Notaries in Ancient Phoenicia, 1500 BC

Notaries in Ancient Phoenicia, 1500 BC

map Phoenicia trade routesAncient Phoenicia was located in the region at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Phoenician city-states, ruled by kings (high priests), began to form around 3200 BC.

The major ports were Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, and Gebal (Byblos), now all in Lebanon. Byblos had been trading with Egypt and Mesopotamia since 3000 BC.

The Phoenicians were master shipbuilders, navigators, sailors, builders, craftsmen, and merchant traders. They learned to navigate by the stars. Their ships could travel 100 miles per day.

They sailed in fleets of cargo ships protected by warships with bronze-covered battering rams to destroy enemy ships. Warships had more oars for faster speeds, used for attack and ramming.

By 1200 BC, the Phoenicians had trading posts and colonies on many Aegean and Mediterranean islands, trading agreements with neighbors, occupied quarters in cities in Egypt and had colonies along the north coast of Africa and coastal Spain.

They traded with Greece, Rhodes, Cyprus, Crete, Egypt, and Mesopotamia and dared to travel beyond the Pillars of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar) into the Atlantic. A key to their trading success was the ability to adapt to the tastes of buyers in different countries.


In the Old Testament, the region is called Canaan. Historians refer to the people as Canaanites when talking about the culture before 1200 BC. It is the promised land in Hebrew scriptures to which Moses led the Israelites in the Exodus from Egypt.

About 1200 BC, the coastal region was raided by the mysterious Sea Peoples. Some of them settled in the area and were known as the Philistines.

Imports and Exports

Phoenician merchant ship

Imports included male and female slaves, bales of linen, papyrus, rope, ebony, ivory, silk, amber, spices, incense, horses, gold, silver, copper, lead and tin.

Although best known for sea trade, the land-based Silk Road caravan trade in silk, spices, perfume, and incense passed through Phoenicia.

Goods were stored in great warehouses.

Exports were timbers from the cedars of Lebanon, cloth, fine linen, embroideries, blue and purple dyes, metalwork, inlaid furniture, blown glass, glass trinkets, pottery, wine, olive oil, cedar oil, gold and silver jewelry, nuts, figs, apricots, salt, dried fish, and perfume.

Phoenician artisans were skilled in wood, ivory, pottery, glass, metalworking, and textile production.

Tyre Phoenicia royal purple dyeLand of Purple People

Tyrian purple, known as Royal Purple, was an expensive violet-purple dye used by royalty and wealthy elite to color hems and garments and for stripes in ship sails. Phoenicia comes from the Greek word phoinike, for purple.

The dye was made from the secretions of the Murex sea-snail. About 10,000 snails were needed to make 1 gram of dye. The purple dye was 3 times more expensive than gold. It stained the hands of dye workers, earning the name “purple people”. Other species of snails produced a blue dye.

Note: Tyrian purple is a dark shade with a hexadecimal web color code of #66023c. Tyrian Purple (red 66, green 02, blue 3c).

Phoenician Alphabet and Scribes

Phoenician alphabetPhoenicia was the birthplace of the alphabet, brought to Greece by the Phoenician Kadmus, before the 8th century BC. The oldest known representation of the Phoenician alphabet is on the carved limestone sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos.

The marks made by the scribes, with a stylus on damp clay or papyrus, capture the sound of a word. This required an alphabet of individual letters. The letters were designed so most of the shapes are angular and straight to write quickly.

It was comprised of 22 consonants, known as an abjad writing system, written right to left, with no vowels. The Greeks added vowels. The Romans made a few changes for the Latin alphabet, now the most widely used alphabetic writing system in the world.

The widespread use of the alphabet across the Mediterranean increased literacy beyond an elite group of royalty, priests, and scribes, who had previously used more complex writing to control access to information by the public.

The scripts in use up to the second millennium BC (in Egypt, Mesopotamia, or China) required the scribe to learn hundreds of characters, each representing a word or syllable.

The alphabet was the first widespread phonetic script and affected the social structures of many civilizations. Its simplicity allowed it to be used in many languages and allowed common people to learn to read and write.

The alphabet provided a simple and easy way to keep track of trades. Since money was involved, people were highly motivated to learn the system.

Along with the alphabet came the pen, ink, papyrus, parchment, and finally paper.

Papyrus Records Destroyed

papyrus bill of sale donkeyPhoenician merchants, government, military, religions, and scribes kept records on papyrus. They imported so much papyrus on rolls from Egypt that the Greeks used the name Byblos, for the great Phoenician port, to refer to the ancient paper. The name Bible, or “the book,” derives from Byblos.

Black ink was made of soot, water, and gum arabic. Red ink was made of iron, water, and gum arabic.

Although the Phoenicians reportedly had a rich literature and an advanced code of laws, it was lost in antiquity. Their writings, mostly on fragile papyrus, were destroyed by conquerors Nebuchadnezzar and Alexander, or disintegrated over time. More records survived from Carthage and trading partners.

They developed maritime laws used in the Law of Rhodes, Lex Rhodia. The first law school was founded in Beirut and taught Roman law for three centuries until it was destroyed by an earthquake.

Sanchuniathon was an early Phoenician sage, priest, and writer from Beirut in 1400 BC. He assembled the ancient history from the traditions of individual cities, and from records and inscriptions on sun pillars in temples. In the 1st century AD, Philo of Byblos wrote a Phoenician History in nine volumes, translating the work of Sanchuniathon from Phoenician to Greek.

According to Sanchuniathon, knowledge started with Taautus, a god from Byblos, who discovered the use of letters and the writing of records. This scribe of the gods bore a tablet, pen, and palm-branch (Phoenix tree). He attended the judgment of the souls, invented writing, and served as a wise teacher and peacemaker.

Seals and Notaries

National Geographic Quest for the PhoeniciansMany stamp seals and cylinder seals have been found throughout the Levant (eastern Mediterranean region). Seals were made of stone or clay and were used to make impressions in clay or wax to seal a document.  Many seal impressions, known as bullae, have survived.

Seals are mentioned in the Bible. They contained symbols, patterns, faces, gods, animals, names, and text.

Priests acted as scribes and notaries, standardized weights and measures, and oversaw banking and warehousing. Temples served as warehouses and banks, attracting private deposits of silver and goods.

The extensive trade of Phoenicia required much record-keeping, contracts, loans, insurance, peace treaties, letters of introduction, and correspondence.

Although papyrus records have been destroyed, some ancient writings survived as inscriptions in clay, stone, ivory, gold, silver, or bronze. In rare cases, reusable wax writing tablets have been found inside large clay pottery jars. They were used for drafting documents.


The Journey of Wen-Amen, describes a priest of the Amen temple at Karnak.  During the reign of Ramses III of Egypt, Wen-Amen sailed in a Phoenician ship to Gebal (Byblos), to buy cedar timbers for the construction of the great barge Userhet of Amen-Re, king of gods, of 130 cubits length, inlaid with gold.

The journey describes scribes and journals used for writing letters, ship manifests, and record keeping. An Egyptian scribe earned about 15 deben of copper per month. A deben was a weight unit, about 91 grams.

Colony of Carthage

Phoenician war shipOver time, Phoenicia was invaded by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, and Romans. But, they had established many distant colonies. The strategically important colony of Carthage (Qart-hadash) “New City,” in current Tunisia, southwest of Sicily, was founded in 800 BC.

In 573 BC, when Tyre was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Carthage became the main Phoenician naval port.

In the 6th century BC, Hanno the Navigator sailed with 60 ships from Carthage and explored the coast of West Africa, as far south as the Niger River, establishing trading posts and colonies.

In 450 BC, Carthaginians sailed to England, and also began to trade regularly with West Africa, exchanging goods for gold.

In 332 BC, Phoenicia was conquered by Alexander the Great of Macedonia.

In 145 BC, during the Punic Wars, the Phoenician colony at Carthage was destroyed by the Roman Empire, and the soil was sown with salt to prevent crops from growing.

In 64 BC, Phoenicia became part of the Roman province of Syria, and faded into history. The Arab Conquest came in 636 AD.

Phoenicians in America

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Phoenician sailors, at the request of Pharaoh Necho II (610–595 BC), circumnavigated Africa, two thousand years before Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1497.

Carthaginians may have discovered and followed the Canary and North Equatorial westward ocean currents from the west coast of Africa to the Caribbean, two thousand years before Columbus.

They may have sent ships on follow-up ocean voyages to Mexico, North and South America. Gold coins minted in Carthage bear a pattern resembling a map, controversially argued as depicting America.

One theory is that when Rome destroyed Carthage, fleeing Carthaginians escaped by ship and sailed across the Atlantic, perhaps to sites on the Gulf of Mexico and Yucatan. They were battle-hardened warriors with long, thick beards, helmets, spears, and shields.

They were known as Toltecs by the natives, with artifacts found in Mexico and Arizona. Mexican history describes bearded warriors who arrived by ships from the east. Bearded statues in Mexico resemble bearded artwork in Phoenicia.

An inscription on Tumamoc Hill facing Tucson Arizona uses ancient Phoenician letters. It is an offering to Tanit and Baal, the gods of the Sea Peoples. The ancient name for the Pima and Papago Indians was Hohokam, meaning Sea Peoples. Tumamoc Hill was the former Toltec fortress city of Rhoda, perhaps named for Rhodes, a Phoenician colony.

Image Credits
1. Map of Phoenicia, trade routes, by Yom (talk · contribs) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
2. Phoenician merchant ship
3. Tyrian Royal Purple, by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
4. Phoenician alphabet
5. papyrus document, by Mystharion, son of Heron, fl. 126. Bill of sale for a donkey, 126. 1 leaf : papyrus ; 19.3 x 7.2 cm. MS Gr SM2223 Houghton Library, Harvard University [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
6. National Geographic documentary, Quest for the Phoenicians, 2004, 55 minutes
7. Phoenician warship

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