Phoenician Ships, Navigation and Commerce. Part 1

(from the issue №1, 2017) Phoenicia, an ancient state in XII-VII centuries BC located on the eastern Mediterranean coast with the center in modern Lebanon. The inhabitants, Phoenicians, have created a powerful civilization with a wealth culture, developed crafts and, of course, the sea trade. The “Shipping” magazine was very interested in history of the Phoenician navigation.


Earliest navigation by means of rafts and canoes

The first attempts of the Phoenicians to navigate the sea which washed their coast were probably as clumsy and rude as those of other primitive nations. They are said to have voyaged from island to island by means of rafts. When they reached the shores of the Mediterranean, it can scarcely have been long ere they constructed boats for fishing and coasting purposes, though no doubt such boats were of a very rude construction. Probably, like other races, they began with canoes, roughly hewn out of the trunk of a tree. The torrents which descended from Lebanon would from time to time bring down the stems of fallen trees in their flood-time; and these, floating on the Mediterranean waters, would suggest the idea of navigation. They would, at first, be hollowed out with hatchets and adzes, or else with fire; and, later on, the canoes thus produced would form the models for the earliest efforts in shipbuilding. The great length, however, would soon be found unnecessary, and the canoe would give place to the boat, in the ordinary acceptation of the term. There are models of boats among the Phoenician remains which have a very archaic character, and may give us some idea of the vessels in which the Phoenicians of the remoter times braved the perils of the deep. They have a keel, not ill shaped, a rounded hull, bulwarks, a beak, and a high seat for the steersman. The oars, apparently, must have been passed through interstices in the bulwark.


Model of a very primitive boat

From this rude shape the transition was not very difficult to the bark represented in the sculptures of Sargon, which is probably a Phoenician one. Here four rowers, standing to their oars, impel a vessel having for prow the head of a horse and for stern the tail of a fish, both of them rising high above the water. The oars are curved, like golf or hockey-sticks, and are worked from the gunwale of the bark, though there is no indication of rowlocks. The vessel is without a rudder; but it has a mast, supported by two ropes which are fastened to the head and stern. The mast has neither sail nor yard attached to it, but is crowned by what is called a “crow’s nest” – a bell-shaped receptacle, from which a slinger or archer might discharge missiles against an enemy.


Phoenician vessel of the time of Sargon

A vessel of considerably greater size than this, but of the same class impelled, that is, by one bank of oars only is indicated by certain coins, which have been regarded by some critics as Phoenician, by others as belonging to Cilicia. These have a low bow, but an elevated stern; the prow exhibits a beak, while the stern shows signs of a steering apparatus; the number of the oars on each side is fifteen or twenty. The Greeks called these vessels triaconters or penteconters. They are represented without any mast on the coins, and thus seem to have been merely row-boats of a superior character.


Phoenician biremes in the time of Sennacherib

About the time of Sennacherib (B.C. 700), or a little earlier, some great advances seem to have been made by the Phoenician shipbuilders. In the first place, they introduced the practice of placing the rowers on two different levels, one above the other; and thus, for a vessel of the same length, doubling the number of the rowers. Ships of this kind, which the Greeks called “biremes,” are represented in Sennacherib’s sculptures as employed by the inhabitants of a Phoenician city, who fly in them at the moment when their town is captured, and so escape their enemy. The ships are of two kinds. Both kinds have a double tier of rowers, and both are guided by two steering oars thrust out from the stern; but while the one is still without mast or sail, and is rounded off in exactly the same way both at stem and stern, the other has a mast, placed about midship, a yard hung across it, and a sail close reefed to the yard, while the bow is armed with a long projecting beak, like a ploughshare, which must have been capable of doing terrible damage to a hostile vessel. The rowers, in both classes of ships, are represented as only eight or ten upon a side; but this may have arisen from artistic necessity, since a greater number of figures could not have been introduced without confusion. It is thought that in the beaked vessel we have a representation of the Phoenician war-galley; in the vessel without a beak, one of the Phoenician transport.

Phoenician pleasure vessels and merchant ships

A painting on a vase found in Cyprus exhibits what would seem to have been a pleasure-vessel. It is unbeaked, and without any sign of oars, except two paddles for steering with. About midship is a short mast, crossed by a long spar or yard, which carries a sail, closely reefed along its entire length. The yard and sail are managed by means of four ropes, which are, however, somewhat conventionally depicted. Both the head and stern of the vessel rise to a considerable height above the water, and the stern is curved, very much as in the war- galleys. It perhaps terminated in the head of a bird.

According to the Greek writers, Phoenician vessels were mainly of two kinds, merchant ships and war-vessels. The merchant ships were of a broad, round make, what our sailors would call “tubs,” resembling probably the Dutch fishing-boats of a century ago. They were impelled both by oars and sails, but depended mainly on the latter. Each of them had a single mast of moderate height, to which a single sail was attached; this was what in modern times is called a “square sail,” a form which is only well suited for sailing with when the wind is directly astern. It was apparently attached to the yard, and had to be hoisted together with the yard, along which it could be closely reefed, or from which it could be loosely shaken out. It was managed, no doubt, by ropes attached to the two lower corners, which must have been held in the hands of sailors, as it would have been most dangerous to belay them. As long as the wind served, the merchant captain used his sail; when it died away, or became adverse, he dropped yard and sail on to his deck, and made use of his oars.

Merchant ships had, commonly, small boats attached to them, which afforded a chance of safety if the ship foundered, and were useful when cargoes had to be landed on a shelving shore. We have no means of knowing whether these boats were hoisted up on deck until they were wanted, or attached to the ships by ropes and towed after them; but the latter arrangement is the more probable.

Superiority of the Phoenician war-galleys

The war-galleys of the Phoenicians in the early times were probably of the class which the Greeks called triaconters or penteconters, and which are represented upon the coins. They were long open rowboats, in which the rowers sat, all of them, upon a level, the number of rowers on either side being generally either fifteen or twenty-five. Each galley was armed at its head with a sharp metal spike, or beak, which was its chief weapon of offence, vessels of this class seeking commonly to run down their enemy. After a time these vessels were superseded by biremes, which were decked, had masts and sails, and were impelled by rowers sitting at two different elevations, as already explained. Biremes were ere long superseded by triremes, or vessels with three banks of oars, which are said to have been invented at Corinth, but which came into use among the Phoenicians before the end of the sixth century B.C. In the third century B.C. the Carthaginians employed in war quadriremes, and even quinqueremes; but there is no evidence of the employment of either class of vessel by the Phoenicians of Phoenicia Proper.

The superiority of the Phoenician ships to others is generally allowed, and was clearly shown when Xerxes collected his fleet of twelve hundred and seven triremes against Greece. The fleet included contingents from Phoenicia, Cyprus, Egypt, Cilicia, Pamphylia, Lycia, Caria, Ionia, Æolis, and the Greek settlements about the Propontis. When it reached the Hellespont, the great king, anxious to test the quality of his ships and sailors, made proclamation for a grand sailing match, in which all who liked might contend. Each contingent probably at any rate, all that prided themselves on their nautical skill selected its best vessel, and entered it for the coming race; the king himself, and his grandees and officers, and all the army, stood or sat along the shore to see: the race took place, and was won by the Phoenicians of Sidon. Having thus tested the nautical skill of the various nations under his sway, the great king, when he ventured his person upon the dangerous element, was careful to embark in a Sidonian galley.

Excellence of the arrangements

A remarkable testimony to the excellence of the Phoenician ships with respect to internal arrangements is borne by Xenophon, who puts the following words into the mouth of Ischomachus, a Greek: “I think that the best and most perfect arrangement of things that I ever saw was when I went to look at the great Phoenician sailing-vessel; for I saw the largest amount of naval tackling separately disposed in the smallest stowage possible. For a ship, as you well know, is brought to anchor, and again got under way, by a vast number of wooden implements and of ropes and sails the sea by means of a quantity of rigging, and is armed with a number of contrivances against hostile vessels, and carries about with it a large supply of weapons for the crew, and, besides, has all the utensils that a man keeps in his dwelling-house, for each of the messes. In addition, it is laden with a quantity of merchandise which the owner carries with him for his own profit. Now all the things which I have mentioned lay in a space not much bigger than a room which would conveniently hold ten beds. And I remarked that they severally lay in a way that they did not obstruct one another, and did not require anyone to search for them; and yet they were neither placed at random, nor entangled one with another, so as to consume time when they were suddenly wanted for use. Also, I found the captain’s assistant, who is called ‘the look-out man,’ so well acquainted with the position of all the articles, and with the number of them, that even when at a distance he could tell where everything lay, and how many there were of each sort, just as anyone who has learnt to read can tell the number of letters in the name of Socrates and the proper place for each of them. Moreover, I saw this man, in his leisure moments, examining and testing everything that a vessel needs when at sea; so, as I was surprised, I asked him what he was about, whereupon he replied ‘Stranger, I am looking to see, in case anything should happen, how everything is arranged in the ship, and whether anything is wanting, or is inconveniently situated; for when a storm arises at sea, it is not possible either to look for what is wanting, or to put to right what is arranged awkwardly.’”



Phoenician ships seem to have been placed under the protection of the Cabeiri, and to have had images of them at their stem or stern or both. These images were not exactly “figure-heads,” as they are sometimes called. They were small, apparently, and inconspicuous, being little dwarf figures, regarded as amulets that would preserve the vessel in safety. We do not see them on any representations of Phoenician ships, and it is possible that they may have been no larger than the bronze or glazed earthenware images of Phthah that are so common in Egypt. The Phoenicians called them /pittuchim/, “sculptures,” whence the Greek {pataikoi} and the French /fétiche/.


Early navigation cautious, increasing boldness

The navigation of the Phoenicians, in early times, was no doubt cautious and timid. So far from venturing out of sight of land, they usually hugged the coast, ready at any moment, if the sea or sky threatened, to change their course and steer directly for the shore. On a shelving coast they were not at all afraid to run their ships aground, since, like the Greek vessels, they could be easily pulled up out of reach of the waves, and again pulled down and launched, when the storm was over and the sea calm once more. At first they sailed, we may be sure, only in the daytime, casting anchor at nightfall, or else dragging their ships up upon the beach, and so awaiting the dawn. But after a time they grew more bold. The sea became familiar to them, the positions of coasts and islands relatively one to another better known, the character of the seasons, the signs of unsettled or settled weather, the conduct to pursue in an emergency, better apprehended. They soon began to shape the course of their vessels from headland to headland, instead of always creeping along the shore, and it was not perhaps very long before they would venture out of sight of land, if their knowledge of the weather satisfied them that the wind might be trusted to continue steady, and if they were well assured of the direction of the land that they wished to make. They took courage, moreover, to sail in the night, no less than in the daytime, when the weather was clear, guiding themselves by the stars, and particularly by the Polar star, which they discovered to be the star most nearly marking the true north. A passage of Strabo seems to show that in the later times at any rate they had a method of calculating the rate of a ship’s sailing, though what the method was is wholly unknown to us. It is probable that they early constructed charts and maps, which however they would keep secret through jealousy of their commercial rivals.


In the first half of the sixth century B.C., the Carthaginian admiral Hanno made a long voyage along the African west coast. His logbook contains a description of a fully active volcano and the first known report about gorillas.

The eighteen lines of Hanno’s artless account of his journey along the west coast of Africa are a unique document. It is the only known first-hand report on these regions before those of  the Portuguese, which were written two thousand years later. Besides, Hanno has a fascinating story to tell: we visit a mysterious island, have to fight hostile natives, survive an erupting volcano and encounter gorillas.

Probably, Hanno made his voyage on the outer sea in the first half of the sixth century B.C.. He had orders to found several colonies on the Moroccan coast; after this, he established a trading post on a small island off the Mauritanian coast. Having completed this mission, he ventured further south, making a reconnaissance expedition along the African coast until he reached modern Gabon, where he was forced to return because he was running out of supplies. There is some reason to doubt the truth of the latter statement, because the Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder says that Hanno circumnavigated Africa and reached  the borders of Arabia.

On his return, Hanno dedicated an inscription to one of the Carthaginian gods, in which he told what he had done. In the fifth century, someone translated this text into a rather mediocre Greek. It was not a complete rendering; several abridgments were made. The abridged translation was copied several times by Greek and Byzantine clerks. At the moment, there are only two copies, dating back to the ninth and the fourteenth centuries. The first of these manuscripts is known as the Palatinus Graecus 398 and can be studied in the University Library of Heidelberg. The other text is the so-called Vatopedinus 655; parts of it are in the British Museum in London and in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

Many scholars have tried to identify the places Hanno mentions. Nowadays, most puzzles – such as the question of the volcano called ‘Chariot of the Gods’ – seem to be solved. In the commentary below, many toponyms are discussed. All places under discussion can be found in the 1998 edition of the Times Atlas of the world. Other texts related to Hanno’s voyage are to be found below.


The Periplus of Hanno: Account of King Hanno of Carthage’s Sea Voyage Along the African Atlantic Coast

“Record of the voyage of King Hanno of Carthage round the lands of Libya which lie beyond the Pillars of Hercules. It has been engraved on tablets hung up in the Temple of Chronos.

“The Carthaginians decided that Hanno should go past the Pillars and found Carthaginian cities. He set sail with sixty pentekontas carrying thirty thousand men and women with provisions and other necessities. After passing the Pillars of Hercules and sailing for two days beyond them we founded the first city, which was named Thymiaterion. Around it was a large plain. Next we went on in a westerly direction and arrived at the Libyan promontory of Soloeis, which is covered with trees; having set up a shrine to Poseidon, we set sail again towards the rising sun for half a day, after which we arrived at a lagoon close to the sea covered with many tall reeds. Elephants and large numbers of other animals were feeding on them. Leaving this lagoon and sailing for another day, we founded the coastal cities named Carian Wall, Gytte, Acra, Melitta and Arambys.

“Leaving this place we arrived at the great river Lixos which comes from Libya. On the banks nomads, the Lixites, were feeding their flocks. We stayed for some time with these people and made friends with them. Upstream from them lived the unfriendly Ethiopians whose land is full of wild beasts and broken up by high mountains where they say the Lixos rises. They also say that about these mountains dwell the strange-looking Troglodytes. The Lixites claim that they can run faster than horses. Taking Lixite interpreters with us we sailed alongside the desert in a southerly direction for two days, then towards the rising sun for one more day. We then found at the far end of an inlet a little island five stades in circumference. We named it Cerne and left settlers there. judging by our journey we reckoned that it must be opposite Carthage, since we had to sail the same distance from Carthage to the Pillars of Hercules as from the Pillars of Hercules to Cerne. From there, sailing up a big river named the Chretes, we arrived at a lake in which there were three islands, all larger than Cerne. Leaving these islands, we sailed for one day and came to the end of the lake, which was overshadowed by high mountains full of savages dressed in animal skins that threw stones at us and thus prevented us from landing. From there we entered another river, which was big and wide, full of crocodiles and hippopotamuses. Then we retraced our journey back to Cerne.

“From there we sailed south along a coast entirely inhabited by Ethiopians, who fled at our approach. Their language was incomprehensible even to the Lixites, whom we had with us. On the last day we disembarked by some high mountains covered with trees with sweet-smelling multicoloured wood. We sailed round these mountains for two days and arrived in a huge bay on the other side of which was a plain; there we saw fires breaking out at intervals on all sides at night, both great and small. Having renewed our water supplies, we continued our voyage along the coast for five days, after which we arrived at a huge inlet, which the interpreters called the Horn of the West. There was a big island in this gulf and in the island was a lagoon with another island. Having disembarked there, we could see nothing but forest by day ; but at night many fires were seen and we heard the sound of flutes and the beating of drums and tambourines, which made a great noise. We were struck with terror and our soothsayers bade us leave the island.

“We left in haste and sailed along by a burning land full of perfumes. Streams of fire rose from it and plunged into the sea. The land was unapproachable because of the heat. Terror-stricken, we hastened away. During four days’ sailing we saw at night that the land was covered with fire. In the middle was a high flame, higher than the others, which seemed to reach the stars. By day we realised that it was a very high mountain, named the Chariot of the Gods. Leaving this place, we sailed along the burning coast for three days and came to the gulf named the Horn of the South. At the end of it was an island like the first one, with a lake in which was another island full of savages. The greater parts of these were women. They had hairy bodies and the interpreters called them Gorillas. We pursued some of the males but we could not catch a single one because they were good climbers and they defended themselves fiercely. However, we managed to take three women. They bit and scratched their captors, whom they did not want to follow. We killed them and removed the skins to take back to Carthage. We sailed no further, being short of supplies.”

(To be continued)

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