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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Levantine States


Gerar (Canaan)

In the mid-third millennium BC, city states began to appear in Syria as people benefited from interaction with Sumer and from improvements in irrigation. Within five hundred years, around 2000 BC, the same process was happening farther south and west, in the Levant, along the Mediterranean coast. Semitic-speaking Canaanite tribes occupied much of the area, creating a patchwork of city states of their own. The Phoenicians (more Canaanites) also occupied parts of this region, eventually founding their own mighty seaborne trading empire.

A section of this region formed what would be known as Palestine. It too witnessed the flourishing of various city states which were based around already ancient cities. Some of these had been founded as settlements by the early farming communities as long ago as 9000 BC or so, and by the third millennium BC they resembled the small, walled cities of the Old Testament. The gene pool here was typically Levantine, so these people were regional natives. The Palestinians whose name was applied to the region by later generations arrived around 1200 BC in the form of the Philistines.

The city of Gerar enters the written historical record via the Old Testament. There it is ruled by one Abimelech, possibly a title rather than a name as it is also used by his immediate (and only known) successor. The city was an important royal site during the time of Abraham and the early Israelite settlers, and those settlers were welcomed in an event which can be dated roughly to around 1740 BC.

At that time, Gerar ruled over large parts of the Negev and a number of smaller daughter cities (which were 'smote' by Asa of Judah in the late tenth century BC). It was in the land of Gerar that the Israelite patriarchs found pasture for their flocks during years of drought, but their use of the wells in the area became contentious when native shepherds objected to the extra consumption during a period of particular hardship.

The city was located on the southern border of the inhabited region of Canaan, near one of the big wadis of the Negev known as the Valley of Gerar. Today this is part of southern-central Israel. The site of the town itself has been equated by some scholars with Tell Abu Hureireh (Tel Haror), which sits about fifteen kilometres to the south-east of Gaza, and twenty-seven kilometres to the north-west of Beersheba.

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Amarna Letters, William L Moran (1992), from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), from Palestine, Joshua J Mark (available via the Ancient History Encyclopaedia website), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from the NOVA/PBS documentary series, The Bible's Buried Secrets, first broadcast 18 November 2008, from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and from External Links: Time Maps, and Ancient DNA sheds light on the origins of the Biblical Philistines (Archaeology News Network), and The Land of Gerar, Y Aharoni (Israel Exploration Journal 6, No 1, 1956, pp 26-32, available via JSTOR), and Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and Gerar in Israel.)

c.2000 - 1800 BC

In this period Amorites infiltrate Canaan, capturing some cities by force and creating others. Once they settle in, the area gradually becomes prosperous again. The principle Canaanite cities or small states at this time include Ammon, Amrit, Arvad, Beroth, Edom, Gebal, Gerar, Hazor, Shalem, Sidon, and Tyre.

The hilltop remnants which are usually associated with the city of Gerar lie approximately midway between Hebron and Raphia, for which two successive kings known as Abimelech ruled

fl c.1740 BC

Abimelech / Ambilek

Canaanite king in Palestine region. Reigned for c.40 years.

c.1740 BC

Ruler of the city of Gerar, Abimelech agrees ties of friendship with Abraham after the latter has settled his early Israelite people in Canaan. The same name is repeated more than once in relation to the later Philistines, seemingly in reference to multiple kings. Even the Israelites have a judge by the name of Abimelech.

It is thought to mean something along the lines of 'superior [man], father (as in 'superior') who is king', and could be an obscure title used in the region, rather than a name - the local equivalent of 'pharaoh'. To back up this suggestion, the Hebrew text, the Haggada, mentions 'Benmelech' (another title, this time referring to the crown prince), 'son of [Abi]melech', who becomes ruler himself and changes his 'name' to Abimelech.

Abimelech of Gerar
Abimelech, ruler of Gerar, returns Sarah to Abraham as the two men establish ties of friendship in this 1731 oil by Elias van Nijmegen (1667-1755)

fl c.1700 BC

Benmelech / Abimelech

Son. Became 'Abimelech' of Gerar upon succeeding.

c.1700 BC

A late son of Abraham of the Israelites, Isaac is his successor as leader of the early Israelites. He lives much of his life in Hebron and eventually dies there, but with at least one interruption in the meantime - during a period of famine he (and by inference his tribe) is forced to seek refuge with the Canaanite ruler of later Philistine territory, Abimelech of Gerar (son of the Abimelech who had previously had dealings with Abraham).

Abimelech later visits Isaac when he is encamped at Beer-sheba, and expresses a desire to renew the covenant which had been entered into between their fathers.

c.1700 - 1650 BC

Continuing famine in the region could be the reason for the early Israelites migrating south into Egypt around this time, while Palestinian groups of Canaanites may follow the same route, invading Lower Egypt as the Hyksos.

c.1478 BC

A resurgent Egypt expands rapidly northwards through Palestine, sometimes inflicting severe destruction on cities there and threatening Mitanni possessions in Syria.

Map of Anatolia and Environs 1550 BC
Small cities and minor states which had been founded by the Hittites littered the meeting point between Anatolia and Syria around 1500 BC (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.1360s BC

The Amarna letters between Egypt and the city states of Syria and Canaan describe the disruptive activities of the habiru, and of Hazor, which is accused of siding with them to capture several cities belonging to Tyre and Ashtaroth.

The ruler of Tyre in the very same period in which Milkilu rules in Gezer is one Abi-Milki, who is often the subject of speculation by scholars who wonder if he is linked to the frequent mentions of various Philistine rulers named Abimelech. Could Abi-Milki of Tyre and Milkilu of Gezer be one and the same person, or could they both be using 'Abimelech' as a title, as described above around 1740 BC? The latter is more likely.

c.1200 BC

General instability grips the Mediterranean coast and a dark age follows which does not fully fade until the tenth century BC. In Palestine, the urban culture which had previously characterised the region is gradually replaced by one of villages, showing a decline in living standards and a collapse (or at least a noticeable lessening) in the more civilised elements of life.

New settlers arrive in the region while most of the territory is under Egyptian control: the Philistines. Other cities, such as Damas in the near north, are also settled by new arrivals, the Aramaean tribes, and these cities eventually flourish.

Habu relief at Medinet
Attacks by the Sea Peoples gathered momentum during the last decade of the thirteenth century BC, quickly reaching a peak which lasted about forty years

The arrival at this time of the Philistines is confirmed by archaeological evidence which also confirms that the city of Gezer is destroyed and abandoned for a generation. The new arrivals quickly intermix with the locals and their DNA becomes purely that of the Levant within about two centuries. Egyptian influence appears to fade or be thrown off during the early decades of the twelfth century.

905 BC

Nadab, king of Samaria, is killed by Philistines who have been able to regroup into larger political structures following the division of Israel into Samaria and Judah. However, it is the Philistine city of Gath which is one of the region's most important now.

As for Gerar, it receives one more mention around this time, again in the Old Testament. When Asa of Judah defeats Zerah the Ethiopian at Mareshah, his victorious forces pursue their defeated enemy as far as Gerar. Then it and its various daughter cities are attacked. Perhaps any recovery after the collapse of about 1200 BC is put paid to by this attack as, today, Gerar cannot even be located with absolute certainty.

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