The Phoenicians (from Tyre, in southern Lebanon) were amongst the greatest Mediterranean traders from approximately 1,500 to 600 BC. Tradition has it that they founded the city of Gadir/ Cádiz in south west Spain in 1100 to exploit the natural resources in the area. There is, however, no hard evidence to substantiate such an early date.
Based on archaeological remains, the consensus now is that colonisation began around 800, when settlements were founded along the south coast of the peninsula. The most important besides Gadir, were Malacca (Málaga), Sexi (Almuñecar) and Toscanos (Vélez Málaga, in the province of Málaga).
Under the protection of their powerful, military neighbours, the Assyrians, the Phoenicians expanded throughout the Mediterranean and beyond in search of raw materials and metals for the Middle East market. Although their voyages took them as far as Cornwall (southern England) in pursuit of tin, they found an ample supply of gold, silver, copper and iron in southern Spain.
Silver was particularly important to the Assyrians since their currency was largely based on it, and the Phoenicians were expected to provide it. This is why the Río Tinto mines north of Huelva were so important to the Phoenicians; the area contained large deposits of silver. While excavations show that mining in this area goes back to the early Bronze Age, the Phoenicians exploited the deposits of silver more efficiently than ever before.
Excavations of Phoenician settlements show a general lack of weapons, which suggests peaceful coexistence between the Phoenicians and the indigenous tribes. In fact, amongst the outstanding features of these Phoenician coastal towns, e.g Toscanos, are the remains of factories or foundries to create manufactured goods which were then traded with the local inhabitants.
It is likely, too, that the Phoenicians introduced the manufacture of iron, a particularly valuable commodity, for making not only swords etc, but also agricultural tools. The art of ceramics was revolutionised by the Phoenicians with the introduction of the potter’s wheel around 700 BC, followed almost immediately by painted decoration on pottery products.
Judging from animal bones that have been excavated, beef husbandry appears to have been especially encouraged. Fish caught off the coast –especially tuna, mackerel and sturgeon– were eagerly sought after in the markets of the eastern Mediterranean. The discovery of a high number of Phoenician amphorae also suggests the cultivation of olive oil and wine as barter goods.
The Phoenicians also discovered in the waters off the coast the murex mollusc, the source of the famed purple dye of Tyre. The value of this discovery was incalculable given that some 12.000 molluscs are required to produce only about 1.5 grams of dye.
The pre-eminence of the Phoenicians as a Mediterranean trading power collapsed after the conquest of Tyre by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar in 573 BC (the Babylonians had overthrown the Assyrians in 612 BC Collins 9).
However, their influence did not disappear entirely, because they were succeeded by the Carthaginians whose capital city, Carthage, had been founded as a Phoenician trading post about 800 BC. After the fall of Phoenicia, Carthage soon developed a considerable trading presence of its own in the Mediterranean.
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