Democracy and Maritime Power in the Near East, Part 2

The first installment in this series examined the role sea power and maritime commerce played in the society of the Late Bronze Age culture of Ugarit. While Ugarit actively pursued overseas trade, it never developed open and democratic institutions as a society. It may have been on its way towards doing so, but the Sea Peoples intervened and destroyed the city before that could happen.

The second installment in this series will examine the Phoenicians. Phoenicia is generally defined as the middle Canaanite city-states located in what is now Lebanon, which from 1200 BC onwards developed in a different fashion from their southern Canaanite brethren. While southern Canaanites city-states remained land-based powers that would soon be conquered or absorbed into Israelite or Philistine society, the middle Canaanite states took to the sea.[1]

The Phoenician city-states were well located for becoming maritime states. The coast of Lebanon is marked by a number of bays which serve as natural harbors. These harbors are lacking further south along the coast of what is now Israel, where the coast runs in a smooth curve down to the Nile Delta. What’s more, the Phoenician city-states were shielded from land invasions by the dual obstacle of the Lebanon and anti-Lebanon mountain ranges. Some of the cities were founded on even more geographically inaccessible locations. Sidon was built on a headland shielded by islands. Tyre was built on an artificial island created by filling in the space between two smaller islands (the space between the island and the mainland has since been filled in as well).[2]

Google Earth images showing modern-day sites of Phoenician city-states. Note all of them are on peninsulas with natural harbors. Tyre was an island until Alexander the Great built a causeway connecting it to the mainland during his siege of the city in 332 B.C.

As a result of geography, each Phoenician city was isolated not only from the threat of land invasion but from each other.[3] Therefore, the states operated independently of each other. Like the Greek polis, the Phoenician qeret (Phoenician for city-state) became the main political unit, and the unit to which a Phoenician owed his primary loyalty.



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