History Files

Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Syria



Ancient 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. The relatively few early Syrian states which appeared in the third millennium BC differed somewhat from their contemporaries in Sumer and Akkad. Instead of relying on river irrigation, the agriculture of the north was rain-fed, so yields were lower and larger areas had to be cultivated (although with less labour). As a result, northern cities tended to be smaller with more people living in outlying settlements, and although they were still city states at heart, they had more of an appearance of being small kingdoms.

FeatureThe location of ancient Tuba is not known for certain, but scholars generally agree that the prime candidate is the site of Tell Umm el-Marra, about fifty kilometres to the east of the city of Alep in modern north-western Syria. First occupied shortly after 3000 BC (approximately 2700 BC), Tuba was a medium-size city, smaller than nearby Ebla (to the west), but bigger than the average regional settlements. Archaeological evidence indicates that it was the largest metropolis on the Jabbul Plain, an intersection of ancient trade routes which connected the eastern Mediterranean to locations as far afield as the Indus Valley culture. The earliest of its tombs are dated to the very beginning of its occupation, at a time in which there may have been animal and even some human sacrifice in the city, although the latter is still a controversial assertion.

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), and from External Link: Umm el-Marra, Syria (Joint Expedition).)

c.2700 BC

The first tombs at Tuba are constructed in what becomes archaeology layers, Periods VI-IV. The city develops to become the capital of a small kingdom during the early centuries of the third millennium, although no records have survived to document it at a time before which writing has entered ancient Syria. An earthen rampart can be detected in the city wall trench in West Area A, suggesting that Umm el-Marra is already a large, fortified centre in the Early Bronze Age.

fl c.2700 BC


Unknown king or kings of early Tuba.

c.2500 - 2200 BC

Tuba is at the height of its power and prosperity, and is mentioned in Ebla's royal archives. A complex of at least seven tombs is constructed and maintained within the city. Sacrificial animals, including puppies and decapitated donkeys, are placed in the tombs alongside their human occupants. A previously unseen form of writing on four small clay cylinders is also included. However, if the nobility of Tuba have a palace or temple, no signs of it have been found to date.

Map of Ancient Anatolia c.2000 BC
The dig at Tell Umm el-Marra
The mud brick tombs contained decapitated animals, with the skulls on an adjacent ledge, alongside their human companions at Tell Umm el-Marra in Syria, while above that is a map of the region around 2000 BC (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.2100 BC

Tuba is one of many cities affected at a time at which the number and size of settlements in northern Syria is reduced. Parts of the city are abandoned, along with many nearby settlements. Possibly, the region undergoes an economic downturn, with only cities which control the trade routes to the south managing to survive at all.

This picture of decline in this period is one that is repeated across the region. Hatti in Anatolia shows a layer of destruction while in southern Mesopotamia the Sumerians apparently undergo a climate-induced collapse which also affects Egypt. Cities such as Uruk are struck and defeated by the Gutians at the same time as they destroy Agade and carry off the Sumerian kingship, while others such as Eridu simply decline into inexistence.

c.1900 - 1800 BC

By this time a recovery is underway, but the Amorite tribes which have migrated into the region now control Tuba. The city becomes a major centre again, and serves as a subsidiary capital within the state of Yamkhad. A mud brick wall almost two metres thick is built around the 1.4 hectare central area of the city, with a city gate on the north-east side.

c.1776 - 1600 BC

Following the break-up of the short-lived but powerful kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia, the state of Yamkhad reasserts itself to become the dominant force in north-western Syria, controlling Tuba among many other cities.

c.1340 BC

Tuba falls victim to an episode of substantial destruction. Some buildings are burned, with some of their household implements, luxury items, and other contents still inside. Suppiluliuma, the new Hittite ruler, takes control of northern Syria, causing destruction to some areas as he does so, and it seems likely that Tuba is one of his victims.

c.1200 BC

The international system has recently been creaking under the strain of increasing waves of peasants and the poor leaving the cities and abandoning crops. Around the end of this century the entire region is also 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

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). Some important Hittite cities and states, such as Tarhuntassa and Ugarit, disappear. Tuba is also abandoned as a city, although the mound on the site which has formed from two thousand years of occupation is reoccupied from time to time.