The earliest weapons found in the Near East are microlithic projectile points from the Mesolithic period, some, at least, of which were used as arrowheads. There is no evidence that these weapons were used for any purpose other than for hunting. The earliest evidence of fortifications is found in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A settlement at Jericho. It was surrounded by a stone wall preserved to a height of 7 m which boasted an internal tower preserved to a height of 9 m. [See Jericho.]
Fortifications, which may be taken as evidence for the practice of warfare, appeared as early as about 4300 BCE at Mersin, in Cilicia, where a solid wall with projecting sections and simple interval towers was integrated into a ring of houses constructed on the wall's interior face. [See Cilicia.] The system featured a simple straight gate passage, flanked by towers. By 3000 BCE, the city of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia was surrounded by a fortification wall about 9.5 km (6 mi.) long, built, according to the Epic of Gilgamesh, by Gilgamesh himself. [See Uruk-Warka.] Excavations have not as yet revealed details of this monumental system. By 3000 BCE the cities of Egypt were fortified with massive, solid walls strengthened by equally massive solid interval towers, sometimes rectilinear and sometimes semicircular. Although there are no excavated examples, Egyptian gateways in later periods were always of the simple straight type, and it is likely that they were so in this period also. It appears that the Egyptians had not developed very sophisticated tactics in field warfare. They had, however, clearly made great advances in siege warfare, as tomb paintings show the use of siege ladders and an early version of the battering ram to create breaches in walls.
The first period for which there is extensive evidence of fortifications in the Levant is Early Bronze II, in which a number of towns were surrounded by single curtain walls, often with solid rectilinear straddle towers and external semicircular interval towers (e.g., at Arad, Ai, and Jericho). [See Arad; Ai.] The interval towers would have enabled the defenders to use enfilading fire against any attacking force, a major technological advance and necessary to the successful defense of a curtain wall. In EB III the fortifications of the towns of the Levant were strengthened and elaborated, to an astonishing degree, with the introduction of sloping ramparts (glacis) at the outer foot of fortifications and the use of covering walls in advance of the main curtain. Gates developed from the simple opening in the EB II curtain wall into straight and bent-axis external towers, sometimes with sloping access ramps angled so that an attacker approached the gate with the right (sword) hand nearest the curtain wall, leaving him unshielded against the fire from the defenders on the walls.
In about 2000 BCE, a sequence of events began which ultimately led to the revival of state-organized society in the Levant. Among the most important of these events were the collapse of the empire of the third dynasty of Ur (c. 2000 BCE) and the reunification of Egypt by Mentuhotep II (c. 1900 BCE). The first excavated evidence of fortifications in Egypt, the twelfth-dynasty fortress at Buhen, is from this period. It was a menacing highly sophisticated construction, with a multiple trace, straddle towers at the corners, interval towers along both the curtain and the covering wall, a scarp, and a counterscarp. The covering wall is fitted with arrow slits. It is curious that in a fortress otherwise so sophisticated the gate is a simple straight passage, though flanked with massive solid towers. With the revival of Egypt came the revival of trade in the eastern Mediterranean and the revival of fortified towns.
Middle Bronze II A culture initially appeared in coastal Syria/Lebanon, from which it later spread southward to Palestine. Fortifications reappear in MB II A, with simple single trace-curtain walls. Little is known of the fortifications of this period. MB II B, however, saw the construction of the most impressive fortifications in the history of the Levant. The essential element of the system consisted of a dramatically enlarged version of the sloping ramparts first seen in the Early Bronze Age and now frequently faced with plaster, which sometimes extended into the matrix of the rampart as part of its construction. The plaster facing served two functions: in peacetime it protected the artificially steep slope from erosion, while in time of war it would have served to make the slope too slick to climb, especially if water were poured down it.
The transition between MB II A and B is generally agreed to be linked to a major political event—the fall of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom—although the exact nature of the link is still disputed. If the inscriptions of the New Kingdom pharaohs are taken at face value, Egypt was attacked and conquered by the armies of the kings of Syria-Palestine; however, these accounts were written hundreds of years later and are highly propagandistic justifications of the conquests by the New Kingdom pharaohs. At any rate, it is clear from both textual and archaeological evidence that Syro-Palestinian rulers took over Lower Egypt and ruled it for a period of at least a century. In this position they controlled Egypt's trade and wealth and their homeland prospered accordingly. This prosperity led to an increase in population unparalleled in the ancient Levant.
As settlements grew in size it became necessary to extend fortifications beyond the ancient tells. At sites such as Hazor, the largest settlement in the southern Levant, enormous artificial ramparts were constructed enclosing large areas of level ground which were then built up as part of the settlement. [See Hazor.] Because of erosion at the tops of the ramparts it is not clear whether the ramparts were crowned with walls in every case; however, in those cases where the top of the rampart is preserved, as at Jericho, there is evidence of a fortification wall on top of the rampart. At Gezer there is evidence of the use of a multiple trace, with a covering wall in advance of the curtain, as well as of the use of massive rectilinear straddle towers and a massive projecting solid tower gate with three internal piers. [See Gezer.] Elsewhere, the towers are chambered, but the use of three internal piers is general.
The transition from the Middle Bronze Age to the Late Bronze Age was also connected to a series of major political events. Once again, however, the precise nature of the connection is disputed. In about 1600 BCE the first dynasty of Babylon was brought to an end by conquest by the Hittite king Muršili I, and in about 1550 BCE Ahmose I, first king of the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, expelled the Syro-Palestinian dynasts, known through an error of translation as the Hyksos, from Egypt. [See Babylon; Hittites; Hyksos.] Muršili I was assassinated on his return to Ḫattuša/Boğazköy, but Ahmose's successors, most notably Thutmose III, went on to conquer Palestine and Syria as far as the Euphrates River. [See Boğazköy; Euphrates.] The Levant thus fell within the Egyptian empire and became subject to Egyptian imperial policy. Archaeologically, these historical events are to be linked to the cultural shift from the Middle to Late Bronze Ages, although the dating of the archaeological shift in historical terms is still in question.
In weapons and warfare, as in most other cultural aspects, the Late Bronze was a continuation of the Middle Bronze Age. However, some very significant changes took place: at virtually every site in Palestine the massive MB fortification systems were abandoned, although at a number of the excavated sites (e.g., Lachish and Megiddo) imposing new gateways were constructed. [See Lachish; Megiddo.] These gateways do not appear to have had any defensive walls and would appear to have functioned ceremonially primarily. From the Amarna letters it is learned that order was maintained by small contingents of Egyptian troops; other Egyptian texts tell of an administrative system linked by messengers in chariots. [See Amarna Tablets, Chariots.] The absence of fortifications would appear to have been a deliberate Egyptian policy to prevent the rise of overly mighty subjects. One of the few exceptions was Hazor, where the MB fortifications continued in use throughout the Late Bronze Age. This has been taken by at least one scholar to indicate that Hazor lay outside the area of Egyptian control/interest. Another important exception is Ugarit, the great trading center on the Syrian coast, where a portion of the fortifications in front of the great royal palace has been excavated. [See Ugarit; Palace.] There the excavators found a massive solid tower with a gate tunnel whose construction owes nothing to the Levantine tradition of construction. It most closely resembles the postern tunnels in the fortification system of the Hittite capital Ḫattuša in central Anatolia—a simple, straight passage with a section consisting of a pointed, corbeled arch. This reflects both the importance of the Hittites in the Late Bronze and their dominance of northern Syria in the latter part of this period. The fortifications at Ḫattuša are among the most impressive in the ancient world, with a massive multiple trace, generally set at the top of a ridge, to give maximum advantage to the defenders. The main curtain is a casemate wall with massive chambered interval towers. The covering wall is solid, with smaller chambered interval towers set between the interval towers of the curtain. The gate passage is flanked by projecting massive chambered towers, with two internal piers, and is approached from the right by a sloping ramp, to put attackers at a maximum disadvantage.
By the fourth millennium, two types of bow are known to have been in use. Mesopotamian pictorial depictions show a simple self-bow; Egyptians show themselves using a double-convex self-bow, possibly with the tips strengthened with horn. It is unlikely that these bows were compound. Curiously, there is little evidence for the bow and arrow in the EB Levant. The main weapons appear to have been the mace and the battle-ax, indicating hand-to-hand combat, rather than longer-range fighting. The existence of deep systems of fortifications, however, indicates that the bow must have been in use, along, probably, with the sling, which has a deadly accuracy to a range of at least 100 m. The heads of the arrows must have been of hardened wood.
It is debatable whether anything which could properly be called a sword was in use in the Early Bronze Age, although there were long, straight, double-sided stabbing daggers. The reason for the lack of swords is that these require a hard metal, at least bronze, and the only metal in use in the Levantine EB was copper. Thrusting spears and possibly javelins were also used in this period for massed infantry assaults. The most important weapons for hand-to-hand combat were the semicircular battle-ax and the mace: both were mounted on long, slender hafts, whose flexibility would have added to the force of the blow; both also were for use against soldiers unprotected by metal armor. Little is known of the conduct of armies in the field in Egypt, and nothing at all in the Levant, in this period. In Mesopotamia, however, it is clear that field armies were highly organized and used sophisticated tactics. The Stela of the Vultures, erected by King Eanatum of Lagash (c. 2500 BCE) shows his Sumerian infantrymen advancing in a true phalanx, protected by shields and armed with long thrusting spears. [See Girsu and Lagash; Sumerians.] This formation made the Sumerian armies a formidable fighting force in the absence of powerful long-range weapons. The phalanx of infantry was accompanied by mobile spearmen mounted in four-wheeled war carts drawn by teams of onagers. [See Carts.] These war carts lacked steerable front wheels and were slow and cumbersome, not to be confused with the chariots of the Late Bronze Age (see above). Their primary use was probably to break up opposing infantry formations in advance of an assault by the infantry.
In Mesopotamia, the period beginning in about 2200 BCE saw the introduction of a revolutionary new weapon, the composite bow, which is first seen in the hands of Naram-Sin, King of Agade. His armies, like those of his grandfather, Sargon the Great, reached as far as the Mediterranean Sea. Yigael Yadin (1963) suggests that this weapon, with its unprecedented range and power, was a major factor in these conquests. The collapse of state-organized society in the Levant at the end of EB III brought an end to fortifications, which were beyond the means of the agricultural villages which remained the sole form of human settlement. Nevertheless, there is clear evidence of conflict between these communities, in the form of an abundance of personal weaponry. Most male burials in Middle Bronze I/EB–MB/EB IV (as the period is variously known in the Levant) are accompanied by a distinctive form of dagger—long, slender, double edged, and weakly attached to the hilt by rivets. A more formidable weapon was the battle-ax, which was crescent shaped, with a cylindrical socket for the haft. In addition, numerous javelin heads and some stabbing spears have been recovered. A development which has recently been shown to have occurred in this period is the invention of the long slashing sword, of which only one example is known, currently preserved in the British Museum. This is an impressive weapon, nearly a meter long and double edged, with a sharp, piercing point. It is curious that this development appears to have had little or no influence, as such swords are nowhere depicted artistically. While most of these weapons could have had peaceful uses in hunting, the evidence currently available indicates that hunting played a very minor role in the economy of these communities. [See Hunting.]
Weapons underwent a certain degree of development in MB II. The crescentic battle-ax became heavier and generally had a socket for the haft. The advent of bronze body armor and helmets led to developments in the battle-ax, which became elongated and slender. Ultimately, it was reduced to a heavy armor-piercing spike, rather than the cutting edge it had been in the Early Bronze period. The widespread use of bronze also led to the development of the first swords, which were sickle shaped, with the cutting edge on the outside of the curved portion of the blade. This type of sword was also probably a development from the crescentic ax of the Early Bronze Age; like the ax, as distinct from the straight sword which supplanted it at the end of the Bronze Age, it could not be carried in a sheath, which made it less convenient than the latter form proved to be. The daggers of this period were distinctive, having a broad, veined blade attached to the hilt by rivets in a short tang. These daggers frequently had a crescentic pommel, often of stone. The type originated in Mesopotamia in the Early Bronze Age and in the Middle Bronze Age spread throughout the Near East and into Europe (those carved on the sarsen stones of Stonehenge, England, are the most far-flung examples). Javelins and socketed thrusting spears were also in widespread use, as were slings, known primarily through artistic depictions.
Although the compound bow had long been in use in Mesopotamia, surviving bows from Middle Kingdom Egypt, like the artistic depictions of bows, are all of the simple self-bow type, although some of them are slightly double convex. At some point, probably late in MB IIC/MB III, a weapon was introduced into the Levant which was to change the shape of warfare in the ancient Near East and become the most important tactical factor until the end of the Bronze Age. This formidable weapon was the horse-drawn, two-wheeled war chariot. Lightweight and highly maneuverable, the chariot served both as an assault weapon to break up infantry formations and as a mobile firing platform. As the infantry had no answer to the onslaught of chariots, particularly when they were used en masse, they quickly came to dominate warfare. In the form in which they were introduced into the Near East they came from the steppes of Central Asia. The manual used for training horses throughout the region then is known for its Indo-European technical terms, including the equivalent of the medieval knight: the maryanu warrior, or charioteer. Yadin (1963) suggests that the deep fortifications which appeared at the beginning of MB II were the response to the introduction of this weapon. The view is not supported by the evidence from the Levant, however, which suggests that in this period society was feudal, dominated by a warrior aristocracy in which the most prestigious element was the charioteers. This is reflected even in the Egyptian New Kingdom, where the king was depicted as a charioteer, although the form of the society was very different. What is clear from the universality of massive and deep fortifications is that warfare was widespread in the MB Levant and that the wealth and power evident in the cities required the defense implied by their fortifications (although the identity of the enemy against whom the defenses were raised is not clear).
The Late Bronze Age saw only one significant development in Levanto-Egyptian small arms: the introduction of the compound bow from Mesopotamia. This was a formidable weapon, with a far greater power, range, and accuracy than any bow hitherto available to soldiers in the region. Amenhotep II is recorded as having shot at a copper target about 6 cm thick from his chariot, the arrows striking with such force that they went through the target and out the other side. Even allowing a certain degree of exaggeration to glorify the king, this is a significant demonstration of the power of this weapon. In addition, the compound bow had the advantage of being much shorter than the simple self-bows which had preceded it, making it the ideal weapon for use in chariots and by massed bowmen against infantry. When combined with units of slingers, units of bowmen greatly increased the fighting power of the infantry, although they still were no match for the power of the chariotry.
The end of the Late Bronze Age came shortly after 1200 BCE and was marked by one of the greatest political upheavals in world history: the collapse of both the Mycenaean and Hittite civilizations within the space of a few years. In the ensuing chaos there was a substantial invasion of the Levant by both a land army and a fleet of warships—the whole collectively known as the Sea Peoples, who very nearly succeeded in conquering Egypt and who took over the coastal plain of Palestine. These invaders brought with them a new series of weapons developed in western Europe in the course of the previous centuries: a new type of body armor consisting of overlapping bands of bronze and a new type of long, straight, double-edged slashing sword, stronger than the earlier Near Eastern model because of its single-piece (bilt and blade) cast construction. These weapons were not generally adopted by the armies of the region, however.
After an interval of a century (c. 1000 BCE) new, independent kingdoms began to emerge from the ruins of the Egyptian empire in the Levant. In coastal Syria and Lebanon the Canaanites, now becoming known as Phoenicians through their Greek contacts, began to establish a network of seaborne trading colonies, first on Cyprus and then farther west. [See Canaanites; Phoenicians.] For the first time since at least the mid-fifteenth century BCE, the cities of the Levant began to be fortified. The new fortifications were to some extent a revival of the ancient Canaanite tradition, but with innovations which arose from its redevelopment. Within the area which was to emerge as the Israelite kingdoms, a clear development sequence can be seen, beginning with villages in which the houses, built in a continuous ring around a central space, presented a blank external wall which formed a sufficient defense against small-scale attacks. [See House, article on Syro-Palestinian Houses.]
As the size of the settlements grew more significant, fortifications were required. These developed rapidly, possibly influenced by those of the Phoenician cities to the north. In detail, however, the fortifications of the Israelite cities were very different. From the beginning they involved the use of a multiple trace, with a curtain wall and an advanced covering wall. Interval towers provided enfilading fire; later, Assyrian bas-reliefs demonstrate that in time of war the coverage from the tops of walls and towers was increased by the addition of projecting wooden platforms. [See Assyrians.] Gateways became more formidable, with the addition of a fourth internal pier, and the gate tower itself was changed from a projecting bastion to an internal tower—with the advantage that it could not be surrounded by enemy attackers. The gate approach became much more of a defense in depth, with a series of towers and gates along the passage leading up to the main city gate at the top of the city mound. This approach was almost invariably from the right, thus exposing the sword side of the attacking soldiers to the flanking fire of the defenders on the walls. Curtain walls could be of either casemate or solid construction, as circumstances demanded. The use of ramparts with prepared surfaces also continued, sometimes with a plaster facing and sometimes with a stone facing.
A major technological development in this period, which had a profound effect on weapons and warfare, was the introduction of iron. The advantage of iron lay not so much in its hardness, which was no greater than that of bronze, as in its cheapness. Iron ore is found in most areas of the Near East, and, while the process of smelting iron is more complex than that required for copper, iron is far more abundant than the tin required to turn copper into weapons-grade bronze. Iron arrowheads quickly become abundant, as did iron daggers and swords, enabling the arming of larger numbers of soldiers than ever before. Initially, warfare was little different than it had been throughout the Late Bronze Age, with large numbers of chariots supported by massed infantry, as can be seen in the account of the battle of Qarqar in 853 BCE, between Shalmaneser III of Assyria and a grand alliance of Syro-Palestinian kings (including Ahab of Israel, whose chariot contingent is recorded as having been the largest on the Syro-Palestinian side). This battle, however, can be seen as a turning point: it is the last major chariot battle recorded. Shortly thereafter, the Assyrians pioneered a new type of warfare which rendered the chariot-based armies obsolete.
The Assyrian infantry was organized into three types of unit: spearmen, bowmen, and slingers. The spearmen were the shock troops and carried a thrusting spear considerably longer than they were tall. The significance of this weapon is that it was the forerunner of the spears carried by the Greek phalanx and, when presented by the first two ranks of an infantry formation, made that formation invulnerable to a chariot charge—which would simply impale itself on the massed spears. Behind the spearmen came the bowmen and slingers, who, with their massed fire, could break up chariot attacks at long range before they came within range of the spearmen. These innovations were not the only, and not necessarily the most important, made by the Assyrians, however. From the beginning of the Bronze Age the towns of the Levant had been built on hilltops because of the defensive advantages of this elevation. It greatly increased the normal 2:1 ratio of attackers to defenders required for battlefield success. The Assyrians were the first to develop sophisticated siege machinery with which to attack the fortified cities of the Near East. Two weapons in particular are significant, the siege tower and the mobile battering ram.
The siege tower enabled the attackers to return defensive fire from a level as high as, or even higher than, that of the defenders. While this could not have suppressed the defensive fire generally, it could have suppressed it along a short stretch of the wall, which would have made the work of those attacking the wall itself much easier. The mobile battering ram consisted of a wheeled vehicle with a body covered in copper or leather armor in which the soldiers operating the ram could work secure from the fire of the defenders. [See Leather.] The ram itself was suspended from the frame of the body and consisted of a long beam with a metal head. The early models had an ax-shaped head, but the later models, following an experiment with boar's-head rams, consisted of a large spearhead. Regardless of the type of head, the method of operation was the same: the head of the ram was forced into the stone or brickwork of the wall and then used as a lever to pry the wall apart, causing it to collapse; a breach was thus created through which the infantry could attack. Israeli excavations at Lachish revealed the method of defense against these engines, which was to build a massive mound of earth and stone against the inner face of the wall in the sector being attacked by the rams. This countertactic did not succeed in saving Lachish, however, whose conquest Sennacherib appears to have considered his greatest victory.
The results of the Assyrian innovations were far-reaching. Perhaps the most noticeable result is that after the fall of the kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE, hardly any of the city mounds in the Levant were ever reoccupied by a major city. With the defensive advantages of elevation removed by the new siege machinery, the disadvantages of living on the top of the hills were all that remained. Henceforth, all cities were built on the level ground at the foot of the ancient tells.
The Babylonians, who succeeded the Assyrians in 612 BCE, and the Persians, who conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, made few changes in the military armamentarium, organization, and tactics laid down by the Assyrians. [See Babylonians; Persians.] The beginning of the use of mounted archers came in this period, but their initial impact was slight because two key technical developments—the invention of the saddle and the invention of the stirrup—had not yet taken place. The major innovation by the Persians was that, as a result of the vast extent of their empire, they were able to field huge armies, which enabled them to overwhelm any potential foe by sheer force of numbers. In their operations against Greece the Persians did, however, carry out combined operations—coordinated operations of the Persian army and the Phoenician fleet.
The Persian armies were routed in the second half of the fourth century BCE by Alexander of Macedon, who brought against them the new combination of the Greek phalanx, with its formidably disciplined troops armed with very long lances and protected by heavier armor and shields than any previous troops. The use of shields by the troops inside the phalanx to protect the front ranks (which deployed their lances against the enemy) from the missiles of the slingers and bowmen made this the most impressive fighting formation the world had yet seem. The additional use of cavalry to attack the flanks of the enemy gave Alexander a tactical advantage the Persians were never able to counter. It is significant that most of the battles fought by Alexander were in the field. His siege operations, as at Tyre and Gaza, were demonstrations of the superiority of the offensive over the defensive in fortifications in this period and account for the abandonment of the tells. [See Tyre.] The Greeks developed very sophisticated methods of naval warfare based on the bireme, trireme, and quinquereme, with, respectively, two, three, and five banks of oars. These ultimately enabled them to dominate the eastern Mediterranean in their competition with the Phoenicians. [See Seafaring.]
After Alexander's brilliant tactical innovations, the Hellenistic commanders, like the Babylonians and Persians who followed the Assyrians, settled into an increasingly rigid tactical routine, based on the phalanx and flanking cavalry units. It was this increasing tactical rigidity which left the Hellenistic armies of the east vulnerable to the more tactically flexible and maneuverable Roman legion, a weakness demonstrated by the campaign of Pompey the Great in 63 BCE. Where the Hellenistic infantry had relied on its long stabbing spears, the Roman infantry relied instead on a short, straight, double-sided stabbing sword and a short, heavy stabbing spear which could also be thrown with accuracy up to 25 m. When the two types of formation first faced one another at the battle of Pydna, the legions allowed the phalanx to pass through their ranks and then closed in on it from all sides. Individual Roman soldiers slipped between the spears of the phalanx to attack the relatively defenseless Macedonian soldiers. To the battering rams and siege towers of the Assyrians the Hellenistic generals added catapultae, ballistae, onagri, and scorpiones. The first was a very large crossbow, capable of firing, dependent on the size of the engine—anything from a large arrow to a spear in a flat trajectory with great force and considerable range. The second was based on the same principle as the first but could throw much heavier weights in the form of large stones or beams. The onager used a long lever arm, powered, like the first tow engines, by twisted cords. The arm was wound down by means of a windlass, and when the trigger was released the slingstones, larger stones, or containers of burning oil or naphtha (“Greek fire”) was hurled in an arc over the enemy fortifications. The scorpion could be either a kind of catapult or a miniature onager. In addition, the Romans used battering rams of the same type as those developed by the Assyrians; they used them to attack fortifications by means of mines which sought to bring down the overlying wall by creating a cave-in. The defenders of cities quickly developed the technique of countermining beneath the attackers' mine, to collapse the latter before it could collapse the overlying wall. The Byzantine military largely represented a continuation of the Roman military tradition, with its reliance on heavy infantry and limited use of cavalry.
In the seventh century CE, the armies of Islam burst out of Arabia and began a series of conquests which would take them to the gates of Constantinople, India, and, in the west, to southern France. These armies were, at least initially, both lightly armed and lightly armored, and their success was based largely on those factors. The Arab armies were superbly mounted as well, which gave them a mobility their Byzantine and Persian opponents could not match and with which they could not cope. In the course of the following centuries the Arab armies acquired an infantry arm. Influenced by the Byzantine fortifications they captured, they developed their own school of sophisticated fortifications, which were built by Salah edh-Din and his successors to counter the Crusader castles in the Holy Land.
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