Scientific and cultural heritage

The Phs, pragmatic as they were, also distinguished themselves for adopting technological and scientific innovations and further useful technical knowledge with the aim to improve everyday quality of life and to make the carrying out of trade actvities easier. As concerns navigation, they were the first to make use of the anchor and they did their best to orientate themselves also when sailing during the night through the Polaris, purposedly called “Phoenician Star” by the Greeks, and thus being able to tackle open sea more safely. They also studied tidies and noted down what happened during their journeys on a ship’s log in. They learned all calculation tools helpful for the exchanges, they used figures in the place of numbers and the already known weight and measure systems at the time. On the other hand, they promoted the barter and they preferred this primitive form of exchange even when the use of money had started to spread over the markets.

Since they were interested in boosting trade activities, the Phs adapted the writing, whose use was earlier reserved only to princes and skilled men (scribes), to the merchants’ needs. In fact, although the writing had been known in the Near East since the Age of Bronze, in Egypt it was used the hieroglyphic writing, in Asia Minor the cuneiform characters, in Crete the linear A and linear B, too complicated writing systems for everyday life. A simplifying revolution was started, in a broad sense, in Syria from the XIV century BC, thus originating an easy and fast way of writing, which merchants could comfortably manage and which was able to transcribe the different languages. All this took place in Ugarit, where a 31- letter alphabet was invented using cuneiform characters; but it also took place in Biblo, where a 22-letter linear alphabet was invented, which eventually became the Phoenician alphabet. The Phoenicians transmitted it to the Greeks, who adapted it to their language in the VIII century BC. (Fernand Braudel). Like the Assyrian-Babylonian and Hebraic writings, the Phoenicians’ alphabetic writing went fom right to left. Every sign represented a sound or an utterance of their language (innovative phonetic writing compared to the cuneiform one, consisting of a various combination of lines, and to the hieroglyphic one, consisting of images). (Antonio Brancati)


Over three thousand years ago, and until the first millenium BC ,the Phoenicians were the holders of salt monopoly, essential resource for fish and meat conservation and to tan hides. According to some scholars it was due to the Phoenicians the invention of the method of salt production, a process which through the evaporation of sea water resulted into the making of salt crystals, which could be eventually collected and refined. It seems that they took inspiration from watching how salt deposited in the protruding rocks washed by the sea. Once they had worked the process out they enhanced the idea devising the system of communicating tanks, still in use today. The salt mines, containers of such a treasure, are scattered everywhere in the Mediterranean in the lands inhabited by the Phoenicians. Especially in Sicily, the Salt mines which slowly roll down along the coastline from Trapani to Marsala, and which run along windmills and a tiny set of islands, are a clear sign of a 3000 year-old productive system.

The perfect balance of its compounds as well as the high content of magnesium grant tastiness and healthiness, allowing a consumption just lower than 35% in the daily eating habit; this valuable characteristic holds it in a leading position among the ones produced in Italy and in the Mediterranean area.

Such a resource is exploited thanks to a purposedly designed ethno-anthropologic itinerary, called the Salt Road. (Source AAPIT Trapani).

Also for what concerns the fishing methods the Phoenicians left a meaningful tradition to us: the tunny- fishing and the tunny killing. The witty Phoenicians once more enhanced a practice in use to support the coast communities. Tunny killing is a fishing method, later technically improved by Arabs (the terms to it related have Arab origin, too), which, by positioning huge nets on purpose, gets migrating tunas to divert from their customary route into a trap which narrows more and more until they get to the last room, called the death room. Once that room has filled with precious fishes, it is raised on board of tunny-fishing boats in a mixture of blood, tunas and sea water splashes.

However, in ancient times, the Phoenicians were especially known for their skill in weaving art and above all for fabrics colouring, to such an extent that the Greeks named them after one of their most representative products, the purple. As a matter of fact, purple dyed fabrics were so highly appreciated that they became a status symbol, undoubted indicator of wealth and refinement.

It seems that the name of this dye comes from the Greek word “porphyria”. The substance is an organic dye extracted from the secretion of a mollusc from purpuridae family, belonging to the so called murex type and which can be found in any hot water sea. Once the soft part of the shell had been extracted (1,5 g of dye from 12 thousand shells), it was squeezed and mixed with sea water, resulting into a rough mush, which was exposed to the sunlight for three days to enable liquid to separate from the rest. The so obtained juice was boiled with water in leaded vases for ten days until it was half reduced. As a final step, linen or wool fabrics were dipped into it and then they were exposed to the air for oxidation which would enable them to get the expected purple dye.

The resulting colours were bautiful and intense and they could take on different shades: from pink to dark violet, depending on the treated materials, if they were drapes, clothes , carpets or curtains.

Since the above process smelled bad the working tanks were placed at the boundaries of urban centres. Huge heaps of shells can be seen near many Phoenician towns still today.

Tyrus, above all, was reputed to be the queen city in this activity. Plinio reports: “the best purple in Asia is found in Tyrus” (Nat. Hist., IX, 60, 127). Strabo, who visited the city at the Augustus’s age, reports the same news: “….. in fact Tyrus purple turned out to be the absolute best; molluscs gathered near the shore and whatever necessary for the dyeing process is easily available. Although the city is not very pleasant to live in due to the high number of working laboratories, on the other hand that made the city extremely prosperous, thanks to its highly skilled inhabitants”.

Freely taken from: Federico Mazza, The Phoenicians’ image in the ancient world:AA.VV., The Phoenicians, Milan: Bompiani