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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Levantine States


Geshur (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.

The city of Geshur is mentioned in the Old Testament, and possibly also in a few ancient sources. The problem with the latter is that references are sometimes oblique or extremely minimal. The city was located on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, on today's Golan Heights in south-western Syria. It possessed territory which may have stretched between the sea and the River Yarmuk or Yarmouk which forms part of the modern Syria-Jordan border.

Geshur's southern border may have met that of Ammon, while to its immediate east was Bashan, and to the west were the Israelites and their first millennium BC splinter kingdom of Samaria. Geshur's disputed capital is the archaeological mound of et-Tell, on the eastern side of the River Jordan. This, though, is some distance from any water despite the city originally being a fishing village. Various explanations have been offered up to explain this, including river silting or a change of river course, and tectonic activity over the past three thousand years which may have tilted the river away from the site.

Perhaps an independent city state in the early part of the first millennium BC, it seems to have fallen under the domination of an expansionist Damas in the second half of the ninth century BC. Archaeology has painted a picture of the city itself which reveals a rich cultural and religious life, both elements of which contain strong influences from neighbouring states. However, its former territory outside of the city seems to have been sparsely populated in the first millennium BC.

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F Unger (1957), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times, Donald Redford (Princeton University Press, 1992), from Early Israel and the Surrounding Nations, A H Sayce, from The Amarna Letters, William L Moran, 1992, from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), from Damascus: A History, Ross Burns (Routledge, 2005), and from Arameans, Wayne T Pitard (2000), and from External Link: Encyclopædia Britannica.)

c.1200 - 900s BC

The entire Near East is hit by drought and the loss of surviving crops. Food supplies dwindle and the number of raids by habiru and other groups of peoples who have banded together greatly increases until, by about 1200 BC, this flood has turned into a tidal wave.

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

With political chaos engulfing Anatolia, Syria, and the Levant coast, and Assyria weakening, there is nothing to stop Aramaean tribes from migrating southwards and eastwards. Over the course of the twelfth to ninth centuries BC they mount attacks which destroy cities such as Qatna, and Qattara, and take control in many established cities, including Alep (Lukhuti), Aram-Nahara'im, Ebla, Hamath, Pattin, and Yadiya.

They also found (or re-found) cities of their own, including, Aram-Bet-Rehob, Aram Damascus, Aram-Ma'akah, Aram-Sovah, Bit-Adini, Bit Agusi, Bit-Bahiani, Bit-Gabari, Geshur, Adma (a minor city until refounded by the Greeks as Osroene), and Zobah, many of which become significant minor states.

c.960s? BC

A ruler of Gath named Achish is mentioned in connection with two servants of Shimei (or Shemei) who flee to him. Shimei himself goes to Gath in pursuit of them, in breach of the orders of the Israelite king, Solomon, and is subsequently put to death by Solomon.

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)

Achish is said to be the son of Maacah, but this could instead mean that he is from a place called Maacah. There exists a small Aramaean kingdom of this name in northern Jordan, around the town of Abel Beth Maacah.

This and the city of Geshur are situated between Gilead and Mount Hermon, bordering the kingdom of Og in Bashan in the Old Testament. That Maacah becomes an Israelite city following its conquest by King David, possibly as late as the 960s BC, around the time at which Achish is king in Gath.

c.840 BC

Under Hazael, Damas expands its borders by annexing all the Hebrew possessions east of the Jordan, ravaging Judah, and rendering Samaria impotent. From inscriptions by Shalmaneser III of Assyria it appears that Hazael also withstands an attack by the Assyrian army and keeps Damas, Syria, and Philistia independent (although he does seize the Philistine city of Gath and perhaps manages to cement potential and recent control of Geshur).

Ruins of et-Tell
The archaeological mound of et-Tell, disputed capital of Geshur's otherwise sparsely-inhabited territory to the east of the River Jordan

c.796 BC

Ben-Hadad III of Damas is not the man his father had been. His subject Samarians welcome the return of the Assyrians, so bad is their situation. Return they do around this time, attacking Damas and forcing tribute from it. Ben-Hadad is forced to submit to the Assyrians as their vassal, taking Geshur with him into servitude.

The city remains significant throughout the following centuries, but its territory is carved up into five provinces: Mansuate (north-west), Subite (far north), Damas, Karnaim (south of Damascus and east of the River Jordan), and Hauran (south-east). After that, Damas follows the Syrian sequence of events, becoming important in the history of the Seleucid empire.

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