This block is broken or missing. You may be missing content or you might need to enable the original module.

Canaan in the Pre-Israelite Period – 1

Original Date
May 12, 2009

In the beginning of our article about Canaan, we must to bear in mind some archeological findings about the so-called Canaanite area that held true throughout the Middle – Late Bronze Ages and beyond:

  • The country was always open to immigration [1]  though broken up within itself [2] . In the Bronze Age, it had no unified government or army and had, in the Late Bronze Age, large areas of hill country, which had been periodically settled in earlier periods, were almost unoccupied . This was the case in spite of the fact that the technology, in the form of plastered cisterns, metal tools and terracing , necessary to clear and settle the land were available. In the event, Israel emerged in the form of settlers on this largely unoccupied [3] hill country.
  • From the north, the country was open to Lebanon, Syria and via Syria to Mesopotamia and Anatolia. The south was open to infiltration by nomads and to military invasion by Egypt. The east was open to infiltration by nomads from the Syrian Desert and Arabia. The western border was the Mediterranean which was the greatest highway of all. In fact, during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages Egyptian armies frequently invaded from the south; the Bible states that the Israelites tried, and failed to enter Canaan from the south and then entered successfully from the east; and, the Philistines and other Sea People successfully invaded from the sea and took over the coastal plain. Later, both Israelite kingdoms were destroyed by Mesopotamian powers coming from the north in response to rebellions supported by Egypt from the south.
  • While, according to biblical tradition, there were many ethnic groups in Canaan (Amorites, Hittites, Hivites, Horites, Kenites, Perizites etc.), and even though some of these would appear to be non-Semitic in origin [e.g. Horites (Hurrians?) and Hittites] they seem to have become assimilated into the Canaanite culture speaking Canaanite and having West Semitic names.
  • There was, from the earliest times, strong Egyptian cultural influence along the coast and strong Mesopotamian influence in north Syria. Egyptian cultural influence was boosted by Egyptian rule in the centuries preceding the emergence of Ancient Israel.

The urban development of Canaan lagged considerably behind that of Egypt and Mesopotamia and even Syria, where from ca. 3500 BCE a sizable city developed at Hamoukar. This city, which was colonized, probably by people coming from Uruk, perhaps saw the first connections between Syria and Southern Mesopotamia that were repeated throughout history. Urban development again began, culminating in the Early Bronze Age development of sites like Ebla, which by ca. 2300 BCE was incorporated once again into the Akkadian empire of Sargon the Great and Naram-Sin of Akkad (Biblical Accad). Sumerian references to the Mar.tu (”tent dwellers” – considered to be Amorite) country West of the Euphrates date from even earlier than Sargon, at least to the reign of Enshakushanna of Uruk. The archives of Ebla show reference to a number of Biblical sites, including Hazor, Jerusalem, and as a number of people have claimed, to Sodom and Gomorrah mentioned in Genesis as well. The collapse of the Akkadian Empire saw the arrival of peoples using Khirbet Kerak Ware pottery, coming originally from the Zagros Mountains, east of the Tigris. It is suspected by some that this event marks the arrival in Syria and Canaan of the Hurrians, possibly the people later known in the Biblical tradition as Horites.

Today it is thought that Canaanite civilization is a response to long periods of stable climate interrupted by short periods of climate change. During these periods, Canaanites profited from their intermediary position between the ancient civilizations of the Middle East — Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Minoan Crete — to become city states of merchant princes along the coast, with small kingdoms specializing in agricultural products in the interior. This polarity, between coastal towns and agrarian hinterland, was illustrated in Canaanite mythology by the struggle between the storm god, variously called Teshub (Hurrian) or Ba’al Hadad (Aramaean) and Ya’a, Yaw, Yahu or Yam, god of the sea and rivers. Small walled market towns characterized early Canaanite civilization surrounded by peasant farmers growing a range of local horticultural products, along with commercial growing of olives, grapes for wine, and pistachios, surrounded by extensive grain cropping, predominantly wheat and barley. Harvest in early summer was a season when transhumance nomadism was practiced — shepherds staying with their flocks during the wet season and returning to graze them on the harvested stubble, closer to water supplies in the summer. Evidence of this cycle of agriculture is found in the Gezer Calendar and in the Biblical cycle of the year.

The Land of Canaan

Periods of rapid climate change generally saw a collapse of this mixed Mediterranean farming system; commercial production was replaced with subsistence agricultural foodstuffs; and transhumance pastoralism became a year-round nomadic pastoral activity, whilst tribal groups wandered in a circular pattern north to the Euphrates, or south to the Egyptian delta with their flocks. During the periods of the collapse of Akkad and the First Intermediary Period in Egypt, the Hyksos invasions and the end of the Middle Bronze Age in Babylonia, and the Late Bronze Age collapse, trade through the Canaanite area would dwindle, as Egypt and Mesopotamia withdrew into their isolation. When the climates stabilized, trade would resume firstly along the coast in the area of the Philistine and Phoenician cities. The Philistines, while an integral part of the Canaanite milieu, do not seem to have been ethnically homogenous with the Canaanites; the Hurrians, Hittites, Aramaeans, Moabites, and Ammonites are also considered distinct from generic Canaanites or Amorites, in scholarship or in tradition (although in the Biblical Book of Nations, “Heth“, (Hittites) are a son of Canaan). As markets redeveloped, new trade routes that would avoid the heavy tariffs of the coast would develop from Kadesh Barnea, through Hebron, Lachish, Jerusalem, Bethel, Samaria, Shechem, Shiloh through Galilee to Jezreel, Hazor and Megiddo. Secondary Canaanite cities would develop in this region. Further economic development would see the creation of a third trade route from Eilath, Timna, Edom (Seir), Moab, Ammon and thence to Damascus and Palmyra. Earlier states (for example the Philistines and Tyrians in the case of Judah and Israel, for the second route, and Judah and Israel for the third route) tried generally unsuccessfully to control the interior trade.

Eventually, the prosperity of this trade would attract more powerful regional neighbors, such as Ancient Egypt, Assyria, the Babylonians, Persians, Ancient Greeks and Romans, who would attempt to control the Canaanites politically, levying tribute, taxes and tariffs. Often in such periods, thorough overgrazing would result in a climatic collapse and a repeat of the cycle (eg. PPNB, Ghassulian, Uruk, and the Bronze Age cycles already mentioned). The fall of later Canaanite civilization occurred with the incorporation of the area into the Greco-Roman world (as Iudaea province), and after Byzantine times, into the Arab, Ottoman[clarify] and Abbasid Caliphates. Aramaic, one of the two lingua francas of Canaanite civilization, is still spoken in a number of small Syrian villages, whilst Phoenician Canaanite disappeared as a spoken language in about 100 CE.

Canaan – Some Simple Facts.

Canaan is an ancient term for a region encompassing present-day Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon and Jordan, plus adjoining coastal lands and parts of Egypt and Syria. The Hebrew Bible identifies Canaan with Lebanon — foremost with the city of Sidon — but extends the “Land of Canaan” southward across Gaza to the “Brook of Egypt” and eastward to the Jordan Valley, thus including modern Israel and the Palestinian Territories. This southern area included various ethnic groups. The Amarna Letters found in Ancient Egypt mention Canaan (Akkadian: Kinahhu) in connection with Gaza and other cities along the Phoenician coast and into Upper Galilee. Many earlier Egyptian sources also make mention of numerous campaigns conducted in Ka-na-na, just inside Asia.

Various Canaanite sites have been excavated by archaeologists. Although the residents of ancient Ugarit in modern Syria do not seem to have considered themselves Canaanite, and did not speak a Canaanite language, archaeologists have considered the site, which was rediscovered in 1928, as quintessentially Canaanite [4] . Much of the modern knowledge about the Canaanites stems from excavation in this area. Canaanites spoke Canaanite languages, closely related to other West Semitic languages. Canaanites are mentioned in the Bible, Mesopotamian and Ancient Egyptian texts. It has been asserted that they originally migrated from the Arabian Peninsula, as that is the most generally accepted Semitic urheimat.

More recently Juris Zarins has suggested that Canaanite culture developed in situ from the Circum Arabian Nomadic Pastoral Complex, which in turn developed from a fusion of Harifian hunter gatherers with PPNB (Pre-Pottery Neolithic B) farming cultures, practicing animal domestication, during the 6,200 BCE climatic crisis . [5]

The English name Canaan comes from the Hebrew via the Greek whence Latin Canaan. The Hebrew name Canaan is of obscure origins, with one possibility being the non-Semitic Hurrian “Knaa” or Akkadian Kinahhu, referring to the rich purple dye produced from the murex snail. The first known references appear in the 2nd millennium BCE, possibly from Hurrian sources in the Mesopotamian city of Nuzi.

Another etymology is straightforward. “Can” means low as “Aram” means high. A straightforward meaning of Canaan is “lowland.” This was first applied to the lowland or classical Phoenicia, mainly Sidon, then by extension to the whole region.

A third possibility is that Canaan derives from the Semitic root k-n-’ meaning “to be subdued[6]. This meaning is supported by the story contained in the Bible. The Bible attributes the name to Canaan, the son of Ham and the grandson of Noah, whose offspring correspond to the names of various ethnic groups in the land of Canaan, listed in the “Table of Nations” (Genesis 10), where Sidon is named as his firstborn son, to be subdued by the descendents of Shem.

Certain scholars of the Eblaite (from Ebla) material (dated 2350 BCE) from the archive of Tell Mardikh see the oldest reference to Canaanites in the ethnic name ga-na-na which provides a third millennium reference to the name Canaan [7].

Canaan is mentioned in a document from the 18th century BCE found in the ruins of Mari, a former Sumerian outpost in Syria, located along the Middle Euphrates. Apparently Canaan at this time existed as a distinct political entity (probably a loose confederation of city-states). A letter from this time complains about certain “thieves and Canaanites (i.e. Kinahhu)” causing trouble in the town of Rahisum.

Tablets found in the Mesopotamian city of Nuzi use the term Kinahnu (”Canaan”) as a synonym for red or purple dye, produced from murex shells on the Mediterranean coast, apparently a renowned Canaanite export commodity. The dyes were likely named after their place of origin (much as “champagne” is both a product, and the name of the region where it is produced). The name ‘Phoenicia‘ is connected with the Greek word for “purple”, apparently referring to the same product, but it is difficult to state with certainty whether the Greek word came from the name, or vice versa. The purple cloth of Tyre in Phoenicia was well known far and wide and long associated with royalty.

Anne Killebrew[8]  has shown how cities such as Jerusalem were large and important walled settlements in the Middle Bronze IIB and Iron Age IIC periods (ca. 1800-1550 and 720-586 BCE), but that during the intervening Late Bronze (LB) and Iron Age I and IIA/B Ages sites like Jerusalem were small and relatively insignificant and unfortified towns [9] .

References to Canaanites are also found throughout the Amarna letters of Pharaoh Akenaton circa 1350 BCE, and a reference to the “land of Canaan” is found on the statue of Idrimi of Alalakh in modern Syria. After a popular uprising against his rule, Idrimi was forced into exile with his mother’s relatives to seek refuge in “the land of Canaan”, where he stayed, preparing for an eventual attack to recover his city. Texts from Ugarit also refer to an individual Canaanite (kn’ny), suggesting that the people of Ugarit, contrary to much modern opinion, considered themselves to be non-Canaanite.

Archaeological excavations of a number of sites, later identified as Canaanite, show that prosperity of the region reached its apogee during this Middle Bronze Age period, under leadership of the city of Hazor, at least nominally tributary to Egypt for much of the period. In the north, the cities of Yamkhad and Qatna were hegemonies of important confederacies, and it would appear that Biblical Hazor was the chief city of another important coalition in the south. In the early Late Bronze Age, Canaanite confederacies were centered on Megiddo and Kadesh, before again being brought into the Egyptian Empire.

Egyptian Canaan.

During the 2nd millennium BCE, Ancient Egyptian texts use the term Canaan to refer to an Egyptian province, whose boundaries generally corroborate the definition of Canaan found in the Hebrew Bible, bounded to the west by the Mediterranean Sea, to the north in the vicinity of Hamath in Syria, to the east by the Jordan Valley, and to the south by a line extended from the Dead Sea to around Gaza (Numbers 34). Nevertheless, the Egyptian and Hebrew uses of the term are not identical: the Egyptian texts also identify the coastal city of Qadesh in Syria near Turkey as part of the “Land of Canaan”, so that the Egyptian usage seems to refer to the entire levantine coast of the Mediterranean Sea, making it a synonym of another Egyptian term for this coastland, Retenu.

There is uncertainty about whether the name Canaan refers to a specific ethnic group wherever they live, the homeland of this ethnic group, or a region under the control of this ethnic group, or perhaps any of the three.
At the end of what is referred to as the Middle Kingdom era of Egypt, was a breakdown in centralised power, the assertion of independence by various nomarchs and the assumption of power in the Delta by Pharaohs of the 17th Dynasty. Around 1674 BCE, these rulers, whom the Egyptians referred to as “rulers of foreign lands” (Egyptian, Heqa Khasut), hence “Hyksos” (Greek), came to control Lower Egypt (northern Egypt), evidently leaving Canaan an ethnically diverse land.

Among the migrant tribes who appear to have settled in the region were the Amorites. In the Old Testament, we find Amorites mentioned in the Table of Peoples (Genesis 10:16-18a). Evidently, the Amorites played a significant role in the early history of Canaan. In Genesis 14:7 f., Joshua 10:5 f., Deuteronomy 1:19 f., 27, 44, we find them located in the southern mountain country, while in Numumbers 21:13, Joshua 9:10, 24:8, 12, etc., we hear of two great Amorite kings residing at Heshbon and Ashtaroth, east of the Jordan. However, in other passages such as Genesis 15:16, 48:22, Joshua 24:15, Judges 1:34, etc., the name Amorite is regarded as synonymous with “Canaanite” — only “Amorite” is never used for the population on the coast.

In Egyptian inscriptions Amar and Amurru are applied strictly to the more northerly mountain region east of Phoenicia, extending to the Orontes. In the Akkadian Empire, as early as Naram-Sin’s reign (ca. 2240 BCE), Amurru was called one of the “four quarters” surrounding Sumer, along with Subartu, Akkad, and Elam, and Amorite dynasties also came to dominate in Mesopotamia, including at Babylon and Isin. Later on, Amurru became the Assyrian term for the interior of south as well as for northerly Canaan. At this time the Canaanite area seemed divided between two confederacies, one centred upon Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley, the second on the more northerly city of Kadesh on the Orontes River.

In the centuries preceding the appearance of the Biblical Hebrews, Canaan and Syria became tributary to the Egyptian Pharaohs, although domination by the sovereign was not so strong as to prevent frequent local rebellions and inter-city struggles. Under Thutmose III (1479–1426 BCE) and Amenhotep II (1427–1400 BCE), the regular presence of the strong hand of the Egyptian ruler and his armies kept the Syrians and Canaanites sufficiently loyal. Nevertheless, Thutmose III reported a new and troubling element in the population. cHabiru or (in Egyptian) ‘Apiru, are reported for the first time. These seem to have been mercenaries, brigands or outlaws, who may have at one time led a settled life, but with bad-luck or due to the force of circumstances, contributed a rootless element of the population, prepared to hire themselves to whichever local mayor or princeling prepared to undertake their support. Although Habiru SA-GAZ (a Sumerian ideogram glossed as “brigand” in Akkadian), and sometimes Habiri (an Akkadian word) had been reported in Mesopotamia from the reign of Shulgi of Ur III, their appearance in Canaan appears to have been due to the arrival of a new state in Northern Mesopotamia based upon Maryannu aristocracy of horse drawn charioteers, associated with the Indo-Aryan rulers of the Hurrians, known as Mitanni. The Habiru seem to have been more a social class than any ethnic group. One analysis shows that the majority were, however, Hurrian, though there were a number of Semites and even some Kassite adventurers amongst their number. The reign of Amenhotep III, as a result was not quite so tranquil for the Asiatic province, as Habiru/’Apiru contributed to greater political instability. It is believed that turbulent chiefs began to seek their opportunities, though as a rule could not find them without the help of a neighboring king. The boldest of the disaffected nobles was Aziru, son of Abdi-Ashirta, a prince of Amurru, who even before the death of Amenhotep III, endeavored to extend his power into the plain of Damascus. Akizzi, governor of Katna-(Qatna?) (near Hamath), reported this to the Pharaoh, who seems to have sought to frustrate his attempts. In the next reign, however, both father and son caused infinite trouble to loyal servants of Egypt like Rib-Addi, governor of Gubla (Gebal), not the least through transferring loyalty from the Egyptian crown to that of the expanding neighboring Hittites under Suppiluliuma I.

Egyptian power in Canaan thus suffered a major setback when the Hittites (or Hatti) advanced into Syria in the reign of Amenhotep III, and became even more threatening in that of his successor, displacing the Amurru and prompting a resumption of Semitic migration. Abd-Ashirta and his son Aziru, at first afraid of the Hittites, afterwards made a treaty with their king, and joining with other external powers, attacked the districts remaining loyal to Egypt. In vain did Rib-Addi send touching appeals for aid to the distant Pharaoh, who was far too engaged in his religious innovations to attend to such messages.  In the el Amarna letters (c. 1350 BCE) sent by governors and princes of Canaan to their Egyptian overlord Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) in the 14th century BCE — commonly known as the Tel-el-Amarna tablets — we find, beside Amar and Amurru (Amorites), the two forms Kinahhi and Kinahni, corresponding to Kena‘ and Kena’an respectively, and including Syria in its widest extent, as Eduard Meyer has shown. The letters are written in the official and diplomatic Akkadian language, though “Canaanite” words and idioms are also in evidence. In the El Amarna letters, we meet with the cHabiri in northern Syria. Itakkama wrote thus to the Pharaoh,

“Behold, Namyawaza has surrendered all the cities of the king, my lord to the SA-GAZ in the land of Kadesh and in Ubi. But I will go, and if thy gods and thy sun go before me, I will bring back the cities to the king, my lord, from the Habiri, to show myself subject to him; and I will expel the SA-GAZ.”

Similarly Zimrida, king of Sidon- (named ‘Siduna’), declared, “All my cities which the king has given into my hand, have come into the hand of the Habiri.” The king of Jerusalem, Abdi-Heba, reported to the Pharaoh,

“If (Egyptian) troops come this year, lands and princes will remain to the king, my lord; but if troops come not, these lands and princes will not remain to the king, my lord.”

Abdi-heba’s principle trouble arose from persons called Iilkili and the sons of Labaya, who are said to have entered into a treasonable league with the cHabiri. Apparently this restless warrior found his death at the siege of Gina. All these princes, however, maligned each other in their letters to the Pharaoh, and protested their own innocence of traitorous intentions. Namyawaza, for instance, whom Itakkama accused of disloyalty, wrote thus to the Pharaoh,

“Behold, I and my warriors and my chariots, together with my brethren and my SA-GAZ, and my Suti ? are at the disposal of the (royal) troops to go whithersoever the king, my lord, commands .”  [10]


Just after the Amarna period a new problem arose which was to trouble the Egyptian control of Canaan. Pharaoh Horemhab campaigned against Shasu (Egyptian = “wanderers”) or living in nomadic pastoralist tribes, who had moved across the Jordan to threaten Egyptian trade through Galilee and Jezreel. Seti I (ca. 1290 BCE) is said to have conquered these Shasu, Semitic nomads living just south and east of the Dead Sea, from the fortress of Taru (Shtir?) to “Ka-n-’-na”. After the near collapse of the Battle of Kadesh, Rameses II had to campaign vigorously in Canaan to maintain Egyptian power. Egyptian forces penetrated into Moab and Ammon, where a permanent fortress garrison (Called simply “Rameses”) was established. After the collapse of the Levant under the so called “Peoples of the Sea” Rameses III (ca. 1186 BCE) is said to have built a temple to the god Amen in “Ka-n-’-na.” This geographic name probably meant all of western Syria and Canaan, with Raphia, “the (first) city of the Ka-n-’-na,”, on the southwest boundary toward the desert. Some archaeologists have proposed that Egyptian records of the 13th century BCE are early written reports of a monotheistic belief in Yahweh noted among the nomadic Shasu. Evidently, belief in Yahweh had arisen among these nomadic peoples. By the reign of King Josiah (around 650 BCE) [11] . Yahweh had displaced the polytheistic family of “El” as the principle God amongst those living in the high country of Israel and Judah. Some believe the “Habiru” signified generally all the nomadic tribes known as “Hebrews.” and particularly the early Israelites, who sought to appropriate the fertile region for themselves, but the term was rarely used to describe the Shasu. Whether the term may also include other related peoples such as the Moabites, Ammonites and Edomites is uncertain.


[1] Vaux, R de, The History of Early Israel, Westminster, 1978
[2] Dever, William G., Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Israel, pp. 12-15Eerdmans, 2005
[3] Silberman, Neil Asher and Finkelstein, Israel The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, Free Press, 2002
[4] Tubb, Jonathan N. (1998)”Canaanites” (British Museum Peoples of the Past)
[5]  Zarins, Juris (1992), “Pastoral nomadism in Arabia: ethnoarchaeology and the archaeological record—a case study” in in O. Bar-Yosef and A. Khazanov, eds. “Pastoralism in the Levant”
[6]  Tubb, Johnathan N. (1998), “Canaanites” (The British Museum Peoples of the Past)
[7]  Idem. p.15
[8]  Killebrew Ann E. – Associate Professor Department of Classics & Ancient Mediterranean Studies; Jewish Studies – Pennsylvania State University
[9]  Killebrew Ann E. “Biblical Jerusalem: An Archaeological Assessment” in Andrew G. Vaughn and Ann E. Killebrew, eds., “Jerusalem in Bible and Archaeology: The First Temple Period” (SBL Symposium Series 18; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003)
[10] El Amarna letter, EA 189.
[11]  Who Were the Early Israelites?, William G. Dever. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003, pp. 128, 236.


ANE Articles from Theophyle's English Blog - Ancient Near East

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type='1 A I'> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id='jump-*'> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.