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D - 61: Following the Stars and the Winds

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Ever wondered how the Phoenicians and Greeks sailed in the 8th - 6th century BC to the western Mediterranean? We will be crossing these ancient trade routes from the very moment we leave Genoa - a town actually founded by Greek colonists. But am going to focus on the southern part of our sailing since I found more sources for this area. 

According to the founding myth of Carthage, Princess Elissa from Tyre (60 km south of Beirut) sailed for 1’200 miles straight west over open sea until she found a bay in Northern Africa where she would build her new town. Even with today’s nautical instrument this journey would be an achievement since it is mostly against the prevailing winds. 

Phoenician Trade Routes in the Mediterranean

Whilst we do not know whether Carthage’s founding myth is true, there is plenty of evidence that such trade routes existed. For several hundred years,  silver and tin ingots flowed along these routes to the east, whilst dyes, olive oil, wine and glass moved to the west. There was also an active political and cultural exchange between the parent towns in the Levant and their colonies in the West. So how did they do it?

No written records detailing navigation techniques survived - if there were ever any. On the four Bronze Age boats found in Mediterranean waters, no navigational instruments except sink lead to gauge water depth were found.  Nothing else. Astrolabes, sextants and charts were invented much later.

Uluburun shipwreck in Turkey dating from the 14th century BC (reconstruction photo)

From paintings on vases and tombs however we know that the ancient Greeks had detailed knowledge of the positions of the sun, moon and the stars over the course of the year. Egyptian and Sumer astronomers had mapped them since the time pyramids were built or even earlier. Of course, the sailors could not take these stone chiselled records on board. But they had access to the knowledge in the form of poetry and songs and handed it verbally down to the next generation. The entire Iliad - ancient poems eventually written down by writer Homer - is full of such stories. We also know from Polynesian explorer in the Pacific that navigational expertise can be verbally preserved for generations. It must have been the same in the Mediterranean.  

Ancient Greek mariner following the stars at night

The ancient Greek language is also full of names for local, seasonal winds which could be used for sailing into the right direction. I could not find any evidence as to whether the Phoenician language also has lots of wind words. Would not be surprised at all if it was.

Phoenician boat shipping cedar wood from the Levant to Egypt - 8th century BC

Whenever possible the ancient mariners sailed along the coast to find shelter in case of bad weather. This was also the reason for the establishment of the many colonies along these trade routes. However, sailing west along the North African Coast is impossible during the summer times - the wind blows consistently west to east. The Phoenicians had to escape north and then turn west just south of the coasts of Cyprus or Crete towards Sicily and Malte. This is actually the route Apostle St Paul followed on his journey to Rome before his ship wrecked on the rocks of the Maltese coast.

The achievements of the Phoenicians and the Greeks 3’000 years ago is impressive considering the simple technology available to them. Sailing was a risky business but a risk they were willing to take given the rewards. Again, we have no written records about the wealth this trade created but looking at the way the colonies prospered it must have been profitable.  But this is the subject for tomorrow.

Greek sailors in the Mediterranean (from a Greek vase)

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