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William McGrath explores the role of the Phoenicians in Spain.

The Phoenicians in Spain

Imagine, for a moment, you´re a prophet in ancient Israel. You have been given the unpalatable commission of preaching to Nineveh, the capital of the wicked Assyrians. You decide to disobey your divine call, so you flee to the farthest place one can sail to. Where do you go? Chances are you´ll buy a one-way ticket on a Phoenician ship bound for Spain.
Spain, after all, was known as the ends of the earth. And the Phoenicians were the only sailors regularly plying the Spanish route. Of course, Jonah wouldn´t call them Phoenicians, which is what they were called by the Greeks he would use the name they gave themselves: Canaanites.

The Phoenicians

These sea-faring people lived along the coast of what today is Lebanon. They were famous both as magnificent craftsmen and as skilled merchants. Their purple-dyed textiles were so precious that even many centuries later the term "the purple" has remained a synonym of kingship.
One of their greatest achievements, closely related to commercial transactions, was the alphabet, from which THESE LETTERS you´re now reading are derived. The very concept of an alphabet, as opposed to hieroglyphs, was an intellectual quantum leap.
Their navigation feats were also well known and admired. And they ventured where others would sail only centuries later, including the Atlantic. It´s significant that the name the Greeks gave the north star was the "Phoenician star"

An important part of Phoenician commerce was a system of coastal colonies that lined the trade routes. In these ports the goods brought on the ships were exchanged for those brought in from the inland by the indigenous peoples, often from far-away places.
The Phoenician cities never joined into a single political unit. The most powerful city-state was Tyre, set on an island and surrounded by a fortified wall. The riches of Tyre, brought from all over the Mediterranean by her far-sailing fleet became proverbial. Her pride was denounced by the Hebrew prophets, especially Isaiah and Ezequiel.

The dominant structure of Tyre was the temple of Melqart, whose two great columns could be seen from afar by approaching seamen. The king of Tyre was considered an incarnation of Melquart, and from the temple much political and financial power was exerted Thus, when the oracle of the god sent a number of expeditions to create a port of trade at the westernmost end of the Mediterranean, he was promptly obeyed. The result was the foundation of Cádiz, the Andalusian city whose influence would last throughout the Phoenician, Punic, Hellenistic and Roman eras. After the great Phoenician cities of the Lebanese coast declined, one of the Tyrian colonies, Carthage, in today´s Tunisia, became the main power of the Mediterranean. Although it was of Phoenician origin, the evolution of its culture and institutions gave it a very distinct character. Thus historians distinguish the Carthagian era (normally called Punic) from the Phoenician.


If you´ve been to Cádiz, you´ve probably wondered at its strange shape: it´s an elongated and narrow strip that leads to a wider and higher area where the older portion of the city is situated. Actually, Cádiz is on top of what used to be three islands that were joined to each other and to the mainland by centuries of silt.
The main citadel was probably built on a small island that today is the Torre Tavira area, the highest point of the city. As in the case of Tyre, it was also walled; in fact, the Phoenician name "Gadir" can be translated as walled citadel.

On a different island was built a temple to Melqart, flanked by two columns. According to one source, there were human sacrifices offered at the temple, as was the case in Tyre. In Hellenistic and Roman times the Phoenician god became assimilated to Heracles-Hercules, although the priesthood and worship remained unchanged.
As in Tyre, the temple didn´t have an exclusively religious function. The god also represented the power of the Tyrian king and was, as well, a divine guarantor of commercial activity, watching against perjury, theft and cheating. The temple was also a place were deals were registered and payments were deposited, and thus acted as a bank (charging hefty commisions).

Commerce in Cádiz

What exactly did the Tyrians, and Melqart himself, want so badly from southern Spain? As with many colonial enterprises throughout history the answer is raw materials: the area was rich in silver, gold and copper (extracted in the Sierra Morena and transported to Gadir down the Guadalete river).
In exchange, the indigenous people received wine and fine olive oil, produced at the time in Greece and the Phoenician cities of the Middle East but, ironically, not in Andalusia. And, as so often happens, they often got cheap trinkets as well.
The archaeological record shows that this commerce with the hinterland went on between 750 and 570 B.C.
The pickings were so rich that captains would sometimes have their anchors made of silver, to increase their cargo-carrying capacity. The metals acquired were then sold to the Greeks or to the great empires of the Middle East.

The area around Huelva and the Guadalquivir valley was called, in Greek, Tartessos. Some historians swear that this is the area called Tarshish in the Bible. Some swear that it´s not.
Whatever the case, the kingdom of Tartessos was greatly enriched by this prosperous trade, especially, of course, the ruling classes, who adopted the lifestyle and artistic tastes of the Phoenicians.
During the 7th century B.C. Gadir also gained control of the commerce of tin from the Spanish inland and from a mysterious place in the Atlantic called the Cassiterides ("islands of tin"). Ships would sail north along the Portuguese and Galician coast to certain points where they dealt with merchants from the Cassiterides. The "tin islands" might have been opposite the coasts of Galicia or Brittany, but they might have been the British Isles themselves.

Phoenician colonies in eastern Andalusia

Along the eastern coasts of Andalusia, the area between the Guadalhorce river in Málaga and Abdera in Almería, a group of Phoenician colonies followed a different pattern from the one described for Cádiz. Rather than one important city, a number of small settlements lined the coast at short intervals (most of them 1-7 km). Too short, in fact, to serve as stops for a shipping route.
From east to west, these colonies were Abdera (ancient Adra), Almuñecar (Sexi), Chorreras, Morro de Mezquitilla, Toscanos, Málaga (Malaka), and Cerro del Villar. Beyond, both to the east and to the west, other Phoenician towns were spread much farther apart.
All the settlements were established on headlands which afforded good visibility. Every one of them met the conditions to serve as a port. They were all situated at the mouth of a river, the best means of reaching the interior through the Penibética mountain range, which runs parallel to the coast at a distance of only 20 km. The rivers also provided irrigation and fertile land for agriculture.
Although the ancient sources don´t give much information on this group of colonies, the archaeological record they have yielded in recent years has been spectacular.

From the beginning of the 8th century B.C. to the middle of the 6th, Phoenician immigrants settled in this zone in large numbers. The tombs excavated show that there were wealthy families that stayed in the area for succesive generations, which indicates permanent immigration rather than temporary commercial visits.
From the start, the colonists conducted intense commerce with the indigenous inhabitants of the hinterland, although on a much smaller scale than Cádiz. They also developed manufactures, such as purple-dyed textiles, as well as salted fish. The real riches of the zone, however, was agriculture, which was practiced on an intensive basis. There was also sheep, goat and cattle herding.
The results of the Phoenician activities can be seen even today. An area that was rich in plant life, including mountain forests, was overexploited to depletion. Alas, that is all too typical of most colonial ventures throughout history.

Related History Websites

Canaanite/Ugaritic Mythology FAQ
The Ancient World Web: The Ultimate Index of All Things Ancient
Links for the history of Europe
Ancient Tyre and Sidon
Biblical Resource Page 3: the Mediterranean Social World
Archaeology of the Roman Empire: Armenia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Judaea & Arabia
Classics & Mediterranean Archaeology- University of Michigan
Canaanite s, Israelites & related peoples: Archaeology
Ancient Archaeology, Anthropology, History and Classics

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