Byblos, now called Jubayl, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the oldest cities in the world. It is on the coast of modern-day Lebanon and has an incredible history from its origin, around 6,000 BCE. It was at its most important and influential during the Egyptian Old Kingdom (c. 2613 – 2181 BCE) and Middle Kingdom (2040 – 1782 BCE). Whilst relations between Egypt and Byblos continued, its influence declined during the New Kingdom (c. 1570 – c.1069 BCE). Byblos started out as a Neolithic fishing settlement and grew to become a prominent Bronze Age city during the fourth millennium BCE. During the late third and second millenniums BCE Byblos was an important part of Egyptian trade networks and power relations in the Levant.
Egypt had been united into a single kingdom in either c. 3118 BCE or c. 3150 BCE. The Old Kingdom was made up of the Third to the Sixth Dynasties. By the time of the Old Kingdom there was a stronger centralised government and Egypt was powerful and rich enough to build massive monuments, such as the pyramids. At the same time, the amount of contact with nearby lands was increasing. There were natural preconditions, including the winds and currents, that allowed relatively easy maritime travel around the Eastern Mediterranean to Palestine and the Syrian coast. Byblos became a more important trading partner and a hub for Egyptian trade with Mesopotamia and Anatolia. Although Tyre and Sidon would take prominence in the future, Byblos was the most significant port on the Eastern Mediterranean coast at this time. It provided access to natural resources in the northern Levant, such as cedar wood, which could be found nearby and was used for constructing and building sacred vessels like the funeral boat used by Khufu. Some scholars believe that, at this point, there was a reduction in Egyptian involvement in the southern Levant, helping to push Egyptian contact further north.
Byblos is the centre for Egyptian Old Kingdom archaeological remains in the Levant. Some of the finds include stone bowls from the Third Dynasty, a stone offering-plate fragment; vase fragments and other small objects dated to the Fourth Dynasty; and vessels and fragments naming many different royal names, such as Unis and Pepi I, from the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties. The Egyptians saw the Temple of Ba’alat Gebal or the ‘Lady of Byblos’, a local goddess, as an equivalent to that of Hathor, an Egyptian deity.
The Palermo Stone is a stele that depicts the Royal Annals of the Old Kingdom. It is dated to the end of the Fifth Dynasty and contains references to a trading expedition to Syria via the Mediterranean. “40 ships filled (with cedar wood)” were brought back during the reign of Snefru, in the Fourth Dynasty. It provides evidence that the Syrian timber trade, for which Byblos was important, took place by sea.
William Ward compellingly argues that there “is no indication that Egyptian trade interests went farther north than Byblos” during the Old Kingdom. Despite this, stone vessels were discovered at the Early Bronze Age IVA palace at Ebla, which had the names of Egyptian Pharaohs, including Khafra (Fourth Dynasty) and Pepy I (Sixth Dynasty). The Pharaohs mentioned at Ebla are very similar to those referenced at Byblos, suggesting that these objects originated in Byblos. It reinforces both Byblos’ centrality to Levantine trade and the spread of Egyptian influence.
During the government collapse of the First Intermediate Period of Egypt, connections with Byblos dramatically decreased but may not have been cut off completely. Connections were re-established towards the beginning of the Middle Kingdom and grew throughout the period. At least twenty ships of cedar were sent to Egypt from Syria during the reign of Amenemhat I. Royal objects from Byblos have been dated to the reign of Sesostris III onwards. They show the influence of Egyptian culture in Byblos, in particular amongst the rulers of Byblos, who were buried with many Egyptian objects, such as scarabs, stelae, and jewellery. Rulers even started adopting Egyptian titles, like “prince (or mayor) of Byblos”. However, there is a considerable chance that many of the Middle Kingdom objects in Byblos were taken there during the Second Intermediate Period, after the looting of many Middle Kingdom tombs. If this is the case, it makes our understanding of Egypt-Byblos relations in this period much hazier. Despite this, there are also many examples of small objects, such as pendants, which were made in the Egyptian style by local craftsmen in Byblos. The quality of these objects is lower than Egyptian counterparts. This suggests an influx of Egyptian culture into Byblos during the Middle Kingdom.
The problems with some of the material evidence does help to highlight the issues around trying to establish the type of relationship that existed between Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean during the Middle Kingdom. There was cultural exchange between Egypt and Byblos, and they were trading partners. However, what material evidence there is does not suggest that Byblos was under direct Egyptian political or military control. Some of the Egyptian goods appear to be gifts, as expected from a trading relationship. Trying to go into more detail is speculative and relies upon limited written sources.
A mastaba, a type of Egyptian tomb used by the social elite, has been found at Dahshur belonging to a court official responsible for trade during the reigns of Sesostris II and Sesostris III, called Khumhotep. In the ruins, fragments of hieroglyphic text have been found describing a conflict between Byblos and Ullaza, another Levantine harbour city. It reveals that Egypt had trading relations with both Byblos and Ullaza and that, in the conflict, Byblos was the aggressor from the Egyptian perspective. Egypt was sympathetic to, and potentially intervened on, the side of Ullaza. They viewed Byblos and their leader, the mallku, as the enemy in the conflict. James Allen has suggested that it could have been after this conflict, in an attempt to distance themselves from the mallku, that the rulers of Byblos started to adopt Egyptian titles. Egypt did not invade or take over Byblos, but they did make their position clear. The mallkuis described as not having let Egyptian ships land in Byblos, hinting at a short-term breakdown in the trading relationship. This conflict appears to be a short blip in the generally friendly relations between Egypt and Byblos. At the end of the Middle Kingdom there was a more significant shift in the relationship between Egypt and Byblos because of the rise of the Hurrians in Syria and the waning of Egypt. As a result, many of the coastal Levantine cities, including Byblos, took up a neutral position between the two powers and severed trading relationships with Egypt. This was not reinstated until the reign of Neferhotep I during the Second Intermediate Period.
There was a shift in Egyptian foreign policy towards the Levant during the reign of Pharoah Thutmose III, who belonged to the Eighteenth Dynasty, in the New Kingdom. He led military expeditions, such as the Battle of Megiddo, that saw an Egyptian empire push north through the Levant. The coast was important for military and economic reasons, giving access to parts of the Levant that were hard access by land. The client kings of the coastal cities were seen as socially inferior to the Egyptian pharaohs, and they often asked the pharaohs to intervene in conflicts between them. In return they had to carry out certain obligations, described in sources such as the Amarna letters. The Amarnan letters are written in cuneiform and describe some form of oaths between the client kings and the Egyptians. In EA 148: 35-37 Abi-Milku of Tyre says, describing the king of Sidon, “since he has waged war (against me), has he not violated (?) the oath?”
Whilst Egyptian territorial influence increased over the New Kingdom, Byblos remained independent and traded with Egypt in an unequal partnership. Some of the Armana letters give examples of requests from each side. They show how the leaders of Byblos primarily wanted military support from the Egyptians, and in return the Egyptian intermediaries wanted raw materials which were much more common in the Levant than Egypt.
One of the consequences of the relations between the two was the development of the Phoenician alphabet, one of the first modern alphabets and writing scripts. Byblos is theorized to be one of the places where it first developed, and our oldest examples of the alphabet come from Byblos. The constant exposure to Egyptian hieroglyphics and scribal culture allowed the people of Byblos to develop a pseudo-Hieroglyphic script. An early example of the Phoenician alphabet is thirty-eight words from King Ahiram’s sarcophagus in the Byblos necropolis, from c.1020 BCE. It was this writing that led to Greek, that led to Latin, which is the foundation for almost all European languages today.
Overall, Byblos had an important trading relationship with Egypt for over a thousand years. Much of its wealth and importance came from Egypt, as well as military support during the New Kingdom. Without Egypt it would not have been anywhere near as important or influential but, at the same time, it was one of the main ways Egypt gained access to many vital natural resources. Although Egypt was the dominant partner in the trading relationship, Byblos played a crucial role. It also had an impact that far outlasted its economic and political significance, with the invention of the Phoenician alphabet.
Written by Alex Smith
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Image: “The ‘chiefs of Lebanon’ cutting trees for Seti I, as depicted on a bas-relief on the outer northern façade of the hypostyle room at the Temple of Amun in Karnak. (Photo by N. Grimal. From Francis-Allouche, Martine, and Grimal, Nicolas. “The Maritime Approaches to Ancient Byblos (Lebanon).” Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies 4, no. 2-3 (2016): 242-277.