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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Levantine States


Semites / Semitic-Speakers (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 Canaanites were Semites, with origins which lay in the Arabian Desert. Semitic-speakers formed a sub-group of the Afro-Asiatic language family which includes Hebrew (Israelites), Aramaic (Aramaeans), Arabic (Arabs), and Amharic (Ethiopians). They made their first appearance in the second half of the fourth millennium BC, migrating outwards into Egypt and Mesopotamia. A large number also entered the Levant where they blended into the existing - and already multi-racial - Neolithic populations of the various small cities of the time, most notably Jericho, where archaeology has backed up this arrival.

These Semitic-speakers quickly integrated into the Levant to create the Canaanite identity and culture which would dominate until the climate-induced social collapse at the end of the thirteenth century BC. The Canaanite Early Bronze Age stretched into southern Syria too, with 'Syria' being a label which could be used to include the whole of the Levant. This period lasted between about 3150-2200 BC. By this time, these people spoke a Semitic language which would become the ancestor of the north-western Semitic languages of Eblaic (Ebla), Canaanite, and Aramaic. Subsequently, the Canaanite language developed into Hebrew, Moabite (Moab), and Phoenician (at the start of the first millennium BC).

During the later part of this period, the city state of Agade under Sargon 'the Great' eventually conquered or dominated the entire Fertile Crescent and some of the lands beyond. He claimed to have conquered 'the territory of the sunset and the cedar forest and the silver mountains' (Syria and the Levant). Either Sargon or his grandson, Naram-Sin, even conquered the great regional power which was Ebla. The Akkadian empire quickly faded though, and it was Egypt which became the dominant power across Canaan and areas of Syria during the second millennium BC, opposed to an extent by Mitanni and then more heavily by the Hittites.

The Old Testament has Shem as the ancestors of the Semites. He is one of the three sons of Noah, the others being Ham and Japheth. Noah cursed Ham and his son, Canaan, for witnessing Noah during an embarrassing drunken stupor. The result was that they and their descendants were condemned to eternal subordination, especially to the descendants of Shem. Ham's descendants were the Canaanites, so the story states that the Semites dominated the Canaanites.

There must have been some degree of oral history or popular bias which was still alive in the sixth century BC - the period in which much of the origins of the Old Testament were written and assembled - for this even to be suggested. In reality the Semites seemingly integrated into existing Neolithic society to form the Canaanites, rather than dominating them.

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information from the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information by Peter Kessler, 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 History of Ancient Israel, Michael Grant (Macmillan, 1984), from Geographic Atlas of World History, Martha Crawford Christian (Ed, Willard, Ohio, 1997), and from External Link: Encyclopædia Britannica.)

c.3500 BC

Semitic-speakers make their first appearance as they migrate out of the Arabian Desert to enter Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Levant. In the latter they merge into the existing - and already multi-racial - Neolithic inhabitants of various small cities of the time, most notably Jericho, where archaeology has backed up this arrival.

Walled Jericho
During the third millennium BC Jericho was gradually expanded and enriched with improved building work and stone walls

c.3150 - 2200 BC

The Early Bronze Age in the Levant sees the newly-formed melting-pot Canaanite people thrive. Small settlements and towns are built up into small walled cities, the first true city states in the region.

This process is eventually inhibited to an extent by the earliest appearance of the Aramaeans in the north, which brings increasing disruption to the northern Levant. It is also disrupted - but perhaps not extensively so - by the arrival of the Akkadian empire in the twenty-fourth century BC. Disruption also begins as the climate Starts gradually to become drier, which affects crop yields and food supplies. The process accelerates from about 2200 BC.

c.2334 - 2279 BC

Sargon 'the Great' claims to be the first king to unite Mesopotamia (Sumer and Agade - although Enshakushanna of Uruk had already achieved that). He expands his territory by defeating Lagash and Kazallu, subsequently invading Syria and Canaan four times, and campaigning against the Gutians, the Hatti, and Marhashi.

Sargon the Great
Sargon the Great, the warrior king of apparently humble origins, unified Sumer for (perhaps) the first time in recorded history through a series of campaigns and the defeat of the current holder of Sumer's equivalent of a high kingship

c.2200 - 2000 BC

Beginning around 2400 BC but greatly accelerating from about 2200 BC, a cold, dry period begins in the Near East which lasts for three hundred years. Both Sumer and Egypt endure a short (climate-induced) dark age at this time, and almost every site in Canaan is either completely abandoned or greatly reduced in size.

The same circumstances force various waves of semi-nomadic invaders to seek new territory, including the Amorites who engulf Syria and northern Mesopotamia, as well as northern areas of Canaan.

c.2000 - 1800 BC

Egypt's 'Middle Kingdom' can be noted at this time for its expansion of trade outside of the kingdom. This includes maintaining a trading presence along the Mediterranean coast while Amorites settle and found the island city of Arvad, almost opposite the inhabited mainland settlement of Sumur.

Tirzah, abandoned since about 2500 BC, is re-occupied during this phase of Canaanite resurgence in which many urban towns are quickly being expanded into cities. New occupants frequently use old city walls to protect initially smaller resettlement areas, but new and better walls are soon built to protect growing cities.

Map of Anatolia and Environs 2000 BC
At the start of the second millennium BC, a series of small city states in Anatolia which had existed for perhaps a millennium now began to emerge from obscurity (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.1200 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'.

This is the most appropriate window for the traditional Israelite settlement after the exodus from Egypt. The settled Canaanites begin to be reduced to owning the shores of what is now Lebanon (eventually to become the sea traders known as the Phoenicians), the Philistines and other Sea Peoples are first settling on the lower coast of the Levant, and various neo-Hittite city states are arising in northern Syria, many of which come into contact with the Israelites.

In the same period, the language of the Amorites disappears from southern and central Mesopotamia. However, in Syria and Canaan it becomes dominant (in Bashan, for example), with perhaps Ammon being the southernmost state to have an Amorite influence.

In Assyrian inscriptions from about 1100 BC, the term Amurru designates part of Syria and all of Phoenicia and Palestine but no longer refers to any specific kingdom, language, or population.

Amorites, Semitic-speaking farmers
Amorites, Semitic-speaking farmers from the south who integrated into Mesopotamia, and then Syria and Canaan

1160s - 1150s BC

The Israelite conquests of central and eastern Canaan are led by Joshua, but they appear to take place over a span of time, probably ten or twenty years if not more. Even referring to many of the conquests as city states may be generous. Many could be little more than obscure settlements and small tribes which are taken over piecemeal. Many also have not been pinpointed by modern archaeology, although educated guesses abound.

This period effectively spells the end of Canaan as it had been known throughout the third and second millennia BC. It is splintered into regional states and tribal groups by various new arrivals, with only the newly-emergent Phoenicia able to claim any true continuity from preceding Canaanite culture and groups.

Semitic languages certainly survive, however, and are widely spread across the Near East, northern Africa, Europe, and the Americas, thanks primarily to the Islamic empire and the Israelites, although many variations exist.

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