Who Were the Phoenicians?

Exploring the Phoenician empire


Amrit’s Phoenician temple in modern Syria dates to the sixth–fourth centuries B.C.E.—when the Persians controlled the region. The temple’s elevated cella in the middle of its court and surrounding colonnade are still standing. Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki/CC-by-SA-3.0.

Who were the Phoenicians?

Where did they come from? Where did they live? With whom did they trade?

Ephraim Stern addresses these questions—and much more—in his article “Phoenicia and Its Special Relationship with Israel,” published in the November/December 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. He explores the rise and fall of the Phoenician empire and highlights the special relationship that the Phoenicians had with their neighbors, the Israelites.

The Bible records that the Phoenicians had a close relationship with the Israelites: Their royalty married each other; they traded with each other; and, significantly, they never went to war with each other. Stern writes, “The Phoenicians were the nearest people to the ancient Israelites in every respect.”

Who were the Phoenicians? Stern identifies the Phoenicians as Canaanites who survived into the first millennium B.C.E.:

The Phoenicians were the late Canaanites of the first millennium B.C.E. (Iron Age through Roman period), descendants of the Canaanites of the second millennium B.C.E. (Middle Bronze Age through Late Bronze Age). “Phoenicians” was the name given to this people by the Greeks, but the Phoenicians continued to refer to themselves as Canaanites or by the names of their principal cities. During the second millennium B.C.E., the Canaanites controlled Palestine, Transjordan and Syria—from Ugarit down to the Egyptian border—and they developed a rich culture. Around 1200 B.C.E., they were forced out of these countries by the Arameans and the Neo-Hittites in the north, the Israelites and the Sea Peoples (Philistines, Sikils and Sherden, etc.) in the south, and by the Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites in the east. Between about 1200 and 1050 B.C.E., they retained control of a greatly reduced area—the narrow coastal strip of Lebanon between Arwad, Tyre and Akko. Most of the population lived in five main cities: Arwad, Byblos, Berytus, Sidon and Tyre.

Arwad, Byblos, Berytus, Sidon and Tyre became the heartland of Phoenicia, but the Phoenicians didn’t stop there. Toward the end of the 11th century B.C.E., they began establishing colonies in the west—in Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia, Malta, southern Spain and northern Africa. They soon had created an empire for themselves. But unlike other empires forged by war, this was an empire built on trade. Their commercial empire would last for nearly a millennium.


Phoenician Empire. The Phoenicians’ commercial empire stretched across the Mediterranean world. Map: Biblical Archaeology Society.

The Phoenicians successfully created a vast trading network, but even this could not last forever. Sharing the fate of many others, the Phoenician empire ultimately fell to Rome. Stern explains:

The heartland of Phoenicia was subjugated in turn by the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian and Hellenistic empires, but their western colonies continued to enjoy autonomy until the second century B.C.E. The Phoenicians’ commercial empire was brought to an end by the Romans who came into conflict with the Phoenicians—whom they described as “Punics”—in a series of wars that became known as the Punic Wars. The Carthaginians had no standing army (they employed mercenaries) and relied on their fleet for defense. The Punic Wars culminated in the Roman destruction of the Punic capital, Carthage, in 146 B.C.E., thereby ending a millennium of Phoenician influence, success and power.

To learn more about the Phoenician empire, read Ephraim Stern’s article “Phoenicia and Its Special Relationship with Israel” in the November/December 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Phoenicia and Its Special Relationship with Israel” by Ephraim Stern in the November/December 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

The free eBook Island Jewels: Understanding Ancient Cyprus and Crete takes you on a journey to two stunning, history-laden islands in the Mediterranean. Visit several key historical places on both islands and discover many of the great objects that have been unearthed there by archaeologists.


Learn more about the Phoenicians in Bible History Daily:

The Phoenician Alphabet in Archaeology by Josephine Quinn

Biblical Sidon—Jezebel’s Hometown

What Happened to the Canaanites?

Tarshish: Hacksilber Hoards Pinpoint Solomon’s Silver Source

Did the Carthaginians Really Practice Infant Sacrifice?

Phoenician Shipwreck Located off Coast of Malta

The Samaria Ivories—Phoenician or Israelite?


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  • Roger says

    per TDC while some of their subjects were, and some intermarriage, ‘Phoenicians’ such as Huram king of Tyre were Pelishtim, thus from Mizrayim and not from Canaan. but a lot of mixing and both from Cham ben Noach.
    TDC = Torah Discovery Chronology

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