Where did the Ancient Semites come from?
The original homeland of all ancient Semitic peoples, including Hebrews, was not
northern Arabia, as is currently believed, but northwestern Mesopotamia. Around 6,000-
4,000 years B.C., an ecological catastrophe in the Black Sea area forced the IndoEuropean tribes to migrate outward in all directions. On their way to the south and the
south-east, the Indo-Arians displaced and partially mingled with the Hurrians of Eastern
Anatolia. In turn, arianized Hurrians first displaced the Eastern Semites (Akkadians) from
the upper courses of Tigris, and then, at the end of the 3rd millennium B.C., occupied the
land of Western Semites (Amorites) in the upper courses of Euphrates. The referencing
by the Bible of Harran as the original birthplace of Abraham is the indirect evidence of
these ethnic changes. The last wave of Western Semites (Arameans) in 12-11 centuries
B.C. was also caused by the movements of Hurrians and Indo-Europeans in northwestern
The ancient Near East represented a world dominated by Semitic peoples. Akkad
and Assyria, Babylonia and Phoenicia, Israel and the Syrian kingdoms were all the
offspring of the Semites’ activities. Although Sumer, the first country in the world, was
not of Semitic origin, its inhabitants had already been, since ancient times, fully
assimilated with the Semites and had become an integral part of their world. Egypt, on
the other hand, had long resisted the supremacy of the Semitic peoples; however it also
finally adopted their language and culture. The Indo-Europeans appeared later on the
scene. More importantly, their first countries, including the Hittite Empire, remained on
the periphery within the northern and eastern boundaries of the Near East. This same
concept applied to the Hurrians, an ancient, non-Semitic people whose ethnic origin is
still unclear at present.
Today, most believe that the original homeland of the ancient Semites should
indeed be sought in the Near East. But where should we look? In the twentieth century,
the opinion was established that the most probable region of the Semites’ origin was in
northern Arabia. Its geographical position, in the center of the modern Semitic world,
allows for an easy explanation of these peoples’ dispersion in the Near East. This version
is also ideal for understanding the diffusion of the Semitic languages group. In favor of
this option, people speak of the significant water reserves in the northern Arabian aquifer,
without which the wells for the nomadic and pastoral tribes would not have been
possible. This proves that in ancient times the climate of this region, and indeed of the
whole of the Near East, was significantly more humid. Archeological excavations have
shown that that approximately 8-9 thousand years ago, so much rain fell that today’s
deserts in the Negev and in northern Sinai had rich vegetation and that settlements of
people existed there.1
Only with time, in relation to the climate which became drier, did northern Arabia
transform into a desert; this was the main reason for the exodus of the Semitic tribes from
their original homeland. This seemingly convenient and convincing version has one very
serious fault. Northern Arabia had already become a desert a minimum of 7,000 years
ago, i.e. long before the massive migrations of the Semites had begun. Archaeological
data confirms that by the 5th millennium BC, the climate in the Near East had become
increasingly dry and thus people gradually left their settlements in northern Sinai and in
The life of the Bedouins in today’s Arabia would not have been possible
without the camel and this animal was domesticated only in the 11th century BC. To
summarize, the climatic conditions in northern Arabia did not correspond to the living
needs of a large group of tribes.
In addition, there exists other circumstantial evidence against searching for the
fatherland of the Semites in northern Arabia. All the ancient Egyptian frescos depict the
Semites as people with relatively light skin, as compared to the Egyptians themselves.
Consequently, they came from regions located primarily to the north where the sun’s
radiation was less of an issue than in Egypt or in northern Arabia.
People have also searched for the fatherland of the ancient Semites in Palestine,
Syria and in central Mesopotamia, but the absence of continuity in the shifting cultural
strata renders these assumptions doubtful. There also exists a more eccentric version,
locating the Semites’ original homeland in the territory of today’s Sahara. The primary
supporters of this have been linguists who have thus been able to explain the relationship
of the Semitic languages with Berber, Cushitic, Chadic, and the ancient Egyptian
Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, 10,000-586 B.C.E. (New York: Doubleday, 1992),
A. Mazar, Archaeology, 48-49.
languages. Indeed, the Sahara has not always been a fruitless desert, but the problem lies
in the fact that it had already become a desert earlier than the whole of northern Arabia
had. Thus, it is clear that the Semites’ migrations took place in a period which hardly
differed from today’s climate in the Near East. Moreover, the most important of these
migrations, e.g. those of the Amorites and the Aramaeans, had already happened in the
historical period when literacy existed. Although the evidence showing where the
Semites came from is not yet clear, we can still use written and archeological sources to
definitively confirm that the Semites came to central Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine
not from the south (Arabia), but from the north (northwestern Mesopotamia) and from the
upper courses of the two large-scale rivers in Western Asia, the Tigris and the Euphrates.
The Bible concretely designates the fatherland of the Jewish patriarchs, specifying
the region surrounding the city of Haran which was situated approximately 30 km to the
southwest of today’s Turkish city Sanliurfa (ancient Edessa), not far from the border with
Syria. The biblical texts unambiguously show that the city of Ur in Sumer, from which
Abraham came into Canaan (Palestine), was never his place of birth. Moreover, on the
way to Canaan, the family of Abraham and his father Terah, stopped for a long time in
the place of their birth, Haran.3
This is where Terah died and the clan leadership was
transferred to his son – Abraham. Later, the Bible again recalls that the native land of the
ancient Jewish forefathers was not Canaan, but Haran, in northwestern Mesopotamia.
The book of Genesis also gives two names for this region: Aram-Naharaim and PadanAram.4
Obviously, they secured the region of Haran after the arrival of the Aramaeans.
It was precisely here that Abraham sent his trusted servant to find a wife for his son Isaac,
since he did not want him to form relations with the foreigners in Canaan.5
save her beloved son from the revenge of his brother, Esau, Jacob’s mother Rebecca sent
her son to their relatives in their homeland.6
Similar to Abraham, Isaac likewise did not
wish to enter into family relations with the foreigners of Canaan.7
The Bible does not
Gen. 24:10; 25:20.
hide the disappointment and pain felt by Esau’s parents because of his marriage to a local
The prolonged archeological excavations in Palestine have unearthed sufficient
proof that the Western Semitic people, the Canaanites, also came from the north in the 4-
3 millennia BC. In addition, the Canaanites’ predecessors – the bearers of the so-called
Ghassulian culture, which appeared in Palestine approximately 4,000 years BC, were
most likely also Western Semites who had come to Canaan from the north as well.9
At the end of the 3rd millennium BC, large groups of Western Semitic peoples,
specifically the Amorites, began settling in mass in Mesopotamia, Syria and Canaan and
took control over the majority of the cities, forming their own Amorite countries. One of
these, for example, was Babylon – during the reign of the infamous ruler Hammurapi in
the 18th century BC. This written and material evidence gathered in the last decades
speaks in favor of the fact that the Amorites did not come from northern Arabia or the
Syrian Desert region, as had previously been thought, but instead from the north, from
The second mass wave of Western Semites, known as the Aramaens, came to
Syria, central and southern Mesopotamia much later in the 12-11th centuries BC. Judging
from the directions of their migrations, their place of exodus was again northwestern
It is well known that the first Semitic country, Akkad, was build in central
Mesopotamia not by Western, but by Eastern Semites. Subsequently, they also
subordinated their southern neighbor Sumer. The history of the relations between these
two countries testifies that the Akkadians did not come from the south, but from the
north, as did all Western Semites.10
What did northwestern Mesopotamia actually represent – the fatherland of the
Semites? This significant area, in terms of territory, is portioned off from the remaining
portion of Anatolia by the imposing mountain range Taurus from the north to the east and
from the west by the mountain chain Nur. This three-sided natural shelter had a
Kathleen M. Kenyon, Archaeology in the Holy Land, 4th ed. (1985).
10 Seton Lloyd, The Archaeology of Mesopotamia: from the Old Stone to the Persian Conquest (1984);
Michael Roaf, Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East (1990); I.M. Diakonov (ed),
Ancient Mesopotamia: Socio-Economic History (1981).
significant effect on the lives of the people during this troubled period. Even today, the
mountains surrounding northwestern Mesopotamia in a semicircle protect it from the cold
north winds, making the local climate substantially milder and warmer in comparison to
the interior regions of Anatolia. This region is only uncovered on the southern side, the
side of the Syrian lowlands. The upper courses of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as well
as their tributaries supply this region with water in abundance. The sufficient
precipitation, in combination with the relatively flat landscape and fertile soil, allows for
agriculture and cattle raising, even at a significant distance from the rivers. This land
ideally suited the lives of the ancient people from all points of view. It is not by accident
that today, cotton, a warm-loving crop requiring much water and good ground, is tilled in
this area. Nowadays, the fatherland of ancient Semites, is located almost entirely in
modern-day Turkey. The Turkish cities of Gaziantep and Kilis are located in its western
part, Sanliurfa and Mardin in the south and Batman, Diyarbakir and Adiyaman in the
north. As fate would have it, the Semites’ native land has turned out to be located at the
very northern border of the Semitic world. It was precisely from this area that they had
begun to descend south, along the river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, continuing
along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. But what forced them to abandon their
blessed land? After all, the new lands with their hotter, more difficult climate, pressured
by the enormous Syrian Desert, had chronically suffered from a lack of rain. Most likely,
two factors had primarily contributed to this: the natural growth and advance of the IndoEuropeans and the Hurrians from the north. Thus, this brings us to another problem
linked with the fatherland of the Indo-European peoples.
The search for the Indo-European cradle of civilization is a more complex affair
than the Semites’ native land. Various researchers have located it in different places
entirely distant from one another: some on the territory of today’s Poland, some in the
Balkans, others in Iran or Central Asia. Such varying opinions are not by chance. Not
less than one and a half to two thousand years ago, the bearers of the Indo-European
languages scattered into the large territory of Europe and Asia – from Spain in the west,
to the borders of Tibet in the east and from the Artic Ocean in the north, to the Indian
Ocean in the south. But where did this movement of these people’s ancestors begin and
what forced them to abandon their original land? The Roman and the ancient Greek
authors left us a good deal of information about the movements of the Germanic and
Slavic peoples, the Scythians and Sarmatians, while the ancient Egyptian sources contain
information about the Hittites and the Sea Peoples.11 The Babylonians and Assyrians
were in contact with the Medes, Iranians, Cimmerians and the peoples of Urartu.
Indeed, the very history of the ancient Greeks and Romans appears only as a part
of the entire, Indo-European history. From the wealth of this isolated and fragmentary
information provided by different authors during different periods, it follows that the
place of exodus of all the Indo-Europeans’ movements was their original homeland,
located somewhere in the region near the Black Sea, specifically on its northern and
western shores. Most probably, the principal region where the Indo-Europeans lived in
prehistoric times was the exact area which is occupied today by the waters of the Black
Sea. Approximately, 8,000 years ago, our modern Black and Azov Seas did not exist at
all. Their territory was occupied by a large cavity lying substantially lower than the level
of the world’s ocean. At the time, there was a large fresh-water lake in the area, however
because of its size, it completely yielded to today’s Black Sea.12 Great rivers flowed into
this lake, including the Danube, Dniester, Bug, Dnieper, Don, Kuban and Kizil-irmak.
The plentiful fresh water, mild climate and conveniently flat lands were obviously a
favorable area for people, similar to the Semites’ original homeland in northwestern
Mesopotamia. However, as a result of the seismic processes between the 6-4th millennia
BC, a decline in the level of the land ensued in the area covering the modern-day
Bosporus and the water from the Mediterranean Sea began to flood into the Black Sea
cavity.13 A geological cataclysm had resulted in an ecological catastrophe: the former
fresh-water lake had turned into a salty sea and gradually flooded the regions where many
Indo-Europeans lived. It took decades, perhaps even hundreds of years to fill up the
Black Sea, therefore it could not bring the people to ruin, but it did force their migrations
in all directions. The newly-formed sea literally squeezed the Indo-Europeans from their
former territory, all the more so since it affected the tribes occupying the region to the
11 Julius Caesar, War in Gaul, 4.16-18; Tacitus, Germania, Part II; Pliny the Elder, Natural History
(4.100); Pomponius Mela, Description of the World (III.3.31)
12 A.I. Riabinin and V.N. Kravets, Sovremennoe sostoianie serovodorodnoy zony Chernogo moria: 1960-
1986 gody (1989).
13 D. Tolmazin, “Changing Coastal Oceanography of the Black Sea,” Progress in Oceanography,
north and the west of the Black Sea. Here, in fact, the water had covered the most
territory. Based on the information we have available about the history of the IndoEuropeans’ movements, the Celts and the Germans occupied the northwestern borders of
the Black Sea, the Balts and Slavs took the northern borders, the ancestors of the
Cimmerians, Sarmatians and Scythians occupied the northeast, and in the southeast the
Indo-Iranian tribes lived. Most likely, the ancestors of the Italics and the Greeks lived in
the northern portion of the Balkan Peninsula to the southwest of the Celts and the
Germans. The Hittites, Luwians, Palaics and all those whom we classify with the
Anatolian group of Indo-European languages, occupied the southernmost regions of the
Black Sea cavity and were forced out by the advancing sea towards the north of Asia
Minor and towards Anatolia. Subsequently, the Celts and after them, the Germans,
gradually occupied the northwest of Europe, while the Slavs and Balts spread into
northern and eastern Europe, already occupied by the Finno-Ugric peoples. The IndoIranian languages speakers invaded the territory of Iran, Central Asia and northern India.
This model of the Indo-Europeans’ expansion to all directions from the Black Sea finds
circumstantial evidence in the ancient historians’ sources, covering the life of the
Germanic tribes of Ostrogoths in the Crimea during the first centuries AD.14 These
sources also deal with the eastern Slavic people, the Drevlians, as a neighbor of the “lost”
German tribe in the territory of today’s Ukraine, as well as with the sojourn of the Baltic
Lats in the Upper Volga region.
The movement of the Indo-Europeans to the south and east resulted in the
displacement of the Semites from their original homeland in the northwest of
Mesopotamia. But the Semites were not the only ones whom the Indo-Europeans forced
to abandon their native regions. An analogous situation happened to the Hurrians in
eastern Anatolia. Highly oppressed by the Indo–Europeans in that region, they were also
forced to go to the south and settle in northern Syria and Mesopotamia. Hurrian names
appeared quite early in northern Mesopotamia, already at the end of the 3rd millennium
BC. This ethnic group created several of their own states, the strongest of which were the
14 Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths (3.12); R. Chevalier: The Greco-Roman Conception of the
North: from Pytheas to Tacitus. Arctic 37:4 (December 1984), 341-346; James J. O’Donnell, Cassiodorus
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).
Mitanni.15 To date, the language and ethnic origins of the Hurrians remain a mystery.
Many historians consider the Hurrians to be of Indo-European origin, just like the
Hittites, however a linguistic analysis of their language has not been able to confirm this.
Most likely, the Hurrians were one of the autochthonous peoples from southern TransCaucasia and eastern Anatolia, related to the ethnic groups which later constituted the
country of Urartu. It may also be the case that they, as other peoples native to the TransCaucasia, had already assimilated the culture and language of the advancing IndoIranians. Their most probable heirs in the modern world are only the Armenians.
The interior regions of Anatolia were populated by another autochthonous people,
the Hatti, who had given their name to the arriving Indo-Europeans, the Hittites.
Unfortunately, we know very little about them and we can suppose that they completely
merged with the newcomers from the north. Most likely, there existed quite a few
natives in the territory of Asia Minor, Anatolia, Trans-Caucasia and Iran. Just like the
Hatti and the Hurrians, these peoples were not related to the Semites nor to the IndoEuropeans. Instead, the stronger and more numerous Indo-Europeans either subdued and
assimilated them or they forced them into other regions. This may have been the same
for the Sumerians, as the arrival of the Indo-Iranians pushed them out of their fatherland
in the area of ancient Elam and thus forced them to go into southern Mesopotamia. There
is no trace of these peoples today. They were already fully assimilated in ancient times
by either the Indo-Europeans or the Semites. Therefore, today we cannot decipher their
languages by trying to identify them only on the basis of our known language groups.
Even while still in their original homeland, the ancient Semites, similar to the
Indo-Europeans, were far from homogenous. Judging from the date and direction of their
migrations, we can suppose that already in the 4th millennium BC, there was a distinct
division between the Western Semites (Amorites and Aramaeans) and the Eastern
Semites (Akkadians and Assyrians). The former concentrated in the upper Euphrates and
the area near its tributaries, while the latter occupied the upper course of the Tigris River
valley. This geographical division even existed among the Western Semites themselves.
The southwest belonged to the Amorites, while the north to the Aramaeans. The wellknown Canaanites represented a part of these Amorites who, earlier than the other
15 Gernot Wilhelm, The Hurrians (1989).
Western Semites, had gone to Syria, Phoenicia and Canaan. All the cultural and
language differences among them are the result of living separately for almost a thousand
years. It is possible that the even earlier arrival of people from the Ghassulian culture
into Canaan represented, from an ethnic point of view, the first Canaanites – specifically,
their vanguard. Most likely, the reasons for the forcing out of the Western Semites from
their original homeland were different at different times. The gradual exodus of the
Ghassulians and the Canaanites was most probably caused by the growth in the number
of inhabitants and internal clashes in their fatherland of northwestern Mesopotamia.
However, the mass migrations of the Amorites, and later of the Aramaeans, to the south
are connected with the pressure of Indo-Europeans from the north. Over time, the
beginning of the Amorites’ exodus coincided with the arrival the Hittites into Anatolia
and other peoples related to them, while the Aramaean migration wave chronologically
coincides with the invasion of the Sea Peoples.
Thus, the exodus of the Semites from their original homeland in the upper courses
of the Tigris and Euphrates was initiated by the movement of the Indo-Europeans and the
Indo-Arians who, in turn, were gradually squeezed out by the ecological catastrophe from
their own native land in area of the Black Sea. The migrations eventually also involved
the Hurrians – the indigenous population of Trans-Caucasia and northeastern Anatolia.
By leaving the region of the Black Sea, the Indo-Arians displaced the Hurrians to the
south (in the north of Mesopotamia) where they clashed with the Semites living there.
The invasion of the Hurrians into the Tigris and Euphrates upper courses resulted in a
mass exodus to the south; at first the Eastern Semites (the Akkadians) left, later followed
by the Western Semites (the Amorites). The area left by the Amorites was occupied by
the Hurrians and the Aramaeans, who were related to the Amorites. Thus, the Aramaeans
appeared in the Haran region. Biblical texts mistakenly figure the patriarch Abraham and
his relatives among them. On their way to the southeast, several Indo-Arian tribes did
not simply displace the Hurrians, but partially mingled with them. As a result, IndoArian groups such as the Maryannu became part of the Hurrian community.
The second mass migration of the Western Semites from their original homeland
began in approximately the 12th century BC and also happened as a result of the Indo-
Europeans’ migrations. This time, the Aramaeans backed out, practically retracing the
path of their predecessors, the Amorites. One of these peoples, the Chaldeans descended
down the river valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates into southern Mesopotamia.
Others went to the southwest, into Syria, where they founded their own kingdoms.
However, within the Semites’ native land there remained a significant Aramaean
population for a long time, even though they were crowded out by the Luwians (a group
related to the Hittites) and the Iranians, advancing from the east. Despite the successive
waves of Hellenization and then Christianization, the local population as a whole
preserved their Semitic roots. The ethnic situation substantially changed only after the
arrival of the Turkic tribes at the end of 11th century. Over the course of several
centuries, the population became completely Turkish and Islamic. Today, the entire
territory of this vast region is primarily occupied by Turks and Kurds, thus no one recalls
the fatherland of the ancient Semites any longer.