Settlement History

A careful study by Gunnar Lehmann and Marina Pucci of the pottery collected by the nineteeth-century German expedition, now stored in Berlin, has shown that the site of Zincirli was originally settled during the Early Bronze Age, in the period of the Ebla Empire in the third millennium BCE, and it was also occupied during the Middle Bronze Age, in the period of the Amorite empire of Yamhad based in Aleppo. There is no ceramic evidence of occupation in the Late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age, suggesting that Zincirli was abandoned during the period of the Mittanian and Hittite Empires and for much of the Neo-Hittite period. However, in the tenth century BCE a new Iron Age dynasty was founded by a ruler named Gabbār, who is mentioned in later inscriptions. His descendants greatly expanded and heavily fortified the site of Zincirli. The original 4-hectare (10-acre) mound was enlarged and turned into a royal citadel with its own massive gate, walls, and stone-faced rampart, while a circular outer fortification consisting of two concentric walls placed 7 meters (23 feet) apart was constructed on empty farmland to encompass an area totaling 40 hectares (100 acres).

The outermost wall, which was 3 meters (10 feet) wide, had stone foundations more than 3 meters in height and, on top of these foundations, a mudbrick superstructure (now eroded away) that would have risen to a height of at least 10 meters (33 feet). This wall ran for a distance of 2,200 meters (1.4 miles) in a perfect circle around the site. It had 100 projecting towers, evenly spaced, which served as firing platforms for archers and spearmen defending the city. A concentric wall of the same dimensions, with its own towers precisely aligned with the outer wall’s towers, was built 7 meters (23 feet) inside the outer wall, forming a unique double-walled fortification system—a formidable obstacle to any attacker, who, having captured the outermost wall, would have been trapped in the gap between the walls and subjected to withering fire from defenders who had fallen back to man the inner wall.

The expansion and fortification of Iron Age Sam’al is attributed by many scholars (e.g., P.-E. Dion, E. Lipiński, H. Sader) to the migration of Arameans from the Euphrates River region to the southeast. Various Neo-Assyrian and West Semitic inscriptions reveal that Aramaic-speaking warlords managed to establish small kingdoms throughout Syria in this period, often at the expense of the Luwian-speaking Neo-Hittite rulers of Anatolian extraction who had previously dominated the area. The Luwian elite had themselves inherited power from the Hittite Empire, which was based far to the northwest in central Anatolia and had managed to conquer the region south of the Taurus Mountains in the late fourteenth century BCE and to rule the northern Levant for more than a century until the empire collapsed in the early twelfth century. Luwian, an Indo-European language closely related to the Hittite royal dialect, was the language of the Anatolian people who entered the region in the wake of the Hittite Empire. Luwian inscriptions written in a distinctive hieroglyphic script—several of which have been found near Zincirli—attest to the dominance of this group in the post-Hittite period.

It is such Luwian-speaking rulers who were replaced in the valley of Sam’al by new rulers who spoke a Northwest Semitic language, which is revealed in the Sam'alian alphabetic inscriptions of the eighth century BCE. It is quite possible that these rulers were not invading Arameans, as is commonly assumed, but were in fact indigenous Semitic-speakers of Amorite extraction, descended from the Middle Bronze Age inhabitants of the valley. The local Sam’alian dialect does not share morphological innovations found in all other examples of Aramaic, calling into question its classification as Aramaic (see J. Huehnergard, “What is Aramaic?” ARAM 7 [1995]: 261–282). Moreover, it is worth noting that there is evidence that the place-name Sam’al (“north”) was in use long before the Iron Age and may well be the Amorite name of the site, because it appears in an Old Assyrian text of the nineteenth century BCE (Kultepe c/k 441, published in Nashef 1987:18–20, text no. 7). Whether or not the new Iron Age rulers were invading Arameans, we can certainly say that there was an alternation of power in the region among at least two distinct ethnolinguistic groups, which were of Anatolian (Luwian) and Levantine (Northwest Semitic) origin, respectively.

Mesopotamian cuneiform texts and the local alphabetically written inscriptions show that Sam’al, like the other independent kingdoms in the Levant, was conquered and gradually incorporated into the Neo-Assyrian Empire during the ninth and eighth centuries BCE. Sam'al was initially controlled by the Assyrians through native vassal kings who continued the dynasty of Gabbār. But at the end of the eighth century, Sam’al was "provincialized" with the removal of the native dynasty and the installation of an Assyrian governor. We know the name of one such governor of Sam’al, who is mentioned in several Assyrian texts: Nabû-ahhē-ēreš, the eponym of the year 681 BCE (see Millard 1994, p. 102). It was during this period that the monumental inscribed stele of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, was installed inside the citadel gate of Sam’al to commemorate his conquest of Egypt in 671 BCE.

When the Assyrian Empire retreated several decades later, in the latter part of the seventh century, the city was abandoned. It was not destroyed but was apparently evacuated in an orderly manner, leaving no people or goods behind. Thus, in the entire lower town and in most places on the citadel mound, seventh-century remains of the late Assyrian Empire period form the final phase and are easily accessible for excavation.

There is a small area of subsequent occupation on the upper mound, probably a small fortress of the Persian period. But even there, no ceramic evidence was found of occupation after the Greek conquest under Alexander the Great in the late fourth century BCE. A new Greek city called Nikopolis (modern İslahiye) was built in the Amanus foothills 10 kilometers (6 miles) to the south, while the ruins of Sam’al, the former capital of the region, lay unoccupied until a modern village was built on the site in the late nineteenth century.