THE CANAANITES (1500-900 b. c. e)


A Maryannu warrior, elite of the Canaan army



The period between 1800 and 1550 b. c. e. is called the Middle Canaanite period, when climatic conditions improved and cultural development flourished, permitting the people of Canaan to rebuild their old fortified villages into powerful new urban centers. During this time the first written documents in Canaanite appear, and it is from this period that Canaan as a recognizable entity with its own culture can be said to have come into being. Egyptian documents from the time of Pharaoh Senusret II (1897- 1878 b. c. e .) tell of an earlier time when there were a number of independent Canaanite kingdoms ruled by warrior princes who had learned how to fortify their towns, which then grew into city-states that the Egyptians were forced to deal with militarily. During this time Canaanite society was formed around tribes, each ruled by a warrior chieftain (malek), who held his position by virtue of being the fiercest warrior in the tribe. These chiefs maintained household guards (henkhu) as part of their personal retinues that probably constituted the main combat element in tribal wars.


The name “Canaan” is very old and in antiquity denoted that territory between Gaza in the south and the upper reaches of Lebanon north to Ugarit. To the east, the land of Canaan ran to the base of the central mountain massif of later Judah and Samaria, northward through the Jezreel valley to include the Beka up to Kadesh. In the Middle period Canaan was subject to the passage of a group of immigrant tribes originating somewhere in northern Syria that moved over the land bridge until they entered Egypt itself, settling in the delta near Avaris and defeating the Egyptians by force of arms. These were the Hyksos. While the origin of the Hyksos remains uncertain, there is no doubt that these sophisticated people introduced their military technology to Canaan, where it was adopted by the rival princes of the Canaanite city-states. The origin of this military technology, like the Hyksos themselves, is uncertain but may lie in the technology of the Hurrian-Mitanni of the Upper Euphrates.

The Hyksos, and later, Mitanni, military influence thus brought a number of new weapons to Canaan that revolutionized warfare. It was from the Hyksos that the Canaanites acquired the chariot and the horse as weapons of war. The composite bow, socket axe, and sickle sword also made their appearance in Canaan at this time. Within a century the long dirk or dagger that under the later influence of the Sea Peoples developed into the straight sword was in evidence. The coat of mail came into use at approximately the same time, probably worn only by the armed charioteer. Later, we find Canaanite infantry wearing body armor as well.

The new military sophistication of the Canaanites during this period was also reflected in a change in the nature of the military fortifications of Canaanite cities. Canaanite princes now constructed their cities atop a new kind of massive rampart, a slanted bank of packed earth called a glacis. The glacis joined an exterior ditch, a fosse, obstructing the most likely avenues of approach. This military architecture was a reaction to the widespread use of the twin technologies of the chariot and the battering ram in Canaanite warfare. The Mitanni influence was reflected in the new architecture and is evidenced by the fact that two powerful cities in northern Syria, Carchemish and Ebla, possessed the same fortifications. The influence of the Hurrian-Mitanni culture was also reflected in the transformation of Canaanite society during this period into one based on the Mitanni model. There now came into existence a feudal warrior caste in Canaan based on heredity and land possession. As in the land of the Mitanni, these warriors were called maryannu, and like their Mitanni cousins were an elite group of chariot warriors. This elite ruled over a half-free, Semitic-speaking class of peasants and farmers (khupshu) with no middle or merchant class in between.

With the creation of the Egyptian empire under the Eighteenth Dynasty, Egypt moved aggressively to strengthen its influence in Canaan, an initiative that met organized resistance from a coalition of Canaanite princes at Megiddo (1479 b. c. e.). In the wake of the Egyptian victory Egypt established garrisons in the major towns of the country, including Ullaza, Sharuhen, Gaza, and Joppa, the last two being major Egyptian administrative centers. Each Canaanite city of any size had an Egyptian “political officer” (weputy) and a small staff to oversee economic and political matters, including the collection of intelligence. Egyptian garrisons stationed in major towns were often established as “allies of the king” and could be used to support the Canaanite prince in his local quarrels.

The presence of foreign influence did not prohibit the Canaanite princes from fortifying their important cities and towns, and by the twelfth century b. c. e. the entire country was heavily fortified, and each city-state was ruled by an independent king. Although there was no Canaanite “high king” to direct it, the countrywide Canaanite fortification design was so well integrated as to suggest some degree of cooperation among the princes. The purpose of these fortifications was to protect the lucrative trade routes that crisscrossed the country, linking it to Syria and Egypt, and to protect Canaan from the predations of migrating nomadic tribes. Taken together, the system of fortifications was designed to permit the Canaanite princes to mount a mobile defense in depth using chariot warriors.

By the beginning of the thirteenth century and well into the twelfth century b. c. e. the Canaanite armies reached the apex of their military effectiveness. Each city-state raised and trained its own armed forces, most of which were similar in weapons and organization. There was no unified “national” command for there was no “high king” that ruled over all Canaan, but in time of war the engaged city-states were capable of acting in concert and coordinating the movement and deployment of their forces. This had been true when Thutmose III had confronted the coalition of Canaanite princes at Megiddo. The king of the city-state usually took the field as commander in chief, but it was not unusual for military command to be delegated to trusted generals. Regular fully equipped troops, called sabu nagib, were distinguished from militia or irregulars. The term was applied to both infantry and chariotry, suggesting that regular infantry units existed. Field commanders were called muru-u, but we do not know the size of the units they commanded. It is likely, however, that the decimal system of unit sizing was employed as it was commonly elsewhere.


The primary striking arm of the Canaanite armies was the elite chariot corps manned by the social elite of feudal nobles serving as chariot warriors, called maryannu. Each maryannu was a professional soldier who maintained his chariot, horses, grooms, driver, runners, and equipment at his own expense. His wealth was derived from the holding of a fief, which, although originally conferred by the king, seems over time to have become hereditary. Among the general warrior caste of maryannu were an inner elite of “picked men,” or na’arun, a term which appears in the Ugarit texts. Apparently, these elite units comprised infantry as well as chariotry. The chariot corps was commanded by the akil markabti, or “Chief of Chariotry.” A smaller battle guard, called the “Maryanna of the King,” also existed.

The Canaanite chariot, much like the Mitanni chariot, was heavier than the Egyptian vehicle but lighter than the Hittite machine. Canaan offered few smooth plains where the opportunity for wide-ranging maneuver and speed could afford dividends. The terrain of Canaan was like that of northern Syria (and the land of the Mitanni), characterized by rocky ground, hills and mountains, and forests and glens, conditions which put a premium on surprise, ambush, and shock. The Canaanite chariot was heavier than the Egyptian model, having a six-spoked wheel with the axle moved to the center of the platform to take the weight off the animals. This permitted a larger carrying platform, whose floor could be fashioned of wood for strength. One result was that the machine lost a good part of its maneuverability at speed, and the endurance of the animals was also compromised to some degree.

The Canaanite charioteer, like his Mitanni counterpart, was heavily protected by a mail coat of scale armor. His horse, too, wore a textile or bronze scale coat. The primary weapons of the Canaanite charioteer were the composite bow, a heavy spear, and a club, the latter to be used only in the direst emergency should the warrior find himself afoot. Depending on the tactical mission, the Canaanite chariot was capable of carrying a three-man crew, a fact suggested by the portrayal of the machine with javelin cases. The first recorded encounter by Israelite troops with Canaanite chariots is presented in Joshua 11:5,7-9, where, having defeated the Canaanites near the Waters of Merom (Hula Lake), Joshua “burnt their chariots with fire.” In another passage, Joshua 17:16-18, the account speaks of the Canaanites possessing “chariots of iron.” In fact, it was not until the Assyrians occupied Palestine that chariots had iron tire rims, which might account for the reference in the text. It is likely that the description of “iron chariots” is a redactor’s invention for the light wooden frame of the chariots of Joshua’s time would simply have collapsed under the weight of bronze or iron plates. Iron weapons at the time of Joshua (1250 b. c. e.) were still largely curiosities but later were introduced in some numbers by the Philistines.

The Infantry

Canaanite infantry, called hupshu, had both militia and regular units. Most of the infantry were semitrained militia (khepetj) or conscripted and corvée peasantry. These units were lightly armed with bows and spears. There was a long Canaanite tradition dating from tribal days that the infantry supplied their own equipment, but we are uncertain if this tradition persisted into biblical times. Canaanite regular infantry were probably well-trained professionals who were heavily armed. These units wore armored corslets, helmets, and carried a sickle sword and shield and the socket axe. Until the arrival of the Sea Peoples, the Canaanites used a shield of Hittite design. Shaped like a figure eight with a narrow waist, this shield allowed the soldier a greater field of view of his opponent in close combat and permitted a more flexible wielding of the sword. With the coming of the Sea Peoples the Canaanites adopted the round shield and outfitted their infantry with the spear. At the same time, however, the Canaanite sickle sword was replaced by the straight sword of the Sea Peoples. Scale armor for the regular infantry became commonplace at that time as well.

Elite units of heavy infantry, called na’arun, appear to have served as the palace guard of the Canaanite kings. The Ugaritic texts mention these units as an inner elite of the general maryannu warrior caste. The term itself means “picked men,” that is, warriors chosen by their king for loyalty and bravery. At Kadesh Ramses II was rescued in the nick of time by a unit of these elite shock troops, who fell on the Hittite flank, breaking the Hittite encirclement. These na’arun were Canaanite mercenaries in the service of the Egyptians. A relief of the battle portrays the Canaanites attacking in phalanx formation line abreast in ten rows, ten men deep, armed with spears and shields, suggesting that they are elite heavy infantry.

The Canaanite kings supplemented their forces with hired freebooters called apiru (sometimes known as habiru). The apiru were a class of outcasts, debtors, outlaws, and restless nomads who formed themselves into wandering groups of raiders, often hiring themselves out to princes and kings for military duty. These wandering brigands were a serious threat and often had to be brought to heel by the Canaanite princes by force of arms. One of history’s greatest generals, David, was an apiru. When forced to leave Saul’s court for fear of being killed, David returned to his old mercenary occupation by raising a force of 600 “discontented men” and hiring his soldiers out to one of the Philistine kings. The size and military sophistication of these brigand groups could present a considerable threat to public order. A record from Alalakh tells of a band of apiru comprising 1,436 men, 80 of which were charioteers and 1,006 of which were shananu, probably some kind of archer. Another text records the capture of the town of Allul by a force of 2,000 apiru.

Canaanite tactics were similar to those of the Mitanni in that the army relied on its chariot units to strike the enemy from ambush, catching him while still in column of march or deploying for open battle. If surprise was not possible, Canaanite generals used the chariot to deliver shock against enemy infantry formations. This required that the chariots be accompanied by “chariot runners,” or light infantry. The Canaanite charioteer engaged the enemy from close range, firing his bow again and again, relying on his heavy armor to protect him from enemy fire. In this tactical application, infantry phalanxes of spearmen supported by archers would act in support or, if on the defensive, hold their positions, providing the chariots with a platform of maneuver.

The primary role of the Canaaniate chariot, however, was as a strategic weapon. The Canaanite chariots were mobile, heavy vehicles that could range far from their bases to protect the Canaanite cities from being besieged. Protecting the city itself was at the center of Canaanite strategic thinking, and the chariots were the key element in achieving this goal. Chariots could be used to intercept armies long before they reached the city walls, forcing the enemy to fight on terrain not of its choosing. Chariots were ideal for ambushing enemy patrols, harassing an enemy’s route of march, keeping interior lines open, and chasing down mercenary apiru. No infantry force could achieve such a mix of tactical and strategic flexibility. Chariots, of course, were expensive, and their crews required extensive training and permanent maintenance at royal expense. The expense was worth it, however, for the chariot allowed the Canaanite kings to erect a strategic defense in depth based on flexible mobile tactics.

The system of mobile defense worked well for more than two centuries, but Canaan’s wealth and strategic position made it too tempting a target for the national predators who wished to control the land bridge. Over time, the encroachments, immigrations, settlements, and aggressions of the Egyptians, Aramaens, Sea Peoples, Israelites, and Philistines took their toll, with the result that by the time of King David the Canaanites had been deprived of three-fourths of their land area and 90 percent of their grain-growing land. All that remained of these proud warrior people settled along the central Phoenician coastal strip and its immediate hinterlands. Within a century they had reconstituted their city-states, from which they embarked on a campaign of trade and settlement throughout the western Mediterranean. They became known to history as the Phoenicians.

FURTHER READING Dever, William G. “The Peoples of Palestine in the Middle Bronze I Period.” Harvard Theological Review 64 (1971): 197-226. Drews, Robert. “The Chariots of Iron of Joshua and Judges.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 45 (1989): 15-23. Gabriel, Richard A. Gods of Our Fathers: The Memory of Egypt in Judaism and Christianity. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. — . The Military History of Ancient Israel. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. Gale, Sir Richard. Great Battles of Bible History. New York: John Day, 1970. Grant, Michael. The History of Ancient Israel. New York: Charles Scribner, 1984. Herzog, Chaim, and Mordechai Gichon. Battles of the Bible. Jerusalem: Steimatzky’s Agency, 1978. Hobbs, T. R. A Time for War: A Study of Warfare in the Old Testament. Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989. Isserlin, B. S. J. “The Israelite Conquest of Canaan: A Comparative Review of the Arguments.” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 115 (1983): 85-94. Liver, Jacob, ed. The Military History of the Land of Israel in Biblical Times [in Hebrew]. Jerusalem: Israel Defense Force, 1964. Malamat, Abraham. “The Egyptian Decline in Canaan and the Sea Peoples.” In World History of the Jewish People, vol. 3. Philadelphia: Jewish Publications, 1979. Osterley, W. O. E., and Theodore Robinson. A History of Israel. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948. Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992. Rohl, David M. Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest. New York: Crown, 1995. Strange, John. “The Transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Emergence of the Israelite State.” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 6 (1987): 1-19. Wright, George Ernest, and Floyd Vivan Filson, eds. The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1945. Yadin, Yigael. The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands in the Light of Archaeological Study. 2 vols. Translated by M. Pearlman. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.

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