Site and Setting

Zincirli (pronounced "Zin-jeer-lee") is the modern Turkish name for the ruin mound (höyük in Turkish) in which are buried the remains of the ancient city of Sam’al. The name Zincirli means "place of the chain" (from the Turkish zincir meaning "chain"). It became known as this in the Ottoman period because a military well, placed along the road that passed by the site, possessed an iron chain—an unusual feature in this remote valley, populated at that time mainly by nomadic herders.

The ancient name Sam’al means "north." The city was obviously so designated from the perspective of Semitic-speaking settlers coming from the south, who gave it this name, perhaps in the Amorite Middle Bronze Age in the early second millennium BCE, when an empire based in Aleppo dominated most of Syria—or possibly even earlier, during the period of the Ebla Empire in the third millennium BCE, when the site of Zincirli was first occupied. (The Semitic word ŚM’L means "left," but it also means "north," because that is the direction to your left as you face east, toward the rising sun. Likewise, the Semitic word for "right," YMN, also means "south.") Another ancient name for Zincirli or the surrounding region that appears in various Iron Age inscriptions is Y’DY. We do not know how to pronounce it, but it does not appear to be Semitic, indicating that at some point a non-Semitic-speaking population had moved into the area as well.

The well-fortified city of Sam’al guarded a major pass over the Amanus Mountains, which divide the North Syrian interior from the Mediterranean Sea and the Cilician Plain to the west. It therefore controlled the caravan traffic from inland Syria and Mesopotamia that traveled westward to the Mediterranean from the Upper Euphrates River, leaving the river at a point about 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Zincirli, where the Euphrates comes closest to the sea. The heavily forested Amanus Mountains were famous in antiquity for their timber, especially tall pine and cedar, which was shipped overland to the Euphrates and then downstream to treeless southern Mesopotamia, in what is today the country of Iraq.

Physical Geography

Zincirli is situated about 60 kilometers (35 miles) south of the towering Taurus Mountains. The snow-capped Taurus range extends in an east–west direction across southern Turkey, reaching elevations as high as 3,700 meters (12,000 feet) and separating the Anatolian plateau to the north from the Syro-Mesopotamian region to the south. In ancient times, the Taurus Mountains were a major barrier to travel and communication. There were only a few routes by which they could be crossed. The mountain pass known as the Cilician Gates, located 160 kilometers (100 miles) west of Zincirli on the far side of the Cilician Plain and through which runs the modern highway from Ankara to Adana, was the principal route. Alternatively, the Upper Euphrates Valley 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Zincirli connects the northbound traveler with a series of mountain valleys in eastern Anatolia through which ancient caravans passed.

Zincirli lies immediately adjacent to the eastern foothills of the Amanus Mountains (called the Nur Dağları in Turkish; literally, "Mountains of Holy Light"), a steep north-south range that extends southward from the Taurus Mountains and separates the broad and lush plain of Cilicia from the Syrian interior and the Euphrates River. The city of Tarsus in Cilicia, birthplace of St. Paul, is 160 kilometers (100 miles) west of Zincirli; the even more prominent classical city of Antioch on the Orontes (modern Antakya) is 110 kilometers (70 miles) to the south. Whereas Antioch was strategically positioned near the eastern outlet of the main southern pass over the Amanus range—the Belen Pass, known in classical times as the Syrian Gates—the city of Sam’al commanded the eastern outlet of the northern pass. It lay astride the ancient caravan route that ran from the Cilician Plain, famous for its horses, up through the forests and logging camps of the Amanus Mountains toward the Euphrates River, and from there to the great population centers of Mesopotamia.

The long, narrow valley in which the site of Zincirli is situated—the heartland of the ancient kingdom of Sam’al—is hemmed in on the north by the Taurus range, on the west by the Amanus, and on the east by a lower range of hills (called Kurt Dağ in modern Turkish) that separated Sam’al from the Euphrates region. This valley is only 10 to 20 kilometers (6 to 12 miles) in width and  lies along a major geological fault formed by the clash of two tectonic plates. In fact, it is the northernmost extension of the 6,000-kilometer-long (3,700-mile) Syro-African Rift that skirts the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and includes the Orontes River Valley in Syria, the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, the Sea of Galilee, Jordan River, and Dead Sea, and extends all the way to Mozambique in East Africa. These rift valleys were natural corridors of travel and communication in ancient times. The inhabitants of the site of Zincirli were thus always in close contact with people to the south in the  Orontes region and elsewhere in Syria. Through the valley flowed the Karasu River, a northern tributary of the Orontes River, which it joins 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of Zincirli in the broad valley known as the plain of Antioch or the ‘Amuq, the heartland of the Iron Age kingdom of Patin, ruled from the site of Tell Tayinat (ancient Kunalua).

Climate, Flora, and Fauna

Sam’al flourished in a Mediterranean climatic zone characterized by hot, dry summers and cool, rainy winters, with abundant resources for rain-fed agriculture in the valley bottom and for pasturing herds and flocks in the nearby hills. The Amanus Mountains receive substantial precipitation, averaging one thousand millimeters or more per year. In ancient times, before modern deforestation due to logging and overgrazing, the mountain slopes supported dense forests consisting mainly of coniferous species such as fir, spruce, cedar, pine, and juniper. This region was thus a major source of high-quality timber and other tree products such as resin, which were exported to the great cities of Mesopotamia from very early times.

East of Zincirli, where annual rainfall rapidly declines with increasing distance from the sea due to the rain-shadow cast by the Amanus, the dense forest gave way to a typical Mediterranean scrubland or maquis consisting of clumps of terebinth, oak, pistachio, and other small trees and broad-leaved evergreen shrubs—many of them aromatic, such as mint, laurel, and myrtle.

Wild game abounded around Zincirli in ancient times, as attested in the hunting scenes found on Iron Age stone reliefs at Zincirli and in animal bones excavated at the site. Native to the wooded mountains and foothills near the site were deer, hares, and wild boars, as well as large predators such as wolves, lions, and bears. The streams and marshes of the Karasu Valley were home to a wide variety of fish, turtles, and water fowl, augmented by the millions of migratory birds that passed through the narrow valley in their seasonal movements from Russia to Africa.

In addition to these wild resources, the ancient inhabitants of Zincirli farmed the rich soils of the valley, raising wheat and barley, as well as various vegetables, and cultivating grapes, olives, and figs—for all of which there is excavated botanical evidence as well as ancient textual documentation. These crops, combined with the herding of sheep, goats, and cattle, and the hunting of wild game, provided a typical Mediterranean subsistence economy in ancient Sam’al.