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The Mysterious Canaanites


Ancestors of the elusive Sea Traders, Creators of an Alphabet and mysterious Elite Warriors: Who were the Canaanites?


Many of those who have responded to my first blogs have asked about my area of specialty. The most frequent questions I receive are about the mysterious Canaanites. Who were they? Did they really invent the alphabet, why was their religion targeted specifically in the Bible, were they the ancestors of the later Phoenicians, and were they the elite Maryannu warriors? In this blog I hope to answer a few of these questions and illuminate the Canaanite culture.

First though let’s start with where is the land of Canaan? Who are the Canaanites and when were they first documented? Ancient Canaan was the most sought after real estate in ancient times. Whoever controlled it, controlled the majority of the major trade routes. Therefore they were the most conquered culture and peoples in the ancient near east. Geographically Canaan encompassed the land bridge between Egypt and Eurasia, extending from Mesopotamia in the north, the Upper Sea, and south to Egypt. The Table of Nations in the Biblical narrative provides some of the first descriptions of both the land of Canaan and the Canaanites. Their land extended from western Palestine northwards up the coast to ancient Latakia (modern day Syria) and inland to Hamath (Hamath, modern day Syria, was the northern most city in Canaan and was located in the mountainous region of the Levant). Canaan included the entire coast and Jordan valley. At the time of the conquest narratives in the Bible, Canaan included all of the land bridge in its entirety.

Hittite, Aramaic and Egyptian documents are among the earliest inscriptions, dating from the first millennium BCE (before the common era), attesting to the existence of Canaan and its indigenous people. The Ebla tablets, composed of clay, were palace archives from the ancient Syrian city of Ebla. The tablets, dating to the Early Bronze Age (about 2500-2250 BCE), references the Canaanite people and their sophisticated trade network between city-states. The land of Canaan is also documented in the royal archives from Mari. These cuneiform tablets, composed during the Old Babylonian Period, date to the late 18th century BCE. These documents predate the Hebrew Bible by centuries and give details regarding the patriarchal tribal society and the tribal migrations between the Euphrates and Canaan. The final example comes from Amarna in Egypt. The Amarna Letters were archives consisting of 382 clay tablets composed during Egypt’s New Kingdom (approximately 1360-1332 BCE). The letters were written in Akkadian Cuneiform, the diplomatic language of the time period. Many of the letters represent diplomatic correspondence between Egyptian representatives in Canaan and the Egyptian government. The letters depict the culture and language of the Canaanite peoples prior to their interactions with the early Israelites. The letters, although composed in Akkadian, were filled with the earliest form of Canaanite language (this language would later become the foundation for Hebrew and Phoenician). Although many other examples exist, the above three documents give us a small view into the Canaanite culture.

The roots of the Canaanite people are shrouded in mystery. There has been great difficulty in distinguishing them from other groups in the region. We know they emerged in the Early Bronze Age but yet there are few specifics about their arrival on the scene. Genetically and culturally they are related to the Phoenicians, the Kingdom of Ugarit, and the population of modern day Jordan and Israel. Canaan underwent rapid growth and development during the Bronze Age. This included the rise of a superior elite warrior class known as the Maryannu, as well as the development of heavily fortified city-states. Examples of Canaanite cities, during this time period were Gezer, Hazor, Megiddo, Dan, Jericho, Lachish, and Shechem. Canaan reached its zenith and experienced a golden age during the Late Bronze Age, as their trade network expanded further afield to Egypt, Cyprus and the Aegean world. One of their greatest inventions during this time was the invention of an early alphabet. Their alphabet would become the foundation for the languages of western civilization. The Canaanite civilization ended during the Iron Age when new more powerful kingdoms arose and absorbed the Canaanite culture.

The Canaanites of course play a vital role in the Biblical Pentateuch narrative of the conquest. The Canaanites were believed to be the main adversary of the Israelite people as they began to claim their land and solidify their fledgling faith. The Canaanite religion was criticized in the biblical text for idol worship and their pantheon of gods. Evidence for their religion comes from tablets in Ugarit. The religion was composed of a group of ancient Semitic religions that were polytheistic. Their beliefs centered around three main figures El, Baal, and Asherah. El, a.k.a. Elyon, was known as the god of the most high. He was the Ugaritic counterpart to Baal. He was the god of creation and father to all other gods, as well as to man. His consort was Asherah. Asherah, or Athirat, was known as the walker of the sea and the wife of El. She ruled as goddess over love, motherhood and fertility. The final figure was the Canaanite god Baal. Baal, a.k.a. Hadad, was the god of storms, thunder, lightning and air. He was the King of the Gods. He used the driver and chase as weapons in battle. Baal is most often identified with El. The worship of Baal through idols is documented in the Hebrew text. Although many minor gods and goddesses existed, these three formed the central component of Canaanite faith.

The rise of Canaanite military prowess in battle, strategy and fortifications arouse during the Middle Canaanite period in approximately 1800-1550 BCE. A caste of chariot-mounted hereditary warrior nobility known as the Maryannu Warriors arose. They were the elite soldiers of the Canaanite Army and they were deadly assassins. Canaan was formed around a group of fortified kingdoms ruled by warrior princes with no true single leader over seeing all of Canaan. The princes transformed fortified towns into city-state strongholds with large enough armies to often force confrontations with Egypt’s military. The Canaanite system was unique in that the princes of each kingdom worked strategically in concert with one another to protect Canaan against attack. We see this type of military strategy played out during the reign of Thutmose III of Egypt. When Thutmose III’s army confronted Canaan at Megiddo, they were met with a coalition of Canaanite princes, Maryannu Warriors, and soldiers. The Pharaoh realized that although all of Canaan was not ruled by one overarching King, in times of war, the princes of the city-states moved in concert with one another forming a powerful unified army of elite soldiers. They were master strategists, warriors and rulers.

The Canaanites have often taken quite a beating throughout history, especially in the Biblical narratives. Although we have some evidence for their language, culture and religion, much of Canaan remains a mystery. Archaeologists throughout the Levant are working tirelessly to uncover the history of a people who gifted the world an alphabet and a sea/land trade network that would have no parallel until the latter Greek and Roman time periods. The culture and people of Canaan may have slowly faded away and were absorbed into other cultures but their legacy gave rise to the mighty Phoenicians and helped to devise an alphabet that sits at the center of todays western languages.

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