Sun, 24 September 2023
The Daily Ittefaq

The history of a vibrant civilization: Phoenicia

Update : 10 Jun 2023, 11:29

A busy seaport in Mesopotamia. A huge ship came and dropped the anchor. This time they brought various products. The goods were swaying in a rhythm with the waves of the sea on the anchored ship. 

Ten to twelve of them are standing on the deck of the ship. Sailors, traders, Sareng—all have towering noses; Bright copper complexions; some have a reddish tint, curly hair, and a long hat on their heads.

This hat indicates that they have come from Phoenicia.The houses on that bank of Mesopotamia are glittering in the sweet light of the morning sun. Piles of stones and sand lie on both sides of the shore. Along with these piles, there are many other ships with crimson sails. Some came from Harappa and some from Egypt. Hat-clad traders made their presence known to the throngs of people standing on the banks. Everyone was busy buying and selling products.

These seafaring traders from distant Phoenicia brought a variety of luxury goods, stone jewelry and gold ornaments for the Mesopotamian king. Murex snails were harvested from the Mediterranean Sea. And the precious cloth dyed with blood-purple dye released from it was a product of the elites and emperors of that time.
When dyeing clothes, the color sticks to the skin of the hands, feet and body in such a way that it cannot be removed easily. That is why the people of Mesopotamia and Greece call them purple people. The name 'Phoenix' is given to the Greeks. Since then it is known as 'Phoenicia'. 

Although the work of making this special purple colour was very laborious, the profit from this color was immense. This colour is very ripe. The more  it is washed, the brighter it gets. Just one ounce of paint is made from about ten thousand snails. This use of purple dye in textiles transformed the Phoenicians into a commercial superpower.

Even the blind poet Homer wrote a poem calling them 'Phoenicians'. Homer wrote poems in praise of their carpentry skills, dressmaking, beadwork and glassware. Jews  also praised their silver jewelry and ironwork. God himself is their teacher. The city-state god of Tire was Melkart, who later became known to the Greeks as Hercules. While walking along the seashore with his beloved girlfriend one afternoon, Hercules's dog Murex began to eat a snail and the intense purple beauty emanating from it caught the attention of the god's lover. she earnestly requested to her beloved, to make her a shawl out of it. Hercules promised to fulfill his promise and this is how the Phoenicians and Greeks believe the reddish purple dye was first created.

Since ancient times, the lack of agricultural land allowed them to emerge as traders centered around the Mediterranean. They develop a deep friendship with the sea for life and sustenance. This civilization was located in present day Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel. Although unable to develop into a powerful political state, they formed a confederation of many city-states with a similar language, religion and culture. Each kingdom was ruled by a sovereign and independent king. They also had their own separate army.

On one side was the vast sea, and on the other side was a huge mountain. As nature had arranged their defense in this way, there was no possibility of enemy attack for a long time. Their products were highly valued in eastern countries. So great was the skill of the Sidonian artists in making glass that they were sometimes erroneously called the discoverers of glass. It is said that they were the ones who showed the Egyptians the way to make phoenix or purple dye.

Lebanon had an abundance of cedar trees. This tree also made them economically very strong. The wood of this tree is insect resistant and does not rot easily. So they became master craftsmen in making wooden ships. This cedar tree filled the lack of trees in the arid regions of Egypt, in exchange for endless gold. According to the historian George Rawlinson, King Solomon of Israel built the Great Jew Temple with Phoenician craftsmanship and wood.

In Egypt, the yield of grapes is not good because of the heat. Due to the efforts of the Phoenicians, the cultivation of grapes, olives and dates was extensive and trade with them was glorifying. So these Phoenician sailors would deliver wine to the king of Egypt on the way through Egypt. And by selling this wine at a high price, they collected a lot of gold from Egypt.

The Phoenicians brought linen and papyrus from Egypt. Copper was taken from Cyprus; embroidered cloth from Mesopotamia.They used to collect perfumes, spices, ivory and gold from Arabia and different products from Africa and sell them to different colonies. They used gold or silver as a medium of exchange and they had the best trade relations with the Jews and Egyptians.

Although written languages based on symbols were invented in Mesopotamia and Egypt, the alphabet used today is a gift from the Phoenicians. Initially using hieroglyphs, they introduced the alphabet to facilitate trade and eliminate the earlier complex system. It is said that this Phoenician alphabet is the basis of most of the western languages spoken today. Many say that the Egyptian and Arabic alphabets are also based on the Phoenician alphabet.

The language of the Phoenicians spread to every region through their trade network. They had business dealings with many nations and had to keep accounting records with all of them. This is how their alphabet spread everywhere through the exchange of expressions. The Greeks and Romans were most indebted to the Phoenicians for this alphabet. They also made some changes while making this alphabet their own. They added two letters to the alphabet. Herodotus calls these Phoenicians the fathers of this alphabet.

The Phoenicians were good at building ships. Those powerful ships adorned with horse's heads used to roam the ocean. Skillful engineering allowed their ships to travel great distances in a short time, making it easy for them to travel to Egypt, Greece, Africa, Spain, and even England. Later, the Greeks, Egyptians and Romans built ships by imitating their ship designs and ruled the seas. They were the first to use the North Star by sea.

Apart from naval trade, they were the first in history to initiate effective colonialism to maintain economic dominance. As they traveled by sea, they built homes for themselves in trade-friendly areas along the coast, and during the long journeys, water, food and ship supplies were provided from those colonies. Carthage in Tunisia became one such powerful commercial economic region. All these trading ports developed into independent states after several hundred years.

They had a polytheistic religion. There was also the practice of sacrificing animals and people. They even sacrificed the newborn. Their graves were some distance away from the locality. There is no evidence of making tombs like the Egyptians. The bodies were buried in coffins dug six meters below the ground. They did not believe in life after death.

Drought and inter-state conflicts were slowly defeating them. The Greeks were getting stronger and were constantly cornering them. As a result, the Persians conquered their kingdom very easily.

However, they were living a good life. They were favoured by the Persians as they assisted Persia with a powerful fleet during various wars. Suddenly, Alexander the Great defeated the Phoenicians and drove them out of their land.

When Alexander captured Tyre and expressed his desire to sacrifice them in the temple, the people of Tai refused. The people of Tyre requested them to perform a ritual outside the city as foreigners. This proposal was not acceptable to Alexander. Alexander aggressively sent envoys ordering the surrender of the people of Tyre. When the ambassador was killed by the Tyrians and thrown outside the walls, the enraged Alexander attacked the kingdom with all his might and killed about thirty thousand people.

After this, many citizens of Tyre were sold as slaves. However, some wealthy people were able to escape with their lives with various tricks. Most of the people went to Carthage. Then one by one the other states of Phoenicia also surrendered to Alexander. Thus the Phoenician civilization ended and the Hellenistic era began.

They survive only in the writings of some archetypes and their enemies. The history of Phoenician civilization should not be underestimated. When these purple merchants ruled the sea trade, neither Greece nor Rome was in such a prosperous condition. When Carthage was flourishing, Rome was a small town. These Phoenicians conquered the turbulent seas and left their influence on the maritime trade for a long time. It is our responsibility to revive the faded history of such an extraordinary adventurous nation.

The writer is the Chairperson of Siddiqui's International School, founder of website, Treasurer of Bangladesh English Medium School Forum and a Psychology graduate from the University of Dhaka

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