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The Egyptianizing of Canaan, Carolyn R. Higginbotham, BAR 24:03, May-Jun 1998.

An Amarna letterHow iron-fisted was pharaonic rule in the city-states of Syria-Palestine?

In the centuries before Israel emerged in the highlands of Canaan, first as a people and then as a nation, the region was essentially ruled by Egypt. But how are we to understand this hegemony?

Until a little more than a century ago, about the only source of information we had regarding Egyptian-Canaanite relations was the Bible. In 1887, however, a female peasant made a stupendous discovery at a site in Egypt called Tell el-Amarna. Digging up decayed mudbricks for fertilizer, she unearthed a cache of cuneiforma tablets. Since such tablets had never before been found in Egypt, scholars were initially skeptical of their authenticity. Nevertheless, the tablets were peddled to those antiquities dealers, scholars and museum curators who were interested in them.

Once the tablets were determined to be genuine, archaeologists began excavating the site. Known in ancient times as Akhetaten, “the Horizon of (the god) Aten,” Amarna was the capital of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s empire. Akhenaten (1348–1331 B.C.E.), the so-called “heretic” king, broke with Egyptian religious tradition and exclusively worshiped Aten, who is represented in Egyptian art by the sun disk with its myriad rays ending in hands.

Akhenaten built his city along a remote stretch of the Nile in Middle Egypt. After his death, the capital was moved back to its original location at Thebes, and Akhetaten was abandoned to the sands. Although the site was explored by Egyptologists and European travelers in the 19th century (the French novelist Gustave Flaubert, for example, noted Amarna’s “charming landscape, broad and peaceful”), its true significance remained hidden until the discovery of the Amarna letters, as the cache of nearly 400 cuneiform tablets is now known.

When deciphered, the tablets—which date to the 14th century B.C.E., about 100 years before Israel is thought to have emerged in Canaan—proved to be an archive of international diplomatic correspondence between Pharaoh Akhenaten and his father, Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1387–1348 B.C.E.), on one side, and the city-rulers of Syria-Palestine on the other.

The Amarna letters clearly show that the rulers of these city-states were vassals of the pharaohs. The city-rulers, often called princes by modern scholars, were bound by oath to accept the sovereignty of the pharaohs. They were obliged to pay tribute (at least theoretically on an annual basis), provide logistical support for Egyptian army units marching through the region and, upon request, supply troops to augment Egyptian forces. Above all, the vassal princes were expected to be loyal to the pharaoh and refrain from activities that could undermine Egyptian authority.

In return, Egypt allowed the princes to manage their own day-to-day affairs and simply adjudicated disputes between neighboring city-states in Syria-Palestine. The plaintive tone of the Amarna letters suggests that as long as taxes were paid and Egyptian sovereignty was not challenged, the pharaohs interfered little with the affairs of the region, adopting a policy that could perhaps be characterized as “benign neglect.”

Several decades after Akhenaten’s death, a new dynasty was established, the XIXth Dynasty of Egypt, ushering in the Ramesside period. For 67 years, Ramesses II, who was also known as Ramesses the Great and whom some believe to be Pharaoh of the Exodus, reigned over Egypt.

Since the discovery of the Amarna letters, archaeologists have also unearthed mounds of artifacts in Egypt and Canaan, dating to the late second millennium B.C.E., which make it clear that life in Ramesside Canaan was markedly different from that in the preceding Amarna age. In short, during the Ramesside period, the material culture of the Canaanite lowlands began to show conspicuous Egyptian influence. True, during the Amarna age, Egyptian artifacts were present in the archaeological record of Canaan. But by the 13th century B.C.E. (Late Bronze Age IIB, which corresponds roughly to the XIXth Dynasty of Egypt), the amount of Egyptian-style objects had increased significantly at Canaanite sites. Egyptian-style artifacts are similarly prevalent at Iron Age IA (between about 1200 and 1150 B.C.E.) sites; thereafter, these kinds of objects decline in frequency.

Based on this evidence, some scholars have concluded that beginning in the Ramesside period, Canaanite city-rulers no longer served as vassals to the Egyptian pharaohs. Instead, they argue, Ramesside pharaohs initiated a policy of military occupation and direct imperial administration of Canaan. This model, which we may call the “direct rule” model, was given a significant boost from an influential 1981 article by James Weinstein, who catalogued the architectural and inscriptional evidence of an Egyptian presence in Canaan.1 He concluded that the monuments and numerous small finds of Egyptian type indicate a shift in pharaonic policy toward the region. The gist of Weinstein’s argument is that the rise in the frequency of finds with Egyptian characteristics corresponds to the posting of large numbers of Egyptian soldiers and bureaucrats at imperial centers in Canaan.

A more nuanced look at the evidence, however, suggests that this view is not entirely correct and that the vassal relationship described in the Amarna letters continued into the Ramesside period. What accounts primarily for the increase in Egyptian-style objects is not direct rule, but a different model, which we may call “elite emulation.”

Scholars in many fields have observed this phenomenon in relationships between prestigious cultures and surrounding communities, which tend to view these influential cultural centers as the heart of civilization and power. By linking themselves to such centers, local rulers often try to enhance their own stature and authority. They might adopt features of the great civilization—such as its language, attire, artistic and architectural styles, and symbols of governance (the scepter, crown, throne and seal, among others)—in the hopes of acquiring some of the prestige of the distant center. Scholars have observed this process in the Islamization of sub-Saharan Africa, the Indianization of South India and Southeast Asia, and the Sinicization of the Chinese periphery,2 for instance.

About 2,000 years ago, the same sort of transformation that occurred in Ramesside Canaan characterized the Roman invasion of Britain.3 Romanized architecture, especially buildings modeled on the Roman forum and villa, began to appear in Britain in the period immediately following the invasion. These Romano-British structures were not identical to their continental prototypes but were adapted to local needs and circumstances. In the post-invasion period, local leaders apparently wanted to appear Romanized to enhance their prestige before both the imperial authorities and their own communities.4

In Ramesside Canaan, as in Roman Britain, rulers of local city-states were likewise dependent upon an external polity for their access to power. Given the prestige accorded to Egypt—not only as a military and political power, but as a center of civilization—local princes probably emulated Egyptian culture to enhance their own stature. Egypt and all things Egyptian, after all, symbolized power and authority.

As early as the reign of Pharaoh Thutmose III (1397–1387 B.C.E.), young princes from Asia were raised and educated in the Nile Valley. Upon returning home, they might well have introduced a provincial Egyptian culture to symbolize their elite status and legitimate their authority. Moreover, advancement within the pharaonic bureaucracy was historically open to Egyptianized foreigners (witness the Biblical Joseph)—an additional motivation for emulation.

How does this elite emulation model comport with the archaeological evidence? What we find is that there is some truth in both the direct rule and the elite emulation models. As in the preceding Amarna age, Egypt did continue to practice direct rule to a degree by maintaining imperial centers in Canaan. On the other hand, this military presence consisted of a few sites staffed by small numbers of soldiers and administrators. Just as important to the power structure of the region were the vassal princes who Egyptianized themselves to varying degrees. In short, a mixed system of administrative styles prevailed in both the Amarna age and the Ramesside period—though elite emulation was the more significant component in the mixture.

The two principal imperial centers were Beth-Shean (south of the Sea of Galilee) in the north and Deir el-Balah (near Gaza) in the south. In addition, Egyptian installations with more strictly administrative functions were probably located at Gaza and Jaffa.

One Amarna letter shows that Egypt maintained a garrison at Beth-Shean during the Amarna age.5 The archaeological data indicate that in the subsequent Ramesside period, the Egyptian presence was even more pronounced. In the levels from the end of the Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 B.C.E.) and Iron Age I (1200–1000 B.C.E.), excavators uncovered large quantities of Egyptian-style pottery and several buildings similar to those found at Tell el-Amarna, in Egypt.6 The name and title of Ramesses-User-Khepesh, apparently the commander of the garrison during the reign of Ramesses III (1185–1153 B.C.E.), were inscribed on the lintels and doorjambs of one of Beth-Shean’s buildings. A statue of Ramesses III was found in a secondary context. Also unearthed were three royal stelae, two set up by Seti I (1290–1279 B.C.E.) and one by Ramesses II (1279–1212 B.C.E.).b

Located on the Mediterranean coast about 10 miles southwest of Gaza, Deir el-Balah marked the end of the land route across northern Sinai linking Egypt with the Levant. It is the only site in Canaan at which Egyptian-style pottery was more common than local types. According to Trude Dothan, the site’s excavator, a garrison was stationed there throughout the 13th century B.C.E.7

An Egyptian granary at Jaffa (modern Tel Aviv) is also referred to in an Amarna letter.8 One of the few published objects from the excavations at Jaffa is a monumental gateway, which may have stood at the entrance to the granary complex, bearing the cartouchesc of Ramesses II.9

No archaeological data are available for Gaza, but inscriptional references to the city from the Amarna period onward show that the city served as some sort of base of operations for Egyptian interests in the southern Levant.10

The evidence points to only these four Egyptian imperial outposts—at Beth-Shean, Deir el-Balah, Jaffa and Gaza. The existence of two garrisons and two administrative complexes suggests a limited, rather than a massive, military-administrative presence.

Some scholars have suggested that Egypt assigned resident governors to various Canaanite sites. But no evidence exists for such a system. The officials who were always thought to be resident governors were probably either circuit officials, dispatched to make the rounds of a frontier zone or conquered territory,11 or royal envoys sent to the Levant on a specific mission. Like their counterparts in Nubia, south of Egypt, these officials maintained their primary residences in Egypt, though they may have visited Canaan for extended periods of time.12

A cuneiform letter found at Taanach refers to this circuit system- An Egyptian official named Amenhotep (not one of the pharaohs of that name) complains about being slighted during a stop at Gaza, where the city-ruler of Taanach failed to appear before him.13

A cuneiform letter recovered at Aphek (east of modern Tel Aviv) also points to the deployment of an Egyptian circuit official. The letter was sent by an official from Ugarit (in Syria) to an Egyptian named Haya whose residence is not indicated. Since the other finds from Aphek do not suggest that the site functioned as an imperial center, the letter probably caught up with Haya while he was passing through Aphek on his circuit.

These Egyptian circuit officials fulfilled two primary functions in the Levant—taxation and oversight. A relief on the Luxor temple illustrates the first of these functions- Royal officials are depicted presenting tribute to Ramesses II. An accompanying hieroglyphic list of functionaries includes names of the overseers of northern and southern lands who were responsible for the collection of taxes in Asia and Nubia.

The oversight function is indicated in several texts. The Kadesh Bulletin—a 13th-century B.C.E. Egyptian record of an important battle between the Egyptians and the Hittites that took place on the banks of Syria’s Orontes River during the reign of Ramesses II—shows that Egyptian officials were indeed responsible for keeping abreast of developments in the Levant and providing accurate information to the pharaoh. In an earlier text (from the 15th century B.C.E.), the overseer of northern lands refers to himself as “the eyes of the King of Upper Egypt and the ears of the King of Lower Egypt.”14

Finally, the Aphek letter from the Ramesside period demonstrates that Egyptian officials continued to be responsible for settling arguments between vassals, in this case a dispute over a grain transaction between Ugarit and another city, perhaps Jaffa.

Although Egyptians exercised oversight, collected taxes and maintained the peace, the everyday affairs of the city-states appear to have remained in the hands of local rulers. We have no textual evidence for a large scale replacement of local princes by pharaonic functionaries. Moreover, in the Kadesh Bulletin, both local rulers and Egyptian officials are held accountable for faulty information about the location of the Hittite army. Ramesses II blames not only his own functionaries but the vassal princes too, one indication that the vassal system familiar from the Amarna letters was still in place in the Ramesside period. Total responsibility for the affairs of the region was shared between Egyptian military commanders or administrators and local city-rulers.

A comparison of the archaeological data with the expectations for the elite emulation and direct rule models also suggests that local elites remained in place. If the elite emulation model is valid, we would expect to find a sharply limited range of “foreign” features in the tools and objects of everyday life. We would also expect objects to exhibit features of both foreign and local cultures or to be used differently in local societies than in foreign ones. Objects bearing foreign elements would occur predominantly in funerary and ritual contexts, but even then they would be used in association with local artifacts. Within a site, we would not expect to find purely foreign enclaves.

If the direct rule model is true, however, we would expect to find a broad range of foreign objects at local sites that would be virtually indistinguishable from those found in their homeland. Both domestic goods (objects used in everyday life) and prestige goods (those objects valued as status symbols regardless of function) bearing foreign influence would be well represented in domestic, as well as funerary and ritual, contexts. Foreign enclaves would also be expected, resulting in an even greater distribution of foreign material.15

Outside the Egyptian imperial centers of Beth-Shean and Deir el-Balah, the archaeological evidence accords better with the elite emulation model than with the direct rule model. Looking at the evidence as a whole, we find very limited examples of Egyptian-style pottery in Canaan during the Ramesside period. For example, there are no Egyptian-style cooking pots, bottles or flasks, to name just a few types of artifacts we would expect to find, assuming the validity of the direct rule model.

Moreover, Egyptian-style objects are significantly more common in ritual and funerary contexts than in domestic ones. Egyptian-style glass vessels, for example, have been found only in temples and tombs.

As would be expected from the elite emulation model, objects based on Egyptian prototypes have been modified, producing hybrid types. Only one Canaanite house dating to the Amarna age resembles the prototypical Egyptian house. The others show variations in the placement of the entrance and the arrangement of columns, as well as in their construction techniques, which were influenced by local architectural traditions. Likewise, ivory furniture panels from Megiddo and an anthropoid sarcophagus with pseudo-hieroglyphic inscriptions from Lachish exhibit a mixture of Egyptian and local influences.

Even at Beth-Shean and Deir el-Balah, sites with a relatively high quantity of Egyptian-style artifacts, the assemblages reflect local influences. Local ceramic types, for example, form a significant part of the corpus. Indeed, throughout Canaan, Egyptian-style objects regularly occur side-by-side with local object types and with objects influenced by other cultural traditions- the Syrian-style ivories from the so-called Megiddo treasury, the Mycenaean-style figurines found inside an anthropoid sarcophagus at Beth-Shean and the Hittite bulla from Aphek, for example. The Egyptian-style objects that have been excavated have not been found in isolated “foreign” enclaves, as would be expected from the direct rule model.

Thus the evidence does not support the theory that the Ramesside pharaohs initiated a policy of large-scale military occupation and direct imperial administration of the Levant. Far more likely, the system of vassal princes and circuit officials reflected in the Amarna letters continued until the end of Egyptian control of the region, during the latter part of the 12th century B.C.E. The changes in the archaeological record in the Ramesside period reflect the Egyptianization of the vassal rulers who sought to enhance their power and prestige by associating themselves with the mighty Nile Valley civilization.

Even a superficial reading of the Bible indicates that ancient Israel was fascinated by its neighbor to the southwest. When it came time to establish a strong central government, both David and Solomon modeled their royal courts after pharaonic bureaucracies.16 The Bible even links Solomon directly to the Egyptian royal family through marriage to a daughter of the pharaoh (1 Kings 3-1).

Israelite wisdom literature was also strongly influenced by Egyptian prototypes. Indeed, one section of the book of Proverbs (22-17–24-22) is so heavily dependent on the Egyptian Instructions of Amenemope that it could almost be termed a paraphrase (see p. 42).

One way to understand these influences is to place them in the context of the elite emulation process. The leaders of ancient Israel, like the rulers of the city-states before them, drew upon Egyptian models to legitimate their own national authority. The more closely they resembled the great pharaohs of Egypt, the grander and more awe-inspiring they appeared in the eyes of their subjects. Even though Egypt’s star had waned, the Nile Valley still represented power and civilization to the people who built the nation of Israel.

This article represents a summary of the author’s Ph.D. dissertation, The Egyptianization of Ramesside Palestine, Johns Hopkins University, 1993.

a. Cuneiform is the system used to write Akkadian, the lingua franca of diplomatic correspondence in the second millennium B.C.E.

b. The statue and stelae had been moved from their original locations and set up in a room of one of Beth-Shean’s later temples.

c. A cartouche is a ring-shaped design enclosing an Egyptian royal name. Of the five throne names borne by each pharaoh, only the two most important, the Nomen and Prenomen, were written in cartouches. This pair of cartouches was often placed on statues and other monuments to identify them with the king.

1. James A. Weinstein, “The Egyptian Empire in Palestine- A Reassessment,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 241 (1981), pp. 1–28.

2. Mary W. Helms, Ulysses’ Sail- An Ethnographic Odyssey of Power, Knowledge, and Geographical Distance (Princeton- Princeton Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 137–144.

3. Martin Millett, The Romanization of Britain- An Essay in Archaeological Interpretation (Cambridge- Cambridge University Press, 1990).

4. Millett, Romanization, pp. 69–85, 91–99.

5. EA 289. The abbreviation EA refers to the numbering of the Amarna letters in J. A. Knudtzon, Die El-Amarna-Tafeln (Leipzig- J.C. Hinrichs, 1915).

6. Frances W. James and Patrick E. McGovern, The Late Bronze Egyptian Garrison at Beth Shan- A Study of Levels VII and VIII (Philadelphia- Univ. Museum, 1993) and James, The Iron Age at Beth Shan- A Study of Levels VI–IV (Philadelphia- Univ. Museum, 1966).

7. Trude K. Dothan, “Deir el-Balah- The Final Campaign,” National Geographic Research 1 (1985) pp. 32–43.

8. EA 294. See n. 6.

9. J. Kaplan, “Jaffa’s History Revealed by the Spade,” Archaeology 17 (1964) pp. 270–276.

10. EA 289, 196. See n. 6.

11. Much of the scholarly confusion about resident governors seems to have arisen from efforts to correlate Akkadian titles with pharaonic officials. In particular, the occurrence of the Akkadian title “governor” in international correspondence like the Amarna letters has led some scholars to propose the existence of resident governors whose Egyptian title was either “overseer of northern lands” (see Hans Wolfgang Helck, Die Beziehungen Agyptens zu Vorderasien im. 3. und 2. Jahrtausend [Wiesbaden- Harrassowitz, 1971], pp. 250–251) or “royal envoy.” See E. Edel, “Weitere Briefe aus der Heiratskorrespondenz Ramses’ II. KUB III 37 + KBo I 17 und KUB III 57, ” in Geschichte und Altes Testament, ed. G. Ebeling (Tübingen- J.C.B. Mohr, 1953), p. 56. More recently, scholars have recognized that the use of Akkadian titles indicates only that the scribes were unaware of or indifferent to the officials’ Egyptian titles. (See Michel Valloggia, Recherche sur les “messagers” (wpwtyw) dans les sources Égyptienne profanes [Paris- Librairie Droz, 1976], p. 240; Donald Redford, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times [Princeton- Princeton University Press, 1992], p. 201.)

12. Redford, Egypt, p. 201.

13. William F. Albright, “A Prince of Taanach in the Fifteen Century B.C.,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 94 (1944) pp. 12–27.

14. Kurt Heinrich Sethe, Urkunden IV (18. Dynastie) (Leipzig- J. C. Hinrichs’sche, 1903–1958), p. 1508.

15. R.D. Whitehouse and J.B. Wilkins, “Greeks and Natives in South-east Italy- Approaches to the Archaeological Evidence,” pp. 102–126 in Centre and Periphery- Comparative Studies in Archaeology, ed. Timothy C. Champion (London- Unwin Hyman, 1989).

16. Tryggve N.D. Mettinger, Solomonic State Officials (Lund- Gleerup, 1971).

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