The endearing Phoenicians

Who were the Phoenicians? What did they leave?

The overall majority of civilizations silently vanish from our radars and history books. When you do not, like the Romans, dominate and leave indestructible marks for a whopping 700 years, chances are high that a few centuries down the line, people have already forgotten about you. A few bleached shards, that is all that remains.

Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”.

Thanks to the Phoenicians though…

394D1D46-055C-4192-85BA-27766EA622BAYou and me use our Alphabet, our Queens or Cardinals are dressed in purple, the Mediterranean became one of the first globalized regions, and the Bible, of which the above quote is taken, is named after the city of Byblos.

The expression “phoenician” comes from the Greek word “phoínikes” which means: purple. The Greeks basically called this empire: the purple people. 

Why? Because this people of merchants were the first to invent the replication of the colour purple. This is thought to have happened around the 14th century BC, so some 3400 years ago. And, so goes the thinking, the colour was extracted from a type of shellfish, of which tons were needed for the smallest drop of dye. Hence why all throughout the ages, using purple was a message: “I represent incredible wealth”!

I find this all rather endearing. Ecological destruction for whims: there’s truly nothing new under the sun. Do you establish a whole civilization, and all that people remember is that you were “those people of purple”. Who will we be? “The plastic ones”?

But but but… , when you and me are able to communicate via this blog, it is thanks to the Roman Alphabet, distilled by the Romans – who would not have been able to do so without the Greek script; who would not have been able to do so without those naval merchants who were the first to write things and products down: the phoenicians.

Who were these people?

DD26FBBB-074C-4F40-8866-4F057F15283FLike “Ancient Greece”, they were not one country, but a collection of booming city states, nourishing each other like bees. The best known ones are Byblos, Tyre and Sidon, at the coast of Canaan, today’s Lebanon.

The focus on trade and the being ahead in naval techniques, were the 2 triggers that propelled them to establish colonies all around the southern and western Mediterranean (and so it comes that my village was first founded by the Phoenicians).

Nor the Persians, nor the Babylonians, nor Assyrians, nor the Hittites had been able to do that; they had all focussed more on their side of the Mediterranean and towards Asia.
The Phoenicians took their time though: their slow climb to power was one that took 12 centuries.

But THE Colony, the most memorable Phoenician Brand, is:


This city in the north of Africa (in todays’ Tunisia), became such a force, that still now we have cities named Cartagena, that “Carthaginians” and “Phoenicians” have become synonyms… especially after the Babylonians conquered Tyre, and Carthage became the new epicentre of the Phoenician Empire.

Cato the Elder is said to have ended all his speeches at the Roman Senate, regardless of the topic of the day, with the phrase: “Furthermore, I say that Carthage must be destroyed” (*). This has become one of the most powerful oratoric ellipses of all time, echo’ing in the repetitiveness of MLKs’ “I have a dream”.

Hammer things in, until they stick.
Right, Coca-Cola with your umbrellas? If a person sees a brand name 12 times, it sticks.

Somewhere in my region Hannibal must have passed by, with his dozens of elephants. Thinking about that general from Carthage, always makes me smile. How, more than a century BC, did you get elephants first to Carthage, and then onto ships to Iberia? Just how much food do you need to foresee, when taking them on a walk through Spain, the Pyrenees, the Alps, to Rome? And over these questions, the face of the villagers who witnessed this parade. It must have been dazzling, one of these moments in history that were more coming from left field then any other.

I can’t think of the Phoenicians without smiling, and a silent salute to those who passed by my village, and started it.


(*) “Carthago delenda est”.

The Phoenicians on YouTube:

What did the Phoenician language sound like?
The history of the Phoenicians (52 minutes)

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