The ancient people of the eastern Mediterranean coastal lands were linked to each other by sea. The earliest Egyptian historical document records the import of "forty ships of cedar logs" in the reign of Sneferu. This refers to the famous cedars of Lebanon which, with their precious oils, were one of the earliest goods traded by the people of the coast. Much later, in the first millennium BC, the Phoenicians of the coastal cities still exported cedarwood and oils, but they were also now the foremost traders, mariners, and craftsmen in all the region.

The Phoenicians were a Semitic people who called themselves Kinahu, or Canaanites, after the whole region, although their cities were only located on the narrow coastal strip of modern Lebanon. They were known to the Greeks as Phoinikes, the "purple men," perhaps becuase one of their most coveted products was the famous Tyrian purple cloth, named for the city of Tyre. The dye for this was made from the Murex sea snail and could range in color from the palest pink to the deepest purple, later made famous by the Roman aristocracy.

Phoenician cities were independent states, although they would sometimes form alliances with each other. Tyre was to become the greatest of these cities, although others, such as Byblos and Aradus, were also very prosperous. These cities were built, whenever possible, on land jutting out into the sea or on offshore islands. High stone walls and towers protected the inhabitants, who lived in two-story houses with balconies. The Phoenicians were in fact famous for their skills as builders and craftsmen and were, for instance, employed to build King Solomon's temple at Jerusalem in the tenth century BC.

Phoenician ivory carvings, glassware, jewelry, and metal goods have been found widely spread, from Mesopotamia to Spain. Their ivory carvings, for example, decorated the palace built by Omri, the king of Israel, at his capital Samaria, and a huge collection of ivories, many of them in the Phoenician style, were found at the Assyrian capital Nimrud, where they had been taken as plunder or booty. Carved ivory often decorated expensive furniture and was sometimes gilded. The later Greek use of gilded ivory cult statues might be derived, in the opinion of some historians, from Phoenician practice.

Apart from producing their own exports, the Phoenician also acted as middlemen in trade. From the tenth century BC, Phoenician ships sailed off in search of metals. Their first mining activities (for copper) took place on Cyprus, where they founded the colony of Kition. Later, rich deposits of silver in Spain led to the foundation of Gades, modern Cadiz. But the most famous of their colonies was Carthage, founded by Tyre, according to tradition, in 814 BC. This city of the legendary Queen Dido was originally a staging post on the long journey to Spain, but in time it grew to be a great city, eclipsing even Tyre itself, until its defeat by Rome in the Punic Wars.

For posterity, however, the greatest contribution of the Phoenicians was their alphabetic writing system. First invented by the Canaanites in the second millennium, this simple script was taken abroad by Phoenician merchants wherever they traveled. From them, it was adopted by the Greeks, who made small changes to suit their language. Later, the Romans adapted the Greek alphabet, and it is the Roman alphabet that forms the modern basis of modern western scripts.

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