what made ancient canaan special?
September 25, 2008 11:36 AM   Subscribe

Why was Canaan/Palestine/Israel such desired territory in ancient times? I'm talking before Jerusalem became an important holy site. Is it just because the area was situated between other important civilizations and was therefore a trading hub? It doesnt seem like it was exactly rich in natural resources. Also, why did Jerusalem end up being the capitol of the Kingdom of Israel instead of someplace like Jaffa which seems to be a more convenient location for trade?
posted by minicloud to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Well, it was known as a "land flowing with milk and honey." When you consider that 1) the Ancient Near East was an almost entirely agricultural civilization and 2) populations were much, much lower, the Levant is a pretty ideal piece of real estate compared to surrounding environs. Go east even a few dozen miles and you're in the middle of the desert clear to the Euphrates. Go south and you've got the Negev, which is pretty useless, and then the Nile, which while great, was kind of full of Egyptians. Go too much north and you run into the Turkish highlands, which aren't particularly well-watered.

Remember all those references to the "cedars of Lebanon"? Well it's because Lebanon used to be pretty densely forested and a desirable source of timber. That suggests good soil and adequate rainfall or natural irrigation. You wouldn't know it to look at it today, much like most of Iraq, but 3000 years ago the area was prime agricultural land, especially if you're only trying to support about a million people tops.

Jerusalem wound up being the capital for several reasons, including local terrain, but mostly because that's where the Tabernacle and later the Temple were located, by virtue of God's command. It was also the ancestral city of the tribe of Judah, the royal tribe.
posted by valkyryn at 11:56 AM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

It wasn't all that uncommon to build walled cities in the mountains, because it made them easier to defend.
posted by Class Goat at 12:09 PM on September 25, 2008

All Mediterranean coast land was desirable. Access to the sea/trading, great weather, and good farming.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:25 PM on September 25, 2008

Much of the circum-Mediterranean was deforested during the Roman empire, resulting in serious erosion and, in many areas, the forests never recovered - leaving the typically bleak, scrubby, bare hills of Greece, Tunisia, etc. The landscape one associates with modern day Palestine/Israel is thus not a good reflection of its ancient affordances.

Having travelled westward from the Syrian Desert into the Levantine Hills just north of Lebanon, even today, the trips is one of an astonishing transition from brown to green.
posted by Rumple at 12:29 PM on September 25, 2008

"For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper."

It wasn't always dry and deforested.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:41 PM on September 25, 2008

Why was Canaan/Palestine/Israel such desired territory in ancient times?

There's a bit of confirmation bias here, or something like it. I don't think it particularly was "such desired territory" in the era you describe, other than amongst its extant inhabitants. Egypt, for example, was a larger and more successful civilization based on the Nile delta. The largest Jewish population was long in Baghdad, on the verdant plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, and still known as the cradle of civilization.

We remember all the history of this era only because it spawned a religion or three, which remain wildly popular today. But I don't think there's any evidence it was a particularly key area before then.

Is it just because the area was situated between other important civilizations and was therefore a trading hub?

I think this has been an unheralded aspect of its longer-term importance. Yes, it was a natural trade route from the Mediterranean basin to the Asian mainland. This may have been a hidden motive for many of the Crusades.

Also, why did Jerusalem end up being the capitol of the Kingdom of Israel instead of someplace like Jaffa which seems to be a more convenient location for trade?

Jaffa was Egyptian at the time that Jerusalem was founded. It's not clear whether the shepherd tribes in the hills had any coastal access. It was later part of he combined kingdoms, but the traditional seat remained where it had been because it was the line of David that did the united.

But basically these were minor kingdoms that often had to pay tribute or other due to one of the larger neighbors. They are only important today because of the religious angle, which has led to some nasty squabbles in our era.
posted by dhartung at 2:25 PM on September 25, 2008

I have no idea how to search for this now, but I remember being taught that the land around there (maybe there? maybe another desert region?) used to be more fruitful before a certain point in history, when temperatures rose by a degree or two and made climates closer to the equator too hot, and climates in more northern areas (e.g. Europe and the UK) able to support agriculture for the first time. Please let me know if I'm way off with this, but if I'm remembering correctly, it would be a significant factor.
posted by amtho at 2:40 PM on September 25, 2008

dhartung makes a decent point: though hugely important in three major world religions, in the ancient world Canaan was most significant as a crossroads than for any other reason. The ancient nation of Israel was perpetually under threat from surrounding major powers and never really amounted to much on the world scene. But if the Hittites, Assyrians, or Babylonians/Persians wanted to go to war with Egypt or vice versa, Canaan was the best way of getting there, as it was the only route that didn't involve either boats or large expanses of desert.

Still, though Baghdad is only slightly north of due west from Jerusalem, if you look at a map, even a modern one, there is almost nothing between them, but there's a relatively dense line of cities and settlements running up the Tigris, through the mountains in Asia Minor, then down the Mediterranean coast. Why? Because the middle is a godforsaken wasteland where pretty much no one has ever lived. Look at a map of every single ancient empire: Rome, Greece, Persian, Chaldean, Akkadian, you name it, and almost all of them ignored the territory in the Arabian desert. There's just nothing there. Canaan represents a conspicuously hospitable piece of land between Egypt and Mesopotamia.
posted by valkyryn at 4:55 PM on September 25, 2008

« Older Why is my GMail down all the time? What can I do...   |   I don't care who's wrong or right, I don't really... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.