Ancient cultures all over southwestern Asia developed many new ways to improve their lives. Between 2000 B.C. and 500 B.C., the Phoenician (fih*NEE«shuhn) and Lydian (LIH.dee.uhn) cultures contributed important innovations that related to trade. Although their cultures never became large empires, their contributions to history continue to live on today.
In the northwestern part of the Fertile Crescent lay Phoenicia. Phoenicia consisted of a loose union of city-states, each governed by a king. Phoenicia had little land to farm and few natural resources. So the people of Phoenicia traded cedar wood found in the nearby Lebanon Mountains to get the food and other supplies they needed. To reach trade ports, they built ships and sailed the Mediterranean Sea. The Phoenicians were skilled shipbuilders and masters of navigation. They even learned to use the North Star to guide their ships at night.
For hundreds of years the Phoenicians sailed the waters of the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. They traveled through the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco and possibly north to Britain, in search of metals, ivory, and other goods they could not find at home.
Between 1000 B.C. and 700 B.C., the ancient Phoenicians began to establish colonies all over the Mediterranean region. A colony is a settlement separate from, but under the control of, a home country. Phoenician colonies around the Mediterranean served as rest stops for sailors traveling on long sea voyages. The colonies also provided trade links between civilizations in Africa and Europe.
One such colony was Carthage in northern Africa. The Phoenicians settled Carthage in about 814 B.C. The colony of Carthage quickly grew into a successful trading port, linking Africa with the Mediterranean. Carthage eventually grew so independent that it split away from Phoenician control. However, the Phoenician influence in Carthage continued to spread through trade.
Phoenicia's location between the Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent brought it into contact with many other cultures. The Phoenicians modeled their civilization after those of the many different peoples with whom they traded. They borrowed ideas from the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and other trading partners.
One idea that the Phoenicians borrowed was the alphabet. However, the Phoenicians changed the writing systems they borrowed from. They trimmed the alphabet to just 22 letters. Each letter stood for a single consonant sound. By simplifying the alphabet, the Phoenicians made it easier to learn to write. More and more people began to master the art of writing. No longer was writing limited to scribes.
Later the ancient Greeks borrowed the Phoenician alphabet to shape their own.
The Greek alphabet is the base of many modern alphabets, including the English alphabet.
The Phoenicians used their improved alphabet in their businesses to record trade agreements and to write bills. Knowledge of the alphabet spread quickly among the Phoenician colonies and to other Mediterranean cultures. The spreading of new ideas to other places is called cultural diffusion.
How did the use of the Phoenician alphabet spread?
The Phoenicians are remembered not only for their alphabet but also for a color. In the coastal waters of Phoenicia lived a certain kind of mollusk, a sea animal with a hard shell. Phoenicians in the city-state of Tyre used this mollusk to make a purple dye called Tyrian purple. Kings often wore clothes dyed this beautiful color. Soon purple came to be thought of as a royal color. Some leaders even ordered that only they could wear it. The Phoenicians' sea trade grew as more and more rulers demanded Tyrian purple. Over time the dye became very closely connected with the land where it was made. In fact, the name Phoenician comes from a Greek word for a reddish purple.