The Phoenicians were the first people to link the western and eastern Mediterranean, and to sail through the treacherous straight of Gibraltar. The most important colony they established in Spain was Cádiz.
The culture of the Phoenicians was based on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean in what is today Lebanon, northern Israel and southern Syria. The cities of Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre were important bases for the culture, but its true heart was at sea.
Seaborne traders of the Mediterranean
They were known throughout the ancient world for their trading and maritime abilities. One ancient Roman writer called them “masters of the fleet that control the sea”, while the Bible refers to them as “the merchant to the peoples of many coastlines”.
Under the powerful protection of their military neighbours the Assyrians, the Phoenicians expanded throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. The traders were looking for raw materials and metals for the Middle East market, and needed to establish an infrastructure along the way to support their work.
As their trade took them throughout the Mediterranean, they established small merchant colonies all along the north coast of Africa to offer more security at night. In around 1100 BC they established a presence in Spain through trade.
Recent excavations showed Phoenician settlements were lacking in weapons, which suggests the traders were broadly welcomed by the indigenous tribes.
The foundation of Cádiz
They founded Cádiz as a perfect location for a port, lying in a cove with a spit of land protecting it from Atlantic storms. Archaeological excavations have revealed the Phoenicians first named the city Gadir, which means stronghold, showing the strategic importance of the location.
Cádiz is believed to be the oldest ancient city still standing in all of western Europe. The Phoenicians brought along their own grape plants and started vineyards, making wine. But their real contribution was engineering. The settlers exploited the silver mines of Rio Tinto, north-west of Cadiz.
A mining boom
The mines had been worked since the Bronze Age, but the Phoenicians brought new technology and silver extraction blossomed during their stay. They added rectangular clay nozzles to the giant leather bellows that pumped air into the furnaces. This allowed for bigger ovens, higher temperatures and more successful extractions.
The boom in mining led more settlers to come to the area, and increased the trade between Spain and the eastern Mediterranean. Visitors today can see the unique lunar-like landscape left behind by so many years of mining.
Thanks to the Phoenicians, reading and writing no longer required years of study. They improved on older Egyptian-like writing systems by creating a simple phonetic alphabet of only 22 letters and it quickly spread into Spain.
New knowledge from a shipwreck
Our knowledge of the Phoenicians increased significantly in 2007 when a shipwreck believed to be thousands of years old was excavated at Bajo de la Campana, a submerged rock reef off the coast near Cartagena.
The ship’s cargo fell onto the seabed, and some into a sea cave. Archaeologists managed to recover fragments of the hull and a large number of ceramic and bronze artefacts, pine nuts, amber, engraved elephant tusks, and lead ore.
Trading without coins
It is believed that the ship had travelled from the eastern Mediterranean, stopping at various ports to trade along the journey towards Cádiz. An item not found during the excavation was coin. Like all ancient peoples, the Phoenicians used a barter system of trade, which is reflected in the dazzling variety of goods on the wrecked ship.
Before the concept of currency, mutual trust and a complex understanding of worth was important for trade. Ancient records tell that the Phoenician ship would leave a pile of goods on the shore, then row back out to anchor. Local tribes would leave goods of what they believed was comparable value on the shore.
If the Phoenicians returned, they would either accept the offer and leave, or remove some of their own goods until agreement was reached.