The ancient Oriental people, who in the Bible are known as Hittites, ruled over a large part of Asia Minor and Syria during the second millennium before Christ. A mighty people, rivals of both Egyptians and Babylonians, we have only now begun to learn a little about them from their numerous inscriptions, which are being deciphered, and from the monuments which are being excavated in the ruins of their cities. It is now known that the Hittites spoke, not a Semitic, but an Indo-European language and that they had a system of hieroglyphic writing. In government, law, art, and other aspects of civilization they reached a high level. The Hittite capital was at Boghaz-Keui in eastern Asia Minor. About 1200 B.C. all records of the Hittites suddenly cease. Some great catastrophe, probably the inroads of barbarians, blotted out their empire from the face of the world and from the annals of history.
The region to the east of the Mediterranean, between Egypt and the Euphrates River, contained in antiquity three small countries : Syria (north of the Jordan), Phoenicia, and Palestine. Their situation made them the great highway of the Near East. The inhabitants spoke Semitic languages and probably came from northern Arabia. They are known as Aram Bans, Phcenicians, and Hebrews. None of these peoples ever played a leading part in the history of the Near East, but each made important contributions to civilization.
The Aramxans were keen business men, who bought and sold throughout western Asia. Their language became in this way widely spread and eventually took the place of Hebrew as the ordinary speech in Palestine. Some parts of the Old Testament are written in Aramaic. The chief center of the Aramaans was Damascus, one of the oldest cities in the world and still a thriving place. The city is beautiful for situation, lying on the edge of the desert, but amid green gardens and orchards watered by never-failing streams. Damascus, not without reason, has been called the “pearl of the Orient.”
The Phoenicians occupied a narrow stretch of coast, about one hundred and twenty miles in length and seldom more than twelve miles in width, between the Lebanon Mountains and the sea. This tiny land could not support a large population by farming, so the Phoenicians became a nation of sailors. They found in the cedars of Lebanon a soft, white wood for shipbuilding, and in the Egyptian vessels which had been entering their harbors for centuries a model for their own craft. The great Phcenician cities of Sidon and Tyre established colonies throughout the Mediterranean and had an extensive commerce with almost every region of the ancient world.
We enter Palestine by the Jordan River. The name means “the descender,” an appropriate name, for after passing through the Sea of Galilee the Jordan becomes a series of swift rapids and at length mingles with the salty waters of the Dead Sea, thirteen hundred feet below the level of the Mediterranean. The country east of the Jordan and the Dead Sea is a rocky tableland falling off abruptly into the desert. Here many nomadic tribes have always found a home. The western part of Palestine, more familiarly known as Canaan, is a varied region of plain and mountain. Much of Canaan is barren and unproductive to-day, but in ancient times it was described as “a land flowing with milk and honey.”