Means of Transportation, Geographic Scope and Volume of International Trade during the Middle Bronze Age


Ezra Marcus

Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies

University of Haifa





In recent years international trade during the Middle Bronze Age (MBA) has taken on a much greater role in the study of many aspects of the period.  Excavations in Israel, Egypt, and elsewhere, are producing increasing quantities of traded finds along with evidence for the mobility of people, technologies, and ideas.  Thus, quite a few scholars have begun to view trade as an important, if not the most important, catalyst in the rise of MBA culture, and many of the social, political, and, especially, economic processes that took place.  In order to assess the role of trade, it is crucial that there be a clear understanding of the geographical scope of the trade involving the Levant, its volume, and the means by which it was affected.  This presentation will examine these issues based on the archaeological and textual evidence, and consider the mechanics of transportation, both terrestrial and maritime. 


Scholars have largely underestimated the geographical scope of MBA trade in the past, particularly given the maritime trade.  In contrast to the preceding urban Early Bronze Age, when much of the long distance trade involved relatively restricted zones (e.g., the Egyptian-Levantine “Byblos-run”, the Cycladic-centered Aegean basin complex, and various Near Eastern terrestrial networks), albeit with some overlap, the MBA world encompasses the entire eastern Mediterranean basin.  Texts and finds in the Near East attest to long distance terrestrial and riverine trade on a broad scope: East-West from the Mediterranean littoral to Afghanistan (e.g., tin and lapis lazuli) and North-South from Nubia to the Delta and the Persian/Arabian Gulf to northern Mesopotamia.  The flourishing of maritime trade extended the range of these contacts westwards to include Cyprus and the Aegean, a development that had a profound effect on the coastal cultures of the Levant. 


The effect of a flourishing material trade on the Levant is reflected in the thriving port cities, the distribution and quantities of various artifacts and materials of foreign and local culture (e.g., Middle Cypriot pottery and probably copper, Aegean finds).   Evidence for the actual ships and their capabilities is meager, but some general observations may be made based textual and archaeological evidence.  In particular, the so-called Mit Rahina text of Amenemhet II details inter alia the maritime transport of goods from the Lebanon, providing one the earliest “bills of lading”.   This text and the artifactual evidence demonstrate the advantages of movement by sea versus land in both the ability to transport bulk cargoes and the intensity of the contacts that the speed of movement affords.  An estimation of this intensity and the volume of trade will be presented based on the Mit Rahina text, the evidence of imported Canaanite jars from Tell el-Daba, and our current understanding of the way seafaring was carried out.