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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Levantine States


Gezer (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 Gezer is not to be confused with the modern city of Gaza despite some modern claims to the contrary. Its location is now an archaeological site by the name of Tel Gezer. Now located in central Israel, it sits where the central mountains meet the northern Shephelah, around ten kilometres to the south-east of the city of Ramleh. The site was inhabited from around 3500 BC until the Roman period, by which time it had fallen out of use. Archaeological work here has uncovered the two oldest Hebrew documents ever found (to date), a row of ten monolithic stone steles from the Bronze Age, and a magnificent water cistern.

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 Tel Gezer (Trip Advisor).)

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.

Tel Gezer
The modern archaeological site of Tel Gezer was once the Canaanite city of Gezer, a member of the pentapolis which regulated trade into Egypt

c.1478 BC

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

fl c.1360s BC


King of Gezer who was attacked by Labaya of Shalem.

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 mention of 'Urušalim' in the letters may be the earliest historical mention of the city of Shalem (apart from a slightly suspect entry for around 1750 BC). Labaya is a warlord in the central hill country of southern Canaan (but not specifically a ruler of Urušalim). He defends himself against a complaint that he has hired the dangerous habiru as mercenaries, but he does admit to having attacked the city of Gezer and insulting its ruler, Milkilu.

Tushratta tablet to Amenhotep III
This contemporary cuneiform tablet is inscribed with a letter from Tushratta, king of Mitanni, to Pharaoh Amenhotep III, and covers various subjects such as the killing of the murderers of the Mitanni king's brother and a fight against the Hittites

The ruler of Tyre in the very same period in which Milkilu is ruler of 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 on the Palestine page around 1740 BC? The latter is more likely (the word 'milik' and variations means 'king').

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.

The arrival at this time of the Philistines is confirmed by archaeological evidence. In a brief addendum to his victory stele of 1208 BC, Pharaoh Merneptah of Egypt mentions that Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam (in the north Jordan Valley) have been captured and that Israel 'has been shorn. Its seed no longer exists'.

Damascus wall
This colour photochrome print shows a wall in Damascus' defences which is rumoured to be the one over which St Paul escaped in the first century AD

The first two cities have probably already been captured by the invading Philistines and are therefore targets for 'rescue' by a civilised king. However, archaeology confirms that the city of Gezer is destroyed and abandoned around this time, and 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.

A resurgent Gezer becomes one of the five cities of the Philistine pentapolis. These regulate access into Egypt and thereby control trade between north and south, no doubt a very lucrative interest. The other four cities are Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath. Each enjoys great autonomy and is ruled by a seranim, the head of a council.

c.1160 BC

The Jebusites are conquered by the Israelites, as are many other Canaanite city states which are situated in and around what becomes Judah and lower Syria, with Dor, Gezer, Megiddo, Shimron-meron, and Tirzah amongst their number, along with the other Israelite Settlement period conquests. Referring to them as city states may be a little grand. Probably they are little more than obscure settlements and small tribes which are taken over piecemeal.

Cult pedestal of the god Nuska
Shown here is a cult pedestal of the god Nuska which came from the Temple of Ishtar and was apparently produced during Tukulti-Ninurta's reign over Assyria (1244-1207 BC)

c.1160? BC


King of Gezer. defeated by Israelites?

c.1150 - 1110 BC

Egypt loses overlordship of the region to Assyria. The Philistines take the opportunity to re-conquer the weakened Israelites and establish vassal kings there until they are forced out around 1110 BC.

975 BC

According to the Old Testament, the Philistines are subdued by David of Israel after he defeats their champion, Goliath, a resident or son of the city of Gath (at this time possibly the greatest and most powerful of the Philistine city states). There is so far no archaeological evidence for any Israelite influence in the area and, indeed, the available evidence points to the Philistines ruling the area until at least the ninth or eighth century.

The inference is that the Philistines at least retain a level of autonomy even if they are beaten by the Israelites, and even more that the Old Testament's claim of subduing them could merely be a boastful way of claiming a minor victory in a tribal skirmish.

However, the defeat does see the replacement of the seranim with kings who rule virtually independently of the councils. Perhaps this is the act of establishing a stronger leadership in the face of one or more losses in the tribal skirmishes?

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.

Map of Canaan and Syria c.850 BC
When the Neo-Assyrian empire threatened the various city states of southern Syria and Canaan around 853 BC, they united to protect their joint territory - successfully it seems, at least for a time (click or tap on map to view full sized)

884 - 824 BC

Assyria during this period begins to encroach on the region, conquering some cities. Under Hazael, Damas expands its own borders by annexing all the Hebrew possessions east of the Jordan, ravaging Judah, and rendering Israel impotent.

? - 734 BC


Ruler of Gezer. Submitted to Assyria. Fled to Egypt.

734 BC

The city states of Philistia, Ekron, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Gezer become vassals of Assyria. Raphia, the southernmost, seems to remain independent. Hununu of Gezer flees to Egypt, possibly after having submitted to Assyria (as shown on a frieze).

722 - 720 BC

Philistia, by now reverted to its original territory - a coastal strip of land situated roughly in the same place as the modern Gaza Strip - is part of a rebellion in 722 BC along with Moab, Judah, and Edom against Assyrian overlordship of the region. The rising is apparently put down.

The Philistines also support Mardukapaliddina II in his successful bid to usurp the Babylonian throne. In 720 BC the city of Gezer is made a puppet state of Assyria.

704 - 701BC

The end of the region known as Philistia (Palestine), as well as the remaining culture of the Philistines, now comes when the Assyrians sack the remaining towns and cities and sell the inhabitants into slavery. The city of Ashkelon may be the last to fall, in 701 BC.

Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria
Tiglath-Pileser III dominated the Levantine city states during the later years of the eighth century BC, terminating the kingdom of Samaria and, shown here, with his foot on the shoulder of Hanunu of the Philistine city of Gezer, a gesture of dominance in the face of Hanunu's crouched submission

Subsequent kings appear in Ashdod and Ekron (at least), but they write their inscriptions in a Canaanite dialect which is very close to Phoenician. The land is subsequently claimed by the Persian empire and governed by Phoenicians (principally the city of Tyre) before being taken by Alexander the Great's Greek empire, and then the Roman republic and empire as the province of Judea. By this time Gezer itself has long since faded and has fallen out of use.

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