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The Phoenicians were the direct descendents of the Canaanites of the south Syrian and Lebanese coast who, at the end of the second millennium BC, became isolated by population and political changes in the regions surrounding them. The name derives from the Greek, Phoinikes, referring to the purple coloured dye which the Phoenicians extracted from the murex shell, and with which they produced highly prized textiles.
The major Phoenician cities were Tyre, Sidon, Byblos and Arwad. These cities represented a confederation of fiercely independent maritime traders. By the late eighth century BC, the Phoenicians had founded trading posts and colonies around the entire Mediterranean, the greatest of which was Carthage on the north coast of Africa (present day Tunisia). Explorers and traders from Carthage even ventured beyond the Straits of Gibraltar as far as Britain in search of tin.
Phoenician craftsmen and artists perpetuated the purest ideals of their Canaanite ancestors into the first millennium and transmitted them throughout the Mediterranean world. They were extremely skilled in metalworking, ivory carving, jewellery manufacture and glass-making. One of the most significant contributions of the Phoenicians was in developing the alphabet invented by the Canaanites and passing it to the Greeks: it is the same alphabet we use today.