Canaanite Warfare and Conflict during the Middle Bronze Age

A Maryannu warrior, elite of the Canaan army.


The armies of the city-states of Canaan and Syria after the fall of some of the Amorite dynasties to the Hittites, and occupation of resulting power vacuums by possibly Hurrian rulers commanding chariot-riding Maryannu. These city-states were usually in this period vassals of one of the great powers competing in the area, viz. Mitanni, Egypt, the Hittite Empire and Assyria. Canaanite tactics relied on the use of high quality Maryannu skirmishing chariotry similar to that of Mitanni. Captured equipment listed by the Egyptians after Megiddo in 1445 BC suggests about half the Maryannu were then armoured. Infantry had a purely subsidiary role.

Evidence for conflict during the Middle Bronze Age comes from both archaeological remains and text. As for archaeological evidence, weapons such as daggers and spearheads made from the state-of-the-art metal, bronze, have been found at virtually all of the major cities. Horses were sometimes included in the warrior burials and were probably used to drive chariots. If the earthen ramparts were built in response to a need for defensive systems, it is still un clear whether the threat was internal, that is, from conflict between rival Canaanite cities, or external. Clearly, the infiltration of Asiatics into the Delta did not please the Egyptians, and texts dating to this time reflect growing animosity toward these intruders. The term “Hyksos,” which comes from the Egyptian hekau khasut, literally, “foreign rulers,” refers to the Asiatics who founded the Fifteenth Dynasty in Lower Egypt (c. 1750 b. c. e., MB2b). That these Asiatics were Canaanites in origin is indicated by the Semitic form of Hyksos names as well as from the evidence of material culture at sites such as Tel el-Yehudiyeh and Tel el-Dab’a (Avaris) in the Delta. At the latter site, Canaanite material of the MB1 appears in the early phases (Str. F-G), suggesting a gradual and peaceful migration into the Delta (Dever 1991). By the middle of the period (MB2), the city’s population grew, and Avaris (Tel el-Dab’a, Str. E) came to be dominated by Asiatic rulers who usurped political control over the Delta and established the Fifteenth Dynasty (c. 1650 b. c. e.). Archaeological evidence for this phenomenon can be observed in the burial of royal and/or noble family members in underground vaults. According to the literary tradition, the Hyksos were defeated at Avaris in about 1550 b. c. e. Following their expulsion from the Delta, a vindictive Egyptian army, led by the pharaoh Ahmose, pursued them into southern Canaan, destroying the city of Sharuhen, which is usually identified as Tel el-Ajjul. The destruction of such an important city would have had a major impact on southern Canaan and beyond. The demise of several southern cities, including Tel el-Far’ah South, Tel Masos, and Tel Malhata, has also been attributed to the Egyptians, though it is likely that the Canaanite cities were already in a state of decline well before the time of the presumed Egyptian invasion.

By the late Middle Bronze Age (MB3, c. 1650-1550 b. c. e.), sociopolitical complexity in the southern Levant had peaked, and with this rapid expansion in population and exploitation of arable land, the Canaanite societies may have reached a critical point where agricultural production failed to keep pace with demand. The very wealth and power of these Canaanite city-states may have contributed, in the end, to their own undoing. Investment in monumental public works continued while the hunt for tin was on. It is conceivable that the demands of both religious and political institutions resulted in an irreversible diversion of resources, ultimately putting a strain on the agricultural base that was too difficult to sustain.

Bible battle accounts mention some Canaanite cities most of which were superbly fortified. An additional wall called a “glacis”, which would slope down towards a moat, served to reinforce further an already strong city wall made of rock. The glacis was made up of layers of pounded earth, clay and gravel coated with plaster. Its angle was perfect to repel cavalry as well as siege engines such as battering rams. Hazor is the best example of this defence method.

Monumental Architecture

In the absence of direct evidence for specific kings and political institutions, archaeologists may infer from the wealth of evidence for monumental architecture that some political body was able to command the contacts and resources necessary for sponsoring extensive public projects. Such projects are seen throughout Canaan. Palaces and “governors’ residences” have been excavated at sites such as Tel el-Ajjul, Kabri, Hazor, Lachish, Megiddo, and Aphek. At the latter site, two governors, Takuhlinu and Haya, are mentioned by name in cuneiform tablets dated to about 1230 b. c. e. (Singer 1983; Beck and Kochavi 1985). These massive buildings, some larger than 1,000 square meters (nearly 11,000 sq. ft.), were elaborate in design, with broad, pillared halls, multiple storage rooms, and large courtyards. At both Megiddo and Shechem, the palace was located in the vicinity of the temple, though it is not clear that there was a direct connection. A northern influence is observable in a number of Canaanite palaces, particularly at Tel el-Ajjul and Lachish, which incorporated massive sandstone slabs, or orthostats, reminiscent of those in Syrian palaces. It would appear, therefore, that Canaanite kingship was modeled at least in part on the political structures of Syrian city-states. The massive earthworks that surrounded many Middle Bronze Age cities also point toward the existence of centralized power structures. They represent a significant investment of resources, above all, labor. The construction of the ramparts at Shiloh required an estimated 250,000 workdays-that is, it would have taken some 3,000 laborers roughly five years to complete the project- and the earthworks at Tel Dan would have taken an estimated 1,000 workers some three years. In a number of cases, such as Dan and Yavne-Yam, small populations relative to the size of the ramparts suggest that much of the labor force responsible for their construction was drawn from beyond the city itself. Those overseeing these projects would also have had access to the expertise of specialists (for example, designers and architects) as well as various other resources, including draft animals and building materials. The function of these massive rampart systems, however, is not always clear. Traditionally, it has been held that the earthen ramparts served as fortification systems, yet recent scholarship has challenged this view. For instance, what armies and types of attack were these structures built to defend against (for example, battering rams)? And would they have been successful against a siege? Numerous other questions have been raised. At Ashqelon, the earthen ramparts were capped by walls, yet it is not clear whether this system was intended to defend against surface attacks or against tunneling meant to penetrate the city surreptitiously (Stager 1991). Some of these ramparts were actually built prior to urban development within them.

Other explanations tend to emphasize the symbolic aspects of these structures. In the central hill country, ramparts formed small citadels, or “highland strongholds,” that served primarily as political centers, hosting large public buildings, temples, and storage facilities. In some cases, such as Ashqelon and Dan, elaborate gates were built into the ramparts, serving, on the one hand, as prestige architecture, and, on the other, as an effective way to monitor the movement of goods and people in and out of the city.

Regardless of their specific function, these massive constructions would have stood as highly visible symbols of power. Surely, there were rivalries between neighboring city-states as they vied for grazing and farmland as well as for access to trade networks. Monumental architecture served to enhance the status of local leaders and the cities in general while fostering a strong sense of identity based on location (for example, hailing from a certain city). The ruling political bodies of the city-states thereby engaged in “competitive emulation” or “one-upmanship.” Visible from afar, these imposing fortresses and lofty citadels could have facilitated the extension of political power from the cities out into the surrounding regions. In the words of one researcher, the massive rampart systems represented “dynastic propaganda typical of early states striving for legitimacy” (Finkelstein 1992a).

Political Organization

Early in the second millennium b. c. e., urbanism once again took hold throughout much of the southern Levant. A hierarchical relationship in the size of settlements indicates that large urban centers served as the seat of political power for what may be loosely described as city-states, though there is disagreement with regard to the degree of political complexity reached during the Middle Bronze Age. What would ultimately evolve into one of the great urban cultures of the second millennium b. c. e. had its roots in the tribal societies of the preceding Intermediate Bronze Age and early Middle Bronze Age. For instance, many of the large earthworks that surrounded the later Canaanite cities were actually established prior to urban development, serving, perhaps initially, as enclosures for the tents and semi-permanent structures used by semi nomadic tribal groups.

Information about political organization in the early Middle Bronze Age is also offered by Egyptian texts. The “Tale of Sinuhe” refers to pastoral groups with an internal sociopolitical structure, sometimes including several tribal leaders. The most important source of textual information for this period comes from the Twelfth Dynasty Egyptian inscriptions known collectively as the “Execration Texts.” This series of curses on foreign places and peoples considered enemies of Egypt in effect creates the equivalent of a rough geopolitical map for Middle Bronze Age Canaan. More important, the texts all date from the mid-twentieth and mid-nineteenth centuries b. c. e. (that is, c. 1950 b. c. e. and 1850 b. c. e., following Kitchen 1989), thereby providing a before-and after picture for the process of urbanization. The earlier texts, on one hand, tell of tribes, sometimes with multiple leaders, and a landscape dotted with but a few cities (for example, Ashqelon and Jerusalem). The later group, on the other hand, lists the names of numerous cities, including Acre, Hazor, Jerusalem, Laish, Qadesh, and Shechem, conveying a sense of widespread urbanization.

By the later Middle Bronze Age, the Canaanite countryside was divided up into a series of territorial units, probably distinct city-states or kingdoms resembling “early state modules,” as described by Colin Renfrew (1971; also Finkelstein 1992a). Evidence from archaeological surveys reflects an eight-tier settlement hierarchy system by the later MB2 (MB2b-MB2c). Hazor and Avaris (Tel el-Dab’a) alone may be classified as first-order gateway cities, and both are entirely unique cases. Hazor, which reached some 80 hectares, was more akin to Syrian cities of northern Canaan, while Avaris was a Canaanite city established in northern Egypt. Ashqelon (60 ha), Yavne-Yam (65 ha), and Kabri (35-40 ha), all located in coastal areas or along central routes, are considered second-order gateway cities. Third-order gateway settlements, such as Tel Dan (16 ha) and Tel Dor (10 ha), also situated along land and sea routes, were smaller, though perhaps equally wealthy. The inland valleys were dominated by regional centers such as Megiddo (more than 20 ha, including the upper and lower cities), Acco, Beth Shean, Kabri, Shimron, and Shechem. Primary centers of the coastal plain and Shephelah also included Tel el-Ajjul, Aphek, Gezer, Lachish, and Tel es-Safi. Survey data from this period also indicate a rise in the number of rural settlements, suggesting that there were a few relatively large centers surrounded by numerous small villages and farmsteads.

The Second Urban Revolution

By the middle of the Middle Bronze Age, Canaan was divided into distinct political units subsuming urban, rural, and non-sedentary populations. These polities ranged from large chiefdoms to some of the region’s first true city states. Jericho, for example, was a small, autonomous community organized according to family and kinship structures, led, perhaps, by a council of clan heads. Shechem had broad influence in the hill country, which also played host to several autonomous polities of moderate size. Several vast city-states with large urban centers emerged. Hazor, all but abandoned during the Intermediate Bronze Age, saw rapid growth, developing into a bustling urban center that was the core of the consummate Canaanite city-state. In

Syrian texts from this time, Hazor is often mentioned as a contemporary of other kingdoms such as Carchemish, Ugarit, Babylon, Eshnuna, Qatna, Yamhad, and Kaptara (Cyprus or Crete). Reference is also made to emissaries from Babylon who took up long-term residence at Hazor, suggesting that there may have been formal standing political ties between the various city-states. Owing to its status and location, Hazor occupied a unique position as media tor between the Canaanite kingdoms and those of Syro-Cilicia. In many ways, Hazor was more similar to city-states of the Syro-Mesopotamian world system than to the rest of the southern Levant, and it was exceptional with regard to political organization. Avaris (Tel el-Dab’a) may have played a similar role as Hazor’s southern counterpart, mediating between Canaanite city-states and Egypt. In both cases, political development in Middle Bronze Age Canaan must be understood in the context of a land situated between two developed states.

The Canaanite city-states no doubt had kings, but it is not until the end of the Middle Bronze Age, when local Canaanite/Amorite texts first appear, that it becomes possible for historians and archaeologists to speak of specific rulers. Textual sources show that kingship in Syria was passed down along descent lines, and mortuary evidence from the southern Levant suggests that descent groups were recognized and that status was hereditary; it is unclear, though, how this figured into the structure of political power. A number of cylinder seals and at least one scarab with the name of Hyksos rulers (for example, Aa user-re) discovered at Tel el-Ajjul point to political ties between Egypt and southern Canaan. “Warrior burials” may represent the graves of individuals who served some royal court or guard.


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