The Rise and Fall of “the Ships of Tarshish”
“The ships of Tarshish crossed the seas for your trade.”
THE ships of Tarshish helped make King Solomon rich. The people who built them influenced the development of the Greek and Roman alphabets. They also founded a city that gave its name, Byblos, to the most influential book ever published.
Who built and sailed the ships of Tarshish? How did the ships get their name? And how do events involving these people and their ships attest to the accuracy of the Bible?
Lords of the Mediterranean
The Phoenicians built the vessels that came to be known as the ships of Tarshish. Phoenicians had already become expert seamen about a thousand years before the time of Christ. Their homeland was a narrow strip of coast that more or less corresponds to modern-day Lebanon. Other nations occupied the land to the north, east, and south. To the west lay the vast Mediterranean Sea. To gain wealth, the Phoenicians looked to that sea.
The Phoenician seamen gradually built a thriving merchant fleet. As profits grew and technology advanced, they constructed larger ships that could handle longer voyages. After reaching Cyprus, Sardinia, and the Balearic Islands, the Phoenicians followed the North African coastline in a westerly direction until they reached Spain. (See the accompanying map.)
Phoenician shipwrights built boats a hundred feet long. These oceangoing vessels were apparently called “ships of Tarshish” since they could undertake the 2,500-mile [4,000 km] journey from Phoenicia to southern Spain, the possible location of Tarshish.*
The Phoenicians may not have been bent on ruling the world, only on making money from it. They did so by establishing trading posts. As traders, however, they became the lords of the Mediterranean.
Beyond the Mediterranean
In their quest for profit, Phoenician explorers ventured into the Atlantic Ocean. Their ships continued to hug the southern coast of Spain until they came to an area called Tartessus. About the year 1100 B.C.E., they founded a city that they called Gadir. This port, now known as Cádiz, Spain, became one of the first large cities of Western Europe.
The Phoenicians traded salt, wine, dried fish, cedar, pine, metalwork, glass, embroidery, fine linen, and cloth dyed the famous Tyrian purple. What wealth did Spain have to offer in return?
Southern Spain proved to be the Mediterranean’s richest source of silver and other valuable metals. Regarding Tyre, the principal port of the Phoenicians, the prophet Ezekiel said: “You did business in Spain and took silver, iron, tin, and lead in payment for your abundant goods.”
The Phoenicians discovered a seemingly inexhaustible supply of these minerals near the river Guadalquivir, not far from Cádiz. The same minerals are still extracted from this area, now called Río Tinto. These mines have been producing high-quality ore for some three thousand years.
With the Spanish-Phoenician shipping line firmly established, the Phoenicians claimed a monopoly on Spanish silver. The silver flooded into Phoenicia and even into nearby Israel. King Solomon of Israel formed joint business ventures with Phoenician King Hiram. As a result, in Solomon’s day silver was counted as “nothing at all.”
Although the Phoenicians became successful merchants, they could be ruthless. Reportedly, they sometimes lured people aboard ship on the pretense of showing them their wares, only to enslave them. In time, they even turned on their former trading partners, the Israelites, and sold them into slavery. Hence, Hebrew prophets predicted the destruction of the Phoenician city of Tyre. These prophecies were finally fulfilled by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E. (Joel 3:6; Amos 1:9, 10) This destruction marked the end of the Phoenician era.
The Phoenician Legacy
Like all good businessmen, the Phoenician traders put their agreements in writing. They used an alphabet very similar to ancient Hebrew. Other nations saw the advantages of the Phoenician alphabet. With modifications, it became the basis for the Greek alphabet, which in turn was the forerunner of the Roman script, one of the most widely used alphabets today.
In addition, the important Phoenician city of Byblos became a center for the distribution of papyrus, the precursor of modern paper. The use of papyrus in writing encouraged the development of books. In fact, the English word for the world’s most widely distributed book, the Bible, is derived from the name Byblos. Indeed, the historical record of the Phoenicians and their ships builds confidence that the Bible is firmly rooted in fact.
Over time, the term “ships of Tarshish” came to signify a type of ship, one capable of long sea voyages.
Solomon’s “fleet of ships of Tarshish” collaborated with Hiram’s fleet, probably operating out of Ezion-geber and trading in the Red Sea and beyond.
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PHOENICIAN TRADE ROUTES
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A coin depicting a Phoenician ship, third to fourth century B.C.E.
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Remains from a Phoenician settlement, Cádiz, Spain
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Museo Naval, Madrid
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Coin: Museo Arqueológico Municipal. Puerto de Sta. María, Cádiz; remains: Yacimiento Arqueológico de Doña Blanca, Pto. de Sta. María, Cádiz, España