L. Buxton Gresty

CHRISTIANS in general are more or less familiar with the military exploits of the ancient people of Israel, but few realise that some of these same Israelites also played an important part in the hazardous maritime enterprises of those far-off days. It is, none the less, true to say that Israelite merchant mariners, particularly of the tribes of Dan and Asher, had a substantial share of the sea-faring trade between the western world and Palestine during what has been termed the Phoenician Golden Age.

Once again, a proper appraisal of the ancient history of Bible lands has been clouded and confused by loose terminology. In this instance the offending word is Phoenician - a name applied by the Greeks and Rornans from Homer's tirne onwards, to the dwellers in the coastal strip of Palestine, irrespective of race; and more particularly used to describe the sea-traders who operated from Palestinian seaports in the early part of the millennium B.C., carrying a wide range of merchandise between the ports of the eastern Mediterranean and the most distant shores of the then known western world: even as far as Britain.

It can be shown that the people whom the Greeks called 'Phoenicians'- but who did not themselves use that term - comprised elements of several people, the chief of these being Canaanites (Using the name in its Biblical sense), Hebrews and Israelites. It is significant that the trade of Phoenicia reached the peak of its importance during the period of Israel's greatest ascendancy and that its decline commenced with the disappearance of the great bulk of Israel from the Holy Land.


The territory of Phoenicia had varying lirnits according to the period reviewed. Procopius stated that, at one time, the southern limit extended to the boundary of Egypt. Generally, however, it is considered as being the narrow coastal strip (not many miles in depth) extending from the region of Latakia in the north to Carmel in the south.

The term 'Phoenician' was applied by the Greeks to the merchant mariners who traded from the seaports of this coastal strip of Palestine. Phoenike was 'the land of the red men'. The dwellers in Phoenicia did not, however, describe themselves thus. They were Canaanites, Hebrews, or Israelites, according to their various origins. The two firstnamed had been long in the land when the Israelites arrived. Sidon, grandson of Ham, is reputed to have founded the city bearing his name in 2750 B.C.; Tyre also claimed its foundation from the same period. In this connection Herodotus wrote that the first colonisers of Phoenicia were located originally on the Persian Gulf. Trogus considered that they had moved in from the Dead Sea area. The Ras Shamra and Tel-el-Amarna tablets reveal that Hebrew invaders established themselves in Phoenicia long before the time of the entry of the Israelites into their Promised Land.

Modern authorities have evinced various views on the racial characteristics of the Phoenicians. Rawlinson, like many others, called them Semitic, but admits that this is really not a racial but a linguistic classification. Ripley (Races of Europe) and Waddell (whose painstaking researches may not lightly be brushed aside) both claim them as Nordics. The Canaan element, however, would rank as 'Mediterraneans'.


In the division of Canaan by lot, under Joshua, the whole of the country as far north as Sidon was apportioned among the tribes. The coastal towns of Sidon, Tyre, Akka and Dor are particularly mentioned as being awarded to the tribes of Asher and Manasseh. It is definite, however, that some localities were never occupied at all by the tribes, and others only partially so. The Bible record makes it clear that the Israelites came to some sort of unauthorised 'live-and-let-live' arrangement with the existing inhabitants, possibly because the task of complete conquest seemed too formidable. The narrative positively states that the cities of the Phoenician seaboard and the immediate hinterland were not cleared of their inhabitants and that, in these areas, the Israelites 'dwelt among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land'.

It will be remembered that the tribe of Dan forcibly colonised a portion of the Sidonian hinterland when they found their own territory too small. This territory - only about twenty miles from Tyre - they also named Dan, though it was not actually part of their tribal allotrnent. It is of interest to note that Hiram, the renowned overseer in the work of building and embellishing Solomon's Temple, a resident of Tyre, was of Danite descent on his mother's side, though his father was of the tribe of Naphtali, whose territory also lay very close to that of Tyre.


There can be no reasonable doubt that a goodly proportion of the seafaring merchants of ancient times referred to as 'Phoenicians' were Israelites of the tribes of Asher, Dan and Manasseh, whose territory merged and mingled with that of Tyre and Sidon. As mentioned by Dr Latham, a well-known ethnologist of the last century: 'The seaports between Tyre and Ascalon ... must have followed the history of seaports in general, and not stood on the coast for nothing.' Solomon's 'Tarshish ships' operated from these bases along with those of Hiram, carrying merchandise to every part of the known world.

The concern of Dan and Asher for their shipping earned a rebuke from Deborah when these two tribes failed to do their part in the war against Sisera. Ezekiel, recounting the former glories of Tyre, mentions the Danites as having a part in the trade of that world mart, in conjunction with Javan (the Aegean area).

The Danaans of ancient Greece, who settled in Argos after their arrival from Egypt, furnish a glimpse of the seafaring propensities of this pioneering tribe. It is more than possible that the classical Voyages of Argo were stories based upon actual adventures of Danite sea-rovers.


Generally speaking, there was a remarkable degree of co-operation between the Israelites and the people of Tyre and Sidon. At the period of David and Solomon this was particularly noticeable. The first Temple owed much, to 'Phoenician' assistance in men and material. The merchant fleets of the two peoples worked together. The royal houses intermarried.

This accord arose doubtless from two causes:

(a) Hebrews - close kinsmen of the Israelites - had settled in Syria from a period long preceding the entry into Canaan of the latter.

(b) The live-and-let-live policy, already mentioned, had resulted in a considerable mingling of the several peoples in the territory under the dominion of Tyre and Sidon. There would be large numbers of their citizens who had blood ties with the peoples of the neighbouring Israelite tribes.


Colonies, settlements and trading posts were established by the 'Phoenician' traders throughout the Mediterranean and beyond the Pillars of Hercules, to the lirnits of navigation as then known. In many of these places Hebrew, Israelite, or Canaanite pioneers had already blazed the trail. As early as the time of the Exodus Danaus had led a section of the Danites to the Aegean area. At the same time Cadmus, a so-called 'Phoenician' stated to have been a citizen of Egyptian Thebes - who was probably of Hebrew extraction - had taken a band of followers from Tyre also to Greece. Agenor and Phoenix also led colonies from Phoenicia to Greece. Hordes of Canaanites expelled by Joshua fled to the North African coastal areas, reaching as far west as Tangier.

The more important of these western colonies were:


According to Strabo this important Hebrew- Israelite colony was established soon after the Trojan War. It was located in what is now South-West Spain, in the country at the mouth of the river Guadalquiver. There was a considerable Israelite colony in Tarshish probably at the time of Solomon, and certainly as early as the destruction of his Temple. Phoenicia and Tarshish engaged in a substantial reciprocal trade.


This Canaanite colony, founded in 1213 B.C. according to Philistus, was truly a second Tyre. Procopius records that Gergasites, Jebusites and other Canaanite tribes, fleeing from Joshua, established themselves in Libya. With later arrivals from Tyre, they made Carthage a centre of great importance. Procopius calls these Canaanites 'Moors'. After a long period under Roman domination they resisted Vandal incursions and ultimately dominated North Africa and Spain. As remarked by Mommsen, the parent cities in Phoenicia declined in importance as Carthage rose. The noble families and trading firms moved west, to pastures new. The word Punic, a derivative of Phoenician, was a Roman term. Even in Christian times the Libyan farmer called himself a Canaanite.


Gades (or Gadeira - modern Cadiz) is reputed to have been founded circa 1100 B.C. It quickly became an important half-way house in the east-west trade route.


Ictis (probably St. Michael's Mount, Cornwall), loading port for Cornish tin. Strabo records that in his day (circa 50 B.C.) tin mining had been developed on sound engineering lines. The Cassiterides, or Tin Islands, of ancient record are generally held to be the Scillies. It is of interest to note that the town adjacent to ancient Ictis is still known as Marazion.

(Courtesy - National Message)

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