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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Levantine States


Salem / Shalem (Jerusalem) (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.

Today Jerusalem is one of the best-known cities in the world, thanks to its being the spiritual centre of three major related religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. It is located in the Judean Mountains, close to the northern end of the Dead Sea. The area was first occupied at some point in the Copper Age, not long after 4000 BC, and was firmly established as a permanent settlement by West Semitic peoples by about 3000 BC. A small Canaanite city existed by the start of the second millennium BC with its settlement area located on Ophel (later called the 'City of David'), a promontory beyond the southern edge of the Temple Mount.

The large, stepped stone structure known as the 'Ophel' was uncovered by archaeologists on the lower Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The term comes from the Mesha stele which was erected by King Mesha of Moab to celebrate his 840 BC victory over Israel. It may refer to a fortified hill. Scholars continue to debate its function and relation to the earlier period of Jerusalem's history under King David (around 1000 BC).

In the Amarna letters, the city was known by its Akkadian name of Urušalim (uru-shalim), but what seems to have been its original name, Shalem ('in harmony, peace') with the prefix 'Yeru', may mean 'perfect city'. This predates the name 'habiru-shalem' which was supposedly given to the city when it was conquered by the Israelites in the twelfth century BC. However, its known history before the Israelite period is very sketchy. Even identifying 'Salem' with the early site of Jerusalem, while generally accepted, is far from universally so. Robert Cargill especially argues quite eloquently for Salem to be identified with a location near Shechem in the later Judaic kingdom of Samaria. Today what is probably its descendant - the modern city of Jerusalem - sits astride the division between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank.

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 the BBC documentary series, Jerusalem: The Making of a Holy City, first broadcast on 19 April 2016, from Melchizedek, King of Sodom: How Scribes Invented the Biblical Priest-King, Robert R Cargill (Oxford Scholarship Online, 2019), and from External Link: Jerusalem (Ancient History Encyclopaedia).)

by c.1750 BC

The Old Testament has this period of time as one in which areas of Canaan are being settled by the early Israelites, while many Canaanite and Syrian states are apparently dependencies of Elam for a short time.

Ancient Jerusalem
The ambitious Ophel excavation in Shalem (Jerusalem) has produced many finds, but precious little before the tenth century BC, by which time the city was in Israelite hands

As the Old Testament is written down well over a thousand years after these events, the names become very distorted and are subject to much modern research regarding possible historical equivalents. Outside the cities of the Levant there are populations of habiru, some of which (at least) can probably be equated with the early Israelites.

fl c.1750 BC

Melchizedek / Melchisedech

Priest king of Salem. Identified with traditional founder, Shem.

c.1750 - 1749 BC

After twelve years of paying tribute, the Canaanite 'five cities of the plain' have rebelled against their Elamite masters. However, despite their resistance, the rebellious Canaanite kings and their city states are defeated within a year, including Shinab of Admah, Zoar of Bela, Birsha of Gomorrah, Bera of Sodom, and Shemeber of Zeboiim.

The brief passage in the Old Testament which mentions Melchizedek meeting and thanking the leader of the Israelites, Abraham, for freeing some of his people from captivity at this time has generally been regarded as having originated from a separate source which had been crudely inserted.

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, with Shalem shown as (and equated with) Jerusalem (click or tap on map to view full sized)

This view has been challenged more recently, with some students pointing out that, although the apparent insert is abrupt, it still serves the narrative which would be incomplete without it. Whatever the truth of this, it is Salem's first mention in any source and most Jewish commentators believe that it refers to early Jerusalem.

1453 BC

The Egyptians conquer the Levant and Syria and establish three provinces in their conquered territories which are named Amurru (in southern Syria), Upe (in the northern Levant), and Canaan (in the southern Levant). Each is governed by an Egyptian official. Native dynasts are allowed to continue their rule over the small states, but have to provide annual tribute.

fl c.1360s BC

Labaya / Labayu / Lib'ayu

King of Urušalim? Uncertain. Killed.

c.1360s BC

The mention of 'Urušalim' in the Egyptian Amarna letters may be the earliest historical mention of the city (apart from the slightly suspect entry for around 1750 BC). Labaya is a contemporary of Pharaoh Akhenaten. He is a warlord in the central hill country of southern Canaan (but not specifically a ruler of Urušalim).

Canaanite bronze figure
This photo shows a bronze figure from the Phoenician city of Tyre, created between 1400-1200 BC and probably representing the Canaanite god Baal in the role of a warrior

He defends himself against a complaint which claims that he has hired the dangerous habiru as mercenaries, although he does admit to having attacked the city of Gezer and insulting its ruler, Milkilu.

Labaya is also a contemporary of Abdi-Heba, but this ruler is later accused of being another Labaya in terms of his attacks on neighbouring cities. It is unclear whether or not he succeeds the first Labaya as ruler of Shalem or if Labaya himself governs a nearby territory, but this first Labaya is eventually killed by the people of Gina.

fl c.1330s BC

Abdi-Heba / Abdi-Kheba / Abdi-Hepat

King of Urušalim (Shalem?). Possibly of Hurrian descent.

1330s BC

The Egyptian Amarna letters later mention Labaya's successor, Abdi-Heba (or various alternatives, including a postulated correct reading of Ebed-Nob). He is described as the ruler of a small mountain stronghold of perhaps 1,500 inhabitants, with no fortifications.

He requests the help of archers, seemingly to repel attackers. Nothing more is known of Abdi-Heba or his quest to save the city, although he has been aiding Šuwardata of Gath in fighting the habiru. The city itself endures, albeit outside the historical record for the next two centuries.

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

c.1200 BC

By this stage a local Canaanite tribe known as the Jebusites has occupied the city of Shalem. Precisely when they take it over is unknown, and their only real contribution to the region's history occurs just thirty-or-so years later.

fl c.1170s BC

Adonizedec / Adoni Zedek

King of Jebusite Shalem. Killed in battle.

c.1170s BC

Adonizedec, 'Master of Zedec', leads the fragmented Canaanite tribes against Joshua, but they are defeated at Gibeon and apparently suffer again at Beth-horon, not only from attacks by their pursuers, but also from a great hail storm.

A town known as Beroth is included as a supporter of this Canaanite coalition. Thought to be the modern site of El-Bireh, located about fourteen kilometres to the north of Shalem, this should not be confused with the larger Phoenician city of Beroth (modern Beirut).

The five allied kings take refuge in a cave at Makkedah (an allied city which is conquered within the next decade during the Israelite Settlement period), and are imprisoned there until after the battle, when Joshua commands that they be brought before him. They are brought out, humiliated, and put to death, and Jebusite Shalem is conquered by the Israelites. They take control of the city but apparently lose it again twenty years later during an invasion by the Philistines.

Relief from Medinet Habu
Shown here is a relief from Medinet Habu which details Philistines with their distinctive feathered headdresses, making them an unusual sight on the battlefield

? - 975 BC

Araunah / Ornan

Probably the Jebusite king of Shalem.

975 BC

The Jebusite king Araunah is mentioned in the Old Testament in relation to Shalem during the formation of the Israelite kingdom, so he is probably the city's ruler. The Jebusites have been resisting Israelite attempts to re-take the city for some time, resorting to mocking their assailants for their failures.

Now King David manages to conquer the city once and for all, taking it as his new capital. The old name of Urušalim remains, probably being subtly altered by its new masters and their particular speech, but it can also be referred to as hebiru-Shalem, or 'Shalem of the Habiru'. The old name has survived four thousand years of history as Jerusalem.

From this point onwards, the city serves as Israel's spiritual centre, as well as its administrative capital. When Israel divides into Samaria and Judah in 928 BC, Jerusalem serves as Judah's capital and remains the capital today of both Israel and Palestine.

Model of Jerusalem in the first century AD
Hans Kroch build this model of the city of Jerusalem of the first century AD in the 1960s, with only the empty streets giving away the fact that it is not a full-sized city

Images and text copyright © all contributors mentioned on this page. An original king list page for the History Files.