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The Phoenicians - Master Mariners

Driven by their desire for trade and the acquisition of such commodities as silver from Spain, gold from Africa, and tin from the Scilly Isles, the Phoenicians sailed far and wide, even beyond the Mediterranean’s traditional safe limits of the Pillars of Hercules and into the Atlantic. They were credited with many important nautical inventions and firmly established a reputation as the greatest mariners in the ancient world. Phoenician ships were represented in the art of their neighbours, and their seamanship is praised above all other by such ancient writers as Homer and Herodotus. If any nation could claim to be the masters of the seas, it was the Phoenicians.


The Phoenicians became sailors in the first place because of the topography of their homeland, the narrow mountainous strip of land on the coast of the Levant. Travelling between settlements, usually located on rocky peninsulas, was much easier by sea, especially when carrying such cumbersome cargo as cedar wood logs for which the Phoenicians were famed. It was thanks to the very same wood the Phoenicians were never short of the necessary raw materials to build their ships. The Phoenicians also preferred the security of small islets just off the coast, the classic example being the great city of Tyre, so that ships were the most practical means of transport.

Hemmed in by mountains, then, when the time came, perhaps from the 12th century BCE, the natural direction of Phoenician expansion was not inland but the sea. As a result of this search for new resources such as gold and tin, the Phoenicians became accomplished sailors, creating an unprecedented trade network which went from Cyprus, Rhodes, the Aegeanislands, Egypt, Sicily, Malta, Sardinia, central Italy, France, North Africa, Ibiza, Spain and beyond even the Pillars of Hercules and the bounds of the Mediterranean. In time, this network transformed into an empire of colonies so that the Phoenicians criss-crossed the seas and gained the confidence to reach such far-flung places as ancient Britain and the Atlantic coast of Africa.


The Phoenicians were famed in antiquity for their ship-building skills, and they were credited with inventing the keel, the battering ram on the bow, and caulking between planks. From Assyrian relief carvings at Nineveh and Khorsabad, and descriptions in texts such as the book of Ezekial in the Bible we know that the Phoenicians had three types of ship, all shallow-keeled. Warships had a convex stern and were propelled by a large single-masted square sail and two banks of oars (a bireme), had a deck, and were fitted with a ram low on the bow.

The second ship type was for transport and trade purposes. These were similar to the first type but, with wide, big-bellied hulls, they were much heavier. They perhaps had higher sides too in order to permit the stacking of cargo on deck as well as below, and they had both a convex stern and bow. Their cargo capacity was somewhere in the region of 450 tons. A fleet might consist of up to 50 cargo vessels, and such fleets are depicted in reliefs being escorted by a number of warships.

A third type of vessel, also for trade use, was much smaller than the other two, had a horse-head at the bow and only one bank of oars. Due to its size, this vessel was only used for coastal fishing and short trips. No Phoenician ship has been recovered intact by maritime archaeologists but judging by the pictorial evidence the ships would have been difficult to handle. It is also worth noting that the more oarsmen a ship had then the less room there was for cargo. Greater manoeuvrability was, therefore, achieved by adjusting the sail when necessary and the use of a double sailing oar.

Ancient ships were far from easy to handle but in antiquity the Phoenicians were widely known as the best sailors around. Herodotus describes one episode during the build up to the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE led by Xerxes. The Persian king wanted to put his multi-national fleet through their paces and so organized a sailing race, which the sailors from Sidon won. Herodotus also mentions that Xerxes always made sure to travel on a Phoenician ship whenever he had to go anywhere by sea.  



The Phoenicians did not have the compass or any other navigational instrument, and so they relied on natural features on coastlines, the stars, and dead-reckoning to guide their way and reach their destination. The most important star to them was the Pole Star of the Ursa Minor constellation and, by way of a compliment to their sea-faring skills, the Greekname for this group was actually Phoenike or 'Phoenician'. Some maps of coastal stretches are known to have existed but were unlikely to have been used during a voyage. Rather, navigation was achieved through the position of the stars, sun, landmarks, direction of the winds, and the experience of the captain of tides, currents and winds on the particular route being taken. Close to shore, Herodotus mentions the use of sounding leads to measure the sea depth, and we know that Phoenician ships had a crow’s nest for greater visibility.

Historians long considered that the Phoenicians sailed only during the day-time as they had to keep close to the shoreline and within sight of landmarks; at night they, therefore, had to beach or anchor their ships and this explained the proximity of some Phoenician colonies, a day's sailing distance from each other. This simplistic view has been revised in recent years. First and foremost, the often mountainous coastline of the Mediterranean means that one can sail a great distance from land and still keep high landmarks in sight, a strategy still used by many local fishermen today. Indeed, the areas of sea where it is not possible to sight land of some sort are remarkably few in the Mediterranean, and these are places ancient mariners would have had no interest in crossing anyway. In addition, it can actually be more dangerous sailing close to a coast than out to sea where there are no rocks or unpredictable currents.

Neither does the traditional view take into account that the Phoenicians used astronomical observations at night. Further, many Phoenician settlements were either much closer than a day's sailing d