The Phoenicians were earth's first-known sailormen and explorers. With them awoke the Spirit of Adventure. The sea became home to them. As searchers, merchants, pirates, all in one, they ventured in their tiny barks from headland to headland along the Mediterranean shore, until they knew the whole of that vast inland sea as their own country. They had circumnavigated it ages before the Greeks, and then the Romans, followed in their path. They even ventured out beyond its limits through the Gibraltar strait and explored the tempestuous waters of the Atlantic, both north and south, for unknown distances.
The romance of the Phoenicians' earliest days, of their migrations and settlements through western Asia, are even dimmer to our vision than those of the early Babylonians and Hebrews. They have not, like the Hebrews, left us their own written record of their past; nor have we, as with the Babylonians, discovered long inscriptions and extensive libraries amid the remnants of their ancient cities. Hence we know of the Phoenicians chiefly from their enemies, from what was said of them in the writings of later Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Even the name by which we call them is not their own. It was the Greeks who first spoke of the beautiful semi-tropical territory as "Phoenicia," which means the land of palms.
This lovely "land of palms," Phoenicia, lies along the middle of the Mediterranean's eastern shore. To the south of it is Palestine, and to the north, Syria, of which it is today a part. Phoenicia is only a long, narrow strip of coast, thirty miles at its greatest width, with the sea washing it upon the west, and the giant mountains of Lebanon shutting it off like a rampart to the east, towering so high above the palm-strewn plain that eternal snow glistens on their crests, a mighty beacon light to guide the home-bound mariner of old.
When it was that these so-called Phoenicians took possession of this fair coast, we are not sure. They were there at least as early as the year 2000 B.C., and may well have been another band of Semitic wanderers driven from the Babylonian valley at the same time as were Abraham and his followers by the great Elamite conquest of Kudur-nankhundi. They may have reached the Mediterranean at a still earlier date. The Egyptian monuments of as long ago as the year 3000 B.C. make mention of numerous seamen, mysterious "Kafiti," who entered the mouths of the Nile from a foreign shore. But whether these were Phoenicians or a yet earlier, wholly forgotten sailor race we can not say. Tradition vaguely hints that the Phoenicians came originally from the eastern coast of Arabia and had there learned the rudiments of seamanship on the quieter waters of the Persian Gulf, ages before they saw the broader Mediterranean. At any rate, they proved the one Semitic tribe who welcomed the sea with open arms, who looked upon its waters not as an abrupt and absolute barrier to their wanderings, but only as an easier pathway luring them on into immeasurable, unknown space.
The earliest city built by these Phoenicians in their palm-land paradise was probably Gublu, the Biblical "Gebal," or as the Greeks called it, Byblos. At least Phoenician tradition represented Byblos as the oldest city of the world, and it held the most ancient shrine of their chief "baal" or god, El. This god, two-faced, six-winged, was sometimes described as having been the first king of Byblos, a mighty conqueror who held all the known world in his bondage. Once in a time of danger in war, El was said to have turned fate against his foes by burning his own little son as a sacrifice. This was the origin, or at least the mythical origin, of the terrible Phoenician custom of slaughtering children as an offering to their gods in time of danger. Byblos was also the seat of the ancient Adonis legend, which the Greeks borrowed and attributed to their own love goddess. Ishtar, or Astarte, known in Byblos simply as "Baalim-Gublu," the goddess of Byblos, loved the beautiful youth Adonis, who typified the freshness of the springtime. He was slain by a savage boar, which represented the blighting tropic heat of summer. Then the tears of Ishtar brought him back to life in autumn. Close by Byblos the shrine of this legend may still be seen, a tiny cavern, rudely smoothed by the hand of man in immeasurable ages past. It lies in the heart of one of the most beautiful vales of the world. From the cavern flows a stream, the River Adonis, which falls swiftly to the sea a few miles away. In spring and autumn the muddy stream runs red, and the waves of the Mediterranean beat back this turbid water on the nearby coast in a red foam, which the Phoenicians called "the blood of Adonis." Its appearance was greeted each year by the wailing of women who ran hysterically about shrieking that Adonis was dead. Then the priests performed a solemn incantation and promised that Adonis should be restored to the world again, that is, that the youthful green of trees and grasses would return with the returning year.
The Phoenician leadership held by Byblos passed before historical times to Sidon, which had at first been a mere fishing village, since that is the meaning of its name. Sidon, "the fish town," became "Sidon the Great," known as the "mother" city, the first sender out of colonies, the builder and protector of lesser towns. Sidon's territory bordered upon Palestine, and hence the city was well known to the early Israelites, who called all these northern neighbors in a general way Sidonians.
The men of Sidon were especially noted as metal-workers. They had also a way of making particularly pure glass, which was famed throughout the ancient world. For trade with the ruder races, they stained this glass with colors and made it into bead necklaces. All around the shores of the Mediterranean, and even in more distant lands, when ancient tombs are opened, we often find among the most treasured ornaments of the dead these bright-hued necklaces of Sidonian glass.
Before the year 1000 B.C. the leadership among the Phoenician cities had once more shifted, passing from Sidon to Tyre, that mighty city whose name became the old world's symbol of opulence and wide-spread commerce. Tradition tells us that Sidon's fall was due to a war, about 1252 B.C., with the Philistine cities. In this war the Sidonians were defeated and their city captured, its citizens escaping by taking to their ships and transferring bodily all their wealth and families to Tyre. It seems hardly likely that such a migration took place. More probably the wealth of Sidon brought with it arrogance and idleness and slow decay, which enabled the more energetic Tyrians to come gradually to the front. We have no evidence of an ancient siege or destruction of Sidon; she merely sank to the second rank among the Phoenician cities.
Tyre had originally been, like Sidon and Byblos, a city of the mainland. It was built on the shore behind a row of little islands which made a natural harbor or roadstead for the tiny ships. But before 1200 B.C. some Tyrian leader had seen the advantage of shifting the city to the islands themselves. Thus Tyre became a double city. On the shore was "Old Tyre," girded round with massive walls over a hundred feet in height. On the island, half a mile from land. was "New Tyre," protected by the waves. Another Phoenician city, Arvad, sheltered itself in similar fashion by building out in the sea; and thus these two were enabled to defy invaders. They retained their independence and power when Sidon and Byblos could no longer do so.
Similarly they paid tribute to Pul, or Tiglathpileser III., of Assyria when he conquered Syria. There was no warfare involved; Phoenician traders were given freedom of traffic in the Euphrates valley, as they had been in Egypt, and doubtless they were very glad to pay for this form of security and police protection. For nearly a century and a half, from 870 to 727 B.C., the Assyrian monarchs make regular record of their tribute from the kings of "Tyre, Sidon, Byblus, and Arvad." The four names mark evidently the four chief cities, or rather the four little principalities, into which Phoenicia was at the time divided, though Tyre held already a sort of lordship over them all.
The year 727 B.C. brought a tragic change. These were the days of the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians. Shalma-eser IV. ascended the Assyrian throne and determined to reduce Palestine completely and to bring the hitherto unconquered Phoenicia to a real, rather than a nominal, submission. King Luliya, the reigning prince of Tyre, evidently regarded himself as a wholly independent monarch, for he refused to obey the Assyrian's commands. Then Shalmaneser's ever ready armies forced the passes of the mountains and ravaged the mainland of Phoenicia from end to end (725 B.C.). Only the island cities of Tyre and Arvad escaped the desolation. These two from their security on the breast of ocean defied all the Assyrian's power. Shalmaneser then prepared a second campaign. This time the mainland cities, Sidon and the others, were compelled to act as his allies and furnish him with ships.
This brought about the first great naval battle of history. Sixty of these Phoenician vessels, bearing Assyrian soldiers, crossed the narrow strait to attack the island Tyre. The Tyrians met them with only a dozen craft. Perhaps the main fleet of the Tyrians was away, and they were desperate; or possibly their ships were so powerful that they despised the lighter boats of the foe. On the other hand, it may well be that a secret arrangement existed between them and the other Phoenicians. At any rate, the battle ended strikingly in the complete defeat of the sixty ships by the twelve, and in the capture or many of the Assyrians. "Because of this, great fame was won by all the dwellers in Tyre."
Shalmaneser returned home in anger, leaving an army to besiege Tyre from the land, shut off her intercourse with the country so far as possible, and bar her from her water supply, which lay upon the mainland. Though inconvenienced, the Tyrians were not seriously distressed. The sea was open to them; water, though brackish, could be had from afar. They withstood the feeble siege for five years; then it was abandoned. Assyrian attention was directed elsewhere, and for twenty years King Luliya was left to reign in peace. He easily renewed his suzerainty over Sidon and the other Phoenician cities.
Then came another Assyrian conqueror, Sennacherib, who overran Phoenicia with so great an army that Luliya despaired of resistance. He adopted the other course, always open to his people, of sailing away and leaving his cities to the enemy. The submission of the land to Sennacherib seems to have been complete. He appointed as its ruler a king of his own choice, though a Tyrian, and the country remained in submissive vassalage for a generation.
After this, as Assyrian power decreased, or as its exactions grew unbearable, there were repeated revolts, sieges, ravages, moments of triumph and of failure. The power of Babylon succeeded to that of Assyria; and Tyre withstood a thirteen-year siege from the great Nebuchadnezzar, who was forced to compromise for her submission at last.
With the dominion of Persia over western Asia, the Phoenician cities entered upon days of renewed prosperity. The yoke of Persia was a light one, and Tyre and Sidon submitted voluntarily, as they had to other monarchs in earlier days, securing freedom of trade in return for a small tribute and some naval service. Indeed, such was their freedom of action that when the Persian Cambyses planned to attack the Phoenician colony of Carthage, his Phoenician fleet refused to obey him, explaining that it would be impious of them to assail their kinsmen. And this Persian despot, who at other times raged like a madman when opposed, accepted without protest this defiant ultimatum of his sailors. Carthage was not attacked.
The Greek conquest of Asia by Alexander the Great brings us to the last of the many memorable and tremendous sieges which the island Tyre withstood. "Old Tyre," on the mainland, had been completely destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, and remained in ruins. But "New Tyre" was still the most prosperous of the Phoenician cities. The others submitted to Alexander without protest; and Tyre would have done the same but that Alexander announced to her ambassadors his intention of honoring the city by doing homage at the shrine of its god Melkarth. This was apparently an effort on Alexander's part to be particularly gracious, for Melkarth, as the Greek Hercules, was Alexander's reputed ancestor. The Tyrians, however, feared this devotion was only a ruse to secure entrance within their walls; and while quite ready to pay tribute, they had no intent of surrendering their actual freedom, any more than they had done with the Persians. They therefore declined, as politely as possible, the honor Alexander offered them. He, roused as always by opposition, promptly besieged the city (332 B.C.).
This final and most tremendous siege of Tyre, the unconquered citadel of over a thousand years, lasted seven months. Alexander had no idea of sitting down like other besiegers and waiting to starve the unapproachable city. He built a huge mole out from shore across the half-mile channel. Stupendous were the deeds of valor done by the Tyrians in attacking, by the Greeks in defending, this prodigious engineering work. Again and again the Tyrians, aided by the sea, swept away the advancing continent. Once they set fire to the mole, annihilated the force defending it, tore out the piles that upheld it, and destroyed it utterly. Alexander began all over again from the beginning. The ships of the other Phoenician cities aided him; the mole was completed at last; the Greek army encamped beneath the city's walls; and these were battered down. Tyre had at length to undergo that which she had never known before, the final desolation of storm and sack. There is no island to-day where Tyre stood; there is only a peninsula, Alexander's peninsula, reaching out boldly into the sea and terminating in the ancient rock.
From this time the Phoenician cities were no more than minor towns, subject like other vassals to the capricious kindness of their tyrannous overlords of Greece or Rome.
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