Published: October 2004
Who Were the Phoenicians?
By Rick Gore
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.

It still is. "It's now become taboo to use 'Phoenician' here officially," Zalloua explains. "Go to the National Museum. You won't see the word anywhere. They label everything simply by its age—early, middle, or late Bronze Age."

Could genetics show that modern Lebanese, both Christians and Muslims, share the same Phoenician heritage? That's one question this project, funded by the National Geographic Society, hopes to resolve. Wells and Zalloua have others.

For one, they want to know whether mysterious groups known as the Sea Peoples might have migrated into Lebanon around 1200 b.c. and mixed with the Canaanites to help create Phoenician culture. Although the Sea Peoples, who may have come from the Aegean, marauded and burned most of the major cities along the coast of the Levant, they apparently spared the Canaanite cities. One leading Phoenician scholar, Maria Eugenia Aubet of Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, believes the Canaanites made a deal with the Sea Peoples.

"I think they became friends," she says. "Phoenician material culture shows so many elements from the Sea Peoples. The Phoenicians learned from them how to build harbors, moorings, docks, and piers. The Sea Peoples, like the Phoenicians, were excellent navigators—and they knew the routes west to the rich sources of metals."

Spencer Wells suspects that the Sea Peoples also introduced their genes into the DNA of the Canaanites.

"Was there a mass migration of Sea Peoples?" Wells asks, as he and Zalloua take turns collecting DNA samples in Byblos. "Did it help create a Phoenician genetic type? We have the tools now to answer those questions."

Wells and Zalloua are seeking markers—mutations that arose in Phoenician times that can still be found in blood today. The markers would be extremely subtle, changes in a few letters out of three billion in our book of genetic instructions. But they would be enough to identify descendants of Phoenicians. Markers can be found at specific places on the Y chromosome, the threadlike package of genes located in the nucleus of almost every cell in males. Two chromosomes, the X and the Y, determine sex. Females have two X's; males have one X and one Y. The Y contains the genes that create maleness.

The Y chromosome, uniquely, is passed from father to son with no input from the mother. Changes in its DNA are preserved generation after generation, so the male descendants of Phoenicians would inherit ancient patterns of mutations indefinitely.

Genetic analysis has traced all modern males back to a common Y-chromosome ancestor, nicknamed Adam, who lived in Africa around 60,000 years ago and whose descendants spread throughout the world. Lebanon has also seen many migrations since Phoenician times, notably from the Arabian Peninsula during the rise of Islam and from Europe during the Crusades.

"The genetic inputs from those migrations are very clear," says Zalloua, including those of northern invaders. "There are villages in Lebanon that still have a high percentage of fair-skinned blonds."

Identifying Phoenician markers takes sophisticated comparisons of the DNA from thousands of men like those of Byblos. But Byblos is just one stop on Wells's and Zalloua's sampling campaign—a campaign that will take many months to show results.

Genetic researchers aren't the only ones seeking new clues to the identity of the Phoenicians. Scientists from Lebanon to North Africa to Spain are finding other evidence through traditional archaeology. Lebanese archaeologist Claude Doumet-Serhal, for one, is leading a team systematically exploring for the first time the port of Sidon, another major Phoenician city. The heart of that ancient port lies beneath a thriving modern town, out of archaeology's reach until a 19th-century school was torn down. In 1998 Doumet-Serhal's team, funded by the British Museum and a consortium of sponsors, began boring into the center of the old city.

"We are part of a rebirth of archaeology in Lebanon after 15 years of civil war," she says, descending into the excavation, which stretches for the length of a football field amid a bazaar of old buildings. She moves excitedly through the dig, a series of trenches where clusters of professional and student archaeologists scrape, pick, and chisel back through 5,000 years.

The past three seasons have brought a bonanza of discoveries. She stops where team members are scraping out the bones of a burial from the 20th century b.c. This body, along with more than 30 others, was placed in an enigmatic layer of sand as thick as four feet (1.2 meters). The layer dates from shortly after 2000 b.c. Puzzled by this deposit, Doumet-Serhal had the grains analyzed and found that they came from a nearby dune.

"The ancient Sidonians sifted the sand and brought it here manually," she says. "It's bizarre. They went to a lot of trouble to make this layer." Was this a custom brought to Sidon by a wave of invaders? The evidence doesn't say. The bodies initially placed in the layer were those of elite warriors. Their graves were constructed with bricks and adorned with elegantly crafted weapons. Later regular citizens, including children whose bodies were placed in clay pots, were also buried in this layer.

Researchers studying the weapons of the warriors have gleaned important clues from the metal. Analysis of isotopes indicates that the ores used to make the weapons came from mines in modern Turkey, Cyprus, or Syria, evidence that the Sidonians were already engaged in a flourishing metals trade in the eastern Mediterranean by 1950 b.c.

Across the Mediterranean in Spain, the timbers of two seventh-century b.c. Phoenician shipwrecks discovered in the Bay of Mazarrón near Cartagena are providing a different type of information—about how Phoenicians constructed their ships. "For the first time we have the actual ships of the Phoenicians," says Ivan Negueruela of Spain's National Museum for Maritime Archaeology. "Their ships are the key to their colonizing, the way they traveled the Mediterranean. We can't understand them without their ships. Now we can see how they actually cut the wood, how they joined it."

The ships reveal that the Phoenicians used mortise-and-tenon joints, giving their boats more strength than earlier boats, which were basically made of planks sewn together. The team discovered a wooden anchor that had been filled with lead, apparently a novel invention of the Phoenicians. Researchers also found intact Phoenician knots, amphorae the crew used to store trade goods, and mills they used to grind wheat. The hulls of the boats were lined with brush, the Phoenician version of bubble wrap, to keep their cargo of lead ingots from shifting and damaging the hulls. That meant the Mazarrón ships, measuring about 25 feet (7.6-meters) in length, were working boats, rather than the impressive galleys historical sources say the Phoenicians sailed.

The Phoenicians may have used these smaller boats to ferry cargo to galleys waiting offshore. The boats seemed too small to have made the open-sea journeys back to Phoenician home ports. But Phoenician seafaring skills and larger vessels let them travel into the Atlantic and trade along the African coast.

When did they first reach the Atlantic? Scholars debate the possibilities. Classical texts suggest they had established a colony beyond the Strait of Gibraltar at Cadiz by 1100 b.c., but no archaeological remains can be dated earlier than the eighth century b.c. Spanish archaeologist Francisco Giles, a veteran explorer of ancient ruins near the coast of Andalusia, thinks a painting in a rock-shelter in the mountains overlooking the strait may answer the question. The painting, discovered in a remote part of a cork tree forest, stylistically dates to the end of the second millennium b.c. and portrays a sailing ship surrounded by a group of stick figures.

"This represents contact," says Giles. "The local people were painting something they had never seen before."

"The ships were most likely Phoenician, because it was the Phoenicians who settled here," says his collaborator, Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum.

And settle the Phoenicians did. By the eighth century b.c. they had established communities along the entire southern coast of Spain to reap the harvest of the land and the riches of the Iberian mines.

"They created the concept of colonization," says Giles. "They brought to the Iberians all the products of cultures to the east. In return the Phoenicians got the Iberians' natural resources."

The Phoenicians would have brought something else to Spain—their Y chromosomes. Spencer Wells and Pierre Zalloua want to search for Phoenician markers in living Spaniards. But to help them identify those markers, they are first taking blood samples closer to the Phoenician homeland.

A steep hill known as the Byrsa rises along the Tunisian coast of North Africa, overlooking the residences of modern Carthage, the most affluent suburb of Tunis, the capital. In the distance peninsulas and promontories stretch into the blue sea. On a sunny October morning Wells and Zalloua ascend the Byrsa and peer down on the excavated streets of one of the earliest colonies, and certainly the grandest, established by the Phoenicians.

Founded by the city of Tyre as early as 814 b.c., Carthage emerged as a formidable power itself about 300 years later, after a 13-year siege by the Babylonians depleted Tyre's resources. Eventually Carthage dominated the western Mediterranean and gradually developed its own culture, known as Punic to the Romans. As Rome emerged as a central Mediterranean power in the third century b.c., it clashed with Carthage in a series of confrontations known as the Punic Wars. The famous Carthaginian general Hannibal nearly conquered Rome, but in 202 b.c. he was defeated near Carthage. In 146 b.c. Rome burned and destroyed this last major Phoenician city.

Wells and Zalloua have come to Carthage to seek help from Tunisian colleagues. They need local DNA to find what's left of Phoenician chromosomes here. That's a complex job: A lot of Middle Eastern people, as well as Africans and Romans, have left their genes in Carthage over the centuries. Calculating when a particular set of chromosomes emerged is difficult, but Wells and Zalloua say they can date mutations relatively accurately.

Certain short sections of junk DNA, called microsatellites, mutate much more rapidly than the longer sequences. They nevertheless mutate at a constant rate, providing a clock that lets geneticists date how old a particular form of a chromosome is. For example, Wells knows he comes from a western European Y-chromosome type called M173. Microsatellites indicate that the man who gave rise to M173, and hence to most western Europeans, lived about 30,000 years ago. Zalloua, on the other hand, has an M20 lineage, which originated in the area of Iran around the same time and is mostly found today in India. Less than 2 percent of Lebanese men have that type.

Most Middle Eastern men belong to M89 and M172. M89s date back to a major migration out of Africa around 45,000 years ago; M172s date back to the dawn of agriculture about 12,000 years ago. Phoenician markers should be carried on either of these types. Most men living in the area surrounding Carthage before the Phoenicians arrived should probably have carried variations of the M96, which is the aboriginal type in North and West Africa. So if Wells and Zalloua find in Tunisia a significant number of M172s and M89s, the Middle Eastern Y chromosomes, that could suggest a link to the Phoenicians.

"If we can find markers here that could only have originated in the Middle East during the Phoenician age, we can assume they were brought by the Phoenicians," says Wells.

While Wells and Zalluoa are taking samples in Tunisia, a Dutch archaeologist is piecing together a different portrait of the Phoenician colonization at Carthage. Roald Docter, a professor at Ghent University, is part of a Tunisian­-Belgian team that recently excavated the cemetery of the first generation of Phoenicians to settle Carthage.

His site, like many archaeological digs, appears unspectacular at first glimpse. Next to a supermarket in an urban zone, it is overgrown with weeds and pocked with heaps of dirt, plastic bottles, and other trash. Last season's trenches have slumped due to recent heavy rains.

"This looked very neat a month ago," he says, walking to the edge of a deep muddy trench. He points to a round pit in the yellowish bedrock below. About three feet (one meter) across, it is one of nine his Tunisian colleagues have located. They found pieces of funerary pots as well as fragments of bone—the bones of the first settlers.

This site, called Bir Massouda, and an adjacent zone that Docter also helped excavate with a University of Hamburg team, shows how the Phoenicians changed and reorganized their colony as it grew into a city. During the first part of the eighth century b.c. the homes were widely spaced along a dirt path, which was later lined with cobbles. Then, as more settlers arrived, the city filled in and became more densely urban. Remnants of elephant tusks indicate that merchant shops were trading in ivory.

Around 675 b.c. another influx of Phoenicians surged into Carthage, bringing a new style of four-room house typical of the Levant. Apparently, a growing menace from the Assyrians had encouraged many Tyrians to emigrate from the homeland.

"If a group of Assyrian soldiers arrives every year, rapes your wife, and takes your money, you might head west too," says Docter.

During this period the residents moved the original cemetery, replacing it with a huge metalworking site. Docter's team has found remnants of a surprisingly advanced technology. CT scans of ancient bellows reveal they contained intake valves to regulate airflow into the hearths and raise the temperature of the hot iron.

The Carthaginians were already strengthening their weapons with a metallurgical technology similar to the Bessemer process, which was not developed until the 19th century. Metallurgist Hans Koens of the University of Amsterdam discovered that the Carthaginians in antiquity were adding large amounts of calcium to the metal, a process that chemically strengthens iron.

This past season Docter's research team located the source of that calcium—the shells of the same mollusk, the murex, which yielded the purple dye that gave the Phoenicians their name. Huge amounts of crushed shells, along with basalt grinders and grindstones cover the metalworking site.

But at the end of the fifth century b.c. the metalworking region succumbed to another population surge. As their city exploded in size, the residents built houses over the hearths. The pits at Bir Massouda are revealing the foundations of those homes. The residents by then belonged to a new society, as distinct from its Phoenician founders as North Americans are today from their 17th-century colonial ancestors. They had embraced new variants of the Tyrian gods. But the Carthaginians always retained a Phoenician style. They continued their forefathers' wanderlust with voyages around Africa and perhaps farther.

Although the Carthaginians ruled the western Mediterranean for centuries, ultimately they could not resist the power of Rome. Their final hours were gruesome.

"Fire spread and carried everything down," wrote Appian, describing how Roman soldiers finally breached the walls in 146 b.c. and torched the city, pulling down its buildings on top of the residents hiding within.

Archaeologist Docter has found chilling evidence of that conflagration. He points down at the mosaic floor of a house the team uncovered. A layer of black char covers it.

"That's from the fires of 146 b.c." says Docter.

When Carthage fell, the people were enslaved and they disappeared, explains Tunisian archaeologist Nejib Ben Lazreg. "This doesn't mean the culture disappeared. It had become so rooted in North Africa that it was centuries before people abandoned the language. By a.d. 193 Rome had an emperor from North Africa, Septimius Severus, and he spoke with a strong Phoenician accent. That was the revenge of Carthage."

The Phoenicians also persisted genetically. Early this year, as Wells and Zalloua complete their DNA sampling, they shift their search from collecting samples to analyzing the thousands of plastic vials of DNA they have assembled at Zalloua's lab at the American University of Beirut.

"All this is concentrated DNA," says Zalloua, holding a box of vials from Tunisia. He lifts out a vial labeled DN44. "We'll put a little of this on a glass plate with appropriate enzymes to isolate a specific region of the Y-chromosome DNA we want to analyze. We have lots of data to digest."

He prints a chart of their Lebanese data and runs his finger down a list of analyzed samples. Most, but not all, samples indicate Middle Eastern or African origins.

"Ah, there's a Spencer—a European," says Zalloua, pointing to an M173. "That man might be descended from a crusader."

Over the next few months, the analysis of both Lebanese and Tunisian samples proceeds. By the end of the summer, Wells and Zalloua have come to some conclusions.

Who were the Phoenicians? The answer deciphered from their vials of DNA both pleases and frustrates the scientists. Perhaps most significantly, their data show that modern Lebanese people share a genetic identity going back thousands of years.

"The Phoenicians were the Canaanites—and the ancestors of today's Lebanese," says Wells.

That result extinguishes Wells' theory that the migrating Sea Peoples interbred with the Canaanites to create the Phoenician culture.

"The Sea Peoples apparently had no significant genetic impact on populations in the Levant," he explains. "The people living today along the coast where the Sea Peoples would have interbred have very similar Y-chromosome patterns to those living inland. They are basically all one people."

That result delights Zalloua; it supports his belief that both Muslim and Christian Lebanese populations share an ancient genetic heritage.

"Maybe now we can finally put some of our internal struggles to rest," he says.

The data from Tunisia also help redefine the legacy of the Phoenicians.

"They left only a small impact in North Africa," Wells says. "No more than 20 percent of the men we sampled had Y chromosomes that originated in the Middle East. Most carried the aboriginal North African M96 pattern."

That influx from the Middle East could have come in three waves: the arrival of farming in North Africa 10,000 years ago, the Phoenicians, and the Islamic expansion 1,300 years ago. Microsatellites will let the researchers estimate when people bearing those markers arrived. Even if they all turned out to be of Phoenician age, the impact on local people was relatively small.

"Apparently, they didn't interbreed much," Wells says. "They seem to have stuck mostly to themselves." Since they left so few markers, Wells must modify his plan to track Phoenician migrations around the Mediterranean—and perhaps even farther.

"They were a slippery people," he says. "They came. They traded. They left. I guess that only adds to their mystery."

And so—for the time being, at least—the Phoenicians remain glorious ghosts.