Out of the Ashes: The Ancient Phoenicians and the Phoenix Rising Legend
By Rita George and Melia McClure
The Fabled Phoenicians
The Phoenicians were famed in the ancient world for their miraculous ability to create awe-inspiring comebacks from devastating loss. Their legend spanned over 4,000 years and still lives on today, teaching contemporary civilization about resiliency, transformation and peace.
Phoenicia was an ancient Semitic Canaanite society located in the land now called Lebanon. This area is part of what has come to be nicknamed “The Cradle of Civilization” and is more properly known as the Fertile Crescent, a region that contains the fertile part of the Middle East, and the Nile Valley and Delta of Northeastern Africa. The major Phoenician cities were situated on the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea, and their people created an enterprising maritime trading culture that spread, among other things, the alphabet from which all major modern alphabets are derived.
The Phoenix Rising Legend
The legend of a mysterious bird known to us as the phoenix was popular in Ancient Egypt and later became part of the culture of Ancient Greece. As the story has it, the phoenix is a magnificent bird with red and gold plumage that lives for 500 years before suddenly bursting into flames and being consumed by the fire. From the ashes, a young phoenix then arises and begins anew. The Phoenix Rising legend came to be shaped by, and associated with, the long history of the Phoenician people.
The evolution of the legend began in 3,600 BC when the Phoenicians were building cedar boats in order to facilitate fishing and trading within a half-day’s journey from one of their most important cities, Byblos. They soon ventured farther down the coast and by approximately 3,200 BC had forged a lucrative trading partnership with Egypt that brought them great wealth. Over the next two centuries, the Phoenicians developed cities up and down the coast of Lebanon, including Byblos, Tyre and Sidon, as well as a multiplicity of other colonies and cities along the Western Mediterranean, such as Santorini, Sicily, Crete, Corsica, Carthage, and as far afield as the Atlantic coast of Spain and Morocco. They continued to amass wealth while exploring new lands, people and customs.
Living the Legend
Unsurprisingly, their success attracted hostility, and by 2,000 BC other cultures were intent on conquering the Phoenicians and the surrounding area. Every couple of hundred years, invaders would set upon a prominent hub such as Byblos or Tyre, taking whatever they could before burning it to the ground and leaving. Such annihilation was common throughout the ancient world, a part of the way that life was lived and fought over at the time. However, the Phoenicians’ extraordinary response to the devastation of their cities set them apart from other ancient peoples: They would return to their routed land and, as a unified force, rebuild it within five or ten years. Their cities would literally rise out of their own ashes and become even richer than before, and this miracle was repeated countless times over the centuries.
A peaceful people, the Phoenicians weren’t interested in conducting conquests or engaging in warfare. They valued family, spirituality, Mother Earth, women, relationships with trading partners and privacy. People within their society and those from other cultures were treated with respect. As explorers of exotic shores, they were known for blending in, admiring the customs, traditions and religions of all they encountered, and developing lasting relationships. It was simply the Phoenician way of being to appreciate people for who they were rather than focus on how they were different.
The inspiring resurrection of their cities was closely tied to how they dealt with an impending attack. The Phoenicians were skilled in the art of diplomacy and sought at all times to avoid conflict. When they learned that outsiders planned to attempt to conquer them, they took action before the invasion occurred. They initiated a peace process that began with the Phoenicians lavishing their would-be attackers with gifts and concluded with the negotiation of a settlement that was equally advantageous for both parties. Their diplomatic finesse enabled them to thwart attacks and maintain sovereignty over their lives many times over.
On the occasions when diplomacy failed and thus an invasion loomed, the Phoenicians would leave their city by boat, taking their material treasures with them. After the invaders had looted whatever was left and burned the city to the ground, they would retreat and the Phoenicians would return to the ruins with all of their people and wealth intact. Then, in a staggering show of resiliency, will and unity, they accomplished the miracle of rebuilding their home. They were known for placing high value on partnership and cooperation – principles clearly put into practice time and again. Each and every family shared in the prosperity generated through trading ventures, and therefore everyone contributed to resurrecting their city from ashes. Working as a collective unit with an impassioned purpose, and thereby rising from repeated trials by fire, made the Phoenicians remarkable in their own time and their legacy has been celebrated in the centuries since.
The Chinese Phoenix
The phoenix has not only endured in “The Cradle of Civilization” that gave it birth, but spread to cultures and faiths around the world, appearing in such countries as China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Turkey and Russia, as well as many others. In Chinese culture, a phoenix-like bird is known as “fenghuang,” and is the sacred leader of all birds. Feng is male and huang is female, and thus the Chinese phoenix serves as a representation of balanced, integrated masculine and feminine energies. It is considered to be symbolic of nobility, divinity, peace, prosperity, immortality and the constant striving of the human spirit to transform and ascend. When paired with a dragon, the phoenix represents female, yin energy and therefore has traditionally been associated with empresses, a sign of their status as Heaven-sent beings – a status that is the birthright of all people. The oldest example of the phoenix in Chinese art is a silk painting discovered in a tomb dating to the Warring States Period (475 BC-221 BC). Thousands of years after an anonymous artist immortalized an immortal bird, the phoenix continues to inspire people of the Orient.
The concept of rebirth is common to religion and spirituality. Early Christian art and literature features the phoenix as a symbol of the resurrection and eternal life of Christ, and Judaism also offers us a legend in which this majestic bird transcends death. Meditators seek transformation, to ascend from the ashes of an old way of being and manifest a fresh life path. But even apart from a religious or spiritual context, the Phoenix Rising legend reminds us that we have the innate power to renew our personal and professional lives whenever we make the commitment to do so. When in doubt, we can recall the Phoenician people who lived this legend with such grace.
The fabled legacy of the Phoenicians is a gift available to all who choose to embrace a new dawn and let go of past hardships. In releasing what has come before and allowing new opportunities and challenges to bring about greater strength, peace and gratitude, we pay tribute to the wisdom of an ancient culture – a Universal wisdom that lies within us all.
*Editor’s Note: If you are interested in learning more about the legendary Phoenicians and their pivotal role in the creation of the world, read Phoenicians: Lebanon’s Epic Heritage by Sanford Holst.