The Phoenicians were a Semitic people from the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean, hailing from city states such as Tyre, Byblos and Tripoli among others. Their enterprise in trade and skill at sea would see them venture well beyond the Mediterranean, as far north as England and Ireland. Their exploits were significant, for they traded not only in goods but precious raw materials, allowing other peoples and cultures to manufacture goods where such raw materials were scarce or completely unavailable. These items would then being moved around and traded again all across their commercial routes. The journey would start from their own shores, with the much sought after Cedar wood from their native Lebanon, their unique dyes and other coveted merchandise. They would visit Greece, and barter for ceramic-ware, north Africa for gold, Spain for silver and iron, England for tin, and to anywhere where trade was possible.
The name Phoenicia means 'land of purple', and this due to another of their main exports, a dye originally known as Tyrian Purple / Tyrian Red. Extracting this dye involved tens of thousands of sea snails and considerable work, but it was much sought after in antiquity, especially since the colour did not easily fade, but instead became brighter with weathering and sunlight. It came in various shades, the most prized being that of blackish clotted blood, and at least 3 distinct molusc shell varieties have been identified, all belomnging to the Murex family, each rendering a similar, yet different colour. The blending of these would have led to a range of hues. Roman Emperors and higher nobility would soon become associated with clothing and textiles made with this dye and the association with royalty would persist up to medieval times, leading to such names as royal purple, imperial purple or imperial dye.
The Phoenicians began to colonise the islands around the early 8th century B.C. as an outpost from which they expanded further their exploration and trade in the Mediterranean and beyond. Archaeological evidence demonstrates the establishment of two main settlements, where Mdina in Malta, and Cittadella in Gozo now stand. The former was known as Maleth meaning safe haven, and the whole island eventually came to be known by this name. Unlike other colonisers, the Phoenicians were more interested in trade than conquest or resettlement, and evidence reflects a peaceful coexistence between the new Phoenician arrivals and the Bronze Age residents of Malta. The National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta has many Phoenician items, including gold and silver amulets which have a marked Egyptian influence since they were great admirers of anything Egyptian and liked to adorn themselves in that way. Beyond a scatter of tombs across the islands, not much remains in architectural terms. Unlike the Romans, the Phoencians did not use cement, and their buildings were typically made from a systematic laying of stones and slabs resulting in mound like structures. It is also interesting to note that these were identical to the local corbelled stone huts (Giren) found here, albeit larger. It is possible that these rural buildings, or better the construction technique involved, is part of their legacy.
A lesser known heritage remains the importation of plants and animals. DNA analysis of seeds and bones unearthed on the tiny island of Motya, just off the Sicilian west coast, show that they came from the ancient Levant, brought by the Phoenicians to Sicily. Analysis of bones on Motya finds that they also brought sheep, goats and dogs, and possibly other animals with them. The dogs look like the breed known as Pharaoh hounds or kelb tal-fenek / rabbit hound. Despite their name, Pharaoh hounds did not originate in Egypt, and the presence of similar hounds in ancient Motya could reinforce the theory that and it that it was indeed the Phoenicians who brought them to Malta in the first place. Even more so when one finds a number of breeds similar to the Pharaoh Hound in the Mediterranean area, including Cirneco in Sicily. The name itself would fit in well with the aforementioned pro-Egyptian taste beheld by the Phoenicians! On a serious note, the legacy goes well beyond dogs. Relatively recent DNA studies of the Maltese male origins have included traces from the Eastern Mediterranean with genetic affinity to Christian Lebanon and North Africa. The strain may be negligible, but remains present nevertheless.
In our view, the most revolutionary import by the Phoenicians remains their introduction of the first recorded written language using letters rather than symbols or hieroglyphics. This also brought about the first use of an organised currency using coins rather than goods or raw metals or materials. To read more about use of the Phoenician Language in Malta, kindly select the 'Carthaginian Malta' Link below.