a geographical term (Eg., knʿn; Akk., ki-na-aḫ-nu; Heb., knʿn) for the area broadly encompassing the Eastern Mediterranean lands that are to the west of the Jordan River, Phoenicia, and part of southern Syria during the second millennium BCE. The term Canaan is frequently used in the scholarly literature as a conventional reference for that region during the entire Bronze Age (occasionally referred to as the Canaanite period), although no certain mention of Canaan or Canaanites has survived in any texts of the third millennium BCE. There are few references to Canaan outside the Bible in the first millennium BCE, although in that period the Phoenicians along the Lebanese coast continued to think of themselves as living in the land of Canaan. The etymology of the word Canaan is uncertain: one suggestion is to derive the name from a Semitic root meaning “to bend”; another relates it to a Hurrian word meaning “blue cloth.”

Canaan first appears in Near Eastern texts in the fifteenth century BCE in the autobiography of Idrimi, a ruler of the north Syrian kingdom of Alalakh. The earliest reference to Canaanites is on an eighteenth-century BCE cuneiform tablet from Mari on the Euphrates River in Syria. New Kingdom Egyptian texts contain more than a dozen references to Canaan. Canaan was the name that the Egyptians applied to the territory of the Near East (Western Asia) that was under their control, and for which they often had to contend with the empires of Mitanni and the Hittites. Ramessid period documents refer to both Canaan and “the (town of) Canaan (pʒ knʿn)”: the latter was an appellation for Gaza, the administrative headquarters of the Egyptian empire in Canaan. It is not always clear whether the mention of “Canaan” in a particular text (especially a topographical list) refers to the land of Canaan or to the town of Gaza.

The oldest reference to Canaan in Egyptian texts is in the annals recording Amenhotpe II's (1454–1419 BCE) campaign of his seventh regnal year to the land of Retenu; the booty list from that campaign included 640 Canaanite prisoners. “The (town of) Canaan” (i.e., Gaza) appears in Sety I's (1321–1304 BCE) campaign report for his first regnal year in the hypostyle hall at Karnak. There is also a mention in the famous Israel Stela from regnal Year 5 of Merenptah (1237–1226 BCE) of the plundering of “the Canaan”: that citation is thought by most scholars to be a reference to Egypt's Near Eastern province, but by a few as another mention of Gaza. Papyrus Anastasi I (line 27.1) from the reign of Ramesses II mentions the “end of the land of Canaan” (i.e., the route leading eastward across Sinai to Gaza). Papyrus Anastasi III A (lines 5–6) and its duplicate, Papyrus Anastasi IV (line 16.4), belonging to the reign of Sety II (1221–1215 BCE), mention Canaanite slaves from Kharu. The land of Canaan shows up in two cuneiform letters sent by Ramesses II (1304–1237 BCE) to his Hittite contemporary, Hattusili III, at the Hittite capital Hattusha (present-day Bogazkoy). The latest pharaonic period reference to Canaan is on a Middle Kingdom statuette reinscribed in the Third Intermediate Period for Pediese, son of a Near Easterner named ʿApy, who evidently was a messenger of “[the] Canaan and Philistia.”

Canaan appears on eleven cuneiform tablets (Letters 8, 14, 30, 109–110, 131, 137, 148, 151, 162, 367) and the Canaanites on one (Letter 9), from the diplomatic archive found at Tell el-Amarna. Letter 8 is notable for the Babylonian king Burnaburiash's acknowledgment to Amenhotpe IV that “Canaan is your country,” while in Letter 30 the kings of Canaan are addressed as the “servants” of the king of Egypt.

Middle and Late Bronze Age Canaan was divided politically and territorially into perhaps several dozen small city-states of varying size and importance. Each city-state normally consisted of an urban capital as well as a number of smaller towns and villages and the supporting agricultural land. Generally independent, and not infrequently feuding with one another, the city-states occasionally banded together (especially in the Late Bronze Age) to oppose Egyptian and other foreign conquerors; perhaps the best-recorded case of such cooperation is that of the towns that gathered at Megiddo to oppose Thutmose III's Near Eastern campaign of regnal Year 22.

Egyptian contacts with Canaan in the early twelfth dynasty apparently focused on sites along the Levantine coast (especially Byblos). Later on, in the twelfth and continuing into the thirteenth dynasties, Egypt's foreign interests expanded considerably: the Execration Texts of the period mentioned many of the principal towns of both northern and southern Canaan.

The fifteenth dynasty (c.1664–1555 BCE) was the one time in antiquity when a line of kings of Canaanite origin ruled in Egypt. The capital of those sovereigns, whose non-Egyptian names included Sheshy, Khayan, and Apophis, was established at Avaris (i.e., Tell ed-Dab'a) in the eastern Nile Delta. The origins of those Canaanite rulers is to be sought in the movement of Near Easterners into the Delta during the late twelfth and early thirteenth dynasties. The political and military connections of the Hyksos kings with the Canaanite city-states of the late Middle Bronze Age is unclear and much debated: some scholars feel that a Hyksos “empire” included much of southern Canaan, while others deny Hyksos control over any part of the Levant.

During the Late Bronze Age, the Egyptian military, political, and economic activity in the Near East was focused on the major Canaanite towns that lay along the principal routes (e.g., Gaza, Gezer, Megiddo, Hazor), had ports to facilitate maritime trade and/or Egyptian naval activity (e.g., Joppa, Acco, Byblos, Tyre), and/or could support Egyptian political and military control of Canaan (e.g., Gaza and Beth Shan in Palestine, Kumidi and Sumur in Lebanon). The annals of the New Kingdom pharaohs repeatedly mentioned such towns, often as military adversaries of the Egyptians. There is substantial archaeological and textual evidence from the nineteenth and early twentieth dynasties (Late Bronze IIB-Iron IA periods) of Egyptian garrisons or administrative centers in Canaan, especially in the Gaza region, as well as at sites such as Tel Mor, Joppa, Megiddo, Beth Shan, and Kumidi. Finally, in the first millennium BCE, Egypt's relations with Canaan were largely of a commercial and political nature, the occasional Egyptian military forays into the region (most notably that of Sheshonq I in the late tenth century BCE) usually had only short-term consequences for the region.



  • Ahituv, Shmuel. Canaanite Toponyms in Ancient Egyptian Documents. Jerusalem, 1984. Study of Near Eastern place-names in Egyptian texts; includes the area stretching from Palestine to southern Phoenicia and eastward to the Damascus region.
  • Lemche, Niels Peter. The Canaanites and Their Land: The Tradition of the Canaanites. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series, vol. 110. Sheffield, 1991. Offers a controversial interpretation of the history and geography of Canaan and the Canaanites during the second and first millennia BCE.
  • Moran, William L. The Amarna Letters. Baltimore, 1992. Translations of all the letters in the Amarna archive.
  • Na'aman, Nadav. “The Canaanites and Their Land: A Rejoinder.” Ugarit-Forschungen 26 (1994), 397–418. Responds to Lemche's 1991 book; analyzes the references to Canaan in the second millennium BCE.
  • Na'aman, Nadav. “The Network of Canaanite Late Bronze Kingdoms and the City of Ashdod.” Ugarit-Forschungen 29 (1997), 599–626. Study of the Canaanite city-state system in the Late Bronze Age.
  • Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton, 1992. History of Egyptian relations with the land of Canaan, focusing on the textual sources.
  • Schmitz, Philip C. “Canaan.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, vol. 1, pp. 828–831. New York, 1992. Survey of the ancient references to Canaan, focusing on the biblical sources.
  • Steindorff, Georg. “The Statuette of an Egyptian Commissioner in Syria.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 25 (1939), 30–33. Initial publication on the statuette of the envoy Pediese.
  • Ward, William A. “Egyptian Relations with Canaan.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, vol. 2, pp. 399–408. New York, 1992. A good, basic history of Egyptian connections with Canaan in dynastic times.

James M. Weinstein