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Merchants and Empires
1539 - 1200 BCE

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In the Late Bronze Age, Canaan joined the international community. Canaanite "mayors" served the Egyptian Pharaoh and traded by sea with Minoan Crete, Mycenaean Greece and Cyprus.

Following the expulsion of the Hyksos, the 18th dynasty of Egypt carried out a policy of expansion and suppression of Canaan. Egyptian rule was consolidated by the conquests of Pharaoh Thutmoses III, who at the Battle of Megiddo, defeated a unified force of Canaanite city states. The Egyptians maintained their control over Canaan through administrative centers and army garrisons. Beth Shean was one of the most important of these Egyptian centers.

Land-owning and merchant families from whom the city's rulers, councils of elders and elite warriors were drawn, controlled Canaanite cities in the Late Bronze Age. Yet these rulers were dependent on Egyptian overlordship and the princes of the local noble families were often educated in Egypt and trained to be loyal to the Pharaoh. The city rulers were also required to pay heavy tribute and taxes and supply the resident Egyptian army with food and other supplies.

Canaanite cities during this time often completely lacked fortifications, a situation much different than in the preceding Middle Bronze Age. It is conjectured that the Egyptian government forbade Canaanite leaders to built defenses for their towns. The local rulers were subservient to their Egyptian masters, as is evidenced in this letter from the "mayor" of the Canaanite city Lachish to the Egyptian Pharaoh Ahknaten:

Message of Sipti-Ba'lu, your servant, the dirt at your feet, the groom of your horses. I indeed prostate myself at the feet of the king, my lord, my god, my Sun, the Sun from the sky, 7 times, 7 times, on my stomach and on my back.

Amarna Letter 331.

ca. 1350 BCE

The lower classes in Canaanite society were the artisans and farmers. Merchants traded their products within Canaan, as well as abroad to Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia, Cyprus, Crete and mainland Greece. Goods from all these lands made their way to Canaanite ports and were highly valued.

In addition to the city and village dwellers, a widespread nomadic pastoral population known as the Shasa lived in the countryside, mountain regions and desert fringe. In times of drought and crisis, the Shasa would sometimes raid the settled cultivated areas. Another local population which existed on the fringes of society were the 'Apiru, groups of bandits and refugees. Although some scholars equate them to the earliest biblical Hebrews, it is clear that 'Apiru denoted a social, rather than ethnic, category.

After 1200 BCE, significant social and economic upheaval disrupted the eastern Mediterranean world. From Greece to Israel, many important cities were abandoned, or burned, perhaps at the hands of people displaced by the collapse of the Mycenaean palace system in the Aegean. Even the mighty empire of Egypt was put under siege as the Pharaohs Mernepthat and later Ramesses III fought back attacks from the "Sea Peoples."

On they came with fire prepared at their front, faces towards Egypt. Their main protection was the Pelset, the Tjekru, the Shekelesh, the Da'anu, the Washosh and all the lands united. They laid their hands on countries as afar as the circuit of the earth.

Invasion of the Sea Peoples, inscription on mortuary temple of Rameses III, Medinet Habu, Egypt

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