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Phoenician Ships

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The best seafarers and ship builders of the ancient world were the Phoenicians. The famous Lebanese cedar tress covering the slopes of mountains of their native land was a perfect material for construction of strong seaworthy ships. The Phoenicians made important contributions to the marine science, having been credited with the division of a circle into 360 degrees and having reliable celestial reference points.

The destruction of the Minoan civilization around 1400 BC and the decline of the Egyptian empire left the Mediterranean open to newcomers, especially to the Phoenicians and to the emerging Greek kingdoms. The Phoenicians had been at sea for some time before the Greeks and were already well established and experienced sailors. The Phoenicians were traders rather than warriors whereas the Greeks were concerned with territorial expansion and therefore used sea power as an instrument of conquest. These different priorities naturally affected the types of boats favoured by the two emerging maritime powers. However the area now known as the Levant had been a meeting place for warring races for millennia. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the ships used by the Phoenicians incorporated features drawn from variety of sources.

The earliest evidence for Phoenician ships comes from an Egyptian relief of around 1400 BC at the tomb of Kenamon at Thebes which shows Phoenician ships unloading in an Egyptian port. The vessels have much in common with contemporary Egyptian ships, especially in the mast, rigging, sickle shaped hull and straight rising stem and stern posts, and deck beams projecting through the hull just below the sheerstrake. In these respects they are comparable with the general appearance of the ships of Queen Hatshepsut but they differ from Egyptian ships in three significant details. Firstly the hulls are shorter than the equivalent Egyptian ships and were therefore probably more seaworthy. Secondly there is a wicker fence along the sheerstrake to protect the deck cargo, a feature which is described by Homer in his account of the building of Odysseus' ship on Calypso's island but does not appear in Egyptian ship iconography. Thirdly the ships on the tomb of Kenamon do not have a visible hogging truss which implies that the method of construction was mechanically more sound than that of Hatshepsut's ships and may have included a proper keel.

Another representation of a Phoenician ship comes from the palace of Sargon at Nineveh and shows a vessel loading timber, presumably cedar, and is dated around 700 BC. The timber cargo was partly stowed on deck and the rest was towed as a raft behind the ship. Evidence for this practice comes from the Bible where Hiram, King of Tyre, writes to Solomon about the supply for timber form his temple in Jerusalem: "My servants shall bring them down to Lebanon unto the sea; and I will convey them by sea in floats unto the place that thou shalt appoint me."

The ships depicted on Sargon's tomb are unremarkable symmetrical oared vessels with high rising stem and stern posts decorated with figureheads in the shape of horse heads and a less pronounced sickle shape than the first millennium ships depicted on the tomb of Kenamon. The use of oared vessels would be appropriate for this kind of trade in timber where manoeuvrability would be at a premium. For more general trade, especially in bulk goods, round sailing ships would always have an advantage over galleys. The C8th Phoenicians appear to have maintained both options. A second relief at the palace of Sargon's son Sennacherib shows two types of Phoenician galley. Firstly asymmetrical two banked galleys with low bow, high curved stern, comparatively straight sheer line and an unambiguous upcurved ram. The second type is symmetrical and does not have the ram. Both types are clearly biremes and both clearly have a deck, with passengers and pavisade, superimposed above the rowers. Surprisingly the symmetrical round hulled ships, which might be expected to be sailing vessels, are shown without mast or rigging whereas the asymmetrical warships are rigged for sailing. Another C8th picture of Greek and Tyrian warships in combat depicts third variant which appears to be a symmetrical round hulled oared vessel with a ram added to the stem. The features found in these Phoenician biremes are also found on contemporary Greek galleys.


The Phoenicians' most significant contribution was the "round boat" a broad-beamed ship that depended principally on sails rather than oars and provided a much larger cargo space than the narrow galleys. Phoenician round ships traveled the Mediterranean and beyond.




Above is a Phoenician trade ship of about 1500 BC. This is a rather capacious vessel with strong stem posts (firm beam in prow and stern extremities of the ship) and two stern oars. The mast bore a direct sail on two curved beams. To the prow stem post they fastened a large clay amphora for a storage of potable water.




A later ship is depicted above dating to around 850 BC. Pictures of this type of ship can be found decorating antique vases of VIII century BC. The hull of the boat was low in height and the low strong mast bore a large rectangular sail, quilted for strength with leather belts. The hull was quite often filled with water transported usually amphora densely corked and filled by wax or asphalt. The upper deck was used to transport valuable consignments. The vessel was paramilitary and so the bow was bound with iron protecting the hull in case of impact with the hull of the enemy ship.


Phoenician shipbuilders are also credited with developing bireme and trireme galleys in which the oars were arranged in two or three banks. Multibanked galleys are a matter of scholarly dispute. Some authorities, who doubt that the quinquiremes of the Greeks and Romans actually had five banks of oars, suggest that the term means merely that five rowers were assigned to each oar.




This is rather narrow, strong ship is of the type used from 1500-1000 BC. The upper combat deck is lifted on racks as a platform. Massive scull and prow oars essentially distinguished these vessels from similar boats of that time. These considerably increased manoeuvrability allowing the ship to turn 180 degrees rapidly. In combat these oars could be strongly firmly clamped to the hull so as to be used as battering rams. The mast was removable. Two ranks of oars allow us to refer this ship type of ship as a bireme. Length of the ship was from 25 up to 35 meters, and the width about 4 to 5 meters.




The bireme (a ship with two banks of oars), introduced by the Phoenicians in about 700 BC, became the leading warship of the 8th century BC. These vessels became very large, some reputedly having as many as 40 banks of oars, but smaller vessels were again common by the 1st cent. B.C. The narrow prolate hull of this Phoenician bireme of around 100 BC consisted of two floors and the upper one was again for the helmsmen and warriors. For greater stability of the ship the Phoenicians lowered the crinolines (platforms where oarsmen sat). A massive bronze covered battering ram was the main weapon of this narrow high speed bireme. The traditional removable rig was typical. A decorative poop extremity of stern was abruptly bent, similarly to a tail of a scorpion, and the balustrade of the battle platform was covered with the shields of warriors for reinforcement. Phoenicians were considered as the best seamen of the time and many ancient states frequently used them as mercenaries. The length was about 30 meters with a width of some 5 meters.




The trireme (a Roman trireme pictured above) reached its highest point of development in the eastern Mediterranean during the 5th century BC. Light, fast, and maneuverable, it was the principal naval vessel with which Persia, Phoenicia, and the Greek city-states vied for mastery of the seas from the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC through the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404. Its unprecedented propulsive power was achieved by the arrangement of 170 oarsmen in three tiers along each side of the vessel, 31 in the top tier, 27 in the middle, and 27 in the bottom. The hull was a thin shell of planks joined edge-to-edge and then stiffened by a keel and light transverse ribs. Such light construction enabled the trireme to displace only 40 tons on an overall length of approximately 120 feet (37 m) and a beam of 18 feet (5.5 m); no ballast was used. The trireme is said to have been capable of reaching speeds greater than 7 knots (8 miles per hour, or 13 km/h) and perhaps as high as 9 knots under oars. Square-rigged sails were used for power when the ship was not engaged. The principal armament of the trireme was a bronze-clad ram, which extended from the keel at or below the waterline and was designed to pierce the light hulls of enemy warships. In addition, the ship carried a complement of spearmen and bowmen who attacked enemy crewmen or attempted to board their vessels. By the end of the 4th century BC, armed deck soldiers had become so important in naval warfare that the trireme was superceded by heavier, decked-over ships with multiple rows of oarsmen.



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