The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Names of the Levant

Over recorded history, there have been many names of the Levant. These names have applied to a part or the whole of the Levant. On occasion, two or more of these names have been used at the same time by different cultures or sects. As a natural result, some of the names of the Levant are highly politically-charged. Perhaps the least politicized name is Levant itself, which simply means "where the sun rises" or "where the land rises out of the sea", a meaning attributed to the region's easterly location on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea.



The ancient Egyptians called the Levant Retjenu.


Before and during the early Hebrew settlements in the region, the land was called Canaan (first recorded in Assyrian Akkadian as Kinahnu), and its indigenous people were the Canaanites. The Phœnicians, who spoke a Canaanite language at their Mediterranean ports, also called themselves and their land Canaan.


In ancient times, the Greeks called the whole of Canaan Phœnicia. Today, the general consensus associates the Phœnician homeland proper with the northwest coastal region of the Levant, centered at Phœnician ports such as Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos. Today, this place is usually equated with modern Lebanon and the coast of modern Syria.


For a brief period of several decades, IsraŽl under David and Solomon ruled the majority of Canaan, though not most of the Phœnician and Philistine coastal lands. Today, the "Greater IsraŽl" ambition is advocated by some of the more radical adherents of Zionism, though this sentiment is not as readily shared by the more secular population of the State of IsraŽl.

Assyria and Syria

During Persian rule of the Middle-east, the Greeks and Romans came to call the region Syria, believed to have been named after Assyria and the Aramaic language they spread over the entire region. Herodotus used the combined name "Syria Palaistina".

In the 20th century, the Greater Syria aspiration rose out of Arab nationalism. Its intent was to unite all the Levantine Arab peoples under a single Syrian nation with Damascus as its capital. Under this distinction, modern Syria and Lebanon were called "northern Syria", and modern IsraŽl, Gaza, West Bank and Jordan were called "southern Syria". However, with the foundation of IsraŽl, the independence of the nation states of the region and the onset of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Greater Syria ideology gradually diminished, and after the Six-Day War the notion was largely abandoned in favor of supporting an independent Palestinian state instead.

Philistia and Palestine

Palestine derives from Philistia and its Philistine people, first recorded by the ancient Egyptians as a member of the invading Sea Peoples or Peleset. Though originally applied only to the southwest coast where the Philistines lived, later Herodotus called the whole area "Syria Palaistina". The Romans used it to refer to the southern part of the region, and the name was carried on as a province name by the Byzantines and Arabs. However, after Greek times it usually reserved for only the southern portion of the Levant.

ÜAs a side note, Standard Hebrew has two names for Palestine, both of which are different from the Hebrew name for ancient Philistia. The first name Palestina was used by Hebrew speakers in the British Mandate of Palestine; it is spelled like the name for Philistia but with three more letters added to the end and a Latin pronunciation given. The second name Filastin is a direct loan from the Arabic form, and is used today specifically to refer to the modern Palestinians and to political aspirations for a Palestinian state.


The name ash-Sham comes from an Arabic root meaning "left" or "north" — became the name of the Levant, and its capital of the time Damascus, under the Caliphate.


Medieval Italians called the region the Levant, after its easterly location where the sun "rises"; it was adopted from Italian and French into many other languages.


Frankish Crusaders called the Levant Outremer in French, which simply means "overseas." In France, this general term was colloquially applied more specifically to the Levant because of heavy Frankish involvement in the Crusades and the foundation of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and other Latin settlements scattered throughout the area.

Holy Land

  • Hebrew ארץ הקדש ʾ∑r∑ṣ h∑q∑d∑š
  • Latin Terra Sancta
  • Tiberian Hebrew אֶרֶץ הַקָּדֵשׁ ʾ…reṣ haqQāḏēš
  • Standard Hebrew אֶרֶץ הַקָּדֵשׁ …reẓ haQodeš

The Holy Land is a somewhat neutral term used in Judeo-Christian tradition to refer to the holy sites of the Levant — especially Shiloh, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth — but is also often used to refer to the Levant (and historical Canaan) as a whole. Note that this term in Islam refers not only to the Levant, but to the Arabian region of Hijaz where the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah are located.

See also Names of Jerusalem.

Last updated: 06-02-2005 05:20:36
Last updated: 08-18-2005 05:17:51