Names of the Levant

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Over recorded history, there have been many names of the Levant, a large area in the Middle East, or its constituent parts. These names have applied to a part or the whole of the Levant. On occasion, two or more of these names have been used at the same time by different cultures or sects. As a natural result, some of the names of the Levant are highly politically charged. Perhaps the least politicized name is Levant itself, which simply means "where the sun rises" or "where the land rises out of the sea", a meaning attributed to the region's easterly location on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea.



The ancient Egyptians called the Levant Reṯenu. Ancient Egyptian texts (c. 14th century BCE) called the entire coastal area along the Mediterranean Sea between modern Egypt and Turkey rṯnw (conventionally Reṯenu). Reṯenu was subdivided into four regions: Kharu (-rw), North Syria, Amurru, South Syria (the land of the biblical Amorites), Rmnn, Lebanon, Ysriar (ysrỉr), Israel, and Ḏahy (hy;Ṯahi, Ḏahi), the region of Palestine (comprising the southern and central Levant—west of the Jordan River and south of Lebanon—and all the kingdoms, territories, tribes, etc., that existed within that approximate region).[1] In the Amarna letters, written in Akkadian cuneiform, the southern Levant was referred to as knʿnw (Kananu) and Gaza as p-knʿn (pe-Kanan).


Prior to (and for some time after) the formation of the Israelite/Hebrew identity and polities in the region, the land was referred to natively as Canaan (first attested in Assyrian Akkadian as Kinaḫnu). Though it was once thought that the Hebrews were foreign settlers in Canaan, the modern consensus of most scholars is that Hebrew identity developed in situ as a direct indigenous evolution of earlier Canaanite tribes; the continuity from Bronze Age Canaanite civilization to Iron Age Israelite/Judean civilization is indeed so seamless that many scholars stress that any dichotomy between the two is essentially arbitrary—with culture, language, etc., being indistinguishable during the transition from Bronze Age to Iron Age.[2][3] The Phoenicians—also descended from the Bronze Age Canaanites, and close relatives and neighbors of the Israelites—likewise continued to speak a Canaanite language and practice Canaanite religion at their Mediterranean ports, and referred to themselves natively as "Canaanites", and their land as "Canaan".


In ancient times, the Greeks called the whole of Canaan Phoiníkē, literally "[land] of the purple[-producing shell]". Today, general consensus associates the Phoenician homeland proper with the northwest coastal region of the Levant, centered at Phoenician cities such as Ugarit, Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos. Today, this place is usually equated with modern Lebanon and the coast of modern Syria. Also there is a modern town in Turkey called Finike which is thought to have derived by the Lycians who traded with Phoenicians in ancient times.

Israel and Judea[edit]



The kingdoms of Israel and Judah were Iron Age Semitic nations spanning from Edom to Assyria. Today the modern State of Israel controls much of the former territory of the ancient Israelite/Judean kingdoms. According to the Deuteronomic history in the Bible, the polities of Israel and Judah originally split off from an earlier, united Kingdom of Israel, ruled by illustrious kings such as David and Solomon; though modern archaeology, biblical scholarship, and historians are generally somewhat skeptical of the historicity of the alleged united monarchy of Israel, suggesting instead that the two kingdoms developed separately, with the southern kingdom of Judah probably dependent on the northern kingdom of Israel as a satellite state at first.[4]

The term Judaea is used by historians to refer to the Roman province that extended over parts of the former regions of the Hasmonean and Herodian kingdoms. It was named after Herod Archelaus's ethnarchy of Judea of which it was an expansion, the name being derived from the earlier provincial designations Yehud Medinata (Achaemenid) and Yehud (Neo-Babylonian): all ultimately referring to the former Hebrew kingdom of Judah.

Assyria and Syria[edit]

During Persian rule of the Middle East, the Greeks and Romans came to call the region "Syria", believed to have been named after Assyria and the Aramaic language they spread over the entire region. Other sources indicate that the name Syria might be derived from Sirion[5] (Hebrew: שִׂרְיֹ֑ן‎, Širyôn, meaning "breastplate"),[6][7] the name that the Phoenicians (especially Sidonians) gave to Mount Hermon.[8] However, Herodotus used the combined name "Syria Palaistinē". "Greater Syria" refers to a larger area that is supported by some nationalists.

During the Syrian Wars between the Seleucid dynasty and the Ptolemaic dynasty (274-168 BCE), the region was known as Coele-Syria traditionally given the meaning 'hollow' Syria. The later Hellenistic term Koile Syria that appears first in Arrian's Anabasis Alexandri (2.13.7) in 145 CE and has been much discussed, is usually interpreted as a transcription of Aramaic kul, "all, the entire", identifying all of Syria.[9]

Philistia and Palestine[edit]


  • Latin: Palæstina - from Greek


  • Persian: فلسطین‎ (Felestin)
  • Latin: Palæstina - same word as Philistia
  • Turkish: Filistin

Palestine apparently derives from Philistia and its Philistine people, first recorded by the ancient Egyptians as Peleset, one of the invading Sea Peoples. Though applied in the Bible only to the southwest coast where the Philistines lived, later Herodotus called the whole area Syria Palaistinē in his Histories (c. 450 BCE); though it is possible that by Palaistinē he meant to pun on palaistēs (meaning "wrestler"), with the traditional Hebrew folk etymology of the name "Israel" (meaning "wrestles with God"; Genesis 32:28), and hence referred to the entire territory of ancient Israel and Judea (which he noted for the practice of circumcision), not specifically the coastal Philistine territory (whose people notably did not practice circumcision).[12] The Romans applied the term Syria Palaestina to the southern part of the region—beginning in 135 CE, following the Bar Kokhba revolt—to complete the disassociation with the former identity of Judaea. The name continued to be used for the province throughout later Byzantine and Islamic rule.

†As a side note, Standard Hebrew has two names for Palestine, both of which are different from the Hebrew name for ancient Philistia. The first name Palestina was used by Hebrew speakers in the British Mandate of Palestine; it is spelled like the name for Philistia but with three more letters added to the end and a Latin pronunciation given. The second name Falastin is a direct loan from the Arabic form, and is used today specifically to refer to the modern Palestinians and to political aspirations for a Palestinian state.[citation needed]

Eber-Nari and Transeuphratia[edit]

Eber-Nari was the name of a satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire which roughly corresponded with the southern Levant. It means "Beyond the River" or "Across the River" in both Akkadian and Aramaic (that is, the western side of the Euphrates from a Mesopotamian and Persian viewpoint). It is also sometimes referred to as Transeuphratia (French Transeuphratène) by modern scholars.[citation needed]

Medieval and modern history[edit]


The name Ash-Shām (Arabic: اَلشَّام‎) comes from an Arabic root meaning "left" or "north" — became the name of the Levant (Byzantine Syria) after the Islamic conquest.[13][14]

In ancient times, Baalshamin or Ba'al Šamem (Aramaic: ܒܥܠ ܫܡܝܢ‎, translit. Lord of Heaven(s)),[15][16] was a Semitic sky-god in Canaan/Phoenicia and ancient Palmyra.[17][18] Hence, Sham refers to heaven or sky.


Medieval Italians called the region Levante after its easterly location where the sun "rises"; this term was adopted from Italian and French into many other languages.[citation needed]


Frankish Crusaders called the Levant Outremer in French, which means "overseas." In France, this general term was colloquially applied more specifically to the Levant because of heavy Frankish involvement in the Crusades and the foundation of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and other Latin settlements scattered throughout the area.[citation needed]

Eastern Mediterranean[edit]

Eastern Mediterranean is a term that denotes the lands or states geographically in the eastern, to the east of, or around the east of the Mediterranean Sea, or with cultural affinities to this region. The Eastern Mediterranean includes Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Jordan.[19][20][21][22][23] The term Mediterranean derives from the Latin word mediterraneus, meaning "in the middle of earth" or "between lands" (medius, "middle, between" + terra, "land, earth"). This is on account of the sea's intermediary position between the continents of Africa and Europe.[24]

Holy Land[edit]

In different languages:

  • Arabic: اَلْأَرْض الْمُقَدَّسَة‎ (Al-Arḍ al-Muqaddasah in the Islamic holy book, the Quran)[25]
  • Greek: Άγιοι Τόποι (Hagioi Topoi, modern Greek pronunciation: [aji topi]), literally: "Holy Places")
  • Hebrew

The Holy Land is a term used in Abrahamic tradition to refer to sacred sites of the Levant — such as Shiloh, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth — but is also often used to refer to the Levant (and historical Canaan) as a whole. A related term is Promised Land.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sir Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs, Clarendon Press, Oxford (1961) 1964 pp.131, 199, 285, n.1.
  2. ^ 1947-, Gnuse, Robert Karl, (1997). No other gods : emergent monotheism in Israel. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press. p. 54. ISBN 9780567374158. OCLC 276784070.
  3. ^ 1955-, Smith, Mark S., (2002). The early history of God : Yahweh and the other deities in ancient Israel (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. pp. 19–24. ISBN 9780802839725. OCLC 49493240.
  4. ^ Israel., Finkelstein, (2001). The Bible unearthed : archaeology's new vision of ancient Israel and the origin of its sacred texts. Silberman, Neil Asher, 1950-. New York: Free Press. ISBN 9780684869124. OCLC 44509358.
  5. ^ Nissim Raphael Ganor (2009). Who Were the Phoenicians?. Kotarim International Publishing. p. 252. ISBN 9659141521.
  6. ^ "Sirion". Retrieved 18 October 2017.
  7. ^ "Hebrew: שִׁרְיוֹן, širyôn (H8303)". Retrieved 19 October 2017.
  8. ^ Pipes, Daniel (1992). Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition. Middle East Forum. p. 13. ISBN 0-19-506022-9. Retrieved 1 February 2010.
  9. ^ M. Sartre, "La Syrie creuse n'existe pas", in G. L. Gatier, et al. Géographie historique au proche-orient (1988:15-40), reviving the explanation offered by A. Schalit (1954), is reported by Robin Lane Fox, Travelling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer (2008, notes p378f): "the crux is solved".
  10. ^ "When Palestine Meant Israel". The BAS Library. 2015-08-24. Retrieved 2018-03-25.
  11. ^ 1951-, Price, Randall, (2001). Unholy war. Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers. p. 133. ISBN 9780736908238. OCLC 47916042.
  12. ^ Avi,, Faust,. Israel's ethnogenesis : settlement, interaction, expansion and resistance. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon. pp. 88–91. ISBN 9781134942084. OCLC 945975573.
  13. ^ Article "AL-SHĀM" by C.E. Bosworth, Encyclopaedia of Islam, Volume 9 (1997), page 261. See also Name of Syria.
  14. ^ Salibi, K. S. (2003). A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered. I.B.Tauris. pp. 61–62. ISBN 978-1-86064-912-7. To the Arabs, this same territory, which the Romans considered Arabian, formed part of what they called Bilad al-Sham, which was their own name for Syria. From the classical perspective however Syria, including Palestine, formed no more than the western fringes of what was reckoned to be Arabia between the first line of cities and the coast. Since there is no clear dividing line between what are called today the Syrian and Arabian deserts, which actually form one stretch of arid tableland, the classical concept of what actually constituted Syria had more to its credit geographically than the vaguer Arab concept of Syria as Bilad al-Sham. Under the Romans, there was actually a province of Syria, with its capital at Antioch, which carried the name of the territory. Otherwise, down the centuries, Syria like Arabia and Mesopotamia was no more than a geographic expression. In Islamic times, the Arab geographers used the name arabicized as Suriyah, to denote one special region of Bilad al-Sham, which was the middle section of the valley of the Orontes river, in the vicinity of the towns of Homs and Hama. They also noted that it was an old name for the whole of Bilad al-Sham which had gone out of use. As a geographic expression, however, the name Syria survived in its original classical sense in Byzantine and Western European usage, and also in the Syriac literature of some of the Eastern Christian churches, from which it occasionally found its way into Christian Arabic usage. It was only in the nineteenth century that the use of the name was revived in its modern Arabic form, frequently as Suriyya rather than the older Suriyah, to denote the whole of Bilad al-Sham: first of all in the Christian Arabic literature of the period, and under the influence of Western Europe. By the end of that century it had already replaced the name of Bilad al-Sham even in Muslim Arabic usage.
  15. ^ Teixidor, Javier (2015). The Pagan God: Popular Religion in the Greco-Roman Near East. Princeton University Press. p. 27. ISBN 9781400871391. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  16. ^ Beattie, Andrew; Pepper, Timothy (2001). The Rough Guide to Syria. Rough Guides. p. 290. ISBN 9781858287188. Retrieved 14 August 2017.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  17. ^ Dirven, Lucinda (1999). The Palmyrenes of Dura-Europos: A Study of Religious Interaction in Roman Syria. BRILL. p. 76. ISBN 978-90-04-11589-7. Retrieved 17 July 2012.
  18. ^ J.F. Healey (2001). The Religion of the Nabataeans: A Conspectus. BRILL. p. 126. ISBN 9789004301481. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  19. ^ Lands Of The Eastern Mediterranean Map By National Geographic Archived 2011-07-14 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ The Eastern Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age Archived 2010-06-20 at the Wayback Machine
  21. ^ The Eastern Mediterranean 1600-1200 BC Archived 2011-06-28 at the Wayback Machine
  22. ^ Eastern Mediterranean By National Geographic Archived 2011-07-14 at the Wayback Machine
  23. ^ Countries Surrounding the Eastern Mediterranean Sea
  24. ^ entry μεσόγαιος Archived 2009-12-02 at the Wayback Machine at Liddell & Scott
  25. ^ Quran 5:1–96

External links[edit]