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Did Ancient Phoenicia Really Exist?

Map of Canaan, also called Phoenicia
Map of Canaan, also called Phoenicia. Credit: Philip Lea, 1692, cc-by-sa 2.0

The Phoenicians were, for a long time, significant rivals to the Greeks in dominating Mediterranean trade. Interestingly, they shared quite a few similarities to the ancient Greeks. But what do we actually know about them? Did a place called Phoenicia even really exist?

Where Did The Phoenicians Live?

The homeland of the Phoenicians was in the Levant. Originally, they lived in the entire region where Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon now are. Their northern border was marked by ancient Syria. Their homeland was called Phoenicia. Some of the major Phoenician cities in this area were Byblos, Tyre, Sidon and Arwad.

However, the Phoenicians did not just live in this area. Like the Greeks, the Phoenicians were a seafaring nation, so they unsurprisingly established colonies in various locations. By far their most famous colony was Carthage, which later became one of Rome’s main rivals. This colony managed to remain independent for quite some time after the Phoenician homeland had been conquered by other nations.

The Phoenicians also established colonies in Spain. The most famous example is Gadir, modern-day Cádiz. So we can see that, just like the Greeks, many Phoenicians lived far outside their homeland, Phoenicia.

Did a Place Called ‘Phoenicia’ Really Exist?

Some modern sources claim that there was not really any location in antiquity called ‘Phoenicia’. The basis behind this claim is that the Phoenicians did not form a unified country. There was never a single king ruling over all the Phoenician cities.

This is another way in which the Phoenicians were like the Greeks. They had various city-states dotted across the landscape. Each city-state had its own king, and sometimes these city-states would fight each other. On the other hand, sometimes they would form alliances against a common enemy.

However, does this really mean that we can say that ‘Phoenicia’ did not really exist? By the same logic, ‘Greece’ did not really exist in antiquity, since it was composed of independent city-states (until Alexander the Great united them all under one leader). Of course, no one would make that claim about Greece.

Therefore, it is absolutely proper to use ‘Phoenicia’ in the sense of the territory in the Levant dominated by Phoenician city-states.

Did the Phoenicians View Themselves as a Single Nationality?

However, would the Phoenicians themselves have had any concept of a location called Phoenicia, or was this just a concept held by outsiders? The answer to this largely depends on how the Phoenicians viewed themselves.

Some scholars today claim that the Phoenicians did not view themselves as a single nationality. This theory is largely based on the fact that Phoenicia was divided into numerous city-states instead of a single government.

However, the same was true of Greece, yet we know that they absolutely had a concept of ‘Greeks’ in contrast to ‘non-Greeks’. Therefore, there is no reason at all why the same could not have applied to the inhabitants of Phoenicia.

What Did the People of Phoenicia Call Themselves?

Another piece of evidence used to support the theory that the Phoenicians did not view themselves as a single nationality is the supposed lack of an endonym. This is the term for what a population calls itself. Supposedly, the Phoenicians did not have a term to call themselves. Rather, they just referred to themselves by the name of the specific city-state they belonged to.

For example, someone from Tyre would call themselves a ‘Tyrian’, someone from Sidon would call themselves a ‘Sidonian’, and so on. There is evidence of this naming practice. However, does that mean that the inhabitants of Phoenicia did not also have a sense of collective identity?

Once again, we can compare Phoenicia to Greece to assess this theory. In Greece, people would often refer to themselves by the city-state they came from (such as ‘a Spartan’ or ‘a Theban’). Nonetheless, as we have already seen, they definitely had a sense of collective identity as well.

In fact, there is direct evidence that the Phoenicians did use an endonym for themselves. Augustine of Hippo, who lived in Carthage in the fourth century AD, records that the common people there called themselves ‘Chanani’, which comes directly from the word ‘Canaanites’.

Bronze Age Phoenicia

The people who lived in Phoenicia in the Bronze Age were originally called Canaanites. The ancient Israelite writers of the Bible used this term for the people of that land, which they called Canaan. This same term was used in the Amarna Letters, which were letters sent by city-states in Phoenicia to Egypt in the 14th century BC.

This shows that, at least as early as the 14th century BC, the people of Phoenicia referred to their land as Canaan, and thus, they were Canaanites. They absolutely did have an endonym to refer to their land and their nationality.

In ancient Berytus (modern-day Beirut), the people there in the second century BC struck coins with this same term, ‘Canaan’, written on them. And all the way over in Carthage, as we have seen, the Phoenician-descendants continued to call themselves Canaanites as late as the fourth century AD.

Canaan, or Phoenicia, Really Did Exist

The term ‘Phoenicians’ is simply the Greek term for the Canaanites. Therefore, the place name ‘Phoenicia’ is simply the Greek equivalent of ‘Canaan’ (although by the time the Greeks started using that term, Canaan had lost a lot of its southern territory to the Israelites).

The evidence is clear that the Phoenicians did have a collective term to refer to themselves, showing that they had a concept of a single nationality. They were Canaanites, in contrast to non-Canaanites. As shown by the Amarna Letters, they referred to their land as Canaan. Although it was made up of independent city-states, Canaan as a single entity was absolutely a concept that they already had back then.

Since the word ‘Phoenicia’ is simply what the Greeks called this territory, it is definitely correct to say that Phoenicia really did exist.

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