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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,

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



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



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