Phoenicians and Canaanites: A Comprehensive History of Lebanon

At the far eastern Mediterranean lies Lebanon, known in ancient times as the Land of the Phoenicians and Canaanites. But who were they and how do we relate to them?

Sep 12, 2020By Maria Dragatakis, BA Classics, Classical Languages and Literature
The Ahiram Epitaph at Byblos in Phoenicia, 11th century BC (left); with The Flag of Lebanon designed by Henri Philippe Pharaoun (center); and Sarcophagus of King Eshmunazar II of Sidon, 5th century BC (right)


On August 4, 2020 a massive explosion devastated much of Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon. More than 220 people are known to have died and 7,000 have been injured. This is the most recent blow to a country that has suffered a series of calamities through its long turbulent history and has endured through the millennia, with an unprecedented tenacity, every possible catastrophe, invasions, sectarian hate, civil wars, cruel bloodshed, and senseless destruction. This history stretches back thousands of years to when modern-day Lebanon was the land of the Phoenicians and the Canaanites.


History Of The Phoenicians And Lebanon

Map of modern Lebanon, bordered by Israel to the south, Syria to the east and north, and the Mediterranean Sea to the west, via nations online project


A tiny sliver of land, running 198km from north to south and just 81km from east to west, (total area 10,452 km²) it ranks among the world’s smallest sovereign states. The coastal region was the site of some of the oldest human settlements in the world. The ports of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos were dominant centers of trade and culture in the 3rd millennium BC, but only in 1920, the contemporary state came into being. Lebanon became a republic in 1926, administered by France as a League of Nations mandate, and finally achieved independence in 1943.


All its major cities are ports, the Phoenicians after all are best known for their trade and navigation skills. They exploited the trade sea routes of the Mediterranean, establishing settlements from Cyprus to Spain, exporting Cedar timber and their local industries (like purple dye and spices) and importing in exchange other materials.


ancient phoenician ship
Ancient Phoenician ship carved on a sarcophagus, via the Mariners Museum, Newport News


The fascination of this narrow strip of land, stretched along the Mediterranean shore on one side, and rising towards high mountains on the other, lies precisely in the contrasts and amalgamation of elements and people – of culture, landscape, architecture– created by its natural position as a bridge between East and West. Lebanon shares many of the cultural characteristics with the Arab world, yet it has attributes that differentiate it from its Arab neighbors. 

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Its rugged, mountainous terrain has served throughout history as a refuge for diverse religious and ethnic groups and political dissidents. Lebanon in its small area is home to Christians, Maronite, Catholic and Orthodox, Muslims both Sunni and Shia, a considerable Druze population and a large influx of Palestinian refugees since 1948. The first wave of the expelled population from Palestine and of recent Syrian refugees escaping Syrian conflict. It is indeed one of the most densely populated countries in the Mediterranean area and has a high rate of literacy. With meager natural resources, Lebanon has long managed to serve as a busy commercial and cultural center for the Middle East.


The White Mountains of Lebanon: Cedars Of God

flag of lebanon
The Flag of Lebanon designed by Henri Philippe Pharaoun, via Discover Lebanon Government Website


The cedar tree is the symbol of the country proudly displayed in its modern flag. It was found in abundance through ancient times on the mountain range that crosses Lebanon, from north to south, Mount Lebanon. The name Lebanon derives from an Aramaic root of the word labhen, “to be white,” as the mountain is covered with snow and is white for most parts of the year. Its highest peak is 3,109 meters tall (10,200 feet).


The cedar tree is believed to be planted on the mountains by the hand of God, and several Bible references attest to this legend. The cedar tree forests now located in the north Qadisha (Holy) Valley, one of the most significant early Christian monastic communities, are one of the last vestiges of the extensive cedar forests that thrived across Mount Lebanon in ancient times.  The Christian monks of the monasteries in the Qadisha Valley venerated the trees for centuries. 


cedar trees lebanon
Cedars of Lebanon by Félix Bonfils, 1870, via The Art Institute of Chicago


“The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.” (Psalm 104:16 NRSV)


Systematic deforestation and over-exploitation through the millennia by the local Phoenicians, but also invaders like the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Turks have significantly reduced the once abundant forest of cedars. The Egyptians and Minoan Greeks valued their timber for shipbuilding, and during the Ottoman Empire, their timber was used to construct railways.


Lebanon: The Land Of The Phoenicians

phoenician scarab
Phoenician Scarab with Worshiper and Winged Deity Set in a Gold Swivel Ring, 7th-5th century BC, via The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


Lebanon’s history stretches back into the mists of time. It was the land of the Phoenicians, the navigator founders of Carthage, land of great kings and heroes, major cities and ports and the scene of many Biblical stories. 


We often refer to the Near East as the cradle of civilization. Before the Iron Age, the inhabitants of these city-states were called the Canaanites. During the Bronze Age, Canaanites dwelled in the south Syrian and Lebanese coast, seeking refuge from hostile neighbors like the Egyptians, the Persians, and the Babylonian-Assyrian Empires. The name Phoenicians was given to them by the Greeks, it derives from the Greek Phoinikes, referring to the purple-colored dye which the Phoenicians extracted from the murex shell, and with which they produced highly prized textiles.


It is of crucial importance to mention that Phoenicia is a Classical Greek term used to refer to the region of the major Canaanite port towns and does not correspond precisely to the social and cultural identity that would have been recognized by the Phoenicians themselves. Their civilization was organized in city-states, like that of ancient Greece, so they did not necessarily identify with a single national and ethnic entity. However, in terms of archaeology, language, lifestyle and religion, there is little to set the Phoenicians apart as different from other Semitic cultures of Canaan. As Canaanites, they were exceptional in their seafaring achievements. 


view city lebanon byblos
View of the city of Byblos from the port, via the Lebanese American University, Beirut


In a recent whole-genome study of ancient remains from the Near East published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, conducted by Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute scientists and their collaborators sequenced the entire genomes of 4,000-year-old Canaanite individuals who inhabited the region during the Bronze Age, and compared these to other ancient and present-day populations. The analysis of ancient samples of DNA revealed that the ancient Canaanites were a mixture of local people who settled in farming villages during the Neolithic period and eastern migrants who arrived in the area around 5,000 years ago. The results further confirmed that present-day Lebanese are direct descendants of the ancient Canaanites. 


However, historical records of the Canaanites are limited. Several references can be found in ancient Greek and Egyptian texts, and biblical texts extensively refer to the region and its people in a general consensus of widespread destruction of Canaanite settlements and annihilation of the communities. 


road ruins ancient city tyre
Road ruins from the ancient city of Tyre, via UNESCO


As early as 3500–2300 BC large fortified cities emerge across the region and engage in a flourishing trade with the increasingly unified Egyptian kingdom. Timber from the mountains of Lebanon, as well as silver and aromatic oils from further north and east, are transported to Egypt by sea from the city of Byblos. Through archaeological evidence, it is clear that the northern part of the Levant maintained strong links with Mesopotamia


By the late eighth century BC, the Phoenicians had founded trading posts and colonies around the entire Mediterranean, the greatest of which was Carthage on the north coast of Africa (present-day Tunisia). The coastal port cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos known from Neolithic times flourished and have survived till today as vibrant modern cities.


crusaders castle port city sidon
The Crusaders’ Castle, port city of Sidon


Over centuries and millennia, Lebanon has remained a crucial commercial and cultural trading-post between East and West, the small Land of the Cedars is a heady concentrate of natural beauty and archaeological treasures. 


The National Museum of Beirut has produced a short video of its exhibits and our readers can get an insight into the city of Byblos, one of the oldest cities in the world, by watching the short documentary produced by the Louis Cardahi Foundation – video on the city of Byblos.


The Phoenician Alphabet


The oldest systems of writing appeared with the hieroglyphic system in Egypt and the cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia, around the 3rd  millennium BC. The great writing invention of cuneiform was to reduce this large number of 700 hieroglyphic signs to 30 consonantal signs only. The first complete cuneiform alphabet of the 14th c. BC  was found in Ugarit North Syria, the original tablet is displayed at the Damascus Museum in Syria, and a copy is displayed in the American University of Beirut Museum.


phoenician alphabet latin letters
The Phoenician Alphabet with the corresponding Latin letters, via


The Phoenician alphabet was the first linear alphabet and is one of their most important historical contributions. All alphabetic scripts are derived and which spread to the rest of the world.


The Phoenicians invented the first complete linear alphabet in the 11th century BC. More practical, easy to write with ink on papyrus, suitable for busy traders, it consists of only 22 consonants without vowels. Just like its Aramaic successors, Arabic and Hebrew, it is written from right to left.  The Greeks borrowed the Phoenician alphabet in the 8th c. BC and added vowels to it and changed the direction from left to right. The rest is history indeed, we all use that same alphabet evolved to suit our linguistic needs and origins.


But no great literary works, no epic poems, no historical documents were found written in Phoenician script, inscriptions on columns and sarcophagi (stone caskets) are the best examples found to date.


lebanon byblos stele
The Yehawmilk or Byblos Stele, 450 BC, via Musée du Louvre, Paris


The stone slab (stele in archaeological terms) known as the Yehawmilk or Byblos stele has been notorious since it was first discovered. It is a perfect example of Phoenician art from the 1st millennium – a scene with iconographic characteristics close to contemporary Egyptian representations, illustrating a text written in Phoenician. With these features, the Byblos relief is one of the key documents in the reconstruction of Phoenician history. The 14-line inscription in Phoenician, in alphabetic characters, has earned the stele pride of place in the corpus of Semitic inscriptions. Yet it has proved difficult to read, partly because the characters are clumsily carved on a hard stone, and partly because the lower right corner of the stele is missing.


phoenicians arrowhead
Phoenician Arrowhead in bronze bearing the inscription Arrowhead of Yishba, 11th century BC, via the British Museum, London


The Phoenician language was deciphered in 1758 by Jean-Jacques Barthelemy (Abbe Barthelemy), a French archaeologist. He based his decryption research on bi-lingual texts, Greek-Phoenician inscriptions found in Malta and on coins’ engravings from Tyre. 


The lack of available texts, references and engravings made the decryption of the Phoenician alphabet a difficult task. Phoenicians have not left a lot of written documents, archaeological excavations have revealed a few royal inscriptions, dedications to the gods or funerary texts found on monuments, inscribed on the stone with the Phoenician alphabet for eternity.


Other inscriptions were randomly found on sites from the exploratory routes of the Phoenicians and in their various colonies. Written language for the Phoenicians was the convenience and utility offered to travelers, industrialists and traders in their accounts and contacts.


ahiram epitaph byblos phoenicia
The Ahiram Epitaph at Byblos in Phoenicia, 11th century BC, in the National Museum of Beirut


Among the most famous texts: the inscription in memory of Ahiram King of Byblos, engraved in 1000 BC by his son on a reused sarcophagus, is considered the first truly Phoenician inscription. This is the oldest piece of Phoenician writing discovered in the city of Byblos dating to the 11th century BCE. Out of the 22 letters of the alphabet, 19 are used and it contains spaces between words.  The sarcophagus is among the master displays of Beirut’s National Museum.


This sarcophagus found at a site called “The Cavern of Apollo” southeast of the city of Sidon belonged to its king Eshmunazar II. The iconography is of Egyptian inspiration: the deceased, wrapped in a shroud that leaves the head uncovered, on the shroud is a long inscription of 22 lines in alphabetic Phoenician, crucial evidence for the history of the Achaemenid Persian period. 


sarcophagus king eshmunazar ii
Sarcophagus of King Eshmunazar II of Sidon, 5th century BC, via Musée du Louvre, Paris


An astonishing sarcophagus following a model from pharaonic Egypt, but the face is treated in a Greek-style. Similar sarcophagi have been excavated from the necropolises of most Phoenician cities on the coast of Lebanon, in Cyprus, and in the Phoenician colonies of the Western Mediterranean. Probably Greek artists were commissioned to produce the sarcophagi for kings and the aristocratic elite.  


When Alexander the Great conquered the city of Tyre in 332 BC., after a long siege that lasted close to six months, the Phoenician alphabet was replaced by Greek as a written language. However, rare inscriptions attest to the persistence of the use of Phoenician until the end of the first millennium. The Phoenicians continued until the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, for sake of identity, to burn the Phoenician name of their cities on their currencies.


Phoenician Purple Dye

phoenician purple dye
Textile fragment, undyed except for a purple stripe, 1st–4th century AD, via University of Michigan, Ann Arbor


The purple dye, known as Tyrian Purple or as Imperial purple (Greek, porphyria, Latin: purpura) was first produced by the ancient Phoenicians in the city of Tyre. It was extracted from three types of murex shells, a type of sea snail found on the Lebanese coast. 


It gave a different tint according to the murex type used when applied on silk or wool and it was greatly sought after because of its unique hue, and its durability, it actually became stronger and brighter with time contrary to other types of dyes. It takes about 12,000 shells to extract 1.5 grams of this dye, making the purple dye an awfully expensive and luxurious item. 


This ancient dye cost 15 times more than gold, currently priced at $2,700 per gram, making the Phoenicians rich traders. Because of its importance, the murex shell was represented on most Phoenician coins of Tyre, wherefrom it was mostly exported. ​


hercules dog tyrian purple dye
Hercules’s dog discovers purple Tyrian dye by Peter Paul Rubens, 1636, via Bonnat-Helleu Museum, Bayonne


Due to its high value, it was only accessible to royalty, hence its name Imperial Purple. During the Hellenistic and later the Roman empire the right to clad oneself in purgative purple was tightly controlled by legislation. The higher your social and political rank, the more extracted rectal mucus you could swaddle yourself in. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, King Ptolemy of Mauretania’s sartorial decision to cloak himself in purple on a visit to Emperor Caligula cost Ptolemy his life. King Cyrus of Persia first adopted a purple tunic as his royal regalia, and later the Roman emperors forbid their citizens from wearing purple clothing under penalty of death. Purple was especially revered in the Byzantine Empire. Its rulers wore flowing purple robes and signed their edicts in purple ink, and their children were described as “born in the purple.”


As Greeks loved myths and heroes, it was inevitable for them to spin a myth where legendary hero Hercules and his dog were walking on the beach on their way to court a nymph in the city of Tyre. The dog chewed on a sea snail, and the snail’s excrement colored purple the dog’s mouth. Seeing this, the nymph demanded a gown of the same color, and the result was the origin of purple dye. Some ancient sources attribute the myth to Melqart, a Tyrian deity identified with Hercules.


Legacy Of The Phoenicians And Canaanites In Lebanon

horse blinker seated sphinx relief
Horse blinker carved in relief with a seated sphinx, 8th century BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

So, the Canaanites, or Phoenicians if you so choose, gave us an alphabet system to evolve from and built our current western alphabets and for thousands of years. They also provided the dye to lavishly dress our emperors, kings, and aristocracy. But they have left many more legacies and developed an intricate cultural footprint in the Levant Region. They endured through the centuries the conquests from all neighbors, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, and the Ottoman Empire and have come out with a unique indestructible identity clearly defined by their ancestry as Canaanites, Phoenicians and modern Lebanese.


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By Maria DragatakisBA Classics, Classical Languages and LiteratureMaria Dragatakis lives and works in Athens, Greece as an International Productions Coordinator for a local theater company. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Classics and Classical Languages and Literatures from Ohio University. Art is her passion which she is been blessed to relish in her daily tasks, in the world of the theater, and the city she lives in with its rich cultural heritage. Her work has taken her around the world in a never-ending journey, always seeking the finer sentiment of euphoria that only art can produce.