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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Levantine States


Shechem (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 city of Shechem (Shekhem in modern Hebrew) reached its developmental apogee in the seventeenth century BC, when it was given a great in-sloping wall of cyclopean masonry. Belonging to the same period is a stone plaque which bears one of the earliest-known alphabetic inscriptions. The wall unfortunately failed to do its job of protecting the city however, as that city was destroyed shortly afterwards, around 1650 BC. Reoccupation did not occur until the 1500s, and several further periods of destruction and abandonment followed until the site was abandoned completely at the very end of the second century BC.

As an aside, when it comes to providing a definitive identity for the city of Salem (meaning 'in harmony, peace'), the later Israelite capital of Jerusalem, even linking those two names together is not universally accepted. Robert Cargill especially argues quite eloquently for Salem to be identified with a location near Shechem in the later Judaic kingdom of Samaria. Shechem itself in the first millennium BC remained part of Samaria for the duration of the kingdom's existence.

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Sean Bambrough and Wayne McCleese, from The Amarna Letters, William L Moran (1992), from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), from Palestine, Joshua J Mark (available via the Ancient History Encyclopaedia website), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from the NOVA/PBS documentary series, The Bible's Buried Secrets, first broadcast 18 November 2008, from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, from Melchizedek, King of Sodom: How Scribes Invented the Biblical Priest-King, Robert R Cargill (Oxford Scholarship Online, 2019), from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, and from External Links: Time Maps, and The Land of Gerar, Y Aharoni (Israel Exploration Journal 6, No 1, 1956, pp 26-32, available via JSTOR), and Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Shechem (Ancient Near East).)

fl c.1650 BC


King. Killed along with his son, 'Shechem' and all males.

c.1650 BC

Jacob of the Israelites spends some years in Harran, where he meets his wives. As he returns them and his large family to Hebron, Jacob stops off at the Canaanite city of Shechem, 'a country goof for feeding of cattle and for pasturage' according to Josephus. There, his daughter, Dina, is attacked by 'Shechem', son of King Hamor, so Jacob's sons slay all the males within the city walls.

The ruins of Shechem
When taken over by Israelites in the eleventh century BC, Schechem was allocated to the territory of the tribe of Ephraim

This is the approximate date of the ending of the Middle Bronze Age, precisely the time period in which archaeology backs up the destruction of the city. Its recently-installed great in-sloping wall of cyclopean masonry has failed to protect it.

There seems to be no broad suggestion of disturbances or destruction across Canaan as a whole in this period, but it is unlikely to be a coincidence that the Hyksos, led by Salitis, founder of the Fifteenth Dynasty, overrun Egypt during the reign of Dudimose I. Egyptian protections across Canaan are likely to be disrupted.

c.1500s BC

The abandoned site of Shechem is reoccupied, although a firm date seems to be unavailable. The city soon features strongly in surviving records for this period, following the Hittite destruction of Alep and its sack of Babylon. The removal of these two major targets allows other states to emerge, most notably the Hurrian empire of Mitanni.

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)

1453 BC

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

Shechem itself gains a glacis along with further fortifications and a temple, during a period in which it probably controls the territory between Megiddo and Gezer. It is clearly an important city in this Late Bronze Age century, figuring prominently as it does in the Amarna letters.

c.1200 BC

The entire Near East is hit by drought and the loss of surviving crops. Food supplies dwindle and the number of raids by habiru and other groups of peoples who have banded together greatly increases until, by about 1200 BC, this flood has turned into a tidal wave.

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

Already decaying, the Hittite empire is now looted and destroyed by various surrounding peoples, including the Kaskans and the Sea Peoples (and perhaps even selectively by its own populace). Unlike Gebal, Sidon, and Tyre, Shechem is destroyed, and remains unoccupied again, this time until the mid-eleventh century when it is occupied by Israelites.

c.1035 BC

Around this point in time the comparatively weak Israelites reputedly founded a small kingdom under Saul which also includes the captured city of Hazor. This is partially in response to attacks from Ammon, which Saul has realised can only be responded to with any effectiveness if the Israelite tribes are united.

Once it has been regained from the Philistines, another major threat, Saul makes their capital the small walled city of Jerusalem. However, according to Professor Mario Liverani, '...there are no extra-biblical sources [specifically] mentioning the united kingdom of Judah and Israel, but maybe this is due to the fact that such sources never existed...

Ark of the Covenant
The Israelite Ark of the Covenant is the stuff of legend, but it does figure noticeably in the early centuries of Israel's history and, despite being captured by the Philistines around 1050 BC, it seems that even they couldn't hold onto it for long

'In the tenth century BC Jerusalem was so small that only a palace and a temple possibly existed... If we read the biblical text critically but positively we may suggest a kingdom of limited dimensions, whose limits were Shechem [recently refounded] and Beersheba'. In fact, archaeological evidence to an extent supports this view, suggesting that in King David's time the city is far less glorious than is described in the Old Testament.

928 - 925 BC

The ten tribes of the north of Israel refuse to accept Rehoboam at the confirmation ceremony at Shechem and civil war ensues. Rehoboam is left with just the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south as the kingdom divides into Samaria (Israel) and Judah. Shechem itself remains firmly within Samaria until the kingdom is destroyed.

720 BC

The Assyrian assumption of dominance over Phoenicia in 738 BC is clearly not enough to fully conquer the land. The last king of Hiyawa throws off the shackles of Assyrian domination which triggers an Assyrian invasion. Hiyawa is defeated, although the date of this event is uncertain and may even take place at the very start of the reign of Sargon II.

Sargon II of Assyria
Sargon II usurped the Assyrian throne, seizing it from the last of the Ashur-Rabi monarchs, but he brought with him Assyrian resurgence and a drive to expand the empire

However, more certain is Shalmaneser's invasion of Phoenicia, which allows Tyre to gain possession of Sarepta from Sidon, while Shechem is destroyed. The site is never fully rebuilt, although it does witness intermittent occupation until it is finally destroyed in 101 BC.

Rome later builds a new city to the west of the ruins, in AD 67, which it names Flavius Neapolis. The Greek name of 'Neapolis' (meaning 'new city') later becomes enshrined in Arabic as Nablus.

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