The Phoenicians were the first to build proper ships and to brave the rough waters of the Atlantic.

To be sure, the Minoans before them traded with great vigor and defended their Mediterranean trade routes with swift and vicious naval force. Their ships—built with tools of sharp-edged bronze—were elegant and strong: they were made of cypress trees, sawn in half and lapped together, with white-painted and sized linen stretched across the planks, and with a sail suspended from a mast of oak, and oars to supplement their speed. But they worked only by day, and they voyaged only between the islands within a few days’ sailing of Crete; never once did any Minoan dare venture beyond the Pillars of Hercules, into the crashing waves of the Sea of Perpetual Gloom.

The Minoans, like most of their rival thalassocracies, accepted without demur the legends that enfolded the Atlantic, the stories and the sagas that conspired to keep even the boldest away. The waters beyond the Pillars, beyond the known world, beyond what the Greeks called the oekumen, the inhabited earth, were simply too fantastic and frightful to even think of braving. There might have been some engaging marvels: close inshore, the Gardens of the Hesperides, and somewhat farther beyond, that greatest of all Greek philosophical wonderlands, Atlantis. But otherwise the ocean was a place wreathed in terror: I can find no way whatever of getting out of this gray surf, Odysseus might well have complained, no way out of this gray sea. The winds howled too fiercely, the storms blew up without warning, the waves were of a scale and ferocity never seen in the Mediterranean.

Nevertheless, the relatively peaceable inland sea of the classical world was to prove a training ground, a nursery school, for those sailors who in time, and as an inevitable part of human progress, would prove infinitely more daring and commercially ambitious than the Minoans. At just about the time that Santorini erupted and, as many believe, gave the final fatal blow to Minoan ambitions, so the more mercantile of the Levantines awoke. From their sliver of coastal land—a sliver that, in time, would become Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel, and can be described as a land with an innate tendency toward ambition—the big Phoenician ships ventured out and sailed westward, trading, battling, dominating.

When they came to the Pillars of Hercules, some time around the seventh century B.C., they, unlike all of their predecessors, decided not to stop. Their captains, no doubt bold men and true, decided to sail right through, into the onrushing waves and storms, and see before all other men just what lay beyond.

The men from the port of Tyre appear to have been the first to do so. Their boats, broad-beamed, sickle-shaped “round ships” or galloi—so called because of the sinuous fat curves of the hulls, and often with two sails suspended from hefty masts, one at midships and one close to the forepeak—were made of locally felled and surprisingly skillfully machined cedar planks, fixed throughout with mortise and tenon joints and sealed with tar. Most of the long-haul vessels from Tyre, Byblos, and Sidon had oarsmen, too—seven on each side for the smaller trading vessels, double banks of thirteen on either side of the larger ships, which gave them a formidable accelerative edge. Their decorations were grand and often deliberately intimidating—enormous painted eyes on the prow, many-toothed dragons and roaring tigers tipped with metal ram-blades, in contrast to the ample-bosomed wenches later beloved by Western sailors.

Phoenician ships were built for business. The famous Bronze Age wreck discovered at Uluburun in southern Turkey by a sponge diver in 1982 (and which, while not definitely Phoenician, was certainly typical of the period) displayed both the magnificent choice of trade goods available in the Mediterranean and the vast range of journeys to be undertaken. The crew on this particular voyage had evidently taken her to Egypt, to Cyprus, to Crete, to the mainland of Greece, and possibly even as far as Spain. When they sank, presumably when the cargo shifted in a sudden storm, the holds of the forty-five-foot-long galloi contained a bewildering and fatally heavy amassment of delights, far more than John Masefield could ever have fancied. There were ingots of copper and tin, blue glass and ebony, amber, ostrich eggs, an Italian sword, a Bulgarian axe, figs, pomegranates, a gold scarab with the image of Nefertiti, a set of bronze tools that most probably belonged to the ship’s carpenter, a ton of terebinth resin, hosts of jugs and vases and Greek storage jars known as pithoi, silver and gold earrings, innumerable lamps, and a large cache of hippopotamus ivory.

The possibility that the Uluburun ship journeyed as far as Spain suggests the traders’ ultimate navigational ambitions. The forty ingots of tin included in the cargo hints at their commercial motive. Tin was an essential component of bronze, and since the introduction of metal coinage in the seventh century B.C., the demand for it had vastly increased. It was known anecdotally to the Levantines that alluvial tin was to be found in several of the rivers that cascaded down from the hills of central southern Spain—the Guadalquivir and the Guadalete most notably, but also the Tinto, the Odiel, and the Guadiana—and so the Phoenicians, at around this time, decided to move, and disregard the legendary warnings. For them, with the limited knowledge they had and the jeremiads on daily offer from the seers and priests, it was as audacious as attempting to travel into outer space: full of risk, and with uncertain rewards.

And so, traveling in convoy for safety and comfort, the first brave sailors passed beneath the wrathful brows of the rock pillars—Gibraltar to the north and Jebel Musa to the south—made their halting way, without apparent incident, along the Iberian coastline, and finding matters more congenial than they imagined—for they were in sight of land all the time, and did not venture into the farther deep—they then set up the oceanic trading stations they would occupy for the next four centuries. The first was at Gades, today’s Cádiz; the second was Tartessus, long lost today, possibly mentioned in the Bible as Tharshish, and by Aristophanes for the quality of the local lampreys, but believed to be a little farther north than Gades, along the Spanish Atlantic coast at Huelva.

It was from these two stations that the sailors of the Phoenician merchant marine began to perfect their big-ocean sailing techniques. It was from here that they first embarked on the long and dangerous voyages that would become precedents for the following two thousand years of the oceanic exploration of these parts.

They came first for the tin. But while this trade flourished, prompting the merchantmen to sail to Brittany and Cornwall and even perhaps beyond, it was their discovery of the beautiful murex snails that took them far beyond the shores of their imagination.

The magic of murex had been discovered seven hundred years before, by the Minoans, who discerned that, with time and trouble, the mollusks could be made to secrete large quantities of a rich and indelible purple-crimson dye—of a color so memorable the Minoan aristocracy promptly decided to dress in clothes colored with it. The color was costly, and there were laws that banned its use by the lower classes. The murex dye swiftly became—for the Minoans, for the Phoenicians, and most notably of all, for the Romans—the most prized color of imperial authority. One was born to the purple: only one so clad could be part of the vast engine work of Roman rule, or as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, of the “emperors, senior magistrates, senators and members of the equestrian class of Ancient Rome.”

By the seventh century B.C., the seaborne Phoenicians were venturing out from their two Spanish entrepôts, searching for the mollusks that excreted this dye. They found little evidence of it in their searches to the north, along the Spanish coast; but once they headed southward, hugging the low sandy cliffs of the northern corner of Africa, and as the waters warmed, they found murex colonies in abundance. As they explored, so they sheltered their ships in likely-looking harbors along the way—first in a town they built and called Lixus, close to Tangier and in the foothills of the Rif: there remains a poorly maintained mosaic there of the sea god Oceanus, apparently laid by the Greeks.

Then they moved on south and found goods to trade in an estuary close to today’s Rabat. They left soldiers and encampments at still-flourishing coastal towns like Azemmour, and then, in boats with high and exaggerated prows and sterns, decorated with horses’ heads and known as hippoi, they pressed farther and farther from home, coming eventually to the islands that would be named Mogador. Here the gastropods were to be found in suitably vast quantities. And so this pair of islands, sheltering the estuary of the river named the Oued Ksob, is probably as far south as they went, and this is where their murex trade commenced with a dominating vengeance.

What are now known as Les Îles Purpuraires, bound inside a foaming vortex of tide rips, lie in the middle of the harbor of what is now the tidy Moroccan jewel of Essaouira. This town is now best known for its gigantic eighteenth-century seaside ramparts, properly fortified with breastworks and embrasures, spiked bastions, and rows of black cannon, and which enclose a handsome cloistered medina. The walkways on top of the curtain walls are the perfect place to watch the ever-crashing surf from the Atlantic rollers, especially as the sun goes down over the sea. The Phoenicians found that the snails gathered in the thousands there, in rock crevices, and they scooped them up in weighted and baited baskets. Extracting the dye—known chemically as 6.6′-dibromoindigo, and released by the animals as a defense mechanism—was rather less easy, the process always kept secret. The animal’s tincture vein had to be removed and boiled up in lead basins, and it would take many thousands of snails to produce sufficient purple to dye a single garment. It was traded, and the trade was tightly controlled, from the home port of the sailors who harvested it: Tyre. For a thousand years, genuine Tyrian purple was worth, ounce for ounce, as much as twenty times the price of gold.

The Phoenicians’ now-proven aptitude for sailing the North African coast was to be the key that unlocked the Atlantic for all time. The fear of the great unknown waters beyond the Pillars of Hercules swiftly dissipated. Before long a viewer perched high on the limestone crags of Gibraltar or Jebel Musa would be able spy other craft, from other nations, European or North African or Levantine, passing from the still blue waters of the Mediterranean into the gray waves of the Atlantic—timidly at first maybe, but soon bold and undaunted, just as the Phoenicians had been.

“Multi pertransibunt, et augebitur scientia” was a phrase from the Book of Daniel that would be inscribed beneath a fanciful illustration, engraved on the title page of a book by Sir Francis Bacon, of a galleon passing outbound, between the Pillars, shattering the comforts and securities of old. “Many will pass through, and their knowledge will become ever greater,” it is probably best translated—and it was thanks to the purple-veined gastropods and the Phoenicians who were brave enough to seek them out that such a sentiment, with its implication that learning comes only from the taking of chances and risk, would become steadily more true. It was a sentiment born at the entrance to the Atlantic Ocean.


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