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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Levantine States

 

Sarepta / Zarephath (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.

Sarepta was a Canaanite and Phoenician city which spent much of its existence under the control of Sidon (twelve kilometres to the north). It was first mentioned in Egyptian records in the fourteenth century BC, while the Old Testament comments on it being subject to Sidon during the reign of the Samarian king, Ahab (870-848 BC). There it is called Zarephath, probably a localised mangling of the Phoenician name. By the first century AD the Roman port of Sarepta existed about a kilometre to the south of the city (as mentioned by Josephus). The city survived until at least the fourteenth century AD, after the collapse of the Crusader kingdoms in the area.

The region around the city has revealed signs of Qaraoun culture occupation (involving Mesolithic or Neolithic modern humans), but the approximate date of Sarepta's earliest permanent occupation seems to be unknown at present. Much has been discovered regarding its Phoenician existence in the first millennium BC, including kilns and pottery workshops, inscriptions and seals, shrines, and plenty of everyday occupational detritus. The city today has been largely undisturbed by modern building despite being located along the populous Mediterranean coast of Lebanon. Its site between Sidon and Tyre has been extensively and carefully excavated.

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 The Cambridge Ancient History, John Boardman, N G L Hammond, D M Lewis, & M Ostwald (Eds), from Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, and from External Links: Encyclopædia Britannica, and the Nabonidus Chronicle, contained within Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, A K Grayson (Translation, 1975 & 2000, and now available via Livius in an improved version), and Ancient History Encyclopaedia.)

1348 BC

FeatureAkhenaten institutes monotheism in the fourth year of his reign of Egypt with the sole worship of the sun god Aton (see feature link for more). In the following year he founds a new capital at Amarna. During this period the Amarna letters are written - diplomatic correspondence with Assur-Uballit I of Assyria, the Kassite rulers of Babylonia, plus Mitanni, the Hittites, Alashiya, Arzawa, and the city states of Syria and Canaan.

While the letters do not mention Sarepta, a voyage along the Levantine coast by an Egyptian vessel does contain someone who records the existence of the city.

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)

722 - 721 BC

Sennacherib of Assyria conquers all of Israel and Judah except the city of Jerusalem itself, to which he lays siege. With Tyre and Sidon now dominated by Assyria, the city of Sarepta changes hands, from Sidon to Tyre.

587/586 BC

King Zedekiah of Judah rebels against Babylonian overlordship so the Babylonians storm and sack the city of Jerusalem. Zedekiah himself is captured and forced to watch the execution of his children before his eyes are poked out. Much of the population is moved to Babylon, but exiles can apparently be found across areas of northern and western Canaan, with Israelites in Sarepta and Judeans in Sepharad.

The prophet Obadiah, seemingly writing very shortly after this event, mentions Sarepta as the northern boundary of Canaan (not entirely correct, as Phoenician cities to the north of this had also started out as Canaanite cities): '...the exiles of this host of... Israel who are among the Canaanites as far as Zarephath (Sarepta), and the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad, will possess the cities of the south' (the latter claim of possession foresees the Israelites reclaiming their lost kingdoms).

Ruins of Sarepta in Lebanon
The modern town of Sarafand sits immediately alongside the two-thousand year-old Roman ruins of Sarepta in Lebanon

1st century AD

With Sarepta now under Roman control, its port flourishes about a kilometre to the south of the city itself. Josephus mentions it in his writings, as does Pliny the Elder. The city survives until at least the fourteenth century AD, after the collapse of the Crusader kingdoms in the area, although it apparently becomes ruinous between about 1200-1300. Subsequently it falls entirely out of use as better, larger ports supersede it. Its remains in modern Israel have been deeply excavated and investigated.

 
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