History Files

Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Levantine States


Sumur / Simyra (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 Canaanite island city of Arvad was always dependent upon the mainland for its survival, but the island was also important as a base for commercial ventures into the Orontes valley. For much of the time, the small city of Amrit fell under Arvad's control, along with Sumur itself (situated virtually opposite Arvad on the mainland and, of course, not to be confused with the third millennium BC Mesopotamian region of Sumer). Arvad also apparently controlled a number of other regional cities in northern Canaan. Sidon had a similar hold over cities in the south.

The modern archaeological site of Tell Kazel is all that is left of the Bronze Age city. Variously known as Sumur or Simyra, or to the Egyptians as Zemar, it sits in modern Syria's Safita district, within the Tartus governate. The first examination of the site took place in 1956, with excavations in 1960 and 1962, and a further, more detailed series of excavations in 1985-2008. The Old Testament knew it as the home of the Zemarites, a clear continuation of use for the Egyptian form of the city's name, while the Amana letters mention it as an important trading centre.

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), and from External Links: Encyclopædia Britannica, and Tell Kazel-Simyra, Leila Badre (Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research No 343, University of Chicago Press, Aug 2006, available via JSTOR), and Tell Kazel (Syria), Shelby White & Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications (Harvard University).)

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.

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

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.

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.

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)

The letters also include descriptions of the disruptive activities of the habiru, and how the Amorites and Arvad are teaming up to disrupt Egyptian possessions in Syria. Additionally, relations between Rib-Adda of Gebal and neighbouring Amurru are soured by constant complaints by the former to his Egyptian overlords.

He accuses Abdi-Ashirta, ruler of Amurru, of attempting to overthrow him and force others to join the pro-Hittite camp in local politics. That charge also includes Ahribta of Sumur which, by now, has become an important trading centre, and it continues with Azira, son of Abdi-Ashirta of Amurru.

fl c.1340s BC


Ruler of Sumur. Mentioned in Amana letters.

Ahribta revolts against Rib-Hadda's 'guardianship' to join Amurru's growing coalition of rebel cities. The Amana letters suggest that pro-Egyptian factions may be able to seize back Sumur - likely to be Rib-Hadda's pro-Egyptian forces - but Aziru of Amurru recaptures it despite the Egyptian representative having his residence there. The restoration of the city is demanded, but Aziru forces Egypt to recognise him first.

Tell Habua
The archaeological discovery of the Egyptian fort of Tell Habua (ancient Tharu, built around 1000 BC) near the Suez Canal underlined Egypt's policy of maintaining border fortresses on its eastern flank

c.1310 BC

In the lead up to their confrontation with Egypt at the Battle of Kadesh, the Hittites conduct raids deep into Canaan. Rib-Adda, king of Gebal, reports to his Egyptian overlords on additional and apparently devastating raids by the habiru.

fl c.1310 BC


'King of Sumur'. Killed by the habiru.

He mentions the nearby minor city of Arqa whose citizens are apparently amongst the last in their area to hold out against the habiru, along with the city of Sumur and also Gebal itself. Only Gebal remains unconquered.

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). Major Canaanite cities such as Gebal, Sidon, and Tyre all survive while Arvad is sacked, but recovers.

For Sumur, the vast number of Cypriot imports which have taken place since the late fourteenth century BC quickly and progressively dry up before the city itself is attacked and destroyed - but not abandoned. Both Cypriot and Mycenaean pottery largely disappears to be replaced during the subsequent impoverished occupation phase by locally-made Mycenaean-style ceramics along with two new styles: Handmade Burnished Ware and Grey Ware.

738 - 734 BC

All of the Phoenician states become vassals of Assyria, including Sidon, but local arrangements for governance are left in place. In 734 BC the cities of Sumur, Arqa, and Gebal are all seized, while Tyre is forced to pay tribute and suffer partial deportation. Akko is assaulted before being reduced to ashes, while the territory of Naphtali is annexed. The Philistines are next.

Ruins of Sumur at Tell Kazel
Unlike most urban sites in this region, the settlement at Sumur was not abandoned even when it was destroyed during the chaos of the end of the thirteenth century BC, instead remaining inhabited until its final abandonment

Sumur itself remains a possession of the sequential great empires of the region, with Assyria possibly having first been responsible for destroying the city during its attack (either in this attack or an earlier one, either in the late ninth century BC or during the eighth century BC). The Persians utilise it as a trading centre while the Seleucids also occupy it heavily before it gradually falls out of use.

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