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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Late Bronze Age

During the Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 BCE), new imperial powers emerged in the Near East. Each sought to dominate Syria-Palestine, motivated partly by that region's strategic location in the trade network. One of these newcomers, Mitanni, took shape in northeastern Syria itself and came to control all of northern Syria for nearly two centuries. The second primary power was the revived Egypt, which under the pharaohs of the New Kingdom (1550–1069) ruled an empire that encompassed all of Palestine and southern Syria and contended for control of central Syria, a goal that naturally brought it in conflict with Mitanni. The third state, Hatti in central Turkey, did not emerge as an interregional power until the rise of King Suppiluliumas in the mid-fourteenth century. Once on the scene, however, Hatti replaced Mitanni as the master of northern Syria and as Egypt's primary rival. Syria-Palestine thus served as both arena and object of conflict between the northern states and Egypt.

Aleppo, the old capital of Yamhad, sank to lesser status after its destruction by the Hittites in the early sixteenth century. It managed, however, to retain some importance during the Late Bronze Age. To the northeast of Aleppo was Carchemish, a well-fortified city located at a strategic crossing of the Euphrates River, which came to play an important part in the political drama of the period.

Northwest Syria was divided into several states, including Mukish, with its capital at Alalakh, Ugarit on the coast, and Niya and Nuhashe in the interior. Farther south, three important cities lay on or near the Orontes River—Tunip, Qatna, and Qadesh/Kinza. These cities formed the buffer zone between the spheres of influence of the northern and southern powers; each had to play dangerous political games, striving either to maintain its independence or to choose one imperial power as its protector. To their west lay the area known as Amurru, another bone of contention between the great powers. Several important coastal cities, including Arvad, Sumur, Gubla (Byblos), Beruta (Beirut), Sidon, and Tyre, played an active commercial role during this period. Between the Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges were the states of Tahshi in the north and Amqa in the south. The area around Damascus—at an earlier date called Apum—was now known as Upi. Amqa and Upi marked the northernmost bounds of the area regularly controlled by Egypt throughout the Late Bronze Age. In Canaan proper the land was divided into more than a dozen small, weak city-states, none of which had any political clout, with Hazor, Shechem, Megiddo, Gezer, and Jerusalem as the most prominent.

The end of the Middle Bronze and beginning of the Late Bronze Age saw the expansion of an important population group known as the Hurrians in northern Syria and, later, as far south as Canaan. Mitanni, in northeast Syria, dominated by Hurrians, became the most significant Hurrian power of the period, controlling the northern half of the Near East by the early fifteenth century. Despite its great importance, however, we know little about Mitanni. Its capital city, Washukani, is one of the few major capitals that remain as yet unidentified, and only a few Mitannian documents have been found in the archives of other cities. It is clear, however, that after 1470, Mitanni, under King Saushtatar, extended its sway over all of northern Syria to the Mediterranean, as well as eastward through Assyria. The states of central Syria as far south as Qadesh, on the southern end of the Orontes, may also have become Mitannian vassals.

While Mitanni was becoming established in northern Syria, Egypt was beginning its expansion from the south. Having expelled the Semitic-speaking Hyksos from the delta, the Egyptians apparently began to see both the economic and the political value of controlling an empire. The first three kings of Dynasty 18—Ahmose, Amenhotep I, and Thutmose I—moved quickly to seize control of the Canaanite city-states in Palestine. Thutmose I (1504–1492) marched his troops all the way to the Euphrates River in the second year of his reign.

Thutmose III (1479–1425) brought Egypt to its greatest power during the New Kingdom. In a series of campaigns he managed to impose Egyptian control over Canaan, as well as most of southern and central Syria. His first campaign brought Thutmose up against a large coalition of Canaanite and Syrian city-states led by the central Syrian city of Qadesh. The enemies clashed in a famous battle in the Jezreel Valley in northern Canaan. After a brief skirmish, the coalition members hastily retreated into the fortified town of Megiddo, which Thutmose besieged. After seven months the trapped rulers surrendered, all then being forced to pay a heavy tribute and to take an oath of loyalty. Thutmose's inscriptions claim that the coalition was composed of 330 princes, but this is an exaggeration. A more realistic number is found in the temple of Amun at Karnak, containing a list of 119 towns whose rulers are said to have been captured in the siege of Megiddo. More likely, this list enumerates all the towns and villages that came under Thutmose's control as a result of the campaign, whether or not their rulers had capitulated at Megiddo. Canaan was now firmly in Egyptian hands.

His appetite whetted, Thutmose began his efforts to secure control of Syria as well. He built a fleet of ships that allowed him to sail his army to the Syrian coast, thus saving the men a grueling march through Canaan. Three campaigns against the powerful city-states of Tunip and Qadesh/Kinza succeeded only partially, but they prepared the way for Thutmose's greatest military achievement in his thirty-third year, when he and his army marched to the vicinity of Carchemish in northern Syria and crossed the Euphrates, meeting only minor resistance from Mitanni.

But control of the kingdoms of Syria was always tenuous for the Egyptians, and Thutmose found himself fighting in northwest Syria during several subsequent years. At his death the Syrian states quickly rebelled, obliging his successor Amenhotep II (1427–1400) to lead three campaigns into Syria to enforce Egyptian control. But these came early in his reign; during his latter years Amenhotep appears to have given up. Under Thutmose IV a peace treaty between Egypt and Artatama of Mitanni presumably delineated each empire's sphere of influence in Syria. Evidently both sides realized that an equilibrium had been achieved, for the treaty was renewed by the successors of the two kings, Amenhotep III of Egypt and Shuttarna II of Mitanni. The boundaries between the two states probably coincided with those that were in force later during the mid-fourteenth century. Coastal Syria as far north as Ugarit came under Egyptian control, along with southern Syria—the Damascus region, the Biqa Valley of Lebanon (Amqa), and the lands of Qadesh and Amurru. Qatna and the northern states, including Niya and Nuhashe, fell within the Mitannian orbit.

Shuttarna of Mitanni probably saw good reason to keep the peace with Egypt because he was threatened on two sides by growing powers. In the late fifteenth century Assyria, which had been under Mitannian control for about a century, became increasingly independent. And in Anatolia, the Hittites briefly repeated their earlier attempt to extend their influence into northern Syria; they were not successful, and by the end of the fifteenth century they were fighting for their lives against enemies in Anatolia itself. Still, they could not be counted out, and Shuttarna did not need any complications in his dealings with the Egyptians.

The final king of independent Mitanni was Tushratta, a younger son of Shuttarna. Despite coming to his throne in an irregular way, he maintained his authority securely for several years. He continued cordial relations with Egypt, sending his daughter Tadu-Hepa to marry Amenhotep III in a gesture reaffirming the close ties between the two countries. But relations with Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) deteriorated after Akhenaten sent Tushratta wooden statues covered with gold foil, not the solid gold statues that Amenhotep III had promised.

Mitanni's downfall was, however, at hand. Tushratta was not prepared to face the extraordinary recovery of Hatti shortly after the great king Suppiluliumas came to its throne. Suppiluliumas was a remarkably able soldier and an astute politician. He saw Mitanni as his primary rival for control of Syria and set about forming alliances to weaken Tushratta's position. Eventually he marched his army directly into Mitanni and attacked its capital, Washukani. Tushratta apparently had no means to resist the Hittite advance and fled his capital before Suppiluliumas arrived. Meeting no Mitannian opposition, the Hittite king turned westward and promptly conquered all of northern Syria except for Carchemish.

Suppiluliumas was apparently prepared to stop with the conquest of the states in the Mitannian sphere of influence, but the king of Qadesh/Kinza, a vassal of the Egyptians, attacked the Hittite army. Suppiluliumas easily defeated the Qadeshite army and then marched southward, taking over Qadesh and perhaps also Amurru. By the end of Suppiluliumas's reign, then, all of central Syria, as well as the coast, lay under Hittite control, including the former Egyptian vassals of Ugarit, Amurru, and Qadesh. Such a violation of Egyptian territory would not go unchallenged for long.

Tushratta, the king of Mitanni, meanwhile, met his end, creating further instability. One of his own sons murdered him. With Assyrian help a puppet ruler, Shuttarna III, took control of what was left of Mitanni. Outraged, the Hittite king Suppiluliumas within a short time sent an army under his own son to place Shattiwaza, another son of Tushratta, on the throne as a Hittite vassal.

Mitanni had by now become a mere bone of contention. After the death of Suppiluliumas, the Assyrians began a long struggle to wrest for themselves the control of Mitanni, and from the late fourteenth to the end of the thirteenth centuries, its allegiance swerved back and forth. But it never played an independent role again. Northern Syria to the west of the Euphrates, however, continued to be part of the Hittite empire. In the seventh year of the reign of Mursilis II, the son and second successor of Suppiluliumas, Nuhashe and Qadesh/Kinza, rebelled with the support of Egyptian troops dispatched by Pharaoh Horemhab. This revolt was suppressed, but the Egyptians were not ready to relinquish their claims to Qadesh and Amurru.

With the ascent to the throne of Seti I in the early thirteenth century, a final period of hostilities began between the Egyptians and the Hittites. Central Syria was the battleground and the prize. After suppressing revolts in Palestine, Seti marched north and reconquered both Qadesh and Amurru. The Hittite archives record the official withdrawal of Benteshina, ruler of Amurru, from his alliance with Hatti. This brought the Egyptian sphere of influence to its greatest extent since the rise of Hittite power several decades earlier.

Rameses II ascended the throne of Egypt in 1279 BCE and in his fifth year met Muwatallis of Hatti at one of the most famous battles of the ancient Near East, the battle of Qadesh. Here Rameses found himself caught by surprise by the Hittite forces, barely escaping with his life. Although his inscriptions portray the outcome as a great victory, it was in fact a disaster for the Egyptians. Rameses and his troops retreated southward, followed by the Hittite army, which temporarily occupied most of southern Syria and regained more permanent possession of Amurru. Over the next sixteen years other battles raged in Syria. Although Egyptian sources claim several victories, these were at best substantial exaggerations, for the Hittites remained lords of central Syria for as long as Hatti existed.

Eventually, in Rameses' twenty-first year, he and Hattusili III negotiated a peace treaty that ended the warfare between the two countries. Although boundaries are not mentioned in the treaty, they must have coincided substantially with those at the end of Suppiluliumas's reign, with Hatti in control of Amurru and Qadesh, and Egypt retaining southern Syria, including Upi and Amqa.

From the mid-thirteenth century on, the political situation in Syria-Palestine remains obscure. The end of the thirteenth century, however, saw the beginning of the extraordinary collapse of Late Bronze Age culture. The collapse would lead to the disappearance of Hatti, the fall of the New Kingdom in Egypt, and the decline—temporary, to be sure—of Assyria and Babylonia. Numerous major cities throughout northern Syria would be destroyed, and the classical Canaanite civilization in Palestine and coastal Syria would be eclipsed.

Exactly how all these cataclysmic changes happened is unclear. But the results are indisputable. We know that the entire complex network of trade that bound together the Near East and its neighbors, including Cyprus and Greece, simply collapsed. Many populations appear to have migrated, their movements sometimes accompanied by great violence. Hatti apparently fell to such hordes. Egypt was attacked by groups called “Sea Peoples.” They were repelled from Egypt, but the Egyptians could not stop them from taking over the Canaanite coast. The Philistines, who conquered the southern coast of Canaan and came to play an important role in the history of Israel, were among these Sea Peoples. Another group, called the Tjeker, appropriated land farther north on the Canaanite coast.

Recent environmental studies have suggested that two severe droughts at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the twelfth centuries extended all across Europe and the Near East. These droughts would have caused food shortages that may be the key to the collapse of economic systems throughout the area and the concomitant migrations. It was amid this collapse that Israel emerged.

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