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Exploring the Cultural Landscape: The Northern Levant in the Early Bronze Age

[This is a lecture written for the course 'HIST 262: History of the Ancient Near East,' taught Fall 2023 at God's Bible School and College, a regionally accredited College in Cincinnati, Ohio. Bibliographical material will be posted under Research on this site.]

While the Neolithic is defined by a move to agricultural village life, the Bronze Age is arbitrarily defined by its use of metals. Of course, that is a complicated definition. For many cultures, the use of specific metals occurred before the designated Bronze or Iron Ages respectively, copper, from which bronze is made, very often being used earlier (cf. Mohen 1994: 97). Perhaps better defining moments in Bronze Age societies is a movement toward urbanism, craft specialization, and interregional trade. At least, these can be well understood in the Northern Levant, so far as the northern Levantine chronology has been developed (Damick and Woodworth 2015: 603).

Whereas the Southern Levant covers the modern nations of Israel and Jordan and the Sinai in Egypt, the Northern Levant primarily covers the modern countries of Lebanon and Syria, with very minimal parts of Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel, or more specifically, from the Amanus Mountains in Turkey to the Jebel Ansariyah in Syria, to the Lebanon mountain ranges in the south (Casana 2017: 160). Basically, the Mediterranean coast above Canaan.  

During the Bronze Age, key trade networks are formed at Ebla, Byblos, and Ugarit, the collapse of which would lead to the establishment of the Tyrian dominance in the Mediterranean during the Iron Age. Unfortunately, there is a general lack of understanding of the Northern Levant in the earlier periods (Bradbury, Braemer, and Sala 2014: 211), but genetic research shows that throughout the entirety of the Early Bronze Age gene flow did occur, likely from neighboring regions such as Mesopotamia (Skourtanioti et al. 2020: 1169).

EB I: Small Villages

At the beginning of the third millennium, the Northern Levant had not yet been discovered by outsiders concerned with the region’s resources, and it had not yet become an intermediate between east and west, or even north and south (Greenberg 2013: 273). Remembering that the Early Bronze Age emerges from the simpler agricultural life of the earlier periods, Early Bronze Age I in the region existed as a series of small, unwalled villages, though at the beginning stages of EB I the people still tended toward mobility (Greenberg 2013: 4). Ugarit, having been established in the Neolithic, had become a rather substantial town by EB I (Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art 2000), but important sites, such as Ebla, would not be founded for quite some time. 

Approximate location of the Northern Levant
Approximate location of the Northern Levant

By the end of EB I, the above mentioned small, unwalled villages were spread thinly across the region. Social

groups were small and separated, craft specialization was limited, and although long-distance trade was minimal, there was a willingness to interact with the outside world (Greenberg 2013: 4), all of which brought the region into the defining characteristics of the Bronze Age and lead to the major trade networks that began in EB II-III. The latter part of EB I, EB IB, has been termed proto-urban (Greenberg 2019: 21) because of the move toward urbanism.

EB II-III: Trade Networks

By Early Bronze II-III, villages in northern Jordan became nucleated and centered on hilltops and key rivers, with over 50% within 500m of a river system (Bradbury, Braemer, and Sala 2014: 213). Interregional trade was not yet a hallmark of the Northern levant in EB II (Massa and Palmisano 2018: 71), though it existed, as evidenced by Sidonian craftsmanship in Egypt (Doumet-Serhal 2006: 34).

The collapse of Urukian settlements in northern Syria lead to a migration away from the land, through the Northern Levant, and ultimately into the Southern Levant, leading to a rise in urbanism (Finkelstein 1995: 47). This migration lead to a population influx in the region (Bradbury, Braemer, and Sala 2014: 214), and Early Bronze II sites, such as Tell Fadous-Kfarabida in northern coastal Lebanon, consist of simple dwellings (Damick and Woodworth 2015: 604). Many of these Early Bronze II sites will later be reoccupied in Early Bronze IV (Bradbury, Braemer, and Sala 2014: 215). 

By Early Bronze III, urbanism is in full force across the Levant (Greenberg 2013: 273), including fortifications and public buildings (Damick and Woodworth 2015: 604). Though limited in size, coastal settlements such as Byblos and Tell Arqa flourish at this time (Genz 2017: 76). 

The region of the Northern Levant became a prime mover in goods, particularly the wool trade. Along with bridging both the east and west and the north and south, differing prestige goods such as ivory (Massa and Palmisano 2018: 71), tin, gold, and lapis lazuli act as evidence of such contacts (Greenberg 2013: 275). Coastal sites lacked written documents, so very little of the political organization is known, but the fortifications and public buildings in such small sites suggests complexity (Genz 2017: 76), and Egyptian contact is well documented through a series of artifacts found there (Thalmann 2010: 1).

EB IV: Surviving the Southern Collapse

Ebla, having its origins in the Early Bronze III period (Dolce 2010: 246), became a well established mercantile empire by Early Bronze IV, the zenith of its political power (Bai and Peyronel 2013: 197). Excavations at the Royal Palace G at Ebla revealed a wealth of information. Dating to Early Bronze IVA (Pinnock 2019: 67), the Royal Palace G palatial system appears to have been an outgrowth of an earlier EB III system (Dolce 2010: 249-50), particularly economical but possibly even political, suggesting a progression toward sophistication.

Perhaps the most monumentous aspect of Eblaite culture is the enormous collection of written texts it has left behind, including 1,750 complete texts, 4,900 large fragments, and thousands of smaller ones (Rendsburg 2003: 67). Dating to the 24th century B.C. (Pinnock 2019: 67), these used the cuneiform script that had spread to the Levant from Mesopotamia (Rendsburg 2003: 67). 

It should be noted that EB IV in the Southern Levant was a catastrophic time of urban collapse, but the north survived this collapse and in fact went through a second type of urban revolution (Greenberg 2013: 275). Tell Arqa not only contained a dense urban center, but that urban center included multi-storied housing; Byblos, too, continued through the EB IV desolation, its temples showing continued use from EB III to the Middle Bronze Age (Genz 2017: 77). The urban revival, and the rise of Ebla, was most likely due to the Eblaite affinity to Mesopotamian culture and language and the resources at hand (Greenberg 2013: 275), and of course sites in the Northern Levant continued long-distance trade, such as the above mentioned Byblos and Tell Arqa with Egypt (Genz 2017: 79), and Ebla (Greenberg 2013: 275) with Mesopotamia.

These Northern Levantine cities had as their source of wealth their own internal agricultural and pastoral production systems, trading their local products, including textiles (Greenberg 2013: 275). In contrast to the old citadel towns in the south, the northern cities, with their economic boom, attracted many to the lucrative sites (Greenberg 2017: 48), which only furthered their economic prowess, while others in the south found it feasible to simply trade with the northern cities, particularly the south’s valuable wool (Schloen 2017: 64). This rather valuable relationship between the north and the south is likely a key factor to the south’s shift toward pastoralism (Schloen 2017: 61).

Ebla, during its prime, was punitive toward its own allies who failed to follow Ebla’s policies, and in fact the Ebla texts record the military campaigns of a vizier by the name of Ibrium who broadened Ebla’s borders through conquest (Biga 2010: 45). It would appear that the Eblaite kings held the empire together with a strong hand, though conquest of the Southern Levant was never needed as the southern peoples desired trade with their northern neighbors (Schloen 2017: 64).

Ultimately, Ebla was destroyed by fire ca. 2250 B.C. (Matthiae 1978: 2), and several hypotheses have been put forward as to who destroyed the city (Biga 2014: 102-03). One hypothesis includes the city of Mari, which had been attacked by a rather large allied group lead by Ebla (Biga 2014: 103). In this hypothesis, Mari simply retaliated against Ebla for a war that had weakened both kingdoms. 

Another hypothesis includes the city of Armi, a city that was possibly the last site conquered by Ebla. In this hypothesis, Ebla was destroyed by internal conflict, but possibly with the help of the Akkadians (Biga 2014: 103).

A final hypothesis is that Ebla was destroyed by Naram-Sin of the Akkadian Empire, particularly as an inscription attributed to Naram-Sin boasts of destroying a city named Ebla, or Ibla (Frayne 1993: 132-33), but this theory, too, has its problems. 

Interestingly, whoever it was that destroyed Ebla, social complexity, and in fact urbanism, continue after the destruction of the empire (Höflmayer 2017: 4). Ebla itself, though reduced from its former status, was rebuilt and continued into the Early Bronze IVB period, and the city even continued in trade during the Ur III period in Mesopotamia (D’Andrea 2022: 5). By the Old Babylonian period, Ebla flourished again (Milano 1995: 1228).


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