Home > Educating > Phoenician History



Phoenician History

Map of Phoenicia

 Phoenician Colonies & Trading Posts

Who were the Phoenicians?

The Phoenicians were regarded as 'rulers of the sea' (Ezekiel 26:16 cited by McGrail 2001 pg 129).  Occupying what is now modern day Lebanon and the coastal parts of Syria and Palestine from circa 1,200 BC for approximately one thousand years.  This civilisation, though often overlooked by the modern world, is credited with many discoveries including the alphabet, insurance and remarkable trading and seafaring abilities including the discovery of the pole star.  The Phoenician sphere of influence spread throughout the Mediterranean and their trading activities reached as far as Cornwall for tin, and Indian and China for spices and precious goods.

In 600 BC Egyptian King Necho II commissioned the Phoenicians to carry out the first circumnavigation of Africa.  Previously considered impossible, Phoenician mariners embraced this challenge as documented in 440BC by Greek historian Herodotus in The Histories (4.42).

The vessels were built near the red sea and sailed towards the Cape of Good Hope.  It is recorded that the sailors stopped to plant crops along the coast and waited for harvests.  The voyage is believed to have taken almost three years to complete with the journey ending in the Mediterranean.

Herodotus's account of the circumnavigation

Despite inventing the alphabet, what the Phoenicians did write down was on perishable papyrus and we are reliant on later historians for information on their civilisation.  Greek historian Herodotus recorded the story of the Phoenicians voyage 150 years after its completion in The Histories 4.42. Herodotus clearly believed in the overall account but he doubted the Phoenicians claim that when they sailed west around the southern end of Africa they had the sun on their right.  In fact, to later observers, the Phoenicians accurate observation of the sun's position in the southern hemisphere is now considered by many as evidence that the voyage did take place:

Libya is washed on all sides by the sea except where it joins Asia, as was first demonstrated, so far as our knowledge goes, by the Egyptian king Necho, who, after calling off the construction of the canal between the Nile and the Arabian gulf, sent out a fleet manned by a Phoenician crew with orders to sail west about and return to Egypt and the Mediterranean by the way of the Straits of Gibraltar.  The Phoenicians sailed from the Arabian gulf into the southern ocean, and every autumn put in at some convenient spot on the Libyan coast, sowed a patch of ground, and waited for next year's harvest.  Then, having got in their grain, they put to sea again, and after two full years rounded the Pillars of Heracles in the course of the third, and returned to Egypt.  These men made a statement which I do not myself believe, though others may, to the effect that as they sailed on a westerly course round the southern end of Libya, they had the sun on their right - to northward of them.  This is how Libya was first discovered by sea.

Herodotus, The Histories 4.42 [tr. Aubrey de Selincourt]

I     home     I     contact us     I     press     I     the expedition     I

Copyright 2007 - Ocean Ventures Ltd - All Rights Reserved