documented. The surviving evidence “is all about Phoenicians as traders, giving us a very stereotyped picture,” Prag says. In Homer’s Odyssey, for example, Phoenicians are portrayed as “both skilled seafarers and clever, but also potentially deceitful traders at the same time,” he says. One of the primary sources of information available about Phoenician culture comes from Herodotus, a Greek scholar considered one of the world’s first historians. Herodotus’ stories support the simplistic view of Phoenicians as cunning seafarers. In one story, Herodotus says the Phoenicians were sailing in the Atlantic Ocean toward the British Isles, where they traded for tin. As they were sailing, they saw a Greek ship following them. The Phoenicians decided to sail very close to shallow water and strand themselves on a reef—so that when the Greek followed, they would also be stranded. This way, the Greeks could not find out where the Phoenicians got their tin. Drowned Clues about Phoenicia In recent years, archaeologists have tried to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge about the Phoenicians. Underwater archaeology plays a particularly important role in learning about this maritime culture. But despite many efforts, finding archaeological evidence that’s been buried in the Mediterranean for 3,000 years has proved challenging. Deborah Cvikel is an underwater archaeologist at the Leon Recanti Institute for Maritime Studies at the University of Haifa in Israel. She specializes in nautical archaeology, the study of ancient ship construction. Her work often involves the excavation of shipwrecks in areas where the Phoenicians traveled. The oldest shipwreck she has studied is a Byzantine site found in Dor Lagoon on the coast of Israel. It dates back to around 500 CE. Her colleagues at the Recanti Institute have excavated ships that date as early as 400 BCE. The oldest identified Phoenician ships—two merchant vessels found near the coastal Israeli city of Ashkelon—date to 700 BCE. Despite ancient finds like these, Cvikel says underwater archaeological evidence of the Phoenicians is sparse. “Most of the discoveries are accidental. Someone from the kibbutz went diving and he saw a big pile of stones that doesn’t belong there. Or sometimes we get information from fishermen,” she says. Cvikel and her colleagues have to be very cautious with the ancient ship remains and artifacts they discover. Prag says the survival rate of wood in ancient Mediterranean wrecks is poor because of teredo navalisshipworm—a type of clam that bores into waterlogged wood. But researchers like Cvikel have a number of techniques to make sense of the delicate, rare archaeological evidence they collect. “We document the carpenter’s tool marks, which can give us a hint as to the construction method. We use laboratory analysis to identify the tree species. This can give you clues to where the wood for the construction of the ship came from. We also analyze any other organic finds, like the food remains that are there—are they olive pits that grow in Syria or olive pits that grow in Egypt? It’s like a puzzle. Sometimes we call it ‘CSI’ because we gather small clues and start to build the puzzle.” Given the limited amount of evidence at hand, archaeologists and historians have done an impressive job of assembling the puzzle of Phoenician history and identity. Prag points to archaeological surveys of Phoenician settlements in modern-day Spain and Tunisia that suggest the Phoenicians may have had more of an influence on regional agricultural practices than previously thought. In terms of understanding how they arose as one of the first truly maritime cultures, Cvikel thinks the archaeological evidence will speak for itself as more Phoenician shipwrecks are found. “My professor told me, ‘Let the ship guide you.’ Don’t try to impose your conclusions on the ship, just wait and see what the clues tell you,” she says. “You can learn where the ship was built or where she sailed, and you know where she sank.”

Fast Fact

Phoenicians in the Americas?The Phoenicians were outstanding seafarers, successfully traveling the Mediterranean and Red Seas, as well as interior waterways and the mid-Atlantic coast. A few historians, however, think the Phoenicians navigated the entire Atlantic Ocean . . . more than 700 years before Leif Ericson, and a thousand years before Columbus. These controversial theories are based on interpretations of imagery on Phoenician coins and Native American inscriptions. No Phoenician shipwrecks have been discovered in the Americas, although legendary explorer Thor Heyerdahl and his crew successfully sailed a sedge boat (the Ra II) from Morocco to Barbados in 1970, proving ancient seafarers could have taken advantage of the Canary Current to make the journey with available resources.

Fast Fact

Shell First or Frame First?For many years, nautical archaeologists agreed that ancient ships were constructed using the “shell-first” method. In the shell-first method, the outer planks that form the hull (the ship’s “shell”) are built first, with the interior framework added later. Archaeologists thought ancient mariners constructed ships this way until about 1025 CE. However, recent finds from Dor Lagoon, Israel, suggest the shift to the modern method of frame-first construction may have happened as early as 500 CE in the Mediterranean region.

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Ryan Schleeter
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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