AskDefine | Define Canaan

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Canaan n : an ancient country is southwestern Asia on the east coast of the Mediterranean; a place of pilgrimage for Christianity and Islam and Judaism [syn: Palestine, Holy Land, Promised Land]

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  1. An historic region of the Middle East.

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Extensive Definition

Canaanites redirects here. For the 1940s social and political movement in Israel, see Canaanites (movement).
seealso Phoenicians
Canaan is an ancient term for a region encompassing present-day Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon and Jordan, plus adjoining coastal lands and parts of Egypt and Syria. In the Hebrew Bible, the "Land of Canaan" extends from Lebanon southward across Gaza to the "Brook of Egypt" and eastward to the Jordan Valley, thus including modern Israel and the Palestinian Territories. This southern area included various ethnic groups. The Amarna Letters found in Ancient Egypt mention Canaan (Akkadian: ) in connection with Gaza and other cities along the Phoenician coast and into Upper Galilee. Many earlier Egyptian sources also make mention of numerous campaigns conducted in Ka-na-na, just inside Asia.
Various Canaanite sites have been excavated by archaeologists. Canaanites spoke Canaanite languages, closely related to other West Semitic languages. Canaanites are mentioned in the Bible, Mesopotamian and Ancient Egyptian texts. Although the residents of ancient Ugarit in modern Syria do not seem to have considered themselves Canaanite, and did not speak a Canaanite language (but one that was closely related), archaeologists have considered the site, which was rediscovered in 1928, as quintessentially Canaanite. Much of the modern knowledge about the Canaanites stems from excavation in this area. It is generally thought that they originally migrated from the Arabian Peninsula, as that is the most generally accepted Semitic urheimat. More recently Juris Zarins has suggested that Canaanite culture developed in situ from the Circum Arabian Nomadic Pastoral Complex, which in turn developed from a fusion of Harifian hunter gatherers with PPNB farming cultures, practicing animal domestication, during the 6,200 BC climatic crisis.


The name Canaan is mentioned frequently in the Bible. It refers to parts or all of the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea in antiquity It is also sometimes used interchangeably with the Land of Israel, Zion, the Holy Land or the Promised Land.
Canaan predates the name Land of Israel but describes the same land . The classical Jewish view, as explained by Schweid, is that "Canaan" is the geographical name; the renaming as "Israel" prior to its conquest by the people of Israel marks its sanctification, the origin of the Holy Land concept . The province of Judaea was later renamed Palestina by the Romans following the Bar Kokhba revolt in the 2nd century AD. In the Bible and elsewhere, Zion originally meant the region around Jerusalem but, because of the importance of this city, came to designate the whole of the land, as for example in the naming of Zionism.


The English name Canaan comes from the (Hebrew: , via the Greek: whence Latin . The Hebrew name Canaan is of obscure origins, with one possibility being the non-Semitic Hurrian "Knaa" or Akkadian Kinahhu, referring to the rich purple dye produced from the murex snail. The first known references appear in the 2nd millennium BC, possibly from Hurrian sources in the Mesopotamian city of Nuzi.
Another etymology is straightforward. "Can" means low as "Aram" means high. A straightforward meaning of Canaan is "lowland." This was first applied to the lowland or classical Phoenicia, mainly Sidon, then by extension to the whole region.
A third possibility is that Canaan derives from the Semitic root *k-n- meaning "to be subdued" . This meaning is supported by the story contained in the Bible. The Bible attributes the name to Canaan, the son of Ham and the grandson of Noah, whose offspring correspond to the names of various ethnic groups in the land of Canaan, listed in the "Table of Nations" (), where Sidon is named as his firstborn son, to be subdued by the descendents of Shem.
The eponym Ham merely means "Hot" or "Red" in Hebrew or Canaanite, although it may have been derived initially from the Egyptian word Kemet (KMT), a word applied to the land along the Nile. Some authors reason that the attribution was made because the Canaanite coast but not the interior was under Egyptian domination for several centuries.

Canaan in the Hebrew Bible

The Hebrew Bible lists borders for the land of Canaan. Numbers 34:2 includes the phrase "the land of Canaan as defined by its borders." The borders are then delineated in Numbers 34:3-12.
John N. Oswalt notes that "Canaan consists of the land west of the Jordan and is distinguished from the area east of the Jordan." Oswalt then goes on to say that in Scripture Canaan "takes on a theological character" as "the land which is God's gift" and "the place of abundance".

Canaan in Mesopotamian inscriptions

Certain scholars of the Eblaite material (dated 2350 BC) from the archive of Tell Mardikh see the oldest reference to Canaanites in the ethnic name ga-na-na which provides a third millennium reference to the name Canaan.
Canaan is mentioned in a document from the 18th century BC found in the ruins of Mari, a former Sumerian outpost in Syria, located along the Middle Euphrates. Apparently Canaan at this time existed as a distinct political entity (probably a loose confederation of city-states). A letter from this time complains about certain "thieves and Canaanites (i.e. Kinahhu)" causing trouble in the town of Rahisum.
Tablets found in the Mesopotamian city of Nuzi use the term Kinahnu ("Canaan") as a synonym for red or purple dye, produced from murex shells on the Mediterranean coast, apparently a renowned Canaanite export commodity. The dyes were likely named after their place of origin (much as "champagne" is both a product, and the name of the region where it is produced). The name 'Phoenicia' is connected with the Greek word for "purple", apparently referring to the same product, but it is difficult to state with certainty whether the Greek word came from the name, or vice versa. The purple cloth of Tyre in Phoenicia was well known far and wide and long associated with royalty.
Anne Killebrew has shown how cities such as Jerusalem were large and important walled settlements in the Middle Bronze IIB and Iron Age IIC periods (ca. 1800-1550 and 720-586 BC), but that during the intervening Late Bronze (LB) and Iron Age I and IIA/B Ages sites like Jerusalem were small and relatively insignificant and unfortified towns.
References to Canaanites are also found throughout the Amarna letters of Pharaoh Akenaton circa 1350 BC, and a reference to the "land of Canaan" is found on the statue of Idrimi of Alalakh in modern Syria. After a popular uprising against his rule, Idrimi was forced into exile with his mother's relatives to seek refuge in "the land of Canaan", where he stayed, preparing for an eventual attack to recover his city. Texts from Ugarit also refer to an individual Canaanite (*kn'ny), suggesting that the people of Ugarit, contrary to much modern opinion, considered themselves to be non-Canaanite.
Archaeological excavations of a number of sites, later identified as Canaanite, show that prosperity of the region reached its apogee during this Middle Bronze Age period, under leadership of the city of Hazor, at least nominally tributary to Egypt for much of the period. In the north, the cities of Yamkhad and Qatna were hegemons of important confederacies, and it would appear that Biblical Hazor was the chief city of another important coalition in the south. In the early Late Bronze Age, Canaanite confederacies were centred on Megiddo and Kadesh, before again being brought into the Egyptian Empire.

Early Development of Canaanite Civilization

The urban development of Canaan lagged considerably behind that of Egypt and Mesopotamia and even Syria, where from ca. 3500 BC a sizable city developed at Hamoukar. This city, which was colonised, probably by people coming from Uruk, perhaps saw the first connections between Syria and Southern Mesopotamia that were repeated throughout history. Urban development again began, culminating in the Early Bronze Age development of sites like Ebla, which by ca. 2300 BC was incorporated once again into the Akkadian empire of Sargon the Great and Naram-Sin of Akkad (Biblical Accad). Sumerian references to the Mar.tu ("tent dwellers" - considered to be Amorite) country West of the Euphrates date from even earlier than Sargon, at least to the reign of Enshakushanna of Uruk. The archives of Ebla show reference to a number of Biblical sites, including Hazor, Jerusalem, and as a number of people have claimed, to Sodom and Gomorrah mentioned in Genesis as well. The collapse of the Akkadian Empire saw the arrival of peoples using Khirbet Kerak Ware pottery, coming originally from the Zagros Mountains, east of the Tigris. It is suspected by some that this event marks the arrival in Syria and Canaan of the Hurrians, possibly the people later known in the Biblical tradition as Horites.
John BrightBright, John (2000) "A History of Israel" (John Knox Press Westminster)and William F. Albright have suggested that contact during the early Isin-Larsa period of Amorite states lies behind the Abraham stories of the patriarchal traditions. However, since the critiques of Jon Van Seters and Thomas L. Thompson, these views have failed to find a consensus.
Today it is thought that Canaanite civilization is a response to long periods of stable climate interrupted by short periods of climate change. During these periods, Canaanites profited from their intermediary position between the ancient civilisations of the Middle East — Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Minoan Crete — to become city states of merchant princes along the coast, with small kingdoms specializing in agricultural products in the interior. This polarity, between coastal towns and agrarian hinterland, was illustrated in Canaanite mythology by the struggle between the storm god, variously called Teshub (Hurrian) or Ba'al Hadad (Aramaean) and Ya'a, Yaw, Yahu or Yam, god of the sea and rivers. Small walled market towns characterized early Canaanite civilization surrounded by peasant farmers growing a range of local horticultural products, along with commercial growing of olives, grapes for wine, and pistachios, surrounded by extensive grain cropping, predominantly wheat and barley. Harvest in early summer was a season when transhumance nomadism was practiced — shepherds staying with their flocks during the wet season and returning to graze them on the harvested stubble, closer to water supplies in the summer. Evidence of this cycle of agriculture is found in the Gezer Calendar and in the Biblical cycle of the year.
Periods of rapid climate change generally saw a collapse of this mixed Mediterranean farming system; commercial production was replaced with subsistence agriculural foodstuffs; and transhumance pastoralism became a year-round nomadic pastoral activity, whilst tribal groups wandered in a circular pattern north to the Euphrates, or south to the Egyptian delta with their flocks. During the periods of the collapse of Akkad and the First Intermediary Period in Egypt, the Hyksos invasions and the end of the Middle Bronze Age in Babylonia, and the Late Bronze Age collapse, trade through the Canaanite area would dwindle, as Egypt and Mesopotamia withdrew into their isolation. When the climates stabilized, trade would resume firstly along the coast in the area of the Philistine and Phoenician cities. The Philistines, while an integral part of the Canaanite milieu, do not seem to have been ethnically homogenous with the Canaanites; the Hurrians, Hittites, Aramaeans, Moabites, and Ammonites are also considered distinct from generic Canaanites or Amorites, in scholarship or in tradition (although in the Biblical Book of Nations, "Heth", (Hittites) are a son of Canaan). As markets redeveloped, new trade routes that would avoid the heavy tariffs of the coast would develop from Kadesh Barnea, through Hebron, Lachish, Jerusalem, Bethel, Samaria, Shechem, Shiloh through Galilee to Jezreel, Hazor and Megiddo. Secondary Canaanite cities would develop in this region. Further economic development would see the creation of a third trade route from Eilath, Timna, Edom (Seir), Moab, Ammon and thence to Damascus and Palmyra. Earlier states (for example the Philistines and Tyrians in the case of Judah and Israel, for the second route, and Judah and Israel for the third route) tried generally unsuccessfully to control the interior trade.
Eventually, the prosperity of this trade would attract more powerful regional neighbors, such as Ancient Egypt, Assyria, the Babylonians, Persians, Ancient Greeks and Romans, who would attempt to control the Canaanites politically, levying tribute, taxes and tariffs. Often in such periods, thorough overgrazing would result in a climatic collapse and a repeat of the cycle (eg. PPNB, Ghassulian, Uruk, and the Bronze Age cycles already mentioned). The fall of later Canaanite civilization occurred with the incorporation of the area into the Greco-Roman world (as Iudaea province), and after Byzantine times, into the Arab, Ottoman and Abbasid Caliphates. Aramaic, one of the two lingua francas of Canaanite civilization, is still spoken in a number of small Syrian villages, whilst Phoenician Canaanite disappeared as a spoken language in about 100 AD.

Egyptian Canaan

During the 2nd millennium BC, Ancient Egyptian texts use the term Canaan to refer to an Egyptian province, whose boundaries generally corroborate the definition of Canaan found in the Hebrew Bible, bounded to the west by the Mediterranean Sea, to the north in the vicinity of Hamath in Syria, to the east by the Jordan Valley, and to the south by a line extended from the Dead Sea to around Gaza (). Nevertheless, the Egyptian and Hebrew uses of the term are not identical: the Egyptian texts also identify the coastal city of Qadesh in Syria near Turkey as part of the "Land of Canaan", so that the Egyptian usage seems to refer to the entire levantine coast of the Mediterranean Sea, making it a synonym of another Egyptian term for this coastland, Retenu.
There is uncertainty about whether the name Canaan refers to a specific ethnic group wherever they live, the homeland of this ethnic group, or a region under the control of this ethnic group, or perhaps any of the three.
At the end of what is referred to as the Middle Kingdom era of Egypt, was a breakdown in centralised power, the assertion of independence by various nomarchs and the assumption of power in the Delta by Pharaohs of the 17th Dynasty. Around 1674 BC, these rulers, whom the Egyptians referred to as "rulers of foreign lands" (Egyptian, ), hence "Hyksos" (Greek), came to control Lower Egypt (northern Egypt), evidently leaving Canaan an ethnically diverse land.
Among the migrant tribes who appear to have settled in the region were the Amorites. In the Old Testament, we find Amorites mentioned in the Table of Peoples (Gen. 10:16-18a). Evidently, the Amorites played a significant role in the early history of Canaan. In Gen. 14:7 f., Josh. 10:5 f., Deut. 1:19 f., 27, 44, we find them located in the southern mountain country, while in Num. 21:13, Josh. 9:10, 24:8, 12, etc., we hear of two great Amorite kings residing at Heshbon and Ashtaroth, east of the Jordan. However, in other passages such as Gen. 15:16, 48:22, Josh. 24:15, Judg. 1:34, etc., the name Amorite is regarded as synonymous with "Canaanite" — only "Amorite" is never used for the population on the coast.
In Egyptian inscriptions Amar and Amurru are applied strictly to the more northerly mountain region east of Phoenicia, extending to the Orontes. In the Akkadian Empire, as early as Naram-Sin's reign (ca. 2240 BC), Amurru was called one of the "four quarters" surrounding Sumer, along with Subartu, Akkad, and Elam, and Amorite dynasties also came to dominate in Mesopotamia, including at Babylon and Isin. Later on, Amurru became the Assyrian term for the interior of south as well as for northerly Canaan. At this time the Canaanite area seemed divided between two confederacies, one centred upon Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley, the second on the more northerly city of Kadesh on the Orontes River.
In the centuries preceding the appearance of the Biblical Hebrews, Canaan and Syria became tributary to the Egyptian Pharaohs, although domination by the sovereign was not so strong as to prevent frequent local rebellions and inter-city struggles. Under Thutmose III (14791426 BC) and Amenhotep II (14271400 BC), the regular presence of the strong hand of the Egyptian ruler and his armies kept the Syrians and Canaanites sufficiently loyal. Nevertheless, Thutmose III reported a new and troubling element in the population. Habiru or (in Egyptian) 'Apiru, are reported for the first time. These seem to have been mercenaries, brigands or outlaws, who may have at one time led a settled life, but with bad-luck or due to the force of circumstances, contributed a rootless element of the population, prepared to hire themselves to whichever local mayor or princeling prepared to undertake their support. Although Habiru (a Sumerian ideogram glossed as "brigand" in Akkadian), and sometimes (an Akkadian word) had been reported in Mesopotamia from the reign of Shulgi of Ur III, their appearance in Canaan appears to have been due to the arrival of a new state in Northern Mesopotamia based upon Maryannu aristocracy of horse drawn charioteers, associated with the Indo-Aryan rulers of the Hurrians, known as Mitanni. The Habiru seem to have been more a social class than any ethnic group. One analysis shows that the majority were, however, Hurrian, though there were a number of Semites and even some Kassite adventurers amongst their number. The reign of Amenhotep III, as a result was not quite so tranquil for the Asiatic province, as Habiru/'Apiru contributed to greater political instability. It is believed that turbulent chiefs began to seek their opportunities, though as a rule could not find them without the help of a neighboring king. The boldest of the disaffected nobles was Aziru, son of Abdi-Ashirta, a prince of Amurru, who even before the death of Amenhotep III, endeavoured to extend his power into the plain of Damascus. Akizzi, governor of Katna-(Qatna?) (near Hamath), reported this to the Pharaoh, who seems to have sought to frustrate his attempts. In the next reign, however, both father and son caused infinite trouble to loyal servants of Egypt like Rib-Addi, governor of Gubla (Gebal), not the least through transferring loyalty from the Egyptian crown to that of the expanding neighbouring Hittites under Suppiluliuma I.
Egyptian power in Canaan thus suffered a major setback when the Hittites (or Hatti) advanced into Syria in the reign of Amenhotep III, and became even more threatening in that of his successor, displacing the Amurru and prompting a resumption of Semitic migration. Abd-Ashirta and his son Aziru, at first afraid of the Hittites, afterwards made a treaty with their king, and joining with other external powers, attacked the districts remaining loyal to Egypt. In vain did Rib-Addi send touching appeals for aid to the distant Pharaoh, who was far too engaged in his religious innovations to attend to such messages.
In the el Amarna letters (~1350 BC) sent by governors and princes of Canaan to their Egyptian overlord Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) in the 14th century BC — commonly known as the Tel-el-Amarna tablets — we find, beside Amar and Amurru (Amorites), the two forms Kinahhi and Kinahni, corresponding to Kena and Kena'an respectively, and including Syria in its widest extent, as Eduard Meyer has shown. The letters are written in the official and diplomatic Akkadian language, though "Canaanitish" words and idioms are also in evidence.
In the El Amarna letters(~1350 BC), we meet with the Habiri in northern Syria. Itakkama wrote thus to the Pharaoh,
"Behold, Namyawaza has surrendered all the cities of the king, my lord to the in the land of Kadesh and in Ubi. But I will go, and if thy gods and thy sun go before me, I will bring back the cities to the king, my lord, from the Habiri, to show myself subject to him; and I will expel the ."
Similarly Zimrida, king of Sidon- (named 'Siduna'), declared, "All my cities which the king has given into my hand, have come into the hand of the Habiri." The king of Jerusalem, Abdi-Heba, reported to the Pharaoh,
"If (Egyptian) troops come this year, lands and princes will remain to the king, my lord; but if troops come not, these lands and princes will not remain to the king, my lord."
Abdi-heba's principle trouble arose from persons called Iilkili and the sons of Labaya, who are said to have entered into a treasonable league with the Habiri. Apparently this restless warrior found his death at the siege of Gina. All these princes, however, maligned each other in their letters to the Pharaoh, and protested their own innocence of traitorous intentions. Namyawaza, for instance, whom Itakkama (see above) accused of disloyalty, wrote thus to the Pharaoh,
"Behold, I and my warriors and my chariots, together with my brethren and my , and my Suti ?9 are at the disposal of the (royal) troops to go whithersoever the king, my lord, commands."
Just after the Amarna period a new problem arose which was to trouble the Egyptian control of Canaan. Pharaoh Horemhab campaigned against Shasu (Egyptian = "wanderers") or living in nomadic pastoralist tribes, who had moved across the Jordan to threaten Egyptian trade through Galilee and Jezreel. Seti I (ca. 1290 BC) is said to have conquered these Shasu, Semitic nomads living just south and east of the Dead Sea, from the fortress of Taru (Shtir?) to "Ka-n-'-na". After the near collapse of the Battle of Kadesh, Rameses II had to campaign vigorously in Canaan to maintain Egyptian power. Egyptian forces penetrated into Moab and Ammon, where a permanent fortress garrison (Called simply "Rameses") was established. After the collapse of the Levant under the so called "Peoples of the Sea" Ramesses III (ca. 1194 BC) is said to have built a temple to the god Amen in "Ka-n-'-na." This geographic name probably meant all of western Syria and Canaan, with Raphia, "the (first) city of the Ka-n-'-na,", on the southwest boundary toward the desert. Some archaeologists have proposed that Egyptian records of the 13th century BC are early written reports of a monotheistic belief in Yahweh noted among the nomadic Shasu. Evidently, belief in Yahweh had arisen among these nomadic peoples. By the reign of King Josiah (around 650 BC). Yahweh had displaced the polytheistic family of "El" as the principle God amongst those living in the high country of Israel and Judah.
Some believe the "Habiru" signified generally all the nomadic tribes known as "Hebrews." and particularly the early Israelites, who sought to appropriate the fertile region for themselves, but the term was rarely used to describe the Shasu. Whether the term may also include other related peoples such as the Moabites, Ammonites and Edomites is uncertain. It may not be an ethnonym at all; see the Habiru article for details.

Biblical Canaanites

Biblical Characters Rulers of Tyre

Phoenician Canaanites

seealso Phoenicians Early on the Canaanites acquired fame as traders across a wide area beyond the Near East. There are occasional instances in the Hebrew Bible where "Canaanite" is used as a synonym for "merchant" — presumably indicating the aspect of Canaanite culture that the authors found most familiar. The term was derived from the place name, because so many merchants described themselves as Canaanites.
One of Canaan's most famous exports was a much sought-after purple dye, derived from two species of Murex sea snails found along the east Mediterranean coast and worn proudly by figures from ancient kings to modern popes.
Between ca. 12001100 BC, most of southern Canaan was settled, and according to the Bible conquered, by the Israelites, while the northern areas were taken over by Arameans. The remaining area still under clear Canaanite control, is referred to by its Greek name, "Phoenicia" (meaning "purple", in reference to the land's famous dye).
Much later, in the 6th century BC, Hecataeus of Miletus affirms that Phoenicia was formerly called χνα, a name that Philo of Byblos subsequently adopted into his mythology as his eponym for the Phoenicians: "Khna who was afterwards called Phoinix". Quoting fragments attributed to Sanchuniathon, he relates that Byblos, Berytus and Tyre were among the first cities ever built, under the rule of the mythical Cronus, and credits the inhabitants with developing fishing, hunting, agriculture, shipbuiding and writing.
St. Augustine also mentions that one of the terms the seafaring Phoenicians called their homeland was "Canaan." This is further confirmed by coins of the city of Laodicea by the Lebanon, that bear the legend, "Of Laodicea, a metropolis in Canaan"; these coins are dated to the reign of Antiochus IV (175164 BC) and his successors.
The first of many Canaanites who emigrated seaward finally settled in Carthage, and St. Augustine adds that the country people near Hippo, presumably Punic in origin, still called themselves Chanani in his day.

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Canaan in Arabic: كنعان
Canaan in Official Aramaic (700-300 BCE): ܟܢܥܢ
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