Five Important Phoenician Contributions to Western Civilization

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Anthony Hopper, Yahoo! Contributor Network

Phoenician communities started appearing along the coastlines of modern day Syria, Israel, and Lebanon around 3000 B.C. Beginning with Byblos, many of these settlements gradually developed into urban trading centers. This period began in about 1500 B.C., though Byblos had attained city status before that time. Over the next few centuries, the Phoenicians developed into adept traders whose ships plied the whole of the Mediterranean and beyond.

They established colonies in North Africa, Spain, Italy, and other places along the Mediterranean coast. The Phoenician city-states’ power and influence waned in the latter half of the first millennium B.C., but not before they had made important, lasting contributions to Western civilization.

Here are five important Phoenician contributions to Western society.

The Alphabet

The Phoenicians likely did not invent the alphabet. That honor probably goes to Semitic speaking people living in Egypt. Nonetheless, the Phoenicians were responsible for spreading the alphabet to other cultures living along the Mediterranean, including to the Greeks. The Phoenician alphabet represented a major advance over pictograph writing techniques, such as cuneiform, and is the foundation for the writing system used by modern Western societies.

Influence on Western Culture

Some scholars believe that Thales, the first Greek philosopher (and hence the father of Greek philosophy), was a Phoenician. Regardless of whether or not that hypothesis is correct, the Phoenician traders almost certainly played a significant role in shaping Greek culture and beliefs by exposing Greek city-states to ideas from other groups, such as the Babylonians. This contribution is important given the extent to which Greek ideas have influenced the development of modern Western culture.

Navigation Techniques

The Phoenicians were expert sailors who are credited with discovering how to use the North Star to gauge direction. As a result of this discovery, the Phoenicians could sail on the open seas and in the ocean; they no longer had to use the coastline as a navigational aid. Phoenician sailors passed this important information on to the Greeks and other Mediterranean cultures.

Glass Making

The Phoenicians did not invent glass. However, a Phoenician glass maker is credited with inventing the free-blowing technique sometime around 50 B.C. As a result of this discovery, artisans could create a wider range of glass items. Craftspeople could also use the free-blowing method to make glassware that was much more transparent than previous versions.

Purple Dye

While this accomplishment might not be as important as their other achievements, the Phoenicians were likely the first people to develop a purple dye. They maintained a near monopoly on this product (at least in the Mediterranean region) for centuries and sold it to the wealthy at exorbitant prices. Usually only high ranking nobles or government officials could afford to purchase purple colored garments. As a result, the color purple came to be associated with royalty. That connotation survives into today.

Sources

Gore, R. (2004). “Who Were the Phoenicians?” National Geographic Magazine.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (2012). “The Phoenicians (1500-300 B.C.).” The Metropolitan

Museum of Art.

<span style=”color: #0000ff;”>The author is a freelance writer and has a B.A. in History from Roanoke College.</span>