The Phoenicians were a Semitic people who inhabited the coast of Syria-Palestine in ancient times. The name comes from the Greek, from a purple dye made from cuttlefish ink, which they were especially famous for; the name Canaanites is the Hebrew term for the same peoples. This was then an area rich in natural resources and ideally suited for trade. During the early Iron Age, when powers that had previously dominated the area like Egypt and the Hittites were weakened or destroyed, a number of northern Phoenician cities established themselves as significant maritime powers. The city of Byblos was originally predominant, but this was attacked by successive invaders, and by around 1000 BC Tyre and Sidon had taken its place.
The Phoenicians established commercial outposts throughout the Mediterranean, the most notable being Carthage in north Africa, with others in Cyprus, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Spain, and elsewhere. Their ships ventured out into the Atlantic ocean as far as Britain, where the tin mines in modern Cornwall provided them with important material. They also sailed south along the coast of Africa, in Greek tradition having circumnavigated the continent and likely having reached at least down to the equator.
The Phoenicians exerted considerable influence on the other groups around the Mediterranean, notably the Greeks, who later became their main commercial rivals. They appear in both Greek mythology and the bible. Traditionally the city of Thebes was founded by a Phoenician prince named Cadmus when he set out to look for his sister Europa, who had been kidnapped by Zeus. Also, the first alphabet was probably that developed by the Phoenicians around 1500 BC, which formed the basis of the Greek alphabet and the other alphabets in the area.
With the rise of Assyria, the Phoenician cities one by one lost their independence, and afterwards were dominated by Babylonia and then Persia. They remained very important, however, and provided these powers with their main source of naval strength. The stacked warships like triremes and quinqueremes were probably Phoenician inventions, though eagerly adopted by the Greeks. Phoenicia lost its influential role after the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great, who destroyed the dominant city of Tyre in order to cripple the enemy navy. The western colonies remained as an important power under the leadership of Carthage for several centuries more.
See also Phoenicia, with which this should probably be merged
The History of Phoenicia by George Rawlinson is available under Project Gutenberg at: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=2331