From 1200 to 800 B.C. the Semitic-speaking Phoenicians lived and prospered on the Mediterranean coast north of Palestine. Their chief cities were Tyre and Sidon. They gained fame as sailors and traders. They occupied a string of cities along the Mediterranean coast, in what is today Lebanon and Syria.
Contributions to Civilization Manufacturing and trade. The coastal land, though narrow, was fertile and supported farming. Still, the resourceful Phoenicians became best known for manufacturing and trade. They made glass from coastal sand. From a tiny sea snail, they produced a widely admired purple dye, called “Tyrian purple” after the city of Tyre, which became their trademark. It became the favorite color of royalty.
Phoenicians also used papyrus from Egypt to make scrolls, or rolls of paper, for books. The words Bible and bibliography come from the Phoenician city of Byblos. Phoenicians traded with people all around the Mediterranean Sea. To promote trade, they set up colonies from North Africa to Sicily and Spain. A colony is a territory settled and ruled by people from a distant land.
Missionaries of Civilization.Due to their sailing skills, the Phoenicians served as missionaries of civiliization, bringing eastern Mediterranean products and culture to less advanced peoples. A few Phoenician traders braved the stormy Atlantic and sailed as far as England. There, they exchanged goods from the Mediterranean for tin. About 600 B.C., one Phoenician expedition may have sailed down the Red Sea and then followed the African coast around the southern tip. That historic voyage was forgotten for centuries. (In the late 1400’s, Europeans claimed to be the first to round the southern tip of Africa.)
The Alphabet. As merchants, the Phoenicians needed a simple alphabet to ease the burden of keeping records. They therefore replaced the cumbersome cuneiform alphabet of 550 characters with a phonetic alphabet, based on distinct sounds, consisting of 22 letters. After further alterations by the Greeks and Romans, this alphabet became the one we use today!