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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Syria



FeatureAncient Syria was much larger than its modern counterpart, being bordered by the Taurus Mountains in the north, the Upper Euphrates to the north-east, and the Syrian Desert to the south-east. The name is Greek, which they used to describe various Assyrian peoples. Amorites began to arrive in the territory to the west of the Euphrates, within modern Syria, from around 2500 BC. The Akkadians called them Amurru, and groups of them drifted down into Sumer where they eventually replaced the Sumerians as rulers in Mesopotamia. By the first part of the second millennium BC, most of the Syrian peoples spoke Semitic dialects, but in the northern areas of Syria there is also evidence of non-Semitic Hurrian, a fairly obscure population group.

In first millennium BC Syria, following its recovery, two-or-so centuries after the collapse of the international system and the Hittite empire which dominated much of Syria, there existed a great many cities and large towns of all sizes. Not all of them are well recorded, with some being little more than footnotes on lists of conquests. Today there exist a great many tells, or mounds, which contain the archaeological remnants of those cities and towns. Many of these locations were never home to any kingship, while others may have flourished under such rule for only a brief period of time, and with even briefer mentions of the names and details of their rulers.

Gamgum is just such a city. Apparently a short-lived state it flourished in the eighth century BC. It was mentioned in the victory stele of Sargon II of Assyria. At present the name cannot be matched up to a specific tell. It was either Akkadian or Aramaean, and was probably one of the many still-unlocated cities in modern northern Syria.

The ruins of Palmyra in Syria

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from the Columbia Encyclopaedia, Sixth Edition (2010), from the Britannica Concise Encyclopaedia (2010), from Historical Atlas of the Ancient World, 4,000,000 to 500 BC, John Haywood (Barnes & Noble, 2000), from The Ancient Near East, c.3000-330 BC, Amélie Kuhrt (Routledge, 2000, Volumes I & II), from The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History, Colon McEvedy (Penguin Books, 1967, revised 2002), from Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East, Michael Road (Facts on File, 2000), from Mesopotamia: Assyrians, Sumerians, Babylonians (Dictionaries of Civilizations 1), Enrico Ascalone (University of California Press, 2007), from The Cambridge Ancient History, Iorwerth Eiddon Stephen Edwards (Cambridge University Press, 1973), from A History of the Ancient Near East c.3000-323 BC, Marc van der Mieroop (Blackwell Publishing, 2004, 2007), from Ancient Assyria, C H W Johns (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and from External Link: Babylonian and Assyrian Literature (Project Gutenberg, which includes the great inscription of the palace of Khorsabad).)

870 - 857 BC

The Assyrians invade and subjugate Syrian states, including Bit Adini, Bit Agusi, Carchemish, and Pattin, by which time many small and semi-obscure cities have arisen, such as Gamgum and Gan Dunias, along with the kingdom of Kedar in eastern Syria. However, the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BC weakens Assyrian control in areas of Syria for a century and more, and it could be this weakening of control that allows small cities such as Gamgum and Gan Dunias to form their own kingships.

853 BC

FeatureAssyria fights the Battle of Qarqar against twelve Syrian and Canaanite kings, including those of Ammon, Arvad, Byblos, Damas, Edom, Egypt, Hamath, Kedar, and Samaria. The battle consists of the largest known number of combatants to date, and is the first historical mention of the Arabs from the southern deserts. Despite claims to the contrary, the Assyrians are defeated, since they do not press on to their nearest target, Hamath, and do not resume their attacks on Hamath and Damas for about six years. However, in the same year, Babylonia and the rich area of southern Mesopotamia is taken, as is Gan Dunias.

Map of Canaan and Syria c.850 BC
When the Neo-Assyrian empire threatened the various city states of southern Syria and Canaan around 853 BC, they united to protect their joint territory - successfully it seems, at least for a time (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.840 BC

Under Hazael, Damas expands its own borders by annexing all the Hebrew possessions east of the Jordan, ravaging Judah, and rendering Israel impotent. The Old Testament's 'kings of Syria' are the Damascenes. From inscriptions by Shalmaneser III of Assyria it appears that Hazael also withstands an attack by the Assyrian army and keeps Damas, Syria, and Philistia independent (although he does seize the city of Gath). However, his actions against his neighbours unleashes a long series of conflicts with Jerusalem.

760s BC

Urartu is victorious against Assyria, and conquers the northern part of Syria, making Urartu the most powerful state in the post- Hittite Near East (and probably serves to distract Assyrian attention from the smaller Syrian kingships such as Gamgum).

late 700s BC

Tarhulara / Tarkhulara

Forced back into vassal status. Murdered by his son.

743 - 740 BC

Tiglath-Pileser III besieges Arpad for three years as it is an ally of Urartu. Once captured, the city is destroyed and its inhabitants are massacred. Arpad is never repopulated. It is probably around this period that the Urartuans lose their domination of the northern part of Syria (with the result that rulers of minor states there are forced back into Assyrian vassal status, such as Gamgum).

Muttalu bar Tarhular / Muttallu

Son. Last king of Gamgum. Dethroned by Assyria.

730s & 720s BC

Led by Tiglath-Pileser III, Assyria conquers most of Syria and the Levant, including Carchemish, Damas, Hamath, Samaria, Judah, Lukhuti, Moab, Pattin, and Phoenicia. In many cases, local dynasties are removed in favour of Assyrian governors. Some, such as Moab, appear to keep their native rulers, but these are now tributary to Assyria.

Ruins of Emar
Syria contains many tells - archaeological city mounds - such as this one at Emar, but not all of them can be linked to known names, principally due to a lack of data

Gamgum is conquered between about 722-705 BC. Having murdered his own father to secure his hold on the throne, Muttalu is an especial target of the new Assyrian ruler, Sargon II (according to the great inscription of the palace of Khorsabad). Sargon removes him from power, restores the old order in the city, and installs his own governor to administer the place, thereby ending any pretence of or ambition towards independence.