At the dawn of history, Byblos was just a sleepy fishing village on the sandy shore where the Lebanon Mountains came down to the Mediterranean Sea. This was the first home of the Phoenician people. World-famous cedars of Lebanon grew on the sides of these mountains and provided not only excellent wood for boats but also something valuable to trade with others, particularly the Egyptians.
As soon as their sea trade began booming, the Phoenicians hung up their fishing gear and never looked back. They expanded to Sidon, about 47 miles (77 km) south of Byblos on the coast. Then they settled the island of Tyre which was 23 miles (38 km) farther south. All of these cities became famous in their own right, and we find them mentioned often by ancient historians.
The Phoenicians also gave rise to other cities and colonies over the years, and those are given attention in other articles on this site.
Ancient Byblos, Sidon and Tyre
The Phoenicians became quite wealthy, but always remained small in numbers. Meanwhile the neighboring lands, with their larger populations, maintained huge armies which they often used. It was unfortunately true that marching and conquering were a way of life in those days. So the Phoenicians resorted to a remarkable degree of privacy and secrecy for protection.
And they had many things to protect, including their trade routes and shipbuilding techniques. Also very high on the list was protecting their wealth and their lives. For this reason they avoided showy public display and tried to blend in with the people around them. This shielded them to some degree from people who wanted to take their gold and other valuables by force.
This personal privacy carried over to the images of their cities as well. Though these cities can be seen throughout history as working together on almost every enterprise, they tried to broadcast a public image of being stand-alone entities. This gave them the appearance of being small, and therefore not a danger to their restive neighbors. The Phoenicians’ partners, of course, knew the truth. Solomon contracted with Tyre to build his temple, knowing this would bring him the woodcutters from Sidon.
As a result, ancient writers would often refer to one of these three cities, even when they were including the others. For example, the Egyptians first came in contact with Byblos. So even when Tyre became the dominant city, the people of the Nile still referred to their Phoenician trade as being with Byblos. They even referred to ships from Tyre as being “Byblos boats.” The Hebrew scribes often did exactly the opposite, referring to Phoenicians as “Sidonians”.
If that sounds confusing, it’s probably not entirely by accident. The Phoenicians had ample opportunity to clarify the situation with their customers, but chose not to do so. Even though they clearly coordinated their actions behind the scenes, they tried hard not to let that show.
For one more example of this, you almost certainly know colonists from Tyre created the city of Carthage. When the Phoenicians at Tyre were in a partnership with Persia, and the Persians wanted their help to attack Carthage, the people of Tyre declined. The excuse given to the Persians was that Tyre “had a treaty” with Carthage. That was like a father saying he would not attack his son because they “had a treaty.” A bit circumspect, but that was the Phoenician way.
Whether they were called Phoenicians, Tyrians, Sidonians or Carthaginians was all the same to them. They just wanted to be left alone so they could go about their lives. As it turned out, their deep concern about being caught up in wars eventually proved to be well justified.
If you would like to experience more of the Phoenician world than you found in this article, the book Phoenicians: Lebanon’s Epic Heritage is recommended. It is deeply researched but also a highly readable exploration.
Going beyond the few traditionally-cited facts, this authoritative work also draws from interviews with leading archaeologists and historians on-site in the lands and islands where the Phoenicians lived and left clues regarding their secretive society.
You can take a look inside this book. See the first pages here.