Who were the Phoenicians? (October 2004)
Retrieved from the Natonial Geographic Website on November 27, 2004
By Rick Gore
Photographs 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,
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
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.
Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.
Notes from the Author Rick Gore
Notes from Photographer Robert Clark
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.