Here is a Brief History of the Purple People, The Canaanites and Phoenicians, who were famous for their purple dye and who sailed around the entire continent of Africa in 600 BCE!
Updated 06 November 1999
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B. CANAANITE AND PHOENICIAN CULTURE
C. THE CANAANITE PERIOD - 3000-1200 BCE
D. THE PHOENICIAN PERIOD - from 1200 to 330 BCE - 900 years of trade and influence
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From the Bronze Age to the Fall of Rome
Located at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea and the western edge of Asia Minor, the Levant is the land of the Bible, the source of the religions of Jews, Christians, and Moslems. A pivotal point for communication and conflict between Egypt, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, it is both the heartland of a culture and a crossroads for many cultures. A people must be adaptable to survive in an area traversed by numerous tribes and which is the front between large empires, or else they will be absorbed by the conquerors. The area includes what are now called Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/ Palestine. While current cultures are largely Moslem, they include significant populations of Jews and Christians. Many people still live in cities founded by the Canaanites and Phoenicians 5,000 years ago and continually occupied since then (some cities even go bck to 7,000 BCE). We use alphabets derived from theirs, but few written records remain from them. The faiths of The Book (Torah, Bible, and Quran/ Koran) derive from theirs, but they practised a religion of ecstasies. Who were they? What were they like? To answer these questions, we must look to Archaeology.
While the origins of the Sumerians, whose language appears related to no known linguistic family, remain a mystery, the other people of the region were chiefly Semites - Canaanites (the Levant), Amorites (southwestern desert people), Akkadians and Assyrians (Mesopotamia), Arameans, Habiru (Hebrews) and Bedu (Beduin Arabs of the southern desert). The languages of these groups are closely related, and also related more distantly to Hamitic languages, which include ancient Egyptian, Coptic, and Ethiopian.
Throughout the Bronze Age there was a sporadic influx of nomads from Arabia into the area, hostile at first, but soon incorporated into the existing culture. Later, Indo-European peoples migrated into the area. Among them were the Hurrians, who moved from Turkey in the North to Iraq in the 3rd milleneum BCE and brought the light horse-drawn chariot and composite bow to the Levant. Another group sailing from the West were the so-called "Sea Peoples," whose origin is still unknown, but who were probably north-eastern European. The various Indo-Europeans intermingled with and were absorbed into the Semitic cultures, an exception being the Persians who maintain their Indo-European culture and language up to this day.
Most of these ancient cities are still inhabited, or newer towns have been built near the mounds (tells) covering the ancient ones.
The Mediterranean area has three seasons, much like California: a hot dry Summer, when grasses are parched yellow and the only moisture is dew; a cool Winter, with heavy rains, and snow in the mountains to the east, during which the land springs back to life, and a mild Spring, with dew and fine drizzle. Agriculture in the region is dependent on precipitation, both rain and dew, not the massive and eventually destructive irrigation projects of Mesopotamia, and drinking water comes from natural springs in the porous limestone subsoil. Sheep, goats, and cattle are herded to the mountains at the end of winter and brought back down by the end of summer for sale and sacrifice. Tribes of nomadic pastoralists remain in the region to this day, and they were often the invaders who destroyed towns, only to be eventually absorbed into the more sophisticated culture.
And it was a largely urban culture, consisting of locally independent towns, usually within high, thick defensive walls, in fertile well-watered terrain along vital trade-routes. Since there was little irrigation, there were none of the massive, large-scale cooperative projects of the large urban communities of Mesopotamia. Wealth was concentrated in the towns, especially in the temples, which became centers of record-keeping and finance. Since for many centuries there was no money, all trade was carried out by exchanging one type of goods for another, and the large temple-complex was an ideal set-up for storing wealth in the city. The temples were even able to finance trading expeditions. The money lenders in the temples mentioned in the Bible were not just shifty characters out to cheat people, but a natural outgrowth of such financial concentration, for the temples were able to amass large stores of goods and herds of animals which were brought to them as offerings, and use this wealth to speculate on trading trips around the Mediterranean and to India or England. In Phoenicia, whose cities often occupied tiny areas on land in a sheltered harbor, buildings up to 6 stories high were constructed, often with roof gardens. There were always wells or springs within the city walls, which is one reason the people were often able to withstand long seiges. Tyre even had fresh water piped in through a leather hose from an undersea spring.
Each town was ruled by a King, but there seem to have been frequent changes in ruling families, not the long-standing dynastic lines of Egypt or Mesopotamia. And in Phoenicia each town had a council made up of its most powerful merchants who were responsible for many of the decisions of state. There were no elections as in later Athens where only property-holding male citizens could vote; but while not democratic, these councils generally did a good job of representing most of the town dwellers, and the prosperity of each town depended on their wisdom, both in advancing trade and avoiding war.
As was commonplace in the ancient days, there were slaves, but laws protected them from mistreatment and authorized payment to them in redress of grievances. They could earn their own money, purchasing property and eventually their own freedom. A freed slave could reach high office. The position of women was also quite good for those days. There is no evidence of polygyny in Phoenicia. In case of repudiation (divorce) the dowry was returned to the woman, and women had well-defined legal rights. Women could, among other things, bring legal actions, enter into contracts for buying and selling goods, invest in trading expeditions, and adopt heirs if they had no children.
Extensive long-distance trading began in Canaanite times, and for many centuries the Phoenicians were the major traders in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. They discovered how to navigate by night using the North Star. Their trade routes criss-crossed vast regions between Egypt, Arabia, and Mesopotamia, and included sailing to Spain, England, India, and the east, north, and west coasts of Africa. To feed and protect themselves, they established colonies in Spain and North Africa and on many Mediterranean islands, including Cyprus, Sardinia, and Sicily. As administrators and engineers, the Phoenicians were responsible for constructing a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea for the Egyptians around 600 BCE, through which they circumnavigated Africa. They were organizers and managers of many workshops, producing finished luxury goods from the materials they traded, although the crafts-people might not be Canaanite/ Phoenician.
Among their other important skills were:
GLASS, producing bottles, beads (including multicolored faces, as shown here), and eventually blown glass, and they were the first to discover the secret of transparent glass.
LAPIDARY and JEWELRY of precious and semi-precious stones.
COSMETICS, PERFUME OILS, and INCENSE for personal beauty, ritual, and magic.
They also specialized in TEXTILES from Egypt and their own workshops - primarily linen, but also wool, and, for a time, the secret of silk. They were famed for their multi-colored weaving and embroidery.
And they became famous and wealthy for their DYES:
BLUES from African indigo;
but above all,
PURPLE - Tyrian purple as it was called during Roman times - for which they were the only source, and which comes from tiny sea-snails, several species of murex now rare, and the method of producing it is now lost.
1. Early Bronze Age - 3000-2000 BCE
Stone Age settlements have been found dating back well over 9,000 years, some of which are still inhabited even today. By the end of the Early Bronze Age, the people are farmers and herders. By 3000 BCE there is emigration from the mainland to Cyprus. And the people of Byblos have been carrying on a lively trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia for quite some time. The physical setting is somewhat like California, pleasant coastal regions dotted with bays, cool mountains, and extreme deserts arranged along a north-south axis, with hot dry summers and rainy winters, with snow in the high mountains.
During the second millennium BCE camels are domesticated in the region, and horses are introduced into the Middle East from the north or north-east, the Russian steppes or Central Asia. Around 2000 the Ammuru or Amorites, which means "Westerners," move from the Sinai desert and invade Mesopotamia, Syria and Old Kingdom Egypt. They are considered to be proto-Arameans. Their main political center is Mari in northeastern Syria. Many older settlements are burned and a period of confusion follows.
By 2000 BCE, after this unsettling period of disruptive migrations, the area returns to urban life, the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age. This is the peak of Ugarit, called today Ras Shamra, a city with major temples to Ba`al and Dagan which was excavated beginning in the 1920's and the source of much of what we know about the religion of the Canaanites from their own hand. They are the first known peoples in the whole world to use an alphabet.
But beginning around 1700 BCE there are two hundred years of disruption and consolidation. In Europe, the Dorians, rude mountain tribes, migrate from northern Greece to the Mycenaean area, beginning something of a northern Aegean Dark Ages. Meanwhile, the inland Amorites reach their zenith in Babylonia under Hammurapi, who collates and organizes his various peoples' laws, and fuses the cultures of Mesopotamia, but they fall within 200 years. At the same time, the "Hyksos," whose exact origin is still unknown, but who are probably Asiatic, invade and settle in the Egyptian delta.
Between 1700 and 1600 (same time that the Hyksos advance from Asia to the Egyptian Delta), less refined Indo-European peoples penetrate south and intermingle with the Syrian Canaanites. Originally from the mountainous regions of Eurasia, they had migrated into Anatolia (Turkey) around 3000 BCE. The Hittites and the Hurrians (aka Horites), who then move to Iraq in the early 2nd millennium BCE, bring the light horse-drawn chariot and composite bow, while their "relatives," the Kassites take over and are eventually absorbed into Babylon. In 1580 the Egyptians finally drive the Hyksos from Egypt and advance into Canaan, beginning a period of conflict during which Egypt demands submission from Canaanite cities, but refuses to aid their vassels in combat against the Amorites and Hitties of northern Syria.
The Canaanites were already oriented to the sea with an economy based on navigation and trade by 1550 BCE. Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos (now all in Lebanon) are their major ports, and they have established colonies on the island of Cyprus. They carry on trade with their old patron Egypt, the Mittani in Mesopotamia, and the Hittite Empire in what is now Turkey. Correspondence of this period mentions maurauding warriors called Khabiru, but they appear to be a class rather than an ethic group because their personal names reflect origins in a variety of cultures.
But around 1200 BCE the Indo-European "Sea Peoples," whose origin is still unknown, but who may be northern European or Baltic, armed with iron weapons pour in from the northern Aegean, invading the coastal Levant, driving back the Egyptians and Assyrians. They destroy Ugarit, among other cities, and found the state of the Philistines. By destroying cities which were economic and political focal points in the region, they open the way for many other smaller groups of migrating Semitic peoples to found a diverse scattering of tiny states, including the Israelites, Edomites, Moabites, Middianites, and Ammonites, and for the Arameans to dominate Syria and spread into Mesopotamia.
The term "Phoenician" is used by scholars to distinguish the Iron Age from the Bronze Age in the Levant, although the culture is essentially the same as the Canaanite and the people never referred to themselves as "Phoenicians," a Greek term. Unfortunately we have little information about the Phoenicians written by themselves. This is not because they were not culturally important nor because they didn't write - after all they invented the alphabet -, but due to a situation created by a mixture of environmental, political, and economic factors. The city of Byblos has given its name to the Greek word for "book," the word which became the name of the Christian holy book, the Bible, for the Phoenicians were the Western world's major dealers in papyrus, buying from the Egyptians who were not seafarers, and dealing it around the Mediterranean to Greeks, Romans, and anyone else with money or trade.
But papyrus, like paper, biodegrades. Many papyrus scrolls in Egypt survived largely by chance, because of the extremely dry climate. Other texts were painted on the walls of tombs and temples. The Phoenicians wrote primarily on papyrus and few but fragments remain. All that survives are hardly a few dozen commemorative engravings on stone. Much of what we know comes from the writings of those with whom they traded or who, like the Greeks, were their rivals, and none too flattering in their jealousy. The Phoenicians were characterized by their chief competitors as intelligent, shrewd, cunning, proud, arrogant, mysterious, and intensely religious. In fact, the writing system of the Phoenicians is the source of the writing systems of nearly all of Europe, including Greek, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, and the Roman alphabet (which you are reading now) which is used even for non-European languages like Indonesian and Vietnamese.
We do know that the Phoenicians essentially continue Canaanite religion, culture, and language. When they recover from the invasions of "the Sea Peoples" from the west, Israelites from the south-east, and Aramaeans from the north-east, their territory becomes limited to a narrow strip of land along the coast extending from Syria to Israel. In response to this, they become among the greatest sailors and traders of any age.
1. Years of Expansion - 1200-875 BCE
By at least the 11th century BCE, the Phoenicians have colonies and trade-staging posts on many Aegean and Mediterranean islands, including Crete, Cyprus, Rhodes, Thera, Sicily, Sardinia, the Belearics, and Malta, and have a working arrangement with the Etruscans. They have a trade relationship with the Mycenaeans. They also occupy quarters in Egyptian cities and found a number of colonies in North Africa, from Libya to Morocco, and in coastal Spain. The most famous colony is Qart Hadash, which means "New City", more commonly known as Carthage, founded around 800 BCE, and so cruelly destroyed by the Romans in a series of campaigns known as the Punic Wars between 260 and 149 BCE. Their cities are usually compact and not easily accessible except by sea, with dwellings up to six-stories tall. They have colonies on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and in Spain, with Carthage eventually controlling well over one-third of Spain, what has been called Celto-Iberia. They trade regularly in the British Isles for tin and other minerals, ply the north-eastern shores of Africa, and possibly sail to India for silks and spices.
The Phoenicians are also great administrators, accountants, and engineers. They are responsible for building the First Temple in Jersalem in the mid-900's, contracted by the Jews with the Tyrian King Hiram (of Masonic fame). Among their achievements during their long association with Egyptians is the building of a canal around 600 BCE by order of Pharaoh Necho/Nikau II across a strip of land where today the Suez Canal is, and through which they circumnavigated Africa. It silted up and was dredged several times, but didn't fall into disuse until the 8th century CE!
The Phoenicians were never interested in conquest, but in autonomy and trade. They were willing to make compromises to survive, trading their talents in exchange for their continued ability to do what they liked. They lived comfortably with peoples of a variety of cultures and religions in their cities. They preferred peace to war, but were willing to fight fiercely for their own indepencence if necessary. In this manner, they became the merchant marines and navy for the Egyptians and the Persians. And even the jealous Greeks copied their ships and learned to navigate by the Pole Star from them
The Phoenicians maintain their independence, growing in wealth and influence. But to the east a vast and powerful empire is growing, the Assyrians. After conquering Mesopotamia, they are not content, but expand westward, determined eventually to take over Egypt. In 875, they take tribute from the Phoenicians, who hope in this manner to appease them, not realizing what they will soon be up against. It is during this seemingly peaceful time around 800 that Qart-hadash, "New City," today called Carthage, is founded.
And also during this time the rustic Greeks, not yet a great civilization, begin to get organized. But the Assyrian threat is growing, and, underestimating their power and determination, the Phoenicians join an anti-Assyrian league with their neighbors the Aramaeans in 700. This only makes the Assyrians more determined than ever to trample the peoples of the Levant, and in 675 the Assyrians crush Sidon and in 640 massacre the Tyrians. But with such a westward thrust they are unable to cope adequately with trouble in their own back yard, and 610 marks the collapse of the Assyrian empire at the hands of the Babylonians.
While the Phoenicians tenaciously rebuild their destroyed towns and continue their lucrative trading, they are no longer in a situation of safety. Conflict follows conflict in the Near East, affecting also their relationship with Egypt. The Babylonians are not much different from the Assyrians, and, having tasted victory, begin their movement to westward conquest. 586 marks the fall of Jerusalem. In 585 the famed Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar lays seige to Tyre. Through it the Tyrians manage to survive, due in large part to their ability to continue to send ships out to sea. As the Babylonians have no navy, theirs is a land-based seige. However, Tyre cannot survive forever cut off from land and with barely any army. Eventually, in 572, after 14 years, the seige ends with a compromise, the Tyrians and Babylonians making a deal.
But again conquest comes from the east, and in 538 the famed Persian Cyrus II defeats the Babylonians. The Persians are content to make arrangements with the Phoenicians and a period of peace and prosperity, albeit under Persian domination, follows. But the rest of the Mediterranean world is not standing still. The Latins overthrow the Etruscans in 510 and Rome becomes a major power, challanging the Carthaginians for domination in the central Mediterranean sphere. Several times - in 510, 348, and 306 BCE - treaties are made between Carthage and Rome, but the underlying competition and Roman hostility does not cease. Carthage continues to prosper and expand. In 450 BCE, Carthaginians sail to England and also begin to trade regularly with West Africans.
The Greeks, too, are seeking to expand their influence and control beyond the Aegean and they found colonies on islands around Italy where Western Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, are settled. Conflict begins in earnest between them in 400, at the same time that the Eastern Phoenicians ally with Greek kings in wars against the Persians and the Egyptians. Perhaps things would have been different and the Phoenician culture would have continued to grow and change, for, from numerous disjointed and often competing city-states, the Phoenician cities form a confederation in 350 BCE. Their new alliance is short lived, however, because in 345 the Persians win on their Eastern front and punish the Phoenicians. This is the end of their independence. From this time they are, although culturally distinct, under the political and economic domination of whatever empire controls the region.
The Persian victory, too, is short-lived, for in 332 BCE Phoenicia is conquered by Alexander the Great, a Macedonian, not a Greek, on his way to conquer Persia. Phoenicia falls into the orbit of the Hellenistic world. Alexander dies not long after, but he has established the Hellenes as the major influence in the Levant. His successors divide their world into three parts. General Ptolemey gets Egypt - Cleopatra, a Ptolemey, was primarily ethnically Greek. General Seleukos, from whom arises the Seleucid dynasty, gets Persia, and into this sphere falls Phoenicia, no longer mighty, but still rich and legendary.
On the Western front, Rome continues to expand its sphere of influence. In 263 BCE, the First Punic War rages between Carthage and Rome, with Carthage eventually repulsing the Romans in 256 BCE. The Romans will not allow their defeat and in 219 they start the Second Punic War with Carthage. The famed Carthaginian general Hanibal crosses the Alps to attack Rome and spends 13 years fighting in Italy. But the Romans take Carthaginian Syracuse, the formerly Greek town in Sicily, and then beseige and take Carthage, ending the war in 204 BCE.
Carthage continues to survive, much subdued. But their mere survival is an afront to the Romans, under whose sphere of power and influence they now fall. In 149 BCE, the Romans find a feeble excuse to attack the now-defenseless Carthage, beginning the Third Punic War. The Carthaginians realize their complete defeat is immanent, and they bravely and fatalistically fight to the death. In 145 BCE the city is burnt and razed, the soil sown with salt, and what little remains is firmly under the fist of the Roman Empire until the fall of Rome in 470 CE, after which the area comes into the sphere of Byzantium, then various Moslem empires.
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