Chronicle 4. PHOENICIA’S STROKE OF FORTUNE
STRANGELY ENOUGH, “a critical turning point in history… an important element mentioned by many sources, and yet given consideration by virtually none, is the simple fact that – in the midst of a cataclysm which destroyed almost every city in the eastern Mediterranean area – the Phoenician cities remained untouched… accorded a special status by the invading peoples”. Such is the conclusion of a specialist on Phoenicia, Sanford Holst, in his analysis “Sea Peoples and the Phoenicians: A Critical Turning Point in History”, adding equally unequivocally: “There was a relationship or partnership of some nature between the Sea Peoples and the Phoenicians”…
However, being ‘pro-Phoenician’, he tries to minimize the importance of the Minoans in his text regarding the “Origin of the Phoenicians, Interactions in the Early Mediterranean Region”. Reversing historical periods, he opts to portray the Minoans as the Phoenicians’ ‘pupils’ and uses the usual ‘beautiful’ phrases as a cover-up:
“Around 2000 BC”, he postulates, “the beautiful Minoan civilization arose on Crete, accompanied by many indications of ‘Eastern influence’. By that time the Phoenicians had long been established as major sea traders on the Mediterranean. That the Minoans received influences from them and others in the form of specific pottery, architectural practices, social practices, legends and language are very much in evidence”…
“A critical turning point in history… an important element mentioned by many sources, and yet given consideration by virtually none, is that – in the midst of a cataclysm which destroyed almost every city in the eastern Mediterranean – Phoenicia remained untouched… accorded a special status by the invading peoples… There was a relationship or partnership of some nature between the Sea Peoples and the Phoenicians.” (Sanford Holst)
The Phoenicians may be the ‘darlings’ of most historians; but none would ever claim that their civilization was older than that of the Minoans. The latter, therefore, were the real masters, and their good pupils, as it turned out, were not the Mycenaeans but the Phoenicians, when the Cretans often voyaged to Canaan for trade. “The Phoenicians began to develop as a seafaring, manufacturing, and trading nation when the Cretans – the first masters of the Mediterranean – were overthrown by the Greeks”, R. A. Guisepi notes in “The Phoenicians”. They probably ventured out in the open sea some time before, in the mid-16th century, trying to profit from the misfortunes of the Cretans.
“The Late Minoan I period as a whole represents the zenith of Minoan civilization”, W. Sheppard Baird writes in his study on “The Bronze Age Eruption of Santorini and Late Minoan IB Destruction Event”. “Their cultural and maritime economic influence throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea would never be exceeded. This was a time of great social and political cohesion and commercial and industrial prosperity. Their only economic rival in the Mediterranean was the Egyptians. The Minoans at this time ruled the seas with the largest navy and commercial fleet ever seen in the Mediterranean. Then it all came crashing down with the incredible eruption of the Theran marine volcano”.(a) “When the Theran volcano exploded in the Aegean”, he notes writing on “The Origin of the Sea Peoples”, “it would have been difficult enough for the surviving Minoans to resurrect the Mediterranean trade routes amid the incredible devastation. The effective Minoan policing of the old trade routes from piracy that was in place before the eruption might have never again been achieved”. And he concludes describing the aftermath of the Sea Peoples’ raids: “By this time all of the great Bronze Age powers that had existed before the volcanic eruption, except the Egyptians, lay shattered, depopulated, and would never recover. In sharp contrast, the Phoenicians survived completely unscathed and invigorated. It was the beginning of the ‘Age of the Phoenicians’ in the Mediterranean. What did they do? They headed straight for the gold, silver, and tin of southern Iberia to establish trading outposts and colonies.”
Not “what did they do?” but “how did they make it?” should be the first question to ask – followed by the crucial query: “Who were the Phoenicians’ adversaries?” Sanford Holst explains:
“The Phoenician people had been dominant sea traders in the Mediterranean prior to 1500 BC [that is, they had attempted unsuccessfully to establish themselves as such after the Minoan eruption]. Then the rise of the Mycenaeans caused sea trade to fall into the hands of that new power. This pushed the Phoenicians backward from the west. The growth of Ugarit as a major sea trader located just north of the Phoenicians exerted additional pressure from that direction. Immediately beside that powerful city were the Hittites”.
The Phoenicians’ adversaries, therefore, were the Mycenaeans and the Hittites, including Ugarit. A war between Egypt and Hatti in the early 13th century was inconclusive and the Hittites kept all the lands they had taken. Then the great Pharaoh Ramses II died in 1213 BCE and four years later the Sea Peoples appeared on the scene waging their first unsuccessful raid against Egypt, “the breadbasket which had been supplying the Hittites with wheat via Ugarit”. The hungry Sea Peoples wanted bread and the breadbasket was Egypt, but this did not serve the Phoenicians’ interests. It was urgent for them that the Sea Peoples’ attention be turned elsewhere: to the Aegean and to Anatolia. “What led to the special treatment the Phoenicians seem to have been given by the Sea Peoples? What services could the Sea Peoples possibly have received from these maritime traders?”, Sanford Holst asks. The answer is, of course: bread – if not something more than bread. As for the ‘circuses’, well, the investing Phoenicians hoped that they would be rewarding enough; how profitable, not even the most optimistic Phoenician could ever dream of or imagine…
The hungry Sea Peoples wanted bread and the breadbasket was Egypt, but this did not serve the Phoenicians’ interests. It was urgent for them that the Sea Peoples’ attention be turned elsewhere: to the Aegean and to Anatolia…
Sanford Holst has the story unfolding:
“With the Hittites threatening their northern border, the Phoenicians would reasonably have supported whichever groups among Sea Peoples wanted to shift attacks away from the failed effort at Egypt and toward a more promising one against the Hittites. Though the Hittites themselves had no excess food to offer, they stood between the Sea Peoples and an achievable goal: the land of Canaan, which was second only to Egypt as a source of wheat. In addition, by going through the Hittite land and Canaan, the Sea Peoples would bring a force numbering hundreds of thousands to confront the wheat-rich Egyptians – rather than the handful of warriors who had failed on the first attempt. But a problem had to be overcome. The Mycenaeans continued to hold the Aegean and attacked the Anatolian people from the seaward side.(b) To deal with this, warriors and ships in the Sea Peoples confederacy poured from Anatolia and the Black Sea into the Aegean, where they ravaged the Mycenaeans. Following this widespread disruption the Mycenaean cities withered and eventually died. When the Aegean had been thus cleared, the people of western Anatolia were able to turn their full attention to the Hittites.(c) In 1182 BC Ugarit fell and the flow of wheat from Egypt was cut off. Approximately two years later the Hittite empire died. Now nothing stood in the way of the Sea Peoples’ exodus.(d) With their wives, children and household possessions in two-wheeled carts, the Sea Peoples – now more properly the Land Peoples – flowed across on their path of destruction and, observing their special relationship with Phoenicia, they by-passed that land. Flowing down through Canaan they destroyed the cities they encountered. Many settled beside the wheat fields and took some of the land for themselves and their families. A very large number of the Land and Sea Peoples continued onward and eventually arrived at the border between Canaan and Egypt. There a great battle was fought and the Sea Peoples were finally stopped.”
“The Mycenaeans continued to hold the Aegean and attacked the Anatolian people from the seaward side. To deal with this, warriors and ships in the Sea Peoples confederacy poured from Anatolia and the Black Sea into the Aegean, where they ravaged the Mycenaeans. Following this widespread disruption the Mycenaean cities withered and died. When the Aegean had been thus cleared, the people of western Anatolia were able to turn their full attention to the Hittites.” (Sanford Holst)
“The Sea Peoples may well have been Troy and its confederated allies, and the literary tradition of the Trojan War may well reflect the Greek effort to counter those raids.” (Eberhard Zangger)
As we have seen, the Egyptians won the battle but lost the war. Who else did? The Mycenaeans, the Hittites, Ugarit, and also the peoples of Canaan – except the Phoenicians. Even the militaristic Assyrians can be counted among the losers being obliged to withdraw to their land for protection. In short, all the great powers of the day. As for the winners, apart from the Sea Peoples themselves, there is no doubt:
“The Phoenicians seem to have gained more than anyone else from the mass migration of the Land and Sea Peoples”, Sanford Holst sums up. “Under the destructive force of the Sea Peoples’ attacks, all of the Phoenicians’ powerful adversaries had been destroyed. The Phoenician cities were untouched by this devastation that happened around them, which left these people in an advantageous position. The historical record shows their active cities quickly began to expand their domain by placing trading posts in Cyprus, the Aegean, Sicily, Sardinia, North Africa, Algeria, Morocco and Spain. Among the cities they created were these in Morocco: Lixis (modern Larache), Sala (Rabat), Mogador (Essaouira) and Tingis (Tangier); in Spain: Gadir (Cádiz), Malaka (Málaga), Ibisa (Ibiza); in Algeria: Icosia (Algiers); in Tunisia: Utica and Carthage; in Sardinia: Karalis (Cagliari); in Sicily: Panormus (Palermo) [one of too many similar cases: cities supposedly founded by the Phoenicians but known by their Greek names as the Canaanite toponyms were forgotten]; in Cyprus: Kition (Larnaca). The Phoenicians gave rise to a powerful and wealthy sea-trading empire which stretched from Morocco to the Levant.” Thus Holst is absolutely right to underline that “this element turns out to be one of the keys which help to unlock the mystery of the Sea Peoples – an event which changed the course of history.”
“Under the destructive force of the Sea Peoples’ attacks, all of the Phoenicians’ powerful adversaries had been destroyed. The Phoenician cities were untouched by this devastation that happened around them, which left these people in an advantageous position.” (Sanford Holst)
The resulting power vacuum was the golden opportunity for the Phoenicians to take advantage of and emerge as the true heirs of the Minoans, rising as a great maritime power. Their zenith in history (1200–800 BCE) coincides with the dark ages of their antagonists. Enjoying almost complete freedom of movement for a long time, they methodically built their trading empire; when the tide of history brought the great powers back on the scene subjugating Phoenicia from the 9th to the 6th centuries BCE (Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians), they were prepared to shift the hub of the empire from the Near East to the centre of the Mediterranean, from Canaan to Tunisia. After the Persian conquest, many Phoenicians likely migrated to several colonies, mainly Carthage. There they could realize their dream to become a real empire, achieving military supremacy, as well, something that was infeasible in the narrow strip of Phoenicia. As for the Hellenes, they gradually woke up from their dark age and, starting in 800 BCE, rushed to make up for lost time founding their own colonies not only in the Mediterranean, but also in the Black Sea, where the Phoenicians never dared to enter. Studying a map of 550 BCE, the Greek superiority is obvious. The Phoenicians faced a very serious problem: lack of manpower. But they maintained a crucial strategic advantage: the control of the Pillars of Heracles, the Strait of Gibraltar,(e) where Carthage would impose a blockade to secure its trade monopoly with metal-bearing Iberia, the lost city of Tartessos, and in the Atlantic, north and mainly south. Using gold obtained by expansion of the African coastal trade in the mid-4th century BCE, Carthage minted gold staters bearing a pattern in the reverse exergue of the coins, which some have interpreted as a map of the Mediterranean with America (or Atlantis?) shown to the west.
This was the background of Phoenicia’s sea trade enterprise that spread across the seas from 1550 to 300 BCE. The Phoenicians were famous as ‘traders in purple’, referring to their monopoly on the precious purple dye of the murex snail, once profusely available in the eastern Mediterranean but exploited to local extinction; used, among other things, for royal clothing. In fact, the word Phoenicia derives from the Hellenic words φοῖνιξ and φοινός, meaning ‘purple’, passing to Latin and other languages as Punic. They called their country ‘Canaan’, which may also mean ‘Land of Purple’. If so, Canaan and Phoenicia would be synonyms. Hecataeus said Phoenicia was formerly called Χνᾶ (‘Khna’). The Greek term did not correspond to a cultural identity that would have been recognized by the Phoenicians themselves. It is uncertain if and to what extent they viewed themselves as a single ethnicity. It was a civilization organized in city-states similar to Hellas. They would come into conflict and one city might be dominated by another, though they could collaborate in leagues or alliances. In terms of language, life style and religion, there is little to set the Phoenicians apart from other Semitic cultures of Canaan as markedly different.
As Canaanites they were remarkable in seamanship. While trade and colonies spread, Phoenicians and Greeks split the Mediterranean into two with the former sailing along and finally dominating the southern shore, while the latter being active along the northern coasts, without excluding mutual intrusions, as the examples of Cyrenaica and Sardinia indicate. The two cultures clashed rarely, mainly in Sicily, due to its strategic position, settling into two spheres of influence. When Carthage took over, things changed dramatically. Apart from purple, the Phoenicians exported textiles, glass, and wine to Egypt, where grapevines would not grow; they obtained Nubian gold, Iberian silver, and British tin. Nevertheless, what was once thought to be direct trade is now believed it was indirect. Timothy Champion thinks it was under the control of the Celts of Britanny.(f) In any case, it seems that the recovery of the Mediterranean economy after the Bronze Age collapse was largely due to the work of Phoenician traders, who re-established long distance trade.
Despite the exergues which supposedly depict America, what we see on the other side of the Phoenicians’ ‘coin’ is a certain kind of cultural deficiency. Their art lacks unique characteristics that might distinguish it from its contemporaries. This is due to its being highly influenced by foreign cultures: primarily Egypt, Assyria, and Hellas. Their art was an amalgam of foreign models and perspectives. In addition, although they are credited for the spread of their ‘abjad’, from which all major alphabets originated, they used this script mainly for their trade business.(g) Apart from their inscriptions, they have left almost no other written sources, or they have not survived. We even ignore the name of their “Lord of the Sea”, their “Poseidon” – quite strange for a society of merchants and sailors where such a deity is quite important.(h)
Searching for clues about ‘Phoenician mythology’ e.g. in Wikipedia, we are redirected to a certain Sanchuniathon, a purported author of three lost works in the Phoenician language, supposedly surviving only in partial paraphrase and summary of a translation in Greek by Philo of Byblos, according to the bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius. All we know of Sanchuniathon and his work comes from Eusebius, who cites the only surviving excerpts from his writings, as summarized and quoted from his supposed translator, Philo. The hypothetical date of the alleged writings was before the Trojan War, close to the time of Moses, “when Semiramis was queen of the Assyrians”. Thus Sanchuniathon is placed in the mythic context of an antiquity from which no Hellenic or Phoenician writings have survived. Curiously enough, however, he is made to refer disparagingly to Hesiod, who lived in the 8th century BCE! Some have suggested that Eusebius’ intent was… “pious” [“eusebeia” means “piety” in Greek]: he wanted to discredit polytheism (“the end justifies the means”?); and others that it was a forgery by Philo himself. Of course, we can draw our own conclusions about the real motives behind the forgers, whoever they were. At any rate, anyone in search of clues on Phoenician mythology will certainly be quite astonished if he is redirected to a hoax – “pious” or not…