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Which Nations Lived in Ancient Palestine?

Map of Ancient Palestine in its wider context, John Melish, 1815.
Map of Ancient Palestine in its wider context, John Melish, 1815. Credit: Public Domain

Historically, several different nations have lived in Ancient Palestine. The most famous of these are undoubtedly the Israelites, due to their rich history as described in the Bible. However, they are not the only nation that lived in the region in ancient times.

Where was Ancient Palestine?

Modern-day Palestine does not have the same boundaries as Ancient Palestine. Historically, starting with the Greeks, the term ‘Palestine’ has been applied to the entire region that is now modern-day Israel and the State of Palestine. The ancient use of the word even applied to some of the lands east of the Jordan River rather than just the territory to the west of it.

To the north of Ancient Palestine was Phoenicia, the land of the sea-faring Phoenicians. To the southwest was Egypt. Directly south of that was the land of the Edomites. To the east and southeast were the Arabian tribes. Historians usually refer to the land of Ancient Palestine as ‘Canaan’ when discussing the Bronze Age.

The Israelites

The nation most famously associated with Ancient Palestine are the Israelites. Their descendants, modern-day Israelis, continue to reside there to this day. The Ancient Israelites dominated the region from the Late Bronze Age through to the early Roman Empire. There were famously twelve tribes of Israel, including the priestly tribe of Levites.

map of ancient tribes of Israel and Philistine
Tribnes of Israel. Credit: Janz / wikimedia commons cc b y 3.0

The Israelites were distinct from most other nations of the ancient world in that they practiced monotheism. Rather than worshipping a whole pantheon of deities, they worshipped only one God whom they referred to as ‘Yahweh’ (commonly rendered ‘Jehovah’ in English).

The Israelites appeared in the region by at least the 15th century BCE, going by the apparent reference to them on the Berlin Pedestal. Indeed, the Bible places their arrival in Ancient Palestine in that very century. At that time, it went by the name of ‘Canaan.’

Initially, the Israelites were a nomadic people. By the eleventh century BCE, there is evidence that a monarchy had formed. This monarchy soon split into two separate kingdoms. Eventually, both kingdoms were destroyed by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. However, the Israelites continued to live in Ancient Palestine under foreign domination, first under the Persians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans.


The Bronze Age name of the region, ‘Canaan,’ reveals that the Israelites were not the first to live in Ancient Palestine. Prior to them, the people of that region were called Canaanites. They spoke a Semitic language, very similar to that spoken by the Israelites.

Unlike the Israelites, there was never a single kingdom ruling over all of the Canaanites. Rather, Ancient Palestine at that time was quite similar to Greece. It was divided into numerous city-states. One of the most powerful during the Late Bronze Age was Hazor. However, there were many others.

The Canaanites filled Ancient Palestine with the worship of various Semitic gods, but their main god was Baal. In fact, Baal was not a single god. This was a title which several different gods used. One of the main Baals was Hadad. Another prominent Baal was Melqart, the son of Hadad.

In the Late Bronze Age, the Israelites gradually conquered Ancient Palestine, taking over from the Canaanites. The Canaanites were thereafter restricted to the north, to the territory known to the Greeks as Phoenicia. This was essentially equivalent to modern-day Lebanon.


Another prominent nation that lived in Ancient Palestine were the Philistines. They were the ones who gave their name to Palestine. The Philistines lived on the Mediterranean coast from the border of Egypt to partway along the length of Canaan. They were divided into four or five main city-states.

Unlike the Israelites and Canaanites, they did not originally speak a Semitic language. Evidence from Philistine words found in the Bible, as well as personal names in the Bible and on ancient inscriptions, indicate that they originally spoke an Indo-European language. In particular, they likely spoke a language related to Greek.

In line with that linguistic evidence, there is considerable evidence that the Philistines migrated to Ancient Palestine from the Aegean. There was a wave of arrivals in the twelfth century BCE, during the Sea Peoples‘ invasion of Egypt. Even before that, however, there is evidence that some Philistines were already residing in Ancient Palestine.

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