Ted Thornton
History of the Middle East Database
The Ancient Period
3500 B.C.E. - 587 B.C.E.
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A superb resource covering this period is Paul Halsall's Internet Ancient History Sourcebook

ca. 3600   Era of one of the largest funerary complexes ever found, located in the ancient Egyptian city of Hierakonpolis, the largest city on the Nile of its time, near modern Kom al-Ahmar. The site was discovered by a joint Egyptian-American excavation team in April, 2005.  (BBC, April 21, 2005)

ca. 3500 Semitic clans in the Arabian peninsula, responding to pressures of over population in a region with limited resources, began migrating northward out of the area. They split up in the Sinai. One branch moved up the Nile Valley and implanted itself upon the local Hamitic population (producing the Egyptians of ancient history). The other settled in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, already inhabited by the Sumerians (who were not Semites).

ca. 3200 Fortified towns began appearing in Palestine.

ca. 3000 - 2640 After a period of military conflict, Egypt was united. It is not known for sure how this occurred. Possibly, the unifying impulse came from Upper Egypt at the hand of the legendary king, Menes (also known as Narmer). The kings of the first two dynasties ruled from their capital at Thinis (Abydos) in Upper Egypt.

2850 - 2360 Height of Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia.

ca. 2700  Possible reign of the semi-legendary king Gilgamesh in Sumerian Uruk (from which the modern name "Iraq" derives. More on the etymology of "Iraq").  Gilgamesh is the hero of an epic by the same name.  The earliest texts, in cuneiform, date to the eighteenth century B.C.E.  This epic constitutes perhaps the first literary example of a human being grappling with the problem of death. Gilgamesh discovers that to be human is to be mortal.  Given, then, the certainty of death, the question for him becomes, "How should I live?" (see also Ezekiel below).

ca. 2670 - 2160  In Egypt, the "Old Kingdom" (Third through Sixth dynasties).  The second king, Djoser (Zoser), transferred the capital to Memphis and built the step pyramid of Saqqara as his tomb. The architect was Imhotep whom the Greeks later deified as Aesculapius, the god of healing. The earliest mastaba tombs (from an Arabic word meaning "bench") date from this period. They were elongated, flat-roofed structures of mud brick or stone.

ca. 2600 - 2450 Fourth Dynasty in Egypt, the era of the great pyramids at Giza.

2375- 2345  Reign of the Fifth Dynasty king Unas in Egypt.  His pyramid at Saqqara was the first to bear the funerary reliefs and inscriptions known as the "Pyramid Texts."  These inscriptions consist of 759 spells or incantations and contain the earliest conceptual beliefs of an afterlife on record. (see also Coffin Texts and Book of the Dead)

2360 - 2180 The Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia.

2200 - 1900 A second wave of Semites brought the Amorites into the Fertile Crescent. These invasions are reflected in the Egyptian Execration texts (clay dolls inscribed with curses on Egypt's enemies. The dolls were subsequently smashed into pieces to effect the curses). Among these peoples were the Canaanites, who occupied western Syria and Palestine in this period forming a feudal system of city-states, and the coastal people whom the Greeks later called "Phoenicians." The height of Phoenician influence, including the establishment of their commercial empire in the Mediterranean, came later, ca. 1100 - 800 BCE. These Phoenicians were the first to popularize an exclusively alphabetical style of writing comprising twenty two signs.

2180 In Mesopotamia, the Guti assaults and the Sumerian renaissance under Ur III took place. The world's oldest known law code appeared at this time, the code of Ur-nammu.

ca. 2150 - 2040 First Intermediate Period in Egypt (7th through 11th dynasties), a time of weakness and instability.

2094 - 2047  Reign of Shulgi in Sumer, the second and greatest king of the Ur III dynasty.  He introduced the custom of divine kingship in Sumer. His records indicate that he began referring to himself as divine about the middle of his reign.  (see Jacob Klein, "The Birth of Kingship:  From Democracy to Monarchy in Sumer," Odyssey, Jan.-Feb., 2001, 17ff..  Klein argues that the Early Dynastic Period in Sumerian history, 2900-2300 B.C.E., in contrast to Ur III, was marked by the prevalence of consultative, even democratic, institutions.)

2040 - 1650  Middle Kingdom in Egypt (11th through 13th dynasties). Theban princes reestablished firm control over the country. During this period, the "Coffin Texts," written spells on the insides of wooden coffins, began to appear.  The spells offered protection for the dead against the perils of the journey into eternal life.  To a greater extent than either the earlier Pyramid Texts or the later Book of the Dead, the Coffin Texts emphasized the terrors and uncertainties of death. (See Christine Hobson, The World of the Pharaohs (London:  Thames and Hudson, 1987), 168ff.)

1900 - 1750 Traditional dating of the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham and Isaac.

1870 In Mesopotamia, the law code of Lipit Ishtar appeared.

1750 - 1700 Reign of the Babylonian First Dynasty king Hammurapi whose name is attached to the most famous of the early law codes. 

ca. 1650 - 1550 Second Intermediate Period in Egypt (14th through 17th dynasties). This was another period of instability and civil strife characterized by short reigns and frequent turnovers.  Throughout most of this period, Egypt was ruled by a series of non-Egyptian, Semitic kings called Hyksos ("princes of the foreign lands") who swept down from the northeast bringing with them the horse-drawn chariot, which they introduced into Egypt. They made their capital at Avaris and emphasized the worship of Seth. Manetho describes their rule as a reign of terror.  They popularized the scarab as a symbol of good fortune. (more)

ca. 1550 - 1070   New Kingdom in Egypt (18th through 20th dynasties) with its capital at Thebes, save for the reign of Akhnaton when the capital was at Amarna. During this long period of expansion, stability, and prosperity, Egypt became a great power. From the beginning of this period and extending down to the Greco-Roman period, papyrus rolls bearing copies of The Book of the Coming Out Into the Day (better known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead) started showing up inside wooden mummiform statues buried with the dead in tombs. The Book of the Dead, based on the ideas of judgment and resurrection found in the myths of Osiris, consisted of spells and incantations to usher the dead person safely into the afterlife. (see also Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts)

ca. 1500 - 1200   The Hebrews, or Israelites (that is the tribes of the patriarch, Jacob, or, "Israel," from the Hebrew phrase Y'sra el meaning to "wrestle with God" -- see Genesis 32: 22-32) appeared in southern Syria and Palestine. Arameans (Syrians) moved into northern Syria. The exodus of Moses from Egypt is traditionally dated during the reign of the pharaoh Ramses II (1279-1212). The Hebrew conquest of the hill country of Palestine is traditionally dated between 1250 and 1200.

1497 - 1423 Reign of Thutmosis III in Egypt, the country's greatest conqueror. He captured Syria and extended Egyptian influence into Mesopotamia.

1420 - 1200  Hittite Empire in Anatolia (from Greek, "rising of the sun."), roughly the area of modern Turkey, or what had been known in ancient times as Asia Minor.

1352 - 1338 Reign of Amenophis IV, or Akhnaton ("the solar disk is content"). Akhnaton was the so-called "heretic" king who reformed Egypt's religious system and moved the capital from Thebes down river to Amarna where he reigned with his queen, Nefertiti. Scholars argue about just how radical Akhnaton's reforms really were. Some claim he turned Egypt's religious system upside down, transforming it from polytheism into monotheism by authorizing only the worship of the sun disk, Aten. Others argue that Egypt's religion had always been essentially monotheistic anyway, and that Akhnaton's only innovation, whether accidental or willful, was that he alienated the powerful Theban priesthood. Perhaps he thought the priests had grown too powerful and simply wanted to cut them down to size. The "Amarna Letters," important documents casting light on the history of the region, date from this period.

1336 - 1327  Reign of Tutenkhamon in Egypt, son-in-law of Amenophis IV. He moved the capital back to Thebes and reestablished the classical Egyptian religious system with its many deities. His tomb in the Valley of the Kings (Thebes) was discovered in 1922.

ca.1300 - 626   Assyrian Empire. It met its end at the hands of the new Babylonian Empire aided by the Medes. 

1279 - 1212  Reign of Pharaoh Ramses II in Egypt. He battled the Hittites at Kedesh (Qadesh on the Orontes in northern Syria) ca. 1286-1274, and barely got away with his life (his monuments, on the other hand, proclaimed a great victory). Under the terms of the ensuing peace treaty, Palestine fell under Egyptian control while the Hittites continued to control Syria. Ramses II was Egypt's most celebrated builder. Among the major monuments of his reign were temples at Abu Simbel, Luxor, the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak, the Ramesseum (which inspired Shelley's poem Ozymandias), and temples at Abydos, Memphis, and Bubastis. Ramses II is traditionally regarded as the pharaoh of the biblical account of Moses and the Hebrews in Egypt, although this is disputed.  I Kings 6:1 puts the date much earlier:  in the fifteenth century (1437 BCE).  A controversial recent argument (Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, New York: The Free Press, 2001) considers the entire Old Testament practically up to the exile as a narrative constructed during the puritanical religious reform of King Josiah, 639-609 BCE (see below).   

ca. 1260  Probable date of the sack of Troy by the Mycenaean Greeks. Legend puts it later, in 1184 (some scholars doubt the event took place at all).

1211-1209 Pharaoh Merneptah's campaigns against Canaan. A stele carved in the year 1207 contains the earliest reference to a people called "Israel" who numbered among the enemies Merneptah fought in Canaan. A visual representation of the Israelites wearing the ankle length uniforms of Canaanites was carved in relief on the walls of Karnak.

ca. 1200-1100 The Sea Peoples, marauders (possibly Greek) from the islands of Cyprus, Crete, and the coast of Asia Minor, invaded and conquered Canaanite cities along the coast of Palestine. Among these raiders were the "Philistines" of the Bible who challenged the Israelites' claims to the land, but who also traded with them. The Egyptians, whom they also harassed, called them "Peleset," and from the Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BCE) came the name, "Palestine." It was the Philistines who introduced iron tool-making into the area. Iron was traded with the Israelites for limestone available only in the hill country which the tribes of Israel controlled.

This was a time of general decline and instability in the Mediterranean world. The Egyptian and Hittite empires were weak, and the Mycenaean city-states in Greece were collapsing. Greece was entering its "dark ages" from which it did not emerge until ca. 700 B.C.E. The eighth century Greek poet Hesiod preserved the memory of this period, which he described as an "age of iron," a time filled by men "strange and full of power who loved the groans and violence of war." (Hesiod, The Works and Days, trans. by D. Wender (Harmondsworth, 1973), 182-195).

By 1330 B.C.E., there were signs of growing fear all over Greece.  Archaeological remains show that nearly every palace in every Mycenaean city began to fortify its walls: the Mycenaens saw trouble coming.  Beginning about 1250, the time Troy was sacked, every Mycenaean palace was systematically burned or otherwise demolished. After 1100, the art of stone masonry disappeared from Greece and did not reappear for several centuries.  Metallurgy also disappeared. The population of Greece declined by nine tenths.  Where everyone went is still debated.

Inscriptions and battle scenes on the walls of the Egyptian temple at Medinat Habu in the time of Ramses III tell us that much of the Mediterranean world suffered the same fate as Mycenaen Greece.  One inscription reads "The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their lands.  All at once the lands were scattered in the fray.  No land could stand before their arms."

1200 - 1020   Traditional dating of the period of the Tribal League ("Judges") in Israel.

1186 - 1154   Reign of Ramses III in Egypt. He repelled a naval attack by the Sea Peoples in the eighth year of his reign. The battle scenes were carved on the walls of his mortuary temple at Medinat Habu. He also made war against the Libyans.

ca. 1070 - 664   In Egypt, the Third Intermediate Period (21st through 25th dynasties).

1020 - 1000   Traditional dating of the reign of King Saul, the first Hebrew king.  During the eleventh century B.C.E., the camel was introduced into Palestine and Syria by the invading Midianites, as mentioned in Judges 6:5.  Camels are also mentioned many times in Genesis 24 leading some scholars to argue for relatively late authorship of the first book of the Bible.  These references are among the earliest historical records of the widespread use of this animal. Camels were later introduced into Egypt in the seventh century by the conquering Assyrians, and spread across northern Africa during the Muslim conquests of the seventh century C. E.  (see Philip Hitti, History of the Arabs, tenth edition (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1970), 22)

1000 - 922   Traditionally, the pinnacle of Hebrew power under Kings David and Solomon. After Solomon's death in 922, the kingdom of Israel divided into northern and southern principalities. Hebrew holdings beyond their borders began to slip away almost immediately. The first Jewish temple dates to Solomon's reign, 961-922 B.C.E.

ca. 900 - 612   Assyrian Empire. Assyria was defeated in 612 by the Babylonians at the Battle of Nineveh.

ca. 664 - 330   Late Period in Egypt (26th through 31st dynasties).

639 - 609    Reign of the Hebrew king Josiah, who in 622 initiated a puritanical reform of the Hebrew religion after the unearthing of a book of the "Law" during renovations of the temple in Jerusalem.  The core of the book, preserved in the Bible's "Book of Deuteronomy," may, in the view of some, mark the real beginning of Jewish monotheism (Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, New York: The Free Press, 2001).

600s BCE Phoenician settlers move into western Tripolitania (Libya).

587 BCE   The Hebrews were defeated by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. 4,600-12,000 were exiled to Babylon. Ancient Israel ceased to exist. At this point it is proper to stop calling the Israelites "Hebrews" and begin calling them "Jews." Judaism as we know it took shape during this period of exile. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Although Jews would  rebuild the temple fifty years later after their liberation by the Persians under Cyrus the Great, a new institution began to emerge during the period 500 to 300: the synagogue. It was unique in that it did not rely at all upon space and architecture as temples did. The only requirement for the formation of a synagogue was the presence of ten Jewish males. Hence, it represented a portable temple of sorts, the logical choice of a people who had been uprooted, were on the move a lot, and had lived in exile in alien lands. During this period the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) was written down and edited. Emphasis on written law at first (later oral law) emerged as a hedge against the threats of assimilation, encroachment, or eradication at the hands of a series of conquerors: the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. The prophet Ezekiel (33:10) echoed the big question for an uprooted people snatched away from the roots of land and tradition that had up until then  sustained them: How shall we live?

The Babylonian conquest of Palestine and adjacent areas created a power vacuum in the region enabling a people called the Edomites (precursors of the Nabateans) to establish themselves in the area.

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Last Revised: October 18, 2007