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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Levantine States


Habiru (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.

By around 1750 BC, the time in which the Old Testament claims that areas of Canaan were being settled by the early Israelites, the Syrian states were apparently dependencies of Elam for a short time. Away from the cities of the Levant were populations of habiru, a disorganised movement of outsiders who ranged from semi-nomadic social outcasts and those who had fled the debt-ridden city system, to unemployed farm labourers and mounted mercenary archers.

Between about 2000-1200 BC, these groups plagued the established order with frequent raids and looting, and the attitude to them was invariably hostile - understandably so. In the Egyptian Amarna letters they were constantly presented as a threat to the stability of the region (which turned out to be an accurate forecast), although the regional manpower shortage was sometimes so acute that they could still be hired as labourers or mercenaries.

Originally the habiru were thought to be the early Israelites, with 'habiru' becoming 'Hebrew', but more recent thought suggests that Hebrews may only have been one group of habiru, probably not even aligned with similar groups in the north (across Syria), or else not related to them at all. The Hebrews certainly caused a few troublesome ripples of their own, migrating into Canaan from Mesopotamia, and also when they supposedly invaded Canaan in the twelfth century BC through Edom and Moab, penetrating as far north as Amurru in Syria.

The context in which the habiru were mentioned differed depending upon where the references were found. Although the label originally seems to have been used for any marginal people who lived outside state controls, there is nothing to preclude one such group becoming the later Hebrews. The peak of activity for the habiru seems to have been during the great social collapse at the end of the thirteenth century BC, when these rogue groups became nothing less than organised bands of raiders who were often lumped together under the heading 'Sea Peoples', while Akkadian sources also mention nomadic groups along the Trans-Jordanian highlands whom they term the Shutu, possibly more habiru.

In fact the term habiru is also found in Akkadian sources (as 'hapiru') and in Sumerian (as 'Sagaz'). Texts mentioning the hapiru can be found as far back as the third dynasty of Ur, placing them sometime between 2112-2004 BC. But the attractiveness of equating them with the Hebrews gave way as soon as it was discovered that the 'apiru/SA.GAZ' were found in other texts as far afield as Babylon, Mari, Nuzi, Boghazkoi, and the aforementioned Ur.

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Sean Bambrough (on the Amarna letters), from The Amarna Letters, William L Moran, 1992, from A Test of Time, David Rohl (Arrow, 2001), from Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, David Noel Freedman, B E Willoughby, & Heinz-Josef Fabry (G Johannes Botterweck & Helmer Ringgren, Eds, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), from A History of Israel: From the Bronze Age through the Jewish Wars, Walter C Kaiser Jr (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, and from the NOVA/PBS documentary series, The Bible's Buried Secrets, first broadcast 18 November 2008.)

c.1371 - 1358 BC

The Amarna letters between Egypt and Assyria, and the city states of Syria and Canaan, describe the disruptive activities of the habiru, painting them as a threat to the stability of the region. One particular mention involves Šuwardata of Gath who fights the habiru alongside Abdi-Heba of Urušalim (Shalem?), with aid from Surata of Akko and Endaruta of Akšapa.

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)

Rohl's discredited theory is that the habiru of the Amarna letters are the Israelites of David. Findings may indicate that the three years of drought, famine, and plague of the Amarna letters and those of David's time may be same, but of course there is nothing to say that similar events could not be repeated over the course of the three or four hundred years between the usual dating for these two.

Another theory is that Moses (an individual who is probably much closer to the period in which the Amarna letters are written than is David) is 'the rebel Mesh' of amelut-sagaz-Mesh (habiru) of the Amarna letters.

c.1310 BC

In the lead up to their confrontation with Egypt at the Battle of Kadesh, the Hittites conduct raids deep into Canaan. Rib-Adda, king of Gebal, reports to his Egyptian overlords on additional and apparently devastating raids by the habiru.

He mentions the nearby minor city of Arqa whose citizens are apparently amongst the last in their area to hold out against the habiru, along with another minor city, Sumur, and Gebal itself. Only Gebal remains unconquered.

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

c.1200 - 1020 BC

There is general collapse in the region as instability grips the Mediterranean coast for some decades, with the first, and biggest victim being the Hittite empire. It is quite possible that the habiru play some part in this. One theory holds that they unite as an identifiable Canaanite people around this time and begin to attack and conquer many of the local city states under the collective name of 'Israelites'.

Their main opponents in the south are the newly arrived Philistines and in the north the incoming Aramaeans, while some of the Sea Peoples also settle along the coast and probably contribute their skills to the region's maritime society. The ('old') Canaanites are reduced to owning the shores of Phoenicia, where cities such as Sidon and Gebal survive to become the sea traders known as the Phoenicians.

It has been strongly suggested that the Israelites themselves are also Canaanites, and that the traditional exodus never occurs. This theory seems to be backed up by archaeological finds (although a temporary event such as an exodus would be hard to locate archaeologically).

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

In recent years this idea has been strengthened. The climate-induced social collapse of the end of the thirteenth century BC - and the long lead-up towards it of perhaps a century - results in groups of dispossessed people congregating in Canaan in new groups (as mentioned above).

Known by the established powers by various names, including habiru, these groups would appear in essence to be drop-outs from established society, people who want to find a new way of living outside what they see as an unjust and restrictive society.

Following the social collapse, these new communities seemingly emerge from the subsequent short dark age as a new people, with new, unfussy pottery and a monotheistic culture. They have formed the people known as the Israelites.

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