The Phoenicians were proficient in both commerce and literature, and also fostered an amicable connection with the ancient Israelites.
The Phoenicians were lauded for their maritime prowess, which put them on the map as some of the world’s greatest sailors. These intrepid explorers set out to chart the entire Mediterranean basin, a feat that they accomplished with aplomb. Some even speculate that they may have even ventured to the New World. But before they became seafaring legends, they were a group of Semitic-speaking city-states that prospered from mining iron and exporting cedar and purple dye. As their colonies flourished in the west, their wealth soared. These major cities dotted the Mediterranean coast, and some of them were Arvad, Byblos, Beirut, Sidon, and Tyre, each with its own identity and self-governance.
Ancient Beirut, which is now the capital city of Lebanon, and the city of Sidon, mentioned in the Bible, were important centers for religion and commerce. According to the Bible, the Phoenicians had a strong connection with the Israelites. They intermarried, engaged in trade with each other, and never engaged in war. Sidon, an ancient city that is now commonly known as Saida among the Lebanese, was derived from the ancient biblical name, which was mentioned in the book of Genesis as the name of Canaan’s son and Noah’s grandson.
The Israeli archaeologist and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ephraim Stern, stated that “the Phoenicians were the nearest people to the ancient Israelites in every respect.”
After King David unified the tribes of Israel and established relative peace following the defeat of the Philistines in the eleventh century BC, he developed diplomatic contacts and formed a commercial agreement with Hiram, the ruler of the Phoenician city of Tyre. Hiram sent envoys to David with cedar logs, carpenters, and stonemasons to build a palace for David. Later, when Hiram learned that Solomon, David’s son, had become king, he sent envoys to Jerusalem to congratulate him and propose extending their trade alliance. Solomon requested that cedar be cut in Lebanon to build a grand house in the name of the Lord and offered to pay the Phoenicians any wage for their assistance in timber cutting, acknowledging their superior skills in the trade.
Solomon and Hiram continued to communicate, and they reached an agreement in which Solomon promised to provide food for Hiram’s household every year for an undefined period. In exchange, Hiram agreed to supply cypress and cedar logs, which would be transported by sea to a specific port. Additionally, Solomon hired Phoenician masons and stonecutters to carve the foundation stones for the Temple in Jerusalem.
Once the temple and palace were finished, Solomon and Hiram wanted to expand their agreement. Solomon gave Hiram twenty towns in Galilee, and in return, Hiram gave 120 talents of gold (around 66 pounds) to Solomon. This may have been necessary for Solomon because of the large costs of building and furnishing his temple and palace with imported gold and cedar, as well as providing a new source of income. On the other hand, Hiram was interested in the agricultural resources of the new lands, which already had a significant Phoenician population.
Following the death of Solomon and the possibility of a civil war between the northern and southern Israelite tribes, the country split into two distinct states. Trade and alliances with Phoenician city-states persisted, particularly with the northern kingdom. The marriage of Ahab, the sixth king of Israel, and Jezebel, a princess from Phoenicia, strengthened political and commercial relationships between Israel and Tyre (as stated in 1 Kings 16:29–31).
Ahab erected a splendid palace on a hill in Samaria, which served as the capital of the northern kingdom. The palace was enclosed by an external defensive casement wall built using Phoenician-style ashlar masonry. Inside the palace, the furniture was adorned with inlaid Phoenician-style ivories that often featured Egyptians. According to the prophet Amos, the finely crafted Phoenician-style stone blocks used in the houses of the wealthy and the ivories decorating their wooden beds were symbolic of the opulent lifestyles of affluent Israelites (referencing Amos 3:15, 5:11, and 6:4, and comparing with 1 Kings 22:39). On the other hand, ordinary people slept on floors that were covered with rush mats.
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