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Phoenicians @ National Geographic Magazine
By Rick GorePhotographs by Robert Clark

We know they dominated sea trade in the Mediterranean for 3,000 years. Now DNA testing and recent archaeological finds are revealing just what the Phoenician legacy meant to the ancient world—and to our own.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

"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.

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Online Extra
Get the latest news on scientists Spencer Wells and Pierre Zalloua's DNA research.

VIDEO Get an update on the Phoenician DNA project from geneticist Spencer Wells.

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
RealPlayer  WinMedia

New clues from ancient bones and modern blood—scientists are searching for genetic connections between contemporary Lebanese men and ancient Phoenicians. What other cultural mysteries would you like to see solved through DNA studies?

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Look up the adjective "purple" in a dictionary, and one of the first meanings you'll see is a distinction of royalty. The association of royalty with the color purple stems from the ancient reddish-purple dye made from the glands of murex mollusks. The most famous example of this dye is so-called Tyrian purple from the Phoenician homeland along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. 
The expense of producing the dye was so prodigious—many thousands of mollusks were needed to produce one ounce of dye—that only the very wealthiest could afford it.  It was said to be worth the price, because the dye, once set, would not run or fade. Tyre and other Phoenician cities traded fine garments dyed purple (or reddish purple—the actual hue is debated) and spread the dye-making technology to their settlements around the Mediterranean. Archaeologists today still find huge piles of murex shells near the ruins of ancient Phoenician settlements—usually downwind from where people lived, as heating sea creatures in salt water for days during dye extraction was bound to have been a smelly process.
A Greek legend recounts the discovery of the purple dye by the god Melqart, or Herakles.  The god and his dog were walking along the beach, and the dog bit into a mollusk, which stained his mouth a lovely purple. The god was pleased, so dyed a garment purple for his favorite consort. 
Eventually, after the Punic Wars when Rome emerged victorious, the Roman state took over production of the purple dye, and under Emperor Nero the wearing of purple garments was restricted to the emperor alone. The color has remained popular for VIPs ever since.
—Elizabeth Snodgrass
Did You Know?

Related Links
Lebanese Cities
City profiles delve into the history of early Phoenician centers in the Levant, giving a brief background on each followed by sections on archaeological finds, the city today, and what to visit there. Photographs illustrate each section.

Library of Congress Country Study: Lebanon
Tour this exhaustive, well-researched website offering links to chapters on Lebanese history (starting with the Phoenicians), society, economy, and government.

Sidon Excavation
Claude Doumet-Serhal's research is part of the British Museum's excavation in Sidon. The excavation is also sponsored by the British Academy, Council for British Research in the Levant, private Lebanese institutions, the Hariri Foundation, and Byblos Bank. This website introduces the dig along with major points in Sidon's history.

Canaan and Ancient Israel
The University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has put together this interesting website covering the history of the Canaanites, including the coastal Phoenicians. Sections include labor and crafts, trade, and activities for children ages 8-12.

This overtly patriotic Lebanese site offers readable sections on the history of Lebanon, Phoenicians, the Crusades, Maronites, monuments, saints, Lebanese cuisine, and more.

Encyclopedia Phoeniciana
This site bills itself as "the largest web compilation and repository of studies about the origin, history, geography, religion, arts, crafts, trade, industry, climate, mythology, language, literature, music, politics, wars, archaeology, and culture of the Canaanite Phoenicians." The information here is a collection of views that provide juicy tidbits to whet your interest in the Phoenicians.


Aubet, Maria Eugenia. The Phoenicians and the West: Politics, Colonies, and Trade.  2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Edey, Maitland A. The Sea Traders. Time Inc., 1974.
Markoe, Glenn E. Peoples of the Past: Phoenicians. University of California Press, 2002.
Moscati, Sabatino, ed. The Phoenicians. I. B. Tauris, 2001.
Moscati, Sabatino. The World of the Phoenicians. Orion Books Ltd., 1999.  (Orig. by Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd. 1968.)

Wells, Spencer. The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey. Princeton University Press,  2002.


NGS Resources
"Off Israel, a Mystery Ship From 400 B.C." National Geographic (April 1993).
Matthews, Samuel W. "The Phoenicians, Sea Lords of Antiquity." National Geographic (August 1974), 149-89.
Abercrombie, Thomas J. "Young-old Lebanon Lives by Trade: The Land of Cedars, Phoenician Sea Cities, and Crusader Castles Thrives Again as Middleman of the Mediterranean." National Geographic (April 1958), 479-523.


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