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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.

Syria-Palestine during the Late Third Millennium bce

Before examining the history of this region, we should discuss nomenclature briefly. First, the term Syria-Palestine designates the area covered by the modern states of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the recently formed Palestinian entity, and Jordan. Although the compound name may seem to suggest that this region existed as a single political and cultural continuum, like Mesopotamia or Egypt, such was not the case. Syria-Palestine was never culturally unified. Rather, it was the home of several distinct, but interrelated, contemporary cultures. The states of northern Syria, for example, developed differently from those on the Mediterranean coast, in southern Syria, and in Palestine. Northern Syria felt the strong influence of Mesopotamian culture and often looked in that direction for commercial opportunities and political models. This relationship owed largely to northern Syria's vital economic importance for southern Mesopotamia, which had to import many of its most basic needs, including stone and wood for construction. On the other hand, southern Syria and Palestine, along with the Mediterranean coastal cities, developed differently and in some aspects exhibit Egyptian influence. Each region of Syria-Palestine must be approached individually, so that its own distinctive cultural and political role in the history of the Near East can be delineated.

Second, what do the important geographical and ethnic terms Canaan and Canaanite mean? They have been used in a number of ways, by both ancient and modern writers, designating various areas and their inhabitants. During the second millennium BCE Canaan was often the name used for western Palestine (the area west of the Jordan River), whose northern boundary fluctuated between southern and central Lebanon. Modern scholars generally use the term in referring to the wider region in Syria-Palestine where a substantial cultural continuum defined as Canaanite can be discerned. Encompassing western Palestine, most of Lebanon, and coastal Syria as far north as Ugarit, this more extensive area was never considered a political or cultural unit by its ancient inhabitants. The close relationships among its cultures nevertheless often make this wider designation useful. In this chapter, the term Canaan will be used in its ancient sense when it designates a political territory, while Canaanite will refer to the culture of the larger region.

As described in the prologue, urban civilization arose in the Near East during the second half of the fourth millennium BCE. It appeared first in Mesopotamia and shortly thereafter in Egypt. Syria-Palestine, however, was only peripherally involved in this important development until early in the third millennium, when small fortified cities began to emerge throughout the region.

At present we know more about Palestine during the first half of the third millennium than about Syria, simply because many more southern than northern sites of the period have been excavated and more finds from them have been published. That evidence tells us that Palestine's population increased in the Early Bronze I period (3300–3100 BCE), but that not until about 3200 did walled fortifications first appear. During the Early Bronze Age II (3100–2700) and III (2700–2300), Palestine contained several fortified towns ranging in size from 8 to 22 hectares (20 to 55 acres), as well as many small villages scattered throughout the countryside. Early Bronze Age Palestinian civilization reached its climax during the period designated as Early Bronze III, when the population increased, more cities were founded, fortifications reached new levels of size and sophistication, temples and palaces (probably influenced by northern culture) were built, and a northern-oriented trade developed. While commercial links between Egypt and Palestine flourished during the Early Bronze I and II periods, Egypt apparently abandoned its overland route through Palestine early in the Early Bronze III period in favor of the sea route to Byblos in Lebanon, with which it formed a close relationship. The loss of the Egyptian trade may have forced the Palestinian cities to look toward Syria.

So far, no texts (besides a few small Egyptian examples from the Early Bronze I period) have surfaced in Early Bronze Age Palestine. Thus we know little about the political history of this era. Some general conclusions, however, can be drawn. The presence of substantial temples and palaces in the various towns suggests that Palestine was divided into a number of small city-states, each controlling its adjacent lands and unfortified villages. And although large-scale urbanism did not develop there (as it did in northern Syria), Palestine shared the cultural milieu of the age and was not isolated from it.

In northern Syria, more slender evidence suggests that life in the first half of the third millennium followed the same general pattern. Modest fortified towns developed shortly before 3000, but not major cities like those already flourishing in southern Mesopotamia. Sites that later expanded significantly remained small until 2500 BCE. For example, Tell Leilan, located on the Upper Habur River plain, during the first half of the third millennium was a town covering no more than 15 hectares (37 acres), a moderate size even by backwater Palestinian standards. Nor does Ebla, an important city located southwest of modern Aleppo, appear to have reached significant size before 2500.

About midway through the millennium, however, a striking change occurred in northern Syria. A number of very large cities suddenly sprang up, cities rivaling in size the major ones of southern Mesopotamia. Tell Leilan expanded from 15 hectares (37 acres) to nearly 100 hectares (247 acres); so did others in the vicinity, such as Tell Hamoukar, 48 kilometers (30 miles) east of Leilan, and Tell Mozan, 45 kilometers (28 miles) west of Leilan. The same expansion occurred toward the east (for example, Tell Taya, 101 hectares [250 acres]), to the west of the Habur (Tell Chuera, 100 hectares [250 acres], and Ebla, 61 hectares [150 acres]), and as far south as Qatna in central Syria (100 hectares [247 acres]). This extraordinary development must be related to the economic situation and suggests that the cities of northern Syria had taken charge of those natural and agricultural resources previously controlled by the cities of southern Mesopotamia and so vital to their interests. This new ascendancy altered the economic and political relationship between Syria and Mesopotamia, creating a new situation that the south apparently did not like—for in it the Syrian cities now were at least equal partners and no longer served as mere conduits through which commodities passed. The economic control that these large cities began to assert in Syria must have been perceived as a threat to Sumer's international trade. Shortly after 2500 BCE, there occurred the first known Mesopotamian military campaigns against Subir (the Habur region) and areas farther west, including Armanum and Ebla. In these clashes the rulers of Sumer and Akkad tried to consolidate the control over this area that southern Mesopotamia had once exercised with much greater ease. Rulers such as Eannatum of Lagash, Lugalzaggisi of Uruk, and Sargon and Naram-Sin of Akkad led their armies against the great cities of Syria. The repetitive nature of these invasions implies their lack of enduring success.

Our greatest insight into Syria during the last half of the third millennium BCE comes from the ancient city of Ebla, modern Tell Mardikh. Located some 56 kilometers (35 miles) southwest of Aleppo, Ebla is one of only three Syrian cities to have yielded written documents from this period (the others being Mari, discussed below, and Tell Beidar, where seventy tablets were found in 1993).

Tell Mardikh has been under excavation by an Italian team since 1964. During the 1960s and early 1970s, the excavators made a number of significant discoveries relating to Middle Bronze Age Ebla (2000 to 1600 BCE). But in 1973, Paolo Matthiae, the director, opened a field along the edge of the acropolis to examine the late-third-millennium stratum of the site, and came down on part of a royal palace. In 1974, 32 cuneiform tablets were found in a room of the palace, all of them economic documents and using the Sumerian script, although occasional words, written syllabically, belonged to a Semitic language. In 1975, a second room with texts (Room 2712) was excavated; it had about 200 tablets, along with some fragments. But it was eclipsed by the discovery of Room 2769, south of the main entry into the palace. Here thousands of tablets and fragments were unearthed in a main archive room. Many had been stored on shelves that had collapsed when the palace was destroyed by fire, so that the tablets lay in rows amid the rubble on the floor. By the end of 1975, there were 17,000 catalogued tablets and fragments, which when put together represented about 2,500 tablets, approximately 2,100 of which were found in the main archive. This number makes Ebla's one of the largest recovered archives of the third millennium BCE from the Near East.

The Ebla texts are difficult to decipher, and initial reports of direct links between them and the Bible have been proved wrong. What we now know is that approximately 80 percent of the tablets are economic and administrative documents, mostly recording royal dealings in a wide variety of goods—gold, silver, clothing, wood, olive oil, spices, and weapons, as well as livestock and their by-products. Textiles seem to have been particularly important commodities. The tablets give detailed information about the type of long-distance trade that was carried on by the great cities of Syria and Mesopotamia during this period. Scholarly suppositions about the importance of trade in the development of cities, as described above, seem borne out by the picture of Ebla's economic activity that these tablets give.

The administrative texts also show that Ebla controlled a large area of northern Syria, in part directly through appointed governors or local overseers and in part through client kings. They also reveal the highly developed bureaucracy of the city, which the king headed and which a wide range of subordinate officials administered.

Among the noneconomic tablets are a few literary texts (such as hymns); incantation texts; lists of animals, birds, professions, and the like; Sumerian vocabulary lists, some with Semitic equivalents; lists of geographical data; and a few mathematical texts. Unfortunately, most of these writings do not provide information about Eblaite culture because they are actually copies of Mesopotamian works used as part of scribal training at Ebla. A notable exception is a large vocabulary list that may give the Eblaite equivalents to hundreds of Sumerian words. This and other fragments of the local language show that the language of the city, called Eblaite, is closely related to Old Akkadian, a Mesopotamian Semitic dialect.

The tablets provide only the most superficial information about the religion of Ebla, but it is clear that many of the great West Semitic deities were worshiped there. Gods such as Ilu (El), Hadad, Athtar, Dagan, Rashap (biblical Resheph), Malik, and the sun-god (whose name is not spelled out) are all deities well known from later texts, including the Bible. The Ebla tablets also mention Sumerian and otherwise unknown deities.

Despite the wealth of information in the tablets, several basic facts about the Ebla archives remain unclear. For instance, the date of the archives is still in question. Matthiae, the archaeological director of the Ebla excavations, has argued that they should be dated to 2300–2250 BCE, based on the supposition that the palace in which they were found probably was destroyed by the Mesopotamian king Naram-Sin. But others, including the original epigraphist of the Ebla team, Giovanni Pettinato, have argued from the style of the script and other internal indications that the tablets were composed as much as two centuries earlier.

It is also not certain over what length of time the tablets were written. Originally they were thought to be the archives of at least five kings over a period of 100 to 150 years. But more recently scholars have tended to attribute the archive to the reigns of two or three kings at the most, covering a span closer to fifty years.

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