The Phoenicians: First in Celestial Navigation, Using Polaris, the North Star
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The Phoenicians: First in Celestial Navigation, Using Polaris, the North Star

One of the most obvious examples of celestial navigation -navigation making use of the stars and constellations- is the use of Polaris to know which way is north. Although religions exaggerated the distinctions, essentially Phoenicia, Canaan, and Israel were a single people, with the Phoenicians representing the coastal, sea-going element.

One of the most obvious examples of celestial navigation -navigation making use of the

stars and constellations

- is the use of Polaris to know which way is north. Polaris as the North Star is a discovery of the Phoenicians. The word Phoenician, actually is Greek for dealers in purple, based on the color of the dye that several Phoenician kingdoms, notably the kingdom of Tyre (in modern Lebanon), extracted from a type of shell fish known as Murex brandaris. Indeed, commonly, this dye was known as Tyrian purple. Remembered as the great maritime civilization of antiquity, the Phoenicians inhabited various, independent city-states that lined the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Although religions exaggerated the distinctions, essentially Phoenicia, Canaan, and Israel were a single people, with the Phoenicians representing the coastal, sea-going element. The view of the “Canaanites” and the “Sidonians” (for the Phoenician city of Sidon) corrupting Israel with foreign gods comes from biblical redactors, writing hundreds of years later in and motivated by monotheistic chauvinism.

The southern extent Phoenician civilization, which associated with Israel as the “tribe” of Asher, generally reached to the city of Dor, just south of Mount Carmel and modern day Haifa, though at times it may have reached port city of Jaffa (Yafo), next to modern Tel Aviv. Beyond that, the Philistine states of Eqron and Ashdod dominated. The southern Northward, Phoenician civilization reached approximately to Ugarit. Located in modern day Syria, Ugarit is famous for the thousands of tablets that have been excavated there, providing a fascinating picture of Late Bronze Age Canaanite religion, whose gods seem to be the origin of Israel’s gods, as well as some of the human and super-human characters of the Bible.

Early in the first millennium BCE, before the Greeks emerged from the dark age into which Mycenaean civilization had descended at the end of the Late Bronze Age, Phoenician city-states were sending out long-distance sea expeditions. This would lead to Phoenician outposts and colonies first on the island of Cyprus, but soon as far west as Sicily, Sardinia, and even Spain (which may have been the location of biblical "Tarshish"). The African coast was another area of Phoenician exploration, the location of the most famous Phoenician colony, Qart Hadash, meaning “new city”. By way of the Greek language, we know it today as Carthage.

Prior to the Phoenician discovery of how to use Polaris, ships traveling on the Mediterranean Sea tended to stay within view of the coastline to avoid getting lost, even if this made the course to their destination extremely indirect. To travel from Egypt to a point due north along the southern coast of Anatolia, for instance, ships would sail east, along the coast of the Sinai Peninsula, north along the coast of Canaan, then west along the Anatolian coast. When traveling to an island such as Cyprus, ship captains would follow the coast to the closest point to the island before crossing the sea, to minimize the amount of time during which they would not see land. Once navigators realized that they could keep Polaris directly in front or in back of their ship at night, ships began crossing the Mediterranean along direct north-south routes. Now possible were fast trips between Africa and points across the sea such as Cyprus, Anatolia, Greece, Crete, and Italy. This, in turn, is thought to have helped to bring about a renaissance of culture and international trade that corresponded with the spread of the Canaanite alphabet, the end of the Greek Dark Age, and the beginning of the phase of civilization known as the Iron Age.

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Comments (1)

I don't know if the Phoenicians actually were the first celestial navigators, but an interesting article!

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