6 Amazing Discoveries by the Phoenicians

The Phoenicians were a sea-based people, who inhabited the land of Canaan (modern day Lebanon) at about the same time as the Israelites, i.e. from 1500 BC to 300 BC. They were highly skilled sailors, who often established small trading companies overseas. They traded with Egyptians, Assyrians and many other people of the Middle East, and their most sought-after product was a textile dye called Tyrian purple, used to make luxury clothing items. The Phoenicians left behind many discoveries, all of which are still relevant today. Here is a list of six most famous Phoenician inventions.


1. Sea Navigation

Before any navigation system was developed, the ancient sailors used to sail along the shores to keep track of their sea route. The Phoenicians revolutionized sea travel by relying on astronomical navigation. They set their position in accordance with the Ursa Minor constellation, containing Polaris, which always points directly to the North. This allowed them to navigate in the chosen direction further out into the sea. The concept was later on used and developed by others including the Arab people. It also became the basis for establishing the modern navigational system based on geographical longitude and latitude.

2. Royal Purple

This was the flagship Phoenician invention in the ancient world, which also helped the Phoenicians build their economic position. The Tyrian purple dye, called „phoinikes” in Greek also presumably coined the name of the Phoenician civilization itself. It was made on the shores of the city of Tyre from a special breed of molluscs not found anywhere else. Its unusual, exuberant hue made it a favorite among the Mesopotamian rulers, causing also the upper class to follow suit in wanting to purchase the expensive royal purple. At the height of its popularity, the price of the dye even exceeded the price of gold!

tyrian purple

3. The Modern Alphabet

The Egyptians were naturally the fist people to invent written language in the form of hieroglyphics, but the Phoenicians perfected the form and introduced a system consisting of 22 phonetic letters, which were a simplification of the Egyptian script. The 22 signs were just consonants, but the popularity of the alphabet spread quickly, when the Arameans began using it as well. It later on evolved into Arabic and also, with the addition of vowels, became the basis for the Greek and Latin alphabetical systems, as we know them today.

4. Blown Glass and Molded Glass

Although it was the Memopotamians who first invented glass manufacturing as such and made small glass baubles for ornamental purposes as early on as 2 500 BC, it was the Phoenicians who developed the technique, making blown glass vessels, sculpted by molding. The blown glass was lighter and more resistant than other materials and was used to store cosmetics, groceries, and wine. The earliest blown and molded glass containers date back to 50 BC. The Egyptians followed the Phoenicians in glass crafting during the development of their empire.

molded glass

5. The Good vs. Evil concept

The distinction between good and evil personified is the core belief of many modern day religions. Christianity, for example, talks about God defeating Satan, whereas the Phoenician beliefs encompassed the myth of the battle between Yamm and Baal, two of the main Phoenician gods. We find echoes of it in nearly every single modern belief system today, including Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. The Bible also mentions some people of Israel worshiping Phoenician gods, which could have led to a merge in the religious traditions and practices.

6. Warships

The most common type of the ancient warship was the trireme, whose invention is attributed to either Greeks or Phoenicians. The earliest of the warships were double-banked, which meant that oars were pivoted at two levels, but Phoenician ships had three oar levels, which gave them a considerable advantage in sea and shore battles. Depictions of the Phoenician triremes can be found on Assyrian reliefs. Both Thucydides and Pliny, two famous ancient historians, thought it highly probable that Phoenicians were the inventors of three-banked warships, and Greeks only assimilated them into their fleet.


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