Lebanon and Ancient Phoenician Religion

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Continuity of Modern Lebanon and Ancient Phoenicia

Continuity of Modern Lebanon & Ancient Phoenicia: Map & Flag of Modern Lebanon
Map & Flag of Modern Lebanon Showing Continuity of Ancient Sites & Modern Cities Continuity of Modern Lebanon & Ancient Phoenicia: Map & Flag of Modern Lebanon. Source: CIA Fact Book

Lebanon is often in the news today in the context of political and religious conflicts throughout the region. Not everyone is aware, however, of the fact that this same area has played an important role in the region's religious and cultural history - or of how often this strip of land has been involved in the region's religious and political conflicts. Perhaps the connections would be clearer if people also realized that modern Lebanon occupies much the same area of land as ancient Phoenicia.

Just as important, and perhaps even less well known, is the fact that there exist tremendous religious and cultural continuities between the people called Phoenicians and those called Canaanites. Early on there was probably no difference between them aside from their geographic location, though eventually those called Phoenicians launched extensive maritime trading and colonization efforts which in turn led to greater cultural differentiation.

This map of modern Lebanon reveals some of the continuity between ancient Phoenicia and the modern Lebanese state. The northern-most Phoenician city-state was Arvad, just a bit beyond the northern borders of Lebanon; the southern-most Phoenician city-state was Akko, known today as Acre, and it lies just inside the Israeli border. The boundaries of ancient Phoenicia thus looked like a slightly extended version of modern Lebanon.

Tyre, Sidon, Jubayl (Byblos), and Beirut, all major coastal cities in Lebanon today, were also among the most important Phoenician city-states. Deep in the interior of Lebanon, we see Ba'labakk, known in the ancient records as Baalbek and an important religious site not just for the Phoenicians, but also later the Romans.

The origins of the Phoenicians is unknown, and they themselves never used the label 'Phoenicians.' It appears that their primary loyalty was to their home city and that they never developed a sense of identity with the larger cultural or religious unit which existed in the region. Whereas other empires were defined by political and military control of a defined territory, the Phoenician 'empire' was defined by maritime trade and trade networks.

Homer, writing probably in the 9th or 8th century BCE, is the first to apply the label 'Phoenician' to the people living around Sidon, though some think that the name may appear Mycenean texts of the 13th century BCE. Because some ancient sources describe the region of the Phoenicians as extending from Sinai to Alexandretta, it's thought that 'Phoenician' was sometimes used to refer to any sea-trading people in the eastern Mediterranean.

Even the flag which the Lebanese chose for their nation expresses their sense of continuity with the past. Rather than use a Muslim symbol or Arabic text as is common elsewhere in the Middle East, the Lebanese flag is dominated in the center by an image of a tree: the Lebanese cedar. This tree was popular throughout the ancient world and exported over great distances. Egyptians used it to build their temples, and the Bible reports that Hiram, king of Tyre, sent cedars to Solomon to help him build the first Temple in Jerusalem. The cedar was so popular that it exists today only in small numbers and few areas of Lebanon.

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Religious, Cultural Continuity of Near Eastern Nations

Religious, Cultural Continuity of Near Eastern Nations: Map of the Eastern Mediterranean Coast
Map of the Eastern Mediterranean Coast Religious, Cultural Continuity of Near Eastern Nations: Map of the Eastern Mediterranean Coast. Source: Jupiter Images

Near Eastern nations are separate political entities, but not separate cultural and religious entities.

Perhaps it is because America is such a large country where major cities are separated by great distances, but it's been my experience that many Americans rarely appreciate just how close major cities can be elsewhere in the world. Culture does not stop at national borders, and the ancient cultures of the Near East do not line up along borders created by politicians in the 20th century.

This map of the Eastern Mediterranean coast doesn't have any national boundaries marked on it, but it does show the locations of the major cities and thus reveals how close they all are. Beirut, Sidon, Tyre, Baalbek, Damascus, Acre, Haifa, Jericho, Jerusalem, and Amman are all within relatively short distances of each other. These cities were important even in the ancient world, and their closeness reveals how there could be so much religious and cultural continuity in the region, even when travel was costly, difficult, and time-consuming.

It may also illustrate how there would be religious and cultural continuity between Phoenicians in the north and Canaanites in the south. Scholars believe that the name 'Phoenician' probably comes from the Greek phoinix, a red-purple color which probably refers to the famous red-purple dye produced and exported by Phoenicians for centuries. The name 'Canaan' may come from a Hurrian word, kinahhu, for the same color. Thus Phoenicia and Canaan are the same words for the same people but in different languages.

It is likely that the Phoenicians of the Iron Age (1200-333 BCE) are descendants of the Canaanites of the Bronze Age (3000-1200 BCE) who were themselves probably the southern branch of a larger Semitic group known as the Amorites. The lands occupied by the Canaanites would have included modern Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. It is argued by some scholars that later Hebrew people descended from the Aramaeans, another Semitic group that settled between Syria and Mesopotamia in the 12th and 13th centuries BCE.

Other cultures in the region experienced severe disruptions at the transition to the Iron Age, but not the Phoenicians. Major Phoenician cities like Tyre and Sidon may have been founded by Canaanites. Such continuity would be important because almost nothing of the original Canaanites remains. Thus, while the archaeological records for the Phoenicians are far less then scholars would like, they may provide evidence about what the Canaanites believed without having to rely solely on biased reports in the Bible.

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Phoenician Alphabet

Phoenician Alphabet: Language, Writing, Alphabets Reveal Cultural Continuity in the Near East
Language, Writing, Alphabets Reveal Cultural Continuity in the Near East Phoenician Alphabet: Language, Writing, Alphabets Reveal Cultural Continuity in the Near East. Source: Jupiter Images

One interesting place where we find cultural links between Phoenicians and Canaanites as well as between them and ancient Hebrews is in the alphabets. The earliest forms of writing were strongly pictographic, with Egyptian hieroglyphics being the most obvious example. Such alphabets evolved into more and more abstract forms; if we examine the various alphabets side-by-side, we can see how these early pictograms became letters we use today.

Comparing Alphabets

Starting from the left, we see the standard Egyptian hieroglyphs then Hieratic, a cursive script derived from hieroglyphs. Third is Phoenician, already well developed from an earlier alphabet known as Proto-Canaanite. The similarities between Phoenician and Hieratic are clear; Proto-Canaanite is usually a clear middle point between them.

The similarities between Phoenician and Hebrew, not to mention Latin, are also clear. The oldest Phoenician alphabet, found on the Mesha Stele, is indistinguishable from the oldest forms of Hebrew and biblical Hebrew differs little from Phoenician. Clearly, the Phoenicians, Canaanites, and Hebrews shared many commonalities in language and writing.

This suggests strong cultural similarities — if they wrote and talked alike, it's implausible that people living so close had vastly different cultural and religious practices. Jews today justify being in Israel through the history of the Hebrews, but if the Hebrews were indistinguishable from the Phoenicians and Canaanites, and today's Palestinians are descended from the Phoenicians and Canaanites... what does that say?

Phoenicians & Western Culture

The Phoenicians are essentially responsible for the creation of Western alphabets — not just Greek and Latin, but Hebrew as well. It's possible that the Hebrew language itself is originally a Phoenician creation which the early Hebrews adopted after settling in Canaan. Descended from the Aramaeans, the Hebrews' native tongue would have been an early form of Aramaic, a language they preserved for millennia as a common tongue for people throughout the Levant and which continues to be used in isolated pockets today.

It's ironic that not a single original Phoenician papyrus has survived today. Tyre and Carthage had great libraries once, but they were burned by foreign invaders. Phoenician temples held not only religious but also commercial records, but those were destroyed as well. Little is left of the Phoenicians and what we do know must be deciphered from the records of outsiders.

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Phoenician Colonization and Trade Routes

Phoenician Commercial, Cultural, Religious Trading: Trade Routes, Colonies, and Cities Founded by Ph
Trade Routes, Colonies, Cities Founded by Phoenicians around the Mediterranean Phoenician Commercial, Cultural, Religious Trading: Trade Routes, Colonies, and Cities Founded by Phoenician Traders all around the Mediterranean. Source: Jupiter Images

The major difference between the Phoenicians and the Canaanites appears to be the former's emphasis on sea trade and expansion over the Mediterranean. What might account for this cultural and political branching? No one is sure, but the most plausible explanation is that in the north, inland expansion was seriously impeded by the Lebanon Mountain range - the distance between these mountains and the coast is only 60 km at its widest. Not only did this prevent much colonization or exploration over land, but it also severely limited the natural resources available to the Phoenician city-state.

People in the south had their barrier with the Jordan River, but this barrier was not as difficult to traverse, and it still allowed for more generous lands between it and the sea. It is thus not surprising that Canaanite culture to the south would develop on the land while Phoenician culture to the north would branch off to the sea.

This led to the creation of extensive trade routes which linked peoples all around the Mediterranean, helping spreading cultural and religious connections, as well as the creation of colonies in North Africa, Iberia, Sicily, and Sardinia. Perhaps the most famous Tyrian colony was Carthage (Phoenician for 'new town'), a city which would go on to become an imperial power in its right and cause Rome no end of trouble. These colonies and Carthage, in particular, are often referred to with the name 'Punic' which is the Latin word for Phoenician.

Phoenician colonies were not just commercial centers, though. One of the first things built wherever a colony was established was a temple complex which served both as a religious and as a commercial hub. In Carthage, for example, the precinct where sacrifices occurred covered some 6,000 square meters. Commerce served religious interests by bringing in wealth that could serve the gods while religion served commercial interests because the gods watched over and protected commerce. The separation between business and religion was thin at best.

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Phoenician Ritual Sacrifices & Phoenician Religion

Phoenician Ritual Sacrifices: Sacrificing Innocent Children for the Sins of the Community
Sacrificing Innocent Children for the Sins of the Community in Phoenicia Phoenician Ritual Sacrifices: Sacrificing Innocent Children for the Sins of the Community. Source: Jupiter Images

Ritual sacrifices, often connected to festivals surrounding a dying and resurrecting god, were important in Phoenician religion. Sacrifices of vegetable and animals were most common, but human sacrifices occurred in times of difficulty. Sacrifice and consumption of pigs, however, was taboo. The preferred human sacrifice was an innocent child who, as a vicarious victim, represented the most extreme act of propitiation possible and was probably intended to guaranteed the future of the entire community.

The areas where sacrifices were made were known as tofet, which appears in biblical texts as Topheth. The sacrifice itself was known as a mulk offering. Mulk is a Semitic term derived from the root 'king' and is represented in the Bible as Molech.

  • [Josiah] brought all the priests out of the cities of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had burned incense, from Geba to Beersheba, and brake down the high places of the gates that were in the entering in of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on a man's left hand at the gate of the city. ... And he defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech. [2 Kings 23:8-10]
  • For the children of Judah have done evil in my sight, saith the Lord: they have set their abominations in the house which is called by my name, to pollute it. And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart. Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be called Tophet, nor the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of slaughter: for they shall bury in Tophet, till there be no place. [Jeremiah 7:30-32]

From such passages, it appears that people in Judah were actively participating in Phoenician religious rituals, though Topheth here appears to refer to just one particular place. A tofet could be found in every Phoenician city - the one in Carthage, for example, is about 6,000 square meters in size and contains thousands of urns with the cremated remains of animals and small children sacrificed there over the centuries.

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Phoenician and Major Middle Eastern Empires

Phoenicia & International Relations: Phoenician Cities Were Under Threat from Major Empires
Phoenician Cities Were Constantly Under Threat Phoenicia & International Relations: Phoenician Cities Were Under Threat from Major Empires. Source: Jupiter Images

The Phoenician city-states were important centers of trade and occupied strategically important sites along the Mediterranean coast. This made them appealing targets for every major power in the region. Unfortunately for them, the Phoenician cities rarely had much of a chance to stand up the invading forces. First, they never developed a cohesive political or social unity which would have allowed them to work together for common goals and defense, as occurred among the Greek city-states. Second, they occupied relatively small strips of land which simply didn't provide either space or the natural resources necessary to stand against large armies.

As a consequence, the Phoenician cities were continually buffeted by international politics and the interests of major powers like Egypt to the south, Alexander and his Greeks to the north, and both Assyrians and Babylonians to the east. Phoenician political independence was strongest during the 10th and 9th centuries BCE, a time when they were allied closely with the Israelite kingdom - it's probably no coincidence that this era was the height of Israelite political power and independence as well.

The above map depicts the growth of the Assyrian empire from about the 9th century BCE through its fall to the Babylonians in 612 BCE. Although the Assyrians started relatively small, like other political entities in the region, their desire to simply neutralize external threats soon led them to acquire control over vast amounts of territory, including the Phoenician city-states. After the Assyrian Empire had fallen, the Babylonians controlled the Phoenician coast; after them, it was the Persians and then later the Greeks.

The fate of the Phoenician city-states closely mirrored that of the Israelites who also possessed the strategically important land. The Assyrian conquest of the Phoenicians included northern Israel. The Babylonians who besieged Tyre had already destroyed Jerusalem. The Hellenizing impact of Alexander continued south through the Israelite cities.

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Elijah Confronts Jezebel & Ahab Over Baal Worship

Elijah Confronts Jezebel, Ahab: Phoenician Religion and Culture Corrupted Israelite Religion
Phoenician Religion and Culture Corrupted Israelite Monotheism and Religion Elijah Confronts Jezebel, Ahab: Phoenician Religion and Culture Corrupted Israelite Religion. Source: Jupiter Images

How much of Phoenician religion was popular among the ancient Israelites?

King Ithobaal, I (887-856) of Tyre, is best known as the father of Jezebel whom he gave as a wife to King Ahab (874-853) to secure stronger trading ties with the Israelite kingdom based now in Samaria. As the mother of Ahab's successor, Ahaziah, Jezebel would prove to be an important cultural influence in the Israelite court. Jezebel is portrayed as having introduced Phoenician cultural and religious practices which infuriated traditionalists who did not accept any deviations from Hebrew monotheism. In particular, she is castigated by Elijah for bringing worship of Tyre's god Baal.

It likely, though, that Phoenician and Canaanite religious practices had already spread through the common people and thus Jezebel did little more than make the practices more respectable. When Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal, we read this:

  • And it came to pass, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said unto him, Art thou he that troubleth Israel? And he answered, I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father's house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and thou hast followed Baalim. Now therefore send, and gather to me all Israel unto mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel's table. So Ahab sent unto all the children of Israel, and gathered the prophets together unto mount Carmel.

    And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word. Then said Elijah unto the people, I, even I only, remain a prophet of the Lord; but Baal's prophets are four hundred and fifty men.
    [1 Kings 18:17-22]

Not only are there an awful lot of prophets of Baal, but the people aren't very enthusiastic about Elijah. This suggests that worship of Baal and Phoenician religious practices had become relatively popular - a situation that must have been developing for quite some time before Jezebel arrived on the scene.

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Josiah's Violent Reforms Against Baal Worship

Josiah's Violent Reforms: King Josiah Kills the Priests of Baal and Destroys the Temples of Baal
King Josiah Kills the Priests of Baal and Destroys the Temples of Baal Josiah's Violent Reforms: King Josiah Kills the Priests of Baal and Destroys the Temples of Baal. Source: Jupiter Images

How did Israelite religious leaders eliminate the Phoenician religious influences?

As much as traditionalists complained, Baal worship not only survived among the Israelites but thrived. The prophet Hosea, writing a hundred yeas after Jezebel came to Jerusalem, is bitter over of the faithlessness of the Hebrews and predicted doom for them:

  • For she did not know that I gave her corn, and wine, and oil, and multiplied her silver and gold, which they prepared for Baal. Therefore will I return, and take away my corn in the time thereof, and my wine in the season thereof, and will recover my wool and my flax given to cover her nakedness. And now will I discover her lewdness in the sight of her lovers, and none shall deliver her out of mine hand. I will also cause all her mirth to cease, her feast days, her new moons, and her sabbaths, and all her solemn feasts. And I will destroy her vines and her fig trees, whereof she hath said, These are my rewards that my lovers have given me: and I will make them a forest, and the beasts of the field shall eat them. And I will visit upon her the days of Baalim, wherein she burned incense to them, and she decked herself with her earrings and her jewels, and she went after her lovers, and forgat me, saith the Lord. [Hosea 28-13]

It is not until the reign of Josiah, another hundred years later in the mid-7th century BCE that organized efforts to eradicate worship of Baal are undertaken:

  • [Josiah] commanded Hilkiah the high priest, and the priests of the second order, and the keepers of the door, to bring forth out of the temple of the Lord all the vessels that were made for Baal, and for the grove, and for all the host of heaven: and he burned them without Jerusalem in the fields of Kidron, and carried the ashes of them unto Bethel. And he put down the idolatrous priests, whom the kings of Judah had ordained to burn incense in the high places in the cities of Judah, and in the places round about Jerusalem; them also that burned incense unto Baal, to the sun, and to the moon, and to the planets, and to all the host of heaven. ... And he brought all the priests out of the cities of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had burned incense, from Geba to Beersheba... And he defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech. [2 Kings 23 4-10]

This must have finally eliminated the Phoenician influences on the Israelites, or at least most of it.

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Mesha Stele

Mesha Stele: King Mesha of Moab Explains His Rebellion Against the Israelites
King Mesha of Moab Explains His Rebellion Against the Israelites Mesha Stele: King Mesha of Moab Explains His Rebellion Against the Israelites. Source: Jupiter Images

Discovered in 1868 near Dhiban, Jordan, and written around 850 BCE, this inscription gives the 'other side' of the story from 2 Kings when the Israelites supposedly defeated the Moabites:

  • And Mesha king of Moab was a sheepmaster, and rendered unto the king of Israel an hundred thousand lambs, and an hundred thousand rams, with the wool. But it came to pass, when Ahab was dead, that the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel. ... the Israelites rose up and smote the Moabites, so that they fled before them: but they went forward smiting the Moabites, even in their country. And they beat down the cities, and on every good piece of land cast every man his stone, and filled it; and they stopped all the wells of water, and felled all the good trees: only in Kirharaseth left they the stones thereof; howbeit the slingers went about it, and smote it. And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too sore for him, he took with him seven hundred men that drew swords, to break through even unto the king of Edom: but they could not. [2 King 3:4-5, 24-26]

It sounds like the Moabites lost, but according to king Mesha they won. It reads in part:

  • Omri was king of Israel and oppressed Moab many days, for Chemosh was angry with his land. And his son succeeded him and he also said I will oppress Moab. In my days he said this, but I got the upper hand of him and his house: and Israel perished for ever... And Kemosh said to me, 'Go, take Nebo from Israel.' And I went in the night and fought against it from the daybreak until midday, and I took it and I killed the whole population: seven thousand male subjects and aliens, and female subjects, aliens, and servant girls. For I had put it to the ban for Ashtar Kemosh. And from there I took the vessels of Yahweh, and I presented them before the face of Kemosh.

The text on the stele is Moabite and is the oldest Phoenician alphabet on record. It's also basically the same as early Hebrew, which suggests that the Moabites and the Israelites were far more similar culturally than the Bible lets on.

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Phoenicians, Canaanites, Israelites

Phoenicians, Canaanites, Isarelites: What Were the Commercial, Cultural, and Religious Similarities?
What Were the Commercial, Cultural, and Religious Similarities? Phoenicians, Canaanites, Isarelites: What Were the Commercial, Cultural, and Religious Similarities?. Source: Jupiter Images


The breadth and depth of the cultural and religious ties between ancient Phoenician and ancient Israel is a subject of great debate. As we have seen, there is strong evidence for extensive commercial ties, especially during the reign of Solomon, and the linguistic connections demonstrated through both language and alphabets are intriguing. Biblical texts point to some of the most curious evidence because Israelite prophets spend a lot of time complaining about how the people are falling away from the worship of Yahweh and adopting local Canaanite practices. Such complaints wouldn't be made unless there were serious problems.

To what extent, though, were the Phoenician religious practices the same as the traditional Canaanite religious practices which may have existed contemporaneously with the Israelite control of the region? Some scholars assume a great deal of continuity between the two, but the Phoenicians never developed a single, strong religious consensus like the Israelites and this led to a great diversity of religious practices. Every city had their pantheon, and these pantheons were regularly altered both through local innovations as well as borrowings made through commercial contacts.

This likely meant that Iron Age Phoenician religion had progressed significantly from Bronze Age Canaanite religion. At the same time, the Canaanites with whom the Israelites lived probably didn't follow the same practices from millennia earlier, either. Indeed, it's implausible that Israelite religious practices didn't have an impact on Canaanite and Phoenician religion as well.

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Astarte: Phoenician, Canaanite, and Semitic Goddess

Astarte: Phoenician, Canaanite, and Semitic Goddess
Astarte: Phoenician, Canaanite, and Semitic Goddess. Source: Jupiter Images

Astarte appears to have been the most popular and prominent of all Phoenician deities. Although the names of the head god often varied from city to city, Astarte as the name of his consort appears quite frequently. Astarte also appears under other names in other religious systems of the region: Ishtar in Mesopotamia, Ashtart in Egypt, Aphrodite in Greece, and Astartu among the Akkadians, to name just a few.

The nature of Astarte was very complex, which was probably one reason why she was able to be used in so many places so regularly. Sometimes she is invoked as a war goddess who will visit punishment on those who break treaties. Other times she appears as a goddess of love, fertility, or motherhood, bearing responsibility for people's families.

There are also times when Astarte doesn't appear to have her own, independent existence. An inscription from the 5th century BCE describes her as the 'name of Baal' and in Carthage she is labeled the 'face of Baal.' It would appear, then, that Astarte served as a means of accessing the power of Baal, the high god, rather than as an independent deity in her own right.

Phoenician cultural and religious influences on the Israelites to the south were apparently a constant source of tension and conflict, at least according to the prophets whose works are collected in the Bible. The introduction of a female consort along Phoenician lines for Yahweh, for example, would have been infuriating for the monotheistic and patriarchal defenders of tradition.

At the same time, though, just how far apart were the Phoenicians and Israelites when it came to their day-to-day religious practices? It's difficult to say because the evidence is so scanty. Not much is left of the Phoenician temples, and we know very little about the sorts of rituals and temple practices which they might have had.

When it comes to the Israelites, we have extensive writings in the Bible, but all of these were edited and redacted down through the ages - they represent the perspective of the victors. Furthermore, they have a lot to say about the practices of priests and other elites at the Temple in Jerusalem, but not so much about the common people in the rural areas. Who knows what sorts of religious practices they followed, especially if they lived in proximity to Phoenician and Canaanite communities.

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Adonis, Dying and Resurrecting Semitic God

Adonis, Dying and Resurrecting Semitic God: Etruscan Statue of Adonis, Semitic God that Dies and Res
Etruscan Statue of Adonis, Semitic God that Dies and Resurrects Every Year Adonis, Dying and Resurrecting Semitic God: Etruscan Statue of Adonis, Semitic God that Dies and Resurrects Every Year. Source: Jupiter Images

In addition to being polytheistic, a major characteristic of Phoenician religion is the emphasis on nature and fertility deities. It was very common for a male deity in a Phoenician city to die every year and be 'reborn' in the spring alongside the new vegetation. Sometimes the female deity, his consort, played a role in this rebirth and sometimes not.

The god Adonis is normally associated with Greek religion, but in fact, Adonis is originally Lebanese: his worship is first found among the Phoenicians and Canaanites then only later imported into the Greek pantheon. Even after becoming Greek, though, Adonis always retained his basic Semitic characteristics - in particular, his role as a god who annually dies and is resurrected alongside the vegetation which comes back to life each spring.

The name Adonis, like Baal, comes from the Semitic root for 'my lord' and is related to the term Adonai used to address Yahweh in the Old Testament. The most prominent Phoenician cults of Adonis was located in Byblos and near Beirut, but Adonis wasn't the only Phoenician god who died every year and was resurrected every spring. Both Eshmun and Melqart appear in Phoenician myths as dying and resurrecting every year, thereby guaranteeing that the vegetation would return and agriculture would be renewed.

The above funerary monument of Adonis dying was created by the Etruscans in the 3rd century BCE. Among the Etruscans, Adonis was known as Atunis. We don't have any Phoenician images of Adonis. This raises the interesting aspect of Phoenician religion, which is the tendency towards aniconic representations of the gods. Figures of the gods don't appear very often - we have almost no representations of Eshmun and Melqart, for example. Instead, we have empty thrones and, eventually, unadorned marker stones representing the deities. This aniconic tradition indicates a strong aversion to direct figural representations of deities, an attitude which has been made most famous in the Semitic religion followed by the Israelites to the south.

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Did the Phoenicians Believe in an Afterlife?

Phoenician Tombs of Arvad: Did the Phoenicians Believe in an Afterlife?
Phoenician Tombs of Arvad Phoenician Tombs of Arvad: Did the Phoenicians Believe in an Afterlife?. Source: Jupiter Images

Did the ancient Phoenicians believe in an afterlife? Some evidence suggests that they did; some that they didn't. Royal tombs, like those illustrated above near the ancient site of Arvad, and royal coffins typically had inscriptions which offered all kinds of curses for anyone who disturbed the rest of the person interred there. On the sarcophagus of King Eshmunazar II, found near Sidon, it is said that anyone who disturbs his 'funeral bed' will suffer extirpation from the gods who will 'exterminate this royal race and this man of the crowd and their offspring for ever.'

On the other hand, the same coffin says that 'I am carried away, the time of my non-existence has come, my spirit has disappeared, like the day, from whence I am silent, since which I became mute. And I am lying in this coffin, and in this tomb, in the place which I have built.' This suggests a belief that whoever or whatever a person remains in the coffin for all eternity rather than a soul which enjoys some sort of heaven - or even just a spirit which wanders aimlessly.

Today Arvad is known as Arwad and is Syrian's only island. It is believed that Arvad at one point was ruled by the people rather than a monarch, which would have made it the first example of a republic in the region. During the Crusades, the Knights Templar transformed it into an island fortress, and it remained their last base in the Holy Land until they had to abandon it in 1303 and flee to Cyprus.

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Funeral Rites & Burial Among the Ancient Phoenicians

Sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos: Funeral Rites & Burial Among the Ancient Phoenicians
Sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos Sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos: Funeral Rites & Burial Among the Ancient Phoenicians. Source: Library of Congress

Funeral rites were one of the major types of religious cultic activity among the Phoenicians. It appears that burial of an intact body was the preferred method for dealing with the dead, though some examples of cremation have also been found. The wealthiest Phoenicians and members of royal families received elaborately decorated stone sarcophagi which were placed in tombs cut directly out of a rock.

The bodies were typically given objects from their lives to accompany them: coins, food, cosmetics, toiletries, figurines, and so forth. The inclusion of both ritual and practical objects is often cited as evidence of belief in some afterlife, possibly one in which the deceased could make use of these objects. This may be a case where the funeral rites of Egypt influenced the religious beliefs of the Phoenicians. For a long time, Byblos was the primary port through which the Egyptians imported large Lebanese cedars for their temples.

The above photo is of the sarcophagus of Ahiram, king of Byblos around 1250 BCE. On this sarcophagus is a 22-consonant alphabetic script which is an important example of early Phoenician writing. It states, in part: 'This coffin was made by Ithobaal, the son of Ahiram, King of Byplos, as the eternal resting place for his father. If any ruler or governor or general attacks Byblos and touches this coffin, his sceptre will be broken.'

Byblos was a very important center of papyrus production and the name 'Bible' in fact comes from the city's name Byblos. Today Byblos is known as Jbeil or Jubayl.

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Tyre, Lebanon & Solomon's Temple

Triumphal Arch of Tyre, Lebanon: Reconstructed Arch from the Ancient Phoenician City
King Hiram of Tyre Sent Cedars and Carpenters to Help Solomon Triumphal Arch of Tyre, Lebanon: Reconstructed Arch from the Ancient Phoenician City. Source: Jupiter Images

Located in Lebanon north of Acre but south of Sidon and Beirut, Tyre was one of the most important of the ancient Phoenician cities. Today Tyre contains excavations of ruins dating to Crusader, Byzantine, Arab, Greco-Roman, and earlier eras. Tyre is also referenced quite a few times in the Bible, sometimes as an ally of the Israelites and sometimes in the context of condemning the religious or cultural influences which the Phoenicians were exercising over the Israelites.

Tyre's primary claim to fame, not to mention wealth, was a sea snail which allowed them to produce highly-coveted purple dye. This color was rare and difficult to produce, a factor in its adoption by rulers as a color of royalty. Even as late as the reign of Roman emperor Diocletian (284-305 CE), two pounds of purple dye sold for over six pounds of gold. Other Phoenician cities also traded in the prized dye, but Tyre was the center of its production and the city with which the product was most closely associated.

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Sidon, Lebanon

Sidon Sea Castle: Photograph of the Crusader Sea Castle, Off Shore of Sidon, Lebanon
Ancient Phoenician Trading Port and Modern Lebanese City Sidon Sea Castle: Photograph of the Crusader Sea Castle, Off Shore of Sidon, Lebanon. Source: Wikipedia


Sidon (Zidon, Saida, 'fishery') is the third-largest city in Lebanon. Located 48 km south of Beirut, Sidon was one of the most famous cities of the ancient world, but today it is one of the least well known - in part because its archaeological relics have either been stolen and scattered or covered over by modern construction. There is evidence of human settlement at least as early as 4000 BCE and possibly going back to 6000 BCE.

Archaeological evidence indicates that Sidon was abandoned during the Middle Bronze Age and only repopulated during the Late Bronze Age. Much the same has been found at other Phoenician coastal sites, like Tyre, but the reason for this is unknown. Also like other Phoenician ​costal cities, Sidon was frequently targeted by larger regional powers for both its trade wealth and its strategic location. It fell under the influence of Egyptian rulers starting in 1450 BCE, then under Assyrian domination around 900 BCE. After 539 BCE Persians took control of the region.

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Sacred Prostitution in Ancient Phoenicia

Sacred Prostitution in Ancient Phoenicia: Did Phoenician Temples Employ Prostitutes?
Did Phoenician Temples Employ Prostitutes to Fulfill a Religious Function? Sacred Prostitution in Ancient Phoenicia: Did Phoenician Temples Employ Prostitutes?. Source: Jupiter Images

Sacred prostitutes were probably an established Phoenician institution for millennia - and the Phoenicians weren't the only culture to have them. Sacred prostitution is most closely associated with the cult of Astarte, which is probably one of the most important reasons why worship of Astarte was opposed so vehemently by the ancient Israelites. Moreover, sacred prostitution was not an exclusively female occupation: Phoenician inscriptions on Cyprus from the 5th century BCE lists the names of both male and female prostitutes employed in Astarte's temple there.

It is presumed that sacred temple prostitution involved young, unmarried virgins who offered themselves as representatives of Astarte in fulfillment of a religious vow. According to Roman records, ritual prostitution was very prominent in several mainland Phoenician cities, including Byblos, Baalbek, and Beirut, suggesting that the practice stems from a very early date.

Like most Near Eastern religions, divination and oracular prophecy were also popular. Priests would read signs and omens in dreams, weather phenomena, and of course animal entrails. Temple oracles were a means by which deities would communicate to people through intermediaries like priests who entered trances or ecstatic states. The messages themselves were typically cryptic and had to be interpreted carefully.

The biblical account of Elijah's contest with the prophets of Baal may give some indication of the prophetic practices common to Phoenician religion:

  • And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made. And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked. And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them. And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice... [1 Kings 18:25-29]
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Tower of Lions in Tripoli, Lebanon

Tower of Lions in Tripoli, Lebanon
Tower of Lions in Tripoli, Lebanon. Source: Library of Congress

At one time, Tripoli was the center of a confederation of Phoenician city-states - Tyre, Sidon, and Arados - thus the name 'Tripoli,' which means 'triple city.' Today Tripoli is Lebanon's second-largest city as well as its second-largest port, behind Beirut in both respects.

Tripoli has been controlled at various times in history by Persians, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, and more, but the Crusaders' control of the area may be the most famous. Just east of the city is the Krak des Chevaliers, the 'fortress of the knights,' headquarters for the Knights Hospitallers during the Crusades. An earlier fortress built by the ruler of Aleppo stood here originally, but after the Crusaders had captured it, the Hospitallers launched a construction project which expanded it and made it the biggest fortress in the Holy Land.​ Its outer wall is 30 meters thick, and the walls around the guard towers are up to 10 meters thick.

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Baalbek, Lebanon

Baalbek, Temple of Jupiter Baal (Heliopolitan Zeus): Site of Worship of Canaanite God Baal
Roman Heliopolis and Temple Site at Baalbek in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley Baalbek, Temple of Jupiter Baal (Heliopolitan Zeus): Site of Worship of Canaanite God Baal. Source: Library of Congress

Located in Lebanon's Beqaa valley, about 86 km northeast of Beirut and 60 km from the Mediterranean coast, Baalbek is one of the best least-known Roman sites in the world. Consisting of temples to the developing Roman trinity of Jupiter, Baachus, and Venus, this complex is based upon an earlier, existing sacred site dedicated to another triad of deities: Hadad (Adonis), Atargatis (Astarte), and Baal. All around the Roman temple complex of Baalbek are tombs cut into the rocks which date to the Phoenician era centuries earlier.

The transformation from a Canaanite religious site to a Roman one began after 332 BCE when Alexander conquered the city and initiated a process of Hellenization. In 15 BCE Caesar made it a Roman colony and named it Colonia Julia Augusta Felix Heliopolitanus. That's not a very memorable name (which may be why it was more commonly known simply as Heliopolis), but it was from this time that Baalbek itself became more famous - in particular because of the massive temple of Jupiter which dominates the site.

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Religious Divisions & Diversity in Modern Lebanon

Religious Divisions & Diversity in Modern Lebanon
Lebanon Today is a Product of Ancient Phoenician and Canaanite History Religious Divisions & Diversity in Modern Lebanon. Source: Jupiter Images

Modern Beirut, Lebanon

Today Lebanon is one of the most religiously complex nations in the Middle East. It is of course dominated by Muslims at 70% of the population, but even they are divided into 5 different groups: Alawite or Nusayri, Druze, Isma'ilite, Shi'a, Sunni. The remaining 30% are almost all Christian, and they are divided into 11 formally recognized groups: 4 Orthodox Christian, 6 Catholic, 1 Protestant.

Religion is supremely important in Lebanese politics because political offices are all divided up according to religious representation. The Library of Congress Country Study on Lebanon states: 'Religion in Lebanon is not merely a function of individual preference reflected in the ceremonial practice of worship. Rather, religion is a phenomenon that often determines social and political identification. Hence, religion is politicized by the confessional quota system in distributing power, benefits, and posts.'