Syria and Egypt



A line corresponding roughly to the present western and southern borders of the Syrian Republic divides ancient Syria into two parts – the rolling plains of the north and the mountains, hills and deserts of the south – which in prehistory followed a different development. Space does not allow us to describe it, however briefly, but what we think is of interest to our subject is the fact that from very early days the north was wide open to Mesopotamian influences, as it was the link between the Tigris–Euphrates valley, the Mediterranean and, to some extent, Anatolia. If the north, with its hundreds of tells, had been as thoroughly explored as Lebanon or Palestine, the discovery at Ebla of a large and powerful kingdom, dating to the middle of the third millennium B.C., and which owed much to the Sumero-Akkadian civilization would not have come as a complete surprise. What could not have been expected, however, is that the people of Elba spoke a hitherto unknown Semitic dialect, akin to Akkadian though definitely West-Semitic.

During that time, the south – certainly inhabited by other Semites – looked towards Egypt. Relations between that country and Lebanon or Palestine, already attested in the Pre-Dynastic period, are well documented under the Old Egyptian Kingdom (c. 2800 – 2400 B.C.). This was the time of the great pyramids, and Egypt looked like its monuments: lofty, massive, apparently indestructible. Docile to the orders of Pharaoh – the incarnate god who sat in Memphis – and of his innumerable officials, toiled a hard-working people and an army of foreign slaves. But if the Nile valley was rich, it lacked an essential material: wood. The mountains of Lebanon, within easy reach, were thick with pine, cypress and cedar forests. Thus a very active trade was established between the two countries to their mutual profit. Byblos (Semitic Gubla, Egyptian Kepen), the great emporium of timber, became strongly ‘Egyptianized’, and from Byblos Egyptian cultural influence spread along the coast. The relations between the Egyptians and the populations of the Palestinian hinterland, however, were far less friendly. The nomads who haunted the Negeb, in particular, repeatedly attacked the Egyptian copper mines in the Sinai peninsula and on occasion raided the Nile delta, obliging the Pharaohs to retaliate and even to fortify their eastern border. The downfall of the Old Kingdom left Egypt unprotected, and we know of the large part played by the ‘desert folk’, the ‘Asiatics’, in the three hundred years of semi-anarchy which followed.

The first centuries of the second millennium witnessed the expansion of the Western Semites in Syria as well as in Mesopotamia, as proved by a break between the Early Bronze and Middle Bronze cultures, and by the predominance of West-Semitic names among the population of Syria-Palestine. While Amorite dynasties rose to power in many Mesopotamian towns, northern Syria was divided into several Amorite kingdoms, the most important being those of Iamhad (Aleppo), Karkemish and Qatna. Around the palaces of local rulers large fortified cities were built, and the objects and sculptures discovered in the palace of Iarim-Lim, King of Alalah, for instance, are by no means inferior in quality to those found in the contemporary palace of Zimri-Lim, King of Mari. We have already seen that the archives of Mari offer ample proof of intimate and sometimes friendly contacts between Mesopotamia and Syria, and indeed, one cannot escape the impression of a vast community of Amorite states stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. At the same time commercial relations between Syria and Crete were intensified. A colony of Minoan traders established itself in the port of Ugarit (Ras Shamra) and the exquisite Kamares crockery found its way to the tables of Syrian monarchs. Egypt, then in the full revival of its Middle Kingdom (2160 – 1660 B.C.), renewed and consolidated the ties which attached it to the Lebanese coast and endeavoured to counter the growing Hurrian influence in northern Syria by lavishing presents on the Amorite courts. This, at any rate, is a possible explanation for the vases, jewels and royal statues sent to Byblos, Beirut, Ugarit, Qatna and Neirab (near Aleppo) by the Pharaohs of the Twelfth Dynasty.

The region to the south of the Lebanon presents us with a very different picture. Much poorer than northern Syria and less open to foreign influences, Palestine in the Middle Bronze Age (2000 – 1600 B.C.) was a politically divided and unstable country ‘in the throes of tribal upheaval’ where the Egyptians themselves had no authority and apparently little desire to extend their political and economic ascendancy. The arrival among those restless tribes of Abraham and his family – an event whose after-effects are still acutely felt in the Near East – must have passed almost unnoticed. Small clans or large tribes constantly travelled in antiquity from one side to the other of the Syrian desert, and there is no reason to doubt the reality of Abraham’s migration from Ur to Hebron via Harran as described in Genesis xi. 31. A comparison between the biblical account and the archaeological and textual material in our possession suggests that this move must have taken place ‘about 1850 B.C., or a little later’, perhaps as the result of the difficult conditions which prevailed then in southern Iraq, torn apart between Isin and Larsa. The historical character of the Patriarchal period was further reinforced – so it was thought some years ago – by the mention in cuneiform and hieroglyphic texts dating mostly from the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries B.C. of a category of people, generally grouped in bellicose bands, called habirû (or ‘apiru in Egyptian), a name which sounded remarkably like biblical ‘Ibri, the Hebrews. There was at last the long-awaited appearance in non-hebraical sources of Abraham’s kin! Unfortunately, recent and thorough reappraisals of these sources have shown beyond any doubt that the Habiru have nothing in common with the Hebrews but a similitude of name. They were neither a people nor a tribe, but a class of society made up of refugees, of ‘displaced persons’ as we would now say, who frequently turned into outlaws.

In about 1720 B.C. the Palestinian chieftains, whose turbulence and hostile attitude had already worried the last Pharaohs of the Twelfth Dynasty, succeeded in invading Egypt, which they governed for nearly one hundred and fifty years. They are known as Hyksôs, the Greek form of the Egyptian name hiqkhase, ‘chieftain of a foreign hill-country’. Although they never occupied more than the Nile delta, their influence on the warfare, the arts and even the language of that country was considerable. In the end, however, the kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty overthrew the Hyksôs, chasing them up to the gates of Gaza, and with this exploit opens what we call the New Empire (1580 – 1100 B.C.), undoubtedly the most glorious period in the history of ancient Egypt. By contrast, Mesopotamia fell, at about the same time (1595 B.C. into the hands of other foreigners, the Kassites, and entered into a long period of political lethargy.

Egypt versus Mitanni

Three out of the four centuries covered by the Kassite period were occupied by violent conflicts between the great nations of the Near East. The main reasons for these conflicts were the conquest of Syria by the Egyptians, the renewed claims of the Hittites over that country and the formation of a large Hurri-Mitannian Kingdom extending from the Mediterranean to the Zagros and acting as an obstacle to Egyptian, Hittite and, later, Assyrian ambitions. But while the territories disputed – Syria and Jazirah – lay within a short distance of Babylon, the Kassite monarchs were either too weak or too wise to allow themselves to become involved in the conflagration, and it was not until the middle of the fourteenth century that Assyrian pressure forced them into war. From 1600 to 1350 B.C. in round figures the Babylonians enjoyed almost complete peace, with the exception of their victorious war against the Sea-Land and of skirmishes along their northern frontier; and when the whole Orient after 1480 B.C. went up in flames they alone sat back, watching what has been aptly described as ‘a scrum of empires’. Because of the comparatively minor role played by Babylonia and, for a long time, by Assyria in the great political turmoil of the second millennium, we need not give here more than a summary of these intricate events, the details of which can be found in any history dealing with the wider aspects of the ancient Near East. Some emphasis, however, will be placed on those events which took place in Mesopotamia proper or influenced the destinies of that country.

The effects of the new political situation arising from the invasion of Egypt by the Hyksôs (c. 1700 B.C.) and from the fall of the First Dynasty of Babylon (1595 B.C.) were not felt immediately. In the light of the few available data, the sixteenth century appears as a relatively stable period during which the nations whose armies were later to stand face to face on the battlefields of Syria were dressing their wounds or furbishing their weapons. In the reign of Amosis I (1576 – 1546 B.C.) the Hyksôs were driven out of the Nile delta, but the first Pharaohs of the Eighteenth Dynasty were too busy enforcing their authority within their own country to engage in foreign adventures, and even the famous campaign of Tuthmosis I across Syria up to the Euphrates (c. 1520 B.C.) was a raid without lasting consequences. In Anatolia the Old Hittite Kingdom was slowly crumbling, undermined by palace revolutions no less than by foreign attacks. The king who had taken Aleppo and Babylon, Mursilis I, was assassinated in 1590 B.C., and his successors surrendered all claims over the territories south of the Taurus mountains. In Assur reigned the descendants of Adasi, the prince who had shaken off the Babylonian yoke; but for a few building inscriptions and for a reference to Puzur-Ashur III in the Synchronistic History these princes would remain for us mere names on a list. As for Babylonia, she was being reunited and reorganized by the Kassites, obviously unwilling or unable to indulge in dreams of expansion. Perhaps the most active of all Oriental peoples during that period were the Hurrians and their Mitannian war-lords. While the complete absence of textual evidence precludes any positive statement, we may at least surmise, on the basis of subsequent events, that the Hurri-Mitannians were taking advantage of the vacuum created in northern Syria and northern Iraq by the collapse of the Hammurabian empire and the withdrawal of the Hittites to build themselves a great kingdom in those regions.

Then, suddenly, at the dawn of the fifteenth century, trouble broke out in the Near East, coming from an unexpected direction. Sheltered by the deserts which border the Nile valley, Egypt had lived for two thousand years isolated politically, though not commercially, from the rest of the Orient. Its north-eastern frontier, it is true, was vulnerable, and on several occasions the ‘vile ‘Amu’, the ‘Sand-farers’, the hated Asiatics had crossed the isthmus of Suez, made armed incursions into the delta and given cause for serious concern; they had, however, never succeeded in gaining full control of the country. But the long and humiliating Hyksôs episode had taught the Egyptians a lesson: in order to avoid a similar invasion, they must fight the Asiatics in their country of origin and reduce them to servitude. It was with this idea in mind that Tuthmosis III in 1480 B.C. undertook the conquest of Syria, opening new fields to Egyptian ambitions and setting a pattern of Egyptian politics which can be followed throughout history down to the present day. The fact that it took him seventeen years to become the master of Palestine and of the coastal strip of Lebanon and Syria proves that he was up against forces far superior to those of the Syro-Palestinian princelings, or that his opponents received all the support in men, horses and weapons that only a powerful state could afford. The true enemies of Egypt in Syria were neither the Canaanites nor the Amorites, but the Hurri-Mitannians, long entrenched in those regions and now strongly organized. The kingdom of Mitanni occupied the region called Hanigalbat by the Assyrians, that is the steppe between the Euphrates and the Tigris, to the south of the Taurus range, and somewhere in this area – possibly near the head of the Khabur river – lay its capital Washukkanni, the exact location of which has not yet been determined. Its northern and southern frontiers were probably as ill-defined for the Hurri-Mitannians as they are for us, though we know from Hittite sources that the Hurrians were established in Armenia, threatening the Hittite kingdom. During the fifteenth century northern Syria to the west and Assyria to the east were under Mitannian allegiance. The first king of Mitanni whose name has survived, Paratarna (c. 1480 B.C.), is mentioned in the statue inscription of Idrimi, King of Alalah, who refers to him as his overlord, as well as in a tablet found at Nuzi, near Kirkuk. Also found in this city was the seal of Paratarna’s successor, Shaushatar. In addition, there is ample evidence of a Hurri-Mitannian political influence in Ugarit, in Qatna and, indirectly, in Palestine. An even greater influence can be detected in northern Iraq, and there is every reason to believe that all the Kings of Assur who reigned between 1500 and 1360 B.C. were the vassals of the King of Mitanni: when one of them dared to revolt, Shaushatar, we are told, plundered Assur and took to Washukkanni ‘a door of silver and gold’.

The victories of Tuthmosis III put only part of this vast kingdom under Egyptian domination. In Syria the Mitannians kept Alalah and Karkemish, whence they were able to foster in the districts they had lost rebellions serious enough to justify three Egyptian campaigns under Amenophis II. Under Tuthmosis IV (1425 – 1417 B.C.), this state of permanent though indirect hostility came to an end, and the most friendly relations were established between the courts of Thebes and Washukkanni: ‘seven times’ the pharaoh asked Artatama I of Mitanni for the hand of his daughter, and Amenophis III (1417 – 1379 B.C.) married Shutarna’s daughter Kilu-Hepa. The fear of the Hittites is often given as the reason for this sudden and complete change in politics, but this is by no means certain. In about 1450 B.C. Tudkhaliyas II in Anatolia had founded a new dynasty and immediately reasserted Hittite rights upon the districts south of the Taurus by taking Aleppo – possibly acting in collusion with Tuthmosis III. His immediate successors, however, entangled as they were in Anatolian wars, could hardly be considered so dangerous for both Egypt and Mitanni as to provoke a rapprochement between the two countries. The truth, in all probability, is that the Egyptians realized their inability to occupy the whole of Syria, and the Mitannians their inability to regain ground in Palestine and on the Syrian coast; both accepted the status quo and turned an old enmity into a friendly alliance.


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