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Topographical Terminology

The Orient, the Near East, the Middle East, Western Asia, the Levant, Canaan, Syria-Palestine… there are lots of terms used to describe this part of the world. Our first job is to agree on some useful terminology.

The Orient, the Near East, the Middle East or Western Asia?

The Orient comes to us from Latin, and simply identifies eastern lands. In order to further distinguish eastern areas, the terms Middle East and Far East developed (the latter specifically referring to China and Japan). The Near East usually covers the same geographical range as the Middle East, but with specific reference to ancient history, and so that is the term adopted in our course. It is worth being mindful of the fact that none of these phrases are ideal: they are all Eurocentric. For this reason, Western Asia is often used.

Where does Palestine stop and Syria start?

For us, Syria and Palestine are not areas that can be clearly defined on a map of the ancient Near East. One must understand that some ambiguity surrounds their geographical reach. Syria was first used by Herodotus to refer to the fertile area between the Mediterranean to the west, Anatolia (Turkey) to the north, the Syrian desert to the east, and Sinai to the South. Within this, Herodotus identifies the southern portion as ‘Philistine Syria’, to refer to the area of Syria largely occupied by the Philistines (i.e. Palestine). The term Syria-Palestine is used in this course as a general geographical-cultural label to describe the lands between the great superpowers, so we’ll not obsess over where one starts and the other stops.

How about Canaan and the Levant?

Canaanite people are referred to in the Bible, and so the land of Canaan is identifiable as the southern portion of Syria-Palestine (the area in which the Biblical narratives concerning the Canaanites are set). The Egyptians also referred to Canaan during the Late Bronze Age, and so Canaanites are the groups that they encounter during this week of the course. Exactly who the Canaanites were is a matter of some debate—were they a distinct group, or was the term used to describe various cultural groups in the area? Regardless, the terms Canaan and Canaanite eventually drop out of use when new powers consume the area. The Levant is a word which describes the whole Syro-Palestinian region as being eastern land (Levant arrives in the English from Latin via French, and refers to the place in which the sun rises (compare the words Orient and Levant—both derive from the same Latin root)). While this is a term used by archaeologists today, we will try to stick to Syria-Palestine, which describes the area in relation to itself rather than other parts of the globe.

Why are we not talking about Biblical lands, like Israel and Judah?

These toponyms are not contemporary to the period of history with which we are concerned. The first well-attested use of the word Israel comes from an Egyptian source, dating to the reign after Ramesses II (with whom our course ends) known as the Merneptah Stela (also known as the Israel Stela). during a mission to Canaan, King Merneptah claims to have destroyed Israel, but at this time is referring to a group of people rather than a state. The state of Israel goes on to develop in the early Iron Age, while states such as Egypt are declining in power. Eventually, the kingdom divides into Israel and Judah. These lands occupy much of the territory formerly known as Canaan.

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This article is from the free online course:

Superpowers of the Ancient World: the Near East

University of Liverpool