Published: October 2004

Who Were the Phoenicians?

By Rick Gore
Photographs by Robert Clark
Inspired by Egypt, obelisks punctuate a temple in Byblos, Lebanon, that was likely dedicated to the god Reshef about 1800 b.c By that time Egypt had already been trading with the cities of the eastern Mediterranean for at least a thousand years, importing luxuries such as wine, olive oil, and cedar timbers. In return the Phoenicians acquired Egyptian articles such as gold, scarabs, and stone vases, which have survived as votive articles buried at temples. Egyptian papyrus, on which the Phoenicians kept their records, crumbled to dust long ago.

"I am a Phoenician," says the young man, giving the name of a people who vanished from history 2,000 years ago. "At least I feel like I'm one of them. My relatives have been fishermen and sailors here for centuries."

"Good, we can use some real Phoenicians," says Spencer Wells, an American geneticist, who wraps the young man's arm in a tourniquet as they sit on the veranda of a restaurant in Byblos, Lebanon, an ancient city of stone on the Mediterranean. The young man, Pierre Abi Saad, has arrived late, eager to participate in an experiment to shed new light on the mysterious Phoenicians. He joins a group of volunteers—fishermen, shopkeepers, and taxi drivers—gathered around tables under the restaurant awning. Wells, a lanky, 34-year-old extrovert, has convinced Saad and the others to give him a sample of their blood.

"What will it tell you?" Saad asks.

"Your blood contains DNA, which is like a history book," Wells replies. "Many different people have come to Byblos over the centuries, and your blood carries traces of their DNA. It's going to tell us something about your relationships going back thousands of years."

Wells has no doubts about the power of the new genetic techniques he is bringing to our understanding of ancient peoples. Nor does his bespectacled colleague standing beside him on the veranda, Pierre Zalloua, a 37-year-old scientist with a dark goatee and an intense passion for his Lebanese heritage. The two men hope to find new clues to an age-old riddle: Who were the Phoenicians?

Although they're mentioned frequently in ancient texts as vigorous traders and sailors, we know relatively little about these puzzling people. Historians refer to them as Canaanites when talking about the culture before 1200 b.c. The Greeks called them the phoinikes, which means the "red people"—a name that became Phoenicians—after their word for a prized reddish purple cloth the Phoenicians exported. But they would never have called themselves Phoenicians. Rather, they were citizens of the ports from which they set sail, walled cities such as Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre.

The culture later known as Phoenician was flourishing as early as the third millennium b.c. in the Levant, a coastal region now divided primarily between Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. But it wasn't until around 1100 b.c., after a period of general disorder and social collapse throughout the region, that they emerged as a significant cultural and political force.

From the ninth to sixth centuries b.c. they dominated the Mediterranean Sea, establishing emporiums and colonies from Cyprus in the east to the Aegean Sea, Italy, North Africa, and Spain in the west. They grew rich trading precious metals from abroad and products such as wine, olive oil, and most notably the timber from the famous cedars of Lebanon, which forested the mountains that rise steeply from the coast of their homeland.

The armies and peoples that eventually conquered the Phoenicians either destroyed or built over their cities. Their writings, mostly on fragile papyrus, disintegrated—so that we now know the Phoenicians mainly by the biased reports of their enemies. Although the Phoenicians themselves reportedly had a rich literature, it was totally lost in antiquity. That's ironic, because the Phoenicians actually developed the modern alphabet and spread it through trade to their ports of call.

Acting as cultural middlemen, the Phoenicians disseminated ideas, myths, and knowledge from the powerful Assyrian and Babylonian worlds in what is now Syria and Iraq to their contacts in the Aegean. Those ideas helped spark a cultural revival in Greece, one which led to the Greeks' Golden Age and hence the birth of Western civilization. The Phoenicians imported so much papyrus from Egypt that the Greeks used their name for the first great Phoenician port, Byblos, to refer to the ancient paper. The name Bible, or "the book," also derives from Byblos.

Today, Spencer Wells says, "Phoenicians have become ghosts, a vanished civilization." Now he and Zalloua hope to use a different alphabet, the molecular letters of DNA, to exhume these ghosts.

The two geneticists became friends in 2000 at Harvard University. Wells was pioneering genetic methods for tracing migrations of ancient peoples by looking at the chromosomes of their living descendants; Zalloua was looking for ways to use science to help heal his country, ravaged by 15 years of civil war between its many religious factions.

Zalloua was particularly interested in understanding the genetic relationship between the modern Lebanese and their Phoenician ancestors. During the bloody civil war of the 1970s and 1980s, some groups used the name Phoenician as an ideological weapon. Certain Maronites, the dominant Christian sect in Lebanon, claimed a direct ancestry from the Phoenicians, implying that they held a more legitimate historical claim on Lebanon than later immigrants from the Arabian Peninsula. This inflamed many Muslims. The term Phoenician had turned into a code word for Christian rather than Muslim.

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