History Files

Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Central Levant States


Salem / Shalem (Jerusalem)

Today Jerusalem is one of the best-known cities in the world, thanks to its being the spiritual centre of three major 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 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. The term comes from the Mesha stele, erected by King Mesha of Moab to celebrate his victory over Israel and may refer to a fortified hill (840 BC). Scholars continue to debate its function and relation to the earlier period of Jerusalem's history under King David (around 1000 BC).

In the Armana letters, the city was known by its Akkadian name of Urušalim, 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 its probable descendant of Jerusalem sits astride the division between modern Israel and the Palestinian West Bank.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Amarna Letters, William L Moran, 1992, 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. As the Old Testament is written down 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.

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

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 that had been crudely inserted. 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.

Map of Anatolia and Environs 1550 BC
Small cities and minor states that 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)

fl c.1360s BC

Labaya / Labayu / Lib'ayu

King of Urušalim? Uncertain. Killed.

c.1360s BC

The mention of 'Urušalim' in the Egyptian Armana 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, and 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, and also admits to having attacked the city of Gezer and insulting its pre-Philistine king, Milkilu. He 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 Labaya as ruler of Shalem or if Labaya governs a nearby territory. He 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 Armana 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, but 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


By this stage a local Canaanite tribe known as the Jebusites has occupied the city of Shalem. Precisely when they do 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. The five allied kings take refuge in a cave at Makkedah 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.

? - 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 and renaming it hebiru-Shalem, or 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.