Ancient Mesopotamian and Canaanite civilization (Second part)

Baal – Louvre

At its height Sargon’s and his descendants’ empire stretched from the Persian coast to the Syrian shores of the Mediterranean. However, this kingdom collapsed in about 2200 BC through invasion and internal conflict. Among the new arrivals in Mesopotamia were the Amorites, who dwelt in Mesopotamian cities such as Mari and Babylon, where they assimilated Sumero-Akkadian culture.

Other Amorites penetrated into ancient Canaan, where they retained into separate tribal structure. The collapse of the Akkadian empire was followed by a Sumerian revival in the Third Dynasty of Ur (2060-1959 BC). During this period Hammurabi of Babylon reigned from 1792 to 1750 BC; as a tribute the Babylonian creation story (‘Enuma Elish’) was composed in his honour. In c. 1400 BC the state of Assyria grew strong in northern Mesopotamia and later became the dominant power in the Near East. The Assyrian kings imitated the Babylonians; they worshipped the same gods, but their chief god (identified with Enlil) was Ashur.

In the second millenium, the inhabitants of Canaan were composed of a mixture of races largely of Semitic origin. Excavations have unearthed the remains of small temples in Canaanite towns; these housed cultic statutes in niches opposite doorways. When temples had courtyards, worshippers remained outside while priests entered the sanctuary. A large altar was placed in the courtyard and a smaller one inside the temple. The animal remains from these places of worship suggest that offerings consisted mainly of lambs and kids. Liquid offerings of wine and oil were also contributed, and incense was burned. In some temples, stone pillars were erected as memorials to the dead; other pillars served as symbols of gods. Statues of gods and goddesses were carved in stone or moulded in metal overlaid with gold, dressed in expensive clothes, and decorated with jewellery. To the north of Canaan, excavations of the city of Ugarit have provided additional information about religious practices. The texts of Ugarit emphasize that the gods of Canaan were like many others of the ancient Near East: they were powers of the natural world. El was the father of gods and men; his wife was Asherah, the mother goddess. El had a daughter Anat who personified war and love and is portrayed in some accounts as the lover of her brother, Baal (the god of weather). The texts of Ugarit depict Baal’s victory over Yam (the sea) and against Mot (the god of death).

Additional gods include Shapash, the sun goddess; Yarikh, the moon god; Eshmun, the healer. This Canaanite religious structure as well as the earlier Sumerian and Akkadian civilizations provide the backdrop for the emergence of the religious of the Jewish people. (From Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Atlas of Jewish History, Routledge 1994, pp. 1-4)

Simone Venturini


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