Much is said about the Moors in Spain or the Roman influence on its culture, but these were not the first cultures to have a significant impact on the region. That honour goes to the Phoenicians, the merchant nation from the eastern part of the Mediterranean. Located in today’s Lebanon, this seafaring empire already dominated commerce in its region when it set out to create trading colonies all across the Mediterranean Sea. As such, it was the Phoenicians, with their advanced culture, who founded coastal cities such as Málaga, Cádiz and Lisbon in Portugal.
Over time these trading colonies became so successful that eventually power shifted from the Levante to one of them, Carthage, in today’s Tunisia. It was the Carthaginians, descendants of earlier Phoenician settlers, who came to dominate the Mediterranean in the era before the Romans, inheriting Hispania (as Spain was then known) and later fighting many of its wars against the emerging Roman Empire on Spanish soil.
A flowering of culture
Many Andalusians may not even be aware of it, but they carry the flower of the eastern Mediterranean within them. For when the Phoenicians first settled along Spain’s southern and southeast coasts the ports they established would later become the centre point of a new civilisation. They greatly impacted upon the society and economy of the indigenous Iberians, who were a predominantly pastoral people, but the vines, palm trees, trade structure and alphabet brought from the east revolutionised life in the region.
Eventually the two cultures merged into one, creating a flowering of art, science, commerce and prosperity that made Gadir (Cádiz) and Malaka (Málaga) two of the jewels of the ancient world. The semi-legendary Tartessos was mentioned in the Bible as a port city rich in gold and wealth. It has never been found, and is believed by some to lay under the sandy dunes of the Doñana nature reserve, but it is indicative of the advanced culture that flowed from the coming together of the Phoenicians and Iberians.
Today, many of the classical ruins and archaeological findings in Andalucía are not only Roman, Greek or Moorish, but also Phoenician and Carthaginian. Visit Cádiz, Málaga, Almuñecar and also Cartagena (New Carthage) in the Costa Blanca, and you will suddenly realise the Phoenician influence is all around us.