Ancient History & Civilisation


The oldest piece of Phoenician writing discovered in the western Mediterranean is on a fragmentary monument known as the Nora Stone, dated to the late ninth/early eighth century BC and from south-west Sardinia. Some scholars have interpreted the text as a vote of thanks to the god Pummay by a Phoenician high official, Milkaton, after he and the crew of his ship had survived a storm while on their way to the land of ‘Tarshish’. There has been much speculation on the actual location of ‘Tarshish’; however, easily the most convincing claim is that it refers to Tartessus, the ancient name for that region of southern Spain which now roughly covers Andalusia.108

Phoenician interest in Tartessus primarily centred on the vast mineral wealth found in its interior. Although the Greek author who claimed that during forest fires streams of molten silver ran down the hillsides may have been guilty of more than a little exaggeration, the mines of southern Spain appear to have offered a seemingly limitless supply of silver, iron and many other metals.109 Once again, the Tyrians had been quickest to recognize the huge possibilities presented by the mines of Tartessus, although other Phoenicians, from Sidon, Arvad and Byblos, are also recorded as taking part in Tyrian mercantile ventures.110 The Tyrians were the first to push to the furthermost limits of the Mediterranean Sea, establishing the colony of Lixus on the west coast of what is now Morocco after passing through the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) into the Atlantic Ocean, after which they established another trading station on the island of Mogador.111


The Phoenicians had first reached Tartessus by the first half of the ninth century BC.112 The Tyrians had quickly struck up an extremely successful economic relationship with the local Tartessian elites, with their new partners controlling the actual mining and processing of the metal ores, while the Tyrians concentrated on the transportation of the ingots back to the Levant. At Huelva, a native Tartessian port, archaeologists have discovered huge smelting furnaces used for the production of metal ingots on an almost industrial scale.113 The metal trade was only one part of this lucrative enterprise. On the voyage from Phoenicia to southern Spain the ships would carry luxury goods such as jewels, ivories, bronze statuettes, cut glass, ornate jugs, unguents and perfumes packaged in alabaster vessels made in Tyrian workshops, which would be traded with the Tartessian elite.

In the late eighth century BC the Tyrians set up a colony at Gades (modern Cadiz), just beyond the Pillars of Hercules on the south-western coast of Spain, as the main transport hub for the trade. It would later be claimed that they had set out to found a settlement in the region under the orders of an oracle. However, it would take three separate expeditions before the right site was confirmed by a propitious sacrifice to the gods.114 Some would even say that the Phoenicians had reached Gades only after being blown off course in a storm.115 The site, like that of Tyre, was chosen because of its fantastic natural harbour. Situated at the end of a long, narrow promontory, it was surrounded on three sides by water, making it defendable from the land and accessible from the sea. Most importantly of all, it was situated opposite the mouth of the river Guadalete, down which the ore from the mines in the interior could be transported. In fact Gades was not just a one-industry town: it would also become famous for its garum, a strong-tasting sauce made out of decomposing mackerel mixed with vinegar, considered to be a great delicacy in the ancient world. It was, however, the metals–primarily silver–that were mined from the Spanish earth that kept the increasingly demanding Assyrian state satisfied and Tyre, therefore, relatively free to operate without excessive external interference.

The favoured route from Tyre to Gades took ships over the northern Mediterranean first to Cyprus, then to the southern coast of Asia Minor. The fleet would then travel to the islands of Rhodes, Malta, Sicily and Sardinia. The final leg of the journey went from Ibiza around the coast of Spain and then through the Pillars of Hercules to Gades. The least complicated return route was to follow the coast of North Africa, then Egypt and the Levantine coast.116 It was no coincidence that many of the Phoenician colonies that sprang up in North Africa, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta and the Balearic Islands in the late ninth and eighth centuries were located on these vital trading arteries, like links in a giant chain. These colonies also acted as a defensive line that cut across the southern Mediterranean, effectively locking commercial competitors, particularly the Greeks, out of the most lucrative metal-ore market in the ancient world. Although a Greek sea captain from Samos, Colaeus, had made it to southern Spain in the seventh century BC and picked up a cargo of sixty talents of silver (the equivalent of between 1 and 2 tonnes of metal ore), this was an isolated incident.117

Along the Mediterranean coast of Andalusia a series of small Phoenician trading settlements, spaced out at a distance of every 10 kilometres or so, sprang up. Like their larger counterparts, they tended to be situated on promontories and small islands at river mouths, which provided good locations for harbours. It has been plausibly argued that each of these settlements was associated with a particular Phoenician trading firm. Although at first the economic activity that took place in these colonies was centred almost exclusively on their role as marketplaces where local goods would be traded, later some developed their own specialist industries often associated with the production, storage and transport of goods, such as pottery and metalworking. Moreover, many appear to have supported themselves not only through manufacturing and trade, but also through agriculture, fishing and animal husbandry.118 However, the prosperity and indeed very existence of these modest Phoenician settlements and many others in the central and western Mediterranean relied heavily on the metal-ore mining and processing operations that were taking place further to the west.

Gades was set apart from the other Phoenician colonies on the southern Spanish coastline not just by the scale of the city and its population, but also because it was the only urban centre with public buildings. The city appears to have acted as the centre of Tyrian interests on the Iberian peninsula, and it even established a number of secondary colonies such as fishing, transit and trading stations in North Africa and what is now Portugal.119 Unlike Kition, these new colonies in the western Mediterranean would not be administered by a governor sent from Tyre. Their distance made such close control impossible. Instead, it appears that the Tyrian king appointed commercial agents from the Tyrian mercantile elite to oversee the trading operations and governance of the colonies.120As individual initiative took over from palace monopolies in regard to foreign trade and the Tyrian commercial empire was extended to the far-off lands of the West, the influence of these merchant princes increasingly grew at the expense of the king’s own authority.121 As the king could not safeguard his interests through direct control, it therefore became increasingly important that he find another way of maintaining his power over a city which was many thousands of kilometres away. In these difficult circumstances, Melqart, for whom a magnificent temple would be built in the city, would become the embodiment of Tyrian royal power at Gades. The elision between god and king that had been such a key element of the veneration of Melqart since his emergence under Hiram meant that the worship of the god at Gades was also a recognition of Tyrian royal authority.

Melqart would stand at the epicentre of this dynamic new settlement. His sanctuary would take up the whole of the eastern half of the island site on which it was built, and it appeared to awed later visitors that the bedrock on which it sat resembled a huge polished platform.122 Within the sacred precinct was a famous sweet-water spring.123 The magnificent adornments for which the temple at Gades would become as famous as its Tyrian counterpart emphasized the sacred bonds that linked colony to mother city. Indeed, the presence of the temple of Melqart at Gades may have been a symbol of the city’s position as the centre of the Tyrian colonial community in the western Mediterranean.124 The temple contained an olive tree made of solid gold, whose branches held fruit made from glittering emeralds –surely a reference to the famous foundation myth of Tyre. The sanctuary also contained twin pillars, standing over a cubit (45 centimetres) high and square in shape, which were made of gold and silver fused into one colour and were covered in writing the meaning of which would eventually be lost.125 It was said that, after being instructed to in a dream, the people of Gades had brought relics of the god from Tyre to their new sanctuary.126

The sacred rites that were practised at Gades followed the Phoenician tradition. Women and swine were forbidden from entering the inner sanctum of the temple precinct. The barefoot priests, who wore linen robes with a band made of Egyptian flax over their shaven heads, were expected to remain celibate. When offering incense at the altar they wore their robes unbuckled, and while sacrificing they wore a garment embroidered with a broad stripe. In the temples there were no statues or other imagery of the gods. Most importantly, the fires on the sacred altars were kept continually alight.127 The sacred rite of the egersis was also enacted at Gades.128 Later writers would tell strange stories of foreigners being required to leave the city while the great ceremony was being held, and on their return ‘they found cast ashore a man of the sea, who was about five roods in size, and burning away, because heaven had blasted him with a thunderbolt’–a clearly confused reference to the effigy of the great god which was put on a raft and set ablaze out at sea.129

The temple of Melqart at Gades also served as the vital umbilical cord through which wealth flowed from Spain back to Phoenicia, acting as an important financial guarantor, with business deals being concluded with oaths sworn to the god. As the Phoenicians had no coinage in this early period, Melqart was also called upon to guarantee the weight and purity of the metal ingots and bars through special temple hallmarks. The Gaditans also paid a substantial annual tribute of a tenth of the public treasury to the temple of Melqart at Tyre.130

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