History of the ancient Levant

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The Levant is the large area in Southwest Asia, south of the Taurus Mountains, bounded by the Mediterranean Sea in the west, the Arabian Desert in the south, and Mesopotamia in the east. It stretches 400 mi (640 km) north to south from the Taurus Mountains to the Sinai desert, and 70–100 mi (110–160 km) east to west between the sea and the Arabian desert.[1] The term is also sometimes used to refer to modern events or states in the region immediately bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea: Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and the Hatay Province of Turkey.

The term normally does not include Anatolia (although at times Cilicia may be included), the Caucasus Mountains, Mesopotamia or any part of the Arabian Peninsula proper. The Sinai Peninsula is sometimes included, though it is more considered an intermediate, peripheral or marginal area forming a land bridge between the Levant and northern Egypt.

Stone Age[edit]


Anatomically modern Homo sapiens are demonstrated at the area of Mount Carmel[2] in modern-day Israel during the Middle Paleolithic dating from c. 90,000 BC. These migrants out of Africa seem to have been unsuccessful,[3] and by c. 60,000 BC in the Levant, Neanderthal groups seem to have benefited from the worsening climate and replaced Homo sapiens, who were possibly confined once more to Africa.[4][3]

A second move out of Africa is demonstrated by the Boker Tachtit Upper Paleolithic culture, from 52,000–50,000 BC, with humans at Ksar Akil XXV level being modern humans.[5] This culture bears close resemblance to the Badoshan Aurignacian culture of Iran, and the later Sebilian I Egyptian culture of c. 50,000 BC. Stephen Oppenheimer[6] suggests that this reflects a movement of modern human (possibly Caucasian) groups back into North Africa, at this time.

It would appear this sets the date by which Homo sapiens Upper Paleolithic cultures begin replacing Neanderthal Levalo-Mousterian, and by c. 40,000 BC Palestine was occupied by the Levanto-Aurignacian Ahmarian culture, lasting from 39,000–24,000 BC.[7] This culture was quite successful spreading as the Antelian culture (late Aurignacian), as far as Southern Anatolia, with the Atlitan culture.


After the Late Glacial Maxima, a new Epipaleolithic culture appears in Southern Palestine. The appearance of the Kebaran culture, of microlithic type implies a significant rupture in the cultural continuity of Levantine Upper Paleolithic. The Kebaran culture, with its use of microliths, is associated with the use of the bow and arrow and the domestication of the dog.[8] Extending from 18–10,500 BC, the Kebaran culture[9] shows clear connections to the earlier Microlithic cultures using the bow and arrow, and using grinding stones to harvest wild grains, that developed from the c. 24,000 – c. 17,000 BC Halfan culture of Egypt, that came from the still earlier Aterian tradition of the Sahara. Some linguists see this as the earliest arrival of Nostratic languages in the Middle East.

Kebaran culture was quite successful, and was ancestral to the later Natufian culture (12,500–9,500 BC), which extended throughout the whole of the Levantine region. These people pioneered the first sedentary settlements, and may have supported themselves from fishing and the harvest of wild grains plentiful in the region at that time. As of July 2018, the oldest remains of bread were discovered c. 12,400 BC at the archaeological site of Shubayqa 1, once home of the Natufian hunter-gatherers, roughly 4,000 years before the advent of agriculture.[10]

Natufian culture also demonstrates the earliest domestication of the dog, and the assistance of this animal in hunting and guarding human settlements may have contributed to the successful spread of this culture. In the northern Syrian, eastern Anatolian region of the Levant, Natufian culture at Cayonu and Mureybet developed the first fully agricultural culture with the addition of wild grains, later being supplemented with domesticated sheep and goats, which were probably domesticated first by the Zarzian culture of Northern Iraq and Iran (which like the Natufian culture may have also developed from Kebaran).

Neolithic and Chalcolithic[edit]

By 8500–7500 BC, the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) culture developed out of the earlier local tradition of Natufian in Southern Palestine, dwelling in round houses, and building the first defensive site at Tell es-Sultan (ancient Jericho) (guarding a valuable fresh water spring). This was replaced in 7500 BC by Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB), dwelling in square houses, coming from Northern Syria and the Euphrates bend.

During the period of 8500–7500 BC, another hunter-gatherer group, showing clear affinities with the cultures of Egypt (particularly the Outacha retouch technique for working stone) was in Sinai. This Harifian culture[11] may have adopted the use of pottery from the Isnan culture and Helwan culture of Egypt (which lasted from 9000 to 4500 BC), and subsequently fused with elements from the PPNB culture during the climatic crisis of 6000 BC to form what Juris Zarins calls the Syro-Arabian pastoral technocomplex,[12] which saw the spread of the first Nomadic pastoralists in the Ancient Near East. These extended southwards along the Red Sea coast and penetrating the Arabian bifacial cultures, which became progressively more Neolithic and pastoral, and extending north and eastwards, to lay the foundations for the tent-dwelling Martu and Akkadian peoples of Mesopotamia.

In the Amuq valley of Syria, PPNB culture seems to have survived, influencing further cultural developments further south. Nomadic elements fused with PPNB to form the Minhata Culture and Yarmukian Culture, which were to spread southwards, beginning the development of the classic mixed farming Mediterranean culture, and from 5600 BC were associated with the Ghassulian culture of the region, the first Chalcolithic culture of the Levant. This period[which?] also witnessed the development of megalithic structures, which continued into the Bronze Age.[13][dubious ]

Kish civilization[edit]

The Kish civilization or Kish tradition is a time period corresponding to the early East Semitic era in Mesopotamia and the Levant. Coined by Ignace Gelb, the epoch began in the early 4th millennium BC. The tradition encompasses the sites of Ebla and Mari in the Levant, Nagar in the north,[14] and the proto-Akkadian sites of Abu Salabikh and Kish in central Mesopotamia which constituted the Uri region as it was known to the Sumerians.[15][16] The end of this period coincides with the migration of Akkadian speakers from the Levant into Mesopotamia, causing the end of the Uruk period in 3100 BC.

Bronze Age[edit]

Ruins of the Western Palace of Ebla
Three principal Syrian kingdoms: Mari, Qatna and Yamhad c. 18th century BC

Syria and Mesopotamia[edit]

In modern scholarship dealing with the Syrian part of the Levant, the Bronze Age is the chronologically divided into Early/Proto Syrian, corresponding to the Early Bronze age c. 3300 BC - 2000 BC; Old Syrian, corresponding to the Middle Bronze age c. 2000 BC - 1550 BC; and Middle Syrian, corresponding to the Late Bronze age c. 1550 BC - 1200 BC. The term Neo-Syria is used to designate the early Iron Age.[17]

The early Syrian period was dominated by the Eblaite first kingdom (3000 BC - 2300 BC), Kingdom of Nagar (2600 BC - 2300 BC) and the Mariote second kingdom (2500 BC - 2290 BC). The Akkadian Empire conquered large areas of the Levant, but collapsed due to the 4.2 kiloyear event circa 2200 BC. This event prompted movement of populations from upper Mesopotamia to the northern Levant. The Akkadians were followed by the Amorite kingdoms in the old Syrian period ca. 2000–1600 BC, which arose in Mari, Yamkhad and Qatna. The Amorites also founded Babylon in Mesopotamia. Also following the Akkadians was the extension of Khirbet Kerak ware culture, showing affinities with the Caucasus, and possibly linked to the later appearance of the Hurrians.

Around the 17th and 16th centuries BC most of the older centers had been overrun. In the middle Syrian period the Mitanni in northern Syria, for a time, menaced the Hittite kingdom, but were defeated by it around the middle of the 14th.[18]


The Semitic Hyksos used the new technologies to occupy Egypt, but were expelled, leaving the empire of the New Kingdom to develop in their wake. Around the beginning of the New Kingdom period, Egypt exerted rule over much of the Levant. Rule remained strong during the Eighteenth Dynasty, but Egypt's rule became precarious during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties. Ramses II was able to maintain control over it in the stalemated battle against the Hittites at Kadesh in 1275 BC, but soon thereafter, the Hittites successfully took over the northern Levant (Syria and Amurru). Ramses II, obsessed with his own building projects while neglecting Asiatic contacts, allowed control over the region to continue dwindling. During the reign of his successor Merneptah, the Merneptah Stele was issued which claimed to have destroyed various sites in the southern Levant, including a people known as "Israel". However, archaeological findings show no destruction at any of the sites mentioned in the Merneptah stele and so it is considered to be an exercise in propaganda, and the campaign most likely avoided the central highlands in the southern Levant. Over the course of the reign of Ramses III (1186-1155 BC), Egyptian control over the southern Levant completely collapsed in the wake of the invasion of the Sea Peoples, more specifically, the Philistines who settled into the southwestern Coastal Plain.[18]

From 1550 until 1100, much of the Levant was conquered by Egypt, which in the latter half of this period contested Syria with the Hittite Empire.


At the end of the 13th century BC, all of these powers suddenly collapsed. Cities all around the eastern Mediterranean were sacked within a span of a few decades by assorted raiders. The Hittite empire was destroyed. Egypt repelled its attackers with only a major effort, and over the next century shrank to its territorial core, its central authority permanently weakened. Multiple cities on the Coast like Ugarit and other Canaanite cities were destroyed by the Sea People.

Iron Age[edit]

Phoenicia on the coast (Red) and the Syro-Hittite states c. 8th century BC
Neo-Babylonian Empire under Nabonidus

The destruction at the end of the Bronze Age left a number of tiny kingdoms and city-states behind. A few Hittite centres remained in northern Syria known as the Syro-Hittite states after the main Hittite state fell in 1180 BC, along with some Phoenician ports in Canaan that escaped destruction and developed into great commercial powers. The Israelites emerged as a rural culture, mainly in the Canaanite hill-country and the Eastern Galilee, quickly spreading through the land and forming an alliance in the struggle for the land against the Philistines to the West, Moab and Ammon to the East and Edom to the South. In the 12th century BC, most of the interior, as well as Babylonia and Upper Mesopotamia, was overrun by Arameans and Chaldeans, while the shoreline around today's Gaza Strip was settled by Philistines.

In this period a number of technological innovations spread, most notably iron working and the Phoenician alphabet, developed by the Phoenicians or the Canaanites around the 16th century BC.

During the 9th century BC, the Assyrians began to reassert themselves against the incursions of the Aramaeans, and over the next few centuries developed into a powerful and well-organised empire. Their armies were among the first to employ cavalry, which took the place of chariots, and had a reputation for both prowess and brutality. At their height, the Assyrians dominated all of the Levant, Egypt, and Babylonia. However, the empire began to collapse toward the end of the 7th century BC, and was obliterated by an alliance between a resurgent New Kingdom of Babylonia and the Iranian Medes. In 612 BC the Kingdom of Cilicia was established by the Syennesis dynasty as an independent state in Cilicia, and lasted until 549 BC.

After the Battle of Carchemish, Nebuchadnezzar II besieged Jerusalem in 605 BC and destroyed the Temple, starting the period of the Babylonian captivity from between 597 BC and 581 BC. The subsequent balance of power was short-lived, though. In the 550s BC the Persians revolted against the Medes and gained control of their empire, and over the next few decades annexed to it the realms of Lydia in Anatolia, Damascus, Babylonia, and Egypt, as well as consolidating their control over the Iranian plateau nearly as far as India. This vast kingdom was divided up into various satrapies and governed roughly according to the Assyrian model, but with a far lighter hand. Around this time Zoroastrianism became the predominant religion in Persia.

Classical Age[edit]

Seleucid Empire with its capital at Antioch
Nabataean kingdom
Palmyrene Empire under Zenobia

Persia controlled the Levant, but by the 4th century BC Persia had fallen into decline. The Phoenicians occasionally rebelled against the Persians who taxed them heavily, while the Jews were granted return from the exile by Cyrus the Great. The campaigns of Xenophon in 401-399 BC illustrated how very vulnerable Persia had become to armies organized along Greek lines. Such an army under the Macedonian King Alexander the Great conquered the Levant (333-332 BC).

Alexander did not live long enough to consolidate his realm; after his death in 323 BC the greater share of the east eventually went to the descendants of Seleucus I Nicator. This period saw great innovations in mathematics, science, architecture, and the like, and Greeks founded cities throughout the east, some of which grew to be the world's first major metropolises.[citation needed] Hellenistic culture did not, however, reach very far into the countryside. In addition, the Seleucids brought in many Greeks from mainland Greece to populate more than 30 cities founded by Alexander in the Levant.

The Seleucids (312 to 63 BC) adopted a pro-western stance that alienated both the powerful eastern satraps and many Greeks who had migrated to the east. During the 2nd century BC, Greek culture lost ground in the Levant, and the Seleucid Empire began to break apart. The Seleucid decline continued, and the Roman Republic overran the Seleucid heartland in 65 BC. Judea, which had become independent under the Hasmonean dynasty (140 BC - 37 BC), was annexed by Rome in 63 BC and became Iudaea Province (6 - 135 AD), the period became notable for when the Jewish population was expelled from Jerusalem after the destruction of the second Temple c. 70 AD and dispersed all over the old world. The Kingdoms of Osroene and Commagene dominated parts of the northern Levant in the first century BC to first century AD as buffer kingdoms between the Seleucids, Romans and Parthians.

The first to second centuries also saw the emergence of a plethora of religions and philosophical schools. Philosophical schools emerged under famous philosophers at the time, most notably Neoplatonism under Iamblichus and Porphyry, Neopythagorianism under Apollonius of Tyana and Numenius of Apamea, and Hellenic Judaism under Philo of Alexandria. Christianity emerged as a sect of Judaism and finally as an independent religion by the mid second century. Gnosticism also took hold in the region.

A Persian dynasty, the Sassanids (224-651), periodically clashed with Rome, and later with the Byzantine Empire. In 391 the Byzantine era began with the permanent division of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western halves. Byzantine control over many parts of the Levant lasted until 636, when Arab armies conquered the area and it became a part of the Rashidun Caliphate.

The Byzantines reached a low point under Phocas (Byzantine Emperor from 602 to 610), with the Sassanids occupying the whole of the eastern Mediterranean. In 610, though, Heraclius took the throne in Constantinople and began a successful counter-attack, expelling the Persians and invading Media and Assyria. Unable to stop his advance, the Sassanian king Khosrau II was assassinated (628) and the Sassanid empire fell into anarchy. Weakened by their quarrels, neither the Byzantines nor the Sassanids could deal with the onslaught of the Arabs, newly unified under the banners of Islam and keen to expand their area of control. By 650 Arab forces had conquered all of Persia, Syria, and Egypt.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ A History of Ancient Israel and Judah by Miller, James Maxwell, and Hayes, John Haralson (Westminster John Knox, 1986) ISBN 0-664-21262-X. p.36]
  2. ^ "Sites of Human Evolution at Mount Carmel: The Nahal Me'arot / Wadi el-Mughara Caves". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Archived from the original on 2019-07-17. Retrieved 2019-08-06.
  3. ^ a b Beyin, Amanuel (2011). "Upper Pleistocene Human Dispersals out of Africa: A Review of the Current State of the Debate". International Journal of Evolutionary Biology. 2011: 615094. doi:10.4061/2011/615094. ISSN 2090-052X. PMC 3119552. PMID 21716744.
  4. ^ "Amud". Encyclopædia Britannica. Archived from the original on 2007-10-11. Retrieved 2007-10-11.
  5. ^ Marks, Anthony (1983)"Prehistory and Paleoenvironments in the Central Negev, Israel" (Institute for the Study of Earth and Man, Dallas)
  6. ^ Oppemheiomer, Stephen (2004), "Out of Eden", (Constable and Robinson)
  7. ^ Gladfelter, Bruce G. (1997) "The Ahmarian tradition of the Levantine Upper Paleolithic: the environment of the archaeology" (Vol 12, 4 Geoarchaeology)
  8. ^ Dayan, Tamar (1994), "Early Domesticated Dogs of the Near East" (Journal of Archaeological Science Volume 21, Issue 5, September 1994, Pages 633–640)
  9. ^ Ronen, Avram, "Climate, sea level, and culture in the Eastern Mediterranean 20 ky to the present" in Valentina Yanko-Hombach, Allan S. Gilbert, Nicolae Panin and Pavel M. Dolukhanov (2007), The Black Sea Flood Question: Changes in Coastline, Climate, and Human Settlement (Springer)
  10. ^ Mejia, Paula (16 July 2018). "Found: 14,400-Year-Old Flatbread Remains That Predate Agriculture". Gastro Obscura. Atlas Obscura. Archived from the original on 17 July 2018. Retrieved 17 July 2018.
  11. ^ Belfer-Cohen, Anna and Bar-Yosef, Ofer "Early Sedentism in the Near East: A Bumpy Ride to Village Life" (Fundamental Issues in Archaeology, 2002, Part II, 19–38)
  12. ^ Zarins, Yuris "Early Pastoral Nomadiism and the Settlement of Lower Mesopotamia" (# Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research No. 280, November, 1990)
  13. ^ Scheltema, H.G. (2008). Megalithic Jordan: An Introduction and Field Guide. Amman, Jordan: The American Center of Oriental Research. ISBN 978-9957-8543-3-1 No Google Books access.
  14. ^ Lauren Ristvet (2014). Ritual, Performance, and Politics in the Ancient Near East. p. 217. ISBN 9781107065215.
  15. ^ Donald P. Hansen; Erica Ehrenberg (2002). Leaving No Stones Unturned: Essays on the Ancient Near East and Egypt in Honor of Donald P. Hansen. p. 133. ISBN 9781575060552.
  16. ^ Lucy Wyatt (2010-01-16). Approaching Chaos: Could an Ancient Archetype Save C21st Civilization?. p. 120. ISBN 9781846942556.
  17. ^ Hansen, M. H. (2000). A Comparative Study of Thirty City-state Cultures: An Investigation, Volume 21. p. 57. ISBN 9788778761774. Archived from the original on 2015-06-20. Retrieved 2015-06-05.
  18. ^ a b Dever, William G. Beyond the Texts, Society of Biblical Literature Press, 2017, pp. 89-93

General references[edit]

  • Philip Mansel, Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean, London, John Murray, 11 November 2010, hardback, 480 pages, ISBN 978-0-7195-6707-0, New Haven, Yale University Press, 24 May 2011, hardback, 470 pages, ISBN 978-0-300-17264-5

External links[edit]