History Files


Ancient Syria

Syrian Bronze Age Civilisations

by Peter Kessler, 11 August 2007

In its position midway between the Middle Eastern coastal strip, Mesopotamia, and the mountains of the north, Syria has always been a crossroads for the distinct geographical regions of the Middle East.

For most of its history Syria also falls into several cultural divisions.

Early civilisations

Eastern Syria was part of Mesopotamia in terms of its cultural affinities, while the coastal region formed part of the Canaanite zone of city states, sharing their development with the southern Levant.

Only Central Syria developed a cultural identity which was unique to itself. During the Early Bronze Age (between approximately 3500-2200 BC), the native Amorite population in this region, inheriting much of their civilisation from Sumer and possibly founding Babylon, built large and powerful city states such as Ebla in the north and Hamath in the south.

Because of its lucrative trade with Mesopotamia, Syria did not suffer the same period of economic recession as Canaan in the last quarter of the third millennium (2250-2000 BC), and the city states continued to prosper.

The second millennium saw the infiltration of non-Semitic northerners, the Hurrians, whose origins are still obscure. The best theory is that they emerged in circa 2000 BC from the mountains to the north and west to occupy the upper Tigris Valley and the upper Euphrates.

Although the Hurrians became a dominant political force in their own right in the region of Urkesh, they only began their rise to greatness thanks to the arrival around four hundred years later of a new influx of settlers.

In Depth

The Hurrian empire

In around 1600 BC an Indo-Aryan Iranian people called the Mitanni established themselves amidst the Hurrians as a warrior class.

The two peoples quickly merged together and came to dominate their neighbours. Under their direction the city states formed a confederation known as Mitanni. It was this confederation which opposed the advance of the Egyptian pharaohs of the eighteenth dynasty.

Tuthmosis III defeated Mitanni at the battle of Megiddo in 1453 BC, after which, the Hittites from Anatolia moved into the vacuum created by Mitanni's slow demise.

For the remainder of the Late Bronze Age (1570-1200 BC), all of Syria north of Qatna belonged to the Hittite Empire, and all of it to the south fell under the control of a resurgent Egypt.



Images copyright British Museum. Text copyright P L Kessler based on data from the British Museum and other notes. An original feature for the History Files.