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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > S > Semites


The term Semites is applied to a group of peoples closely related in language, whose habitat is Asia and partly Africa. The expression is derived from the Biblical table of nations (Genesis 10), in which most of these peoples are recorded as descendants of Noah's son Sem.

The term Semite was proposed at first for the languages related to the Hebrew by Ludwig Schlözer, in Eichhorn's "Repertorium", vol. VIII (Leipzig, 1781), p. 161. Through Eichhorn the name then came into general usage (cf. his "Einleitung in das Alte Testament" (Leipzig, 1787), I, p. 45. In his "Gesch. der neuen Sprachenkunde", pt. I (Göttingen, 1807) it had already become a fixed technical term. Since then the name has been generally adopted, except that modern science uses it in a somewhat wider sense to include all those Peoples who are either demonstrably of Semitic origin, or who appear in history as completely Semitized.


In historic times all Western Asia (see below), with the exception of the peninsula of Asia Minor, was Semitic. From the philological point of view the Semitic peoples are divided into four chief Babylonian-Assyrian Semites (East Semites), Chanaanitic Semites, (West Semites), Aramaic Semites (North Semites), and Arabian Semites (South Semites). The last-named group is divided into North and South Arabians, of which last the Abyssinians are a branch. The first three groups are usually termed North Semites, in contrast to the Arabian group, or South Semites. But the classification of the Babylonian with the Aramaic and Chanaanitic Semites is not permissible from the philological point of view.


The great mountain-chains which begin at the Syro-Cilician boundary, and then curving towards the south-west extend to the Persian Gulf, separate on the north and east the territory of the Semites from that of the other peoples of Western Asia. It includes the Syro-Arabian plain with the civilized countries extending to the east and west and the Arabian Peninsula which joins it on the south. The lowlands to the east are formed by the Euphrates and the Tigris, and include the homes of two very ancient civilizations, in the north the rather undulating Mesopotamia, in the south the low Babylonian plain; the land extending to the west from the lower Euphrates is called Chaldea. These are the territories of the East Semitic tribes and states. On the west lies Northern Syria, then the Lebanon Mountains with the intervening Coelo-Syria, the oasis of Damascus, the seat of an ancient culture, the Hauran, and in the midst of the desert the oasis of Palmyra (Tadmor). These territories were at a later period occupied principally by Aramaic tribes. The territory on the coast extending westwards from Lebanon, and Palestine, which joins it on the south, are the principal seats of the Chanaanitic Semites. The mountainous country to the east of Arabia and the Sinaitic peninsula extending to the west of Arabia, belong to Arabia proper, the territory of the South Semites.

Original home

The tribes which inhabited these territories, and to some extent still inhabit them, show in language, traits, and character a sharply characterized individuality which separates them distinctly from other peoples. Their languages are closely related to one another, not being almost independent branches of language, like the great groups of Indo-Germanic languages, but rather dialects of a single linguistic group. Physically, also, the Semitic form it is found in Arabia. Here also the phonetics and partly also the grammatical structure of the Semitic language, are most purely, as the vocabulary is most completely, preserved. From these as well as from other circumstances the conclusion has been drawn that Arabia should be considered the original home of the Semitic peoples. All the racial peculiarities of the Semites are best explained from the character of a desert people. All Semites settled in civilized lands are, therefore, to be considered offshoots of the desert tribes, which were detached one after the other from the parent stem. This pressing forward towards civilized lands was a continuous movement, often in a slow development lasting through centuries but often also in mighty and sudden invasions, the last of which appears in that of the Arabs of Islam. The further question as to how the original ancestors of the Semites came to Arabia, is for the present beyond historical knowledge.

East Semites

The first emigrants from Arabia who succeeded in acquiring new landed possessions were the Semitic Babylonians. In Babylonia the invaders proceeded to adopt the highly-developed civilization of an ancient non-Semitic people, the Sumerians, and with it the cuneiform alphabets which the latter had invented. When this invasion occurred is not known; but that it was accomplished in several stages, and after temporary settlements on the borders, is unquestionable. By 3000 B.C. the dominion of the Semites in Babylonia was an accomplished fact.

Ethnologically considered, the Babylonians are a mixed people, composed partly of the Sumerian and the most ancient Semitic emigrants, partly also of the continuously invading West Semites, and further more of Kassites and other people, all of whom were amalgamated. The principal seat of the Semitic element was in the north, in the land of Accad, while in the south the Sumerians were most numerous. Under Sargon and Naram-Sin was completed the amalgamation of the Sumerian and the Accadian (Semitic) civilization, which in the age of Hammurabi appears as an accomplished fact. The mighty expansion of the kingdom to the Mediterranean naturally resulted in the wide extension of the Sumerian-Accadian civilization, and for a millennium and a half Babel was the intellectual centre of Western Asia. As is proved by the Tel-el-Amarna letters, the Babylonian language and script were known in Western Asia as well as in Egypt and Cyprus, at least at the courts of the rulers. At an early period the Semites must have invaded the mountainous territory to the east of Babylonia. Not until about 2300 B.C. do we find a foreign element in Elam. Before this time, according to inscriptions which have been found, Babylonian Semites lived there.

On the Accadian border dwelt the Semitic tribes of Mesopotamia, which are included under the general term Subari. The centre of this region is desert, but on the banks of the Euphrates, Chaboras, and Tigris are strips of land capable of cultivation, upon which at an early period Semitic settlements were established for the most part probably under local dynasties. The Subari include also the Assyrians, who founded on the right bank of the Tigris — between the mouths of the two Zab rivers a city which bore the same name as the race and its god. All these tribes and states were under the influence of Babylonia and its civilization, and Babylonian-Semitic was their official and literary language. But while in Babylonia the Semitic element was amalgamated with different strata of the original population, in Mesopotamia the Semitic type was more purely preserved.

Briefly recapitulating the political history of the Eastern Semites, we may distinguish four periods. The first includes essentially the fortunes of the ancient Babylonian realm; the second witnesses the predominance of Assur, involved in constant struggles with Babylonia, which still maintained its independence. During the third period Amur, after the overthrow of Babylonia, achievers the summit of its power; this is followed, after the destruction of Nineveh, by the short prosperity of the new Babylonian Kingdom under the rule of the Chaldeans. This power, and with it the entire dominion of the Semites in south-western Asia, was overthrown by the Persians.

Chanaanitic Semites

This designation was chosen because the races belonging to this group can best be studied in the land of Chanaan. They represent a second wave of emigration into civilized territory. About the middle of the third millennium before Christ they were a race of nomads in a state of transition to settled life, whose invasions were directed against the East as well as the West. About this time there constantly appear in Babylonia the names of gods, rulers, and other persons of a distinctly Chanaanitic character. To these belongs the so called first Babylonian dynasty, the most celebrated representative of which is Hammurabi. Its rule probably denotes the high tide of that new invasion of Babylonia, which also strongly influenced Assyria. In time the new stratum was absorbed by the existing population, and thereby became a part of Babylonian Semitism. Through the same invasion the civilized territory of the West received a new population, and even Egypt was affected. For the Hyksos (shepherd kings) are in the main only the last offshoot of that Chanaanitic invasion, and in their rulers we see a similar phenomenon as that of the Chanaanitic dynasty of Babylonia. As regards the Semites in Chanaan itself, the earliest wave of the invasion, which in consequence of subsequent pressure was ultimately pushed forward to the coast, is known to us under the name of the Phoenicians. A picture of the conditions of the races and principalities of Palestine in the fifteenth century B.C. is given in the Tel-el-Amarna letters. In them we find a series of Chanaanitic glosses, which show that even at that time the most important of those characteristic peculiarities had been developed, which gave their distinctive character to the best known Chanaanitic dialects, the Phoenician and the Hebrew. Further examples of Chanaanitic language of the second millennium, especially as regards the vocabulary, are the Semitic glosses in the Egyptian.

To the Chanaanitic races settled in Palestine belong also the Hebrew immigrants under Abraham, from whom again the Moabites and Ammonites separated. A people closely related to the Hebrews were also the Edomites in the Seir mountains, who later appear under the name of Idumaeans in Southern Judea. These mountains had before them been settled by the Horities who were partly expelled, partly absorbed by the Edomites. A last wave of the immigration into Chanaan are the Israelites, descendants of the Hebrews, who after centuries of residence in Egypt, and after forty years of nomadic life in the desert, returned to the land of their fathers, of which they took possession after long and weary struggles. That the influence of Chanaanitic Semitism extended far into the North is proved by the two Zendsirli inscriptions: the so-called Hadad inscription of the ninth century, and the Panammu inscription of the eighth century, the language of which shows a Chanaanitic character with Aramaic intermixture. On the other hand, the so-called building inscription of Bir-Rokeb, dating from the last third of the eighth century, is purely Aramaic — a proof that the Aramaization of Northern Syria was in full progress.

Aramaic Semites

These represent a third wave of Semitic immigration. In cuneiform inscriptions dating from the beginning of the fourteenth century B.C. They are mentioned as Ahlami. Their expansion probably took place within the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries B.C. from the plain between the mouth of the Euphrates and the mountains of Edom. As early as the reign of Salmanasar I (1300) they had pressed far into Mesopotamia and become a public scourge, in consequence of which the stream of immigration could not longer be restrained. During the new expansion of Assyrian power under Tiglath-Pileser I (1118-1093 B.C.) his reports enumerate victories over the Aramaeans. Their further advance into the territory of the Euphrates and towards Syria took place about 1100-1000 B.C. By then ninth century all Syria was Aramiaicized; many small states were formed, principally successors of the Hittite Kingdom. The most important Arammaean principality was that of Damascus, which was destroyed by Tiglath-Pileser III in 732. In like manner the remaining Aramaic states succumbed. A new rebellion was suppressed by Sargon, and with this the rule of the Aramaeans in Syria ended. In the meanwhile, the Aramaean element in Mesopotamia was constantly growing stronger. At the beginning of the ninth century we hear of a number of small Aramaic states or Bedouin territories there. They were subdued under Assurnasirpal (Asshur-nasir-pal) III (884-860), and the independence of their princes was destroyed by his successor Salmanasar (Shalmaneser) II. Nevertheless, the immigration continued. In the struggles of Assyria the Aramaeans of Mesopotamia always made common cause with its enemies and even under Assurbanipal they were allied with his opponents. From this time we hear nothing more of them. They were probably absorbed by the remaining population.

Their language alone, which the Arammans in consequence of their numerical superiority forced upon these countries, survived in the sphere of the North Semitic civilization, and was not obliterated until the Islam's conquest. The potent Arabic displaced the Aramaic dialects with the exception of a few remnants. Since the second half of the eighth century the use of Aramaic as a language of intercourse can be proved in Assyria, and about the same time it certainly prevailed in Babylonia among the commercial classes of the population. In the West also their language extended in a southerly direction as far as Northern Arabia. For Aramaic had become the general language of commerce, which the Semitic peoples of Western Asia found themselves compelled to adopt in their commercial, cultural, and political relations. The Aramaic elements of the population were absorbed by the other peoples of the existing civilized lands. They developed a distinct nationality in Damascus. In Mesopotamia itself, in the neighbourhood of Edessa, Mardin, and Nisibis, Aramaic individuality was long preserved. But the culture of this country was afterwards strongly permeated by Hellenism. One of the last political formations of the Aramaeans is found in Palmyra, which in the first century B.C. became the centre of a flourishing state under Arabian princes. It flourished until the ambitious design of Odenathus and Zenobia to play the leading part in the East caused its destruction by the Romans. A small fragment of Aramaic-speaking population may be still found in Ma'lula and two other villages of the Anti-Lebanon. So-called New Syrian dialects, descendants of the East Aramaic, are spoken in Tur'Abdin in Mesopotamia, to the east and north of Mosul, and in the neighbouring mountains of Kurdistan, as well as on the west shore of Lake Urmia. Of these Aramaic-speaking Christians a part lives on what was clearly ancient Aramaic territory; but for those on Lake Urmia we must assume a later immigration. Nestorian bishops of Urmia are mentioned as early as A.D. 1111.

Arabic-Abyssinian Semites


The most powerful branch of the Semitic group of peoples, are indigenous to Central and Northern Arabia, where even today the original character is most purely preserved. At an early period they pressed forward into the neighbouring territories, partly to the North and partly to the South. In accordance with linguistic differences they are divided into North and South Arabians. Northern Arabia is composed partly of plains and deserts, and is, therefore, generally speaking, the home of wandering tribes of Bedouins. The South, on the other hand, is fertile and suitable for a settled population. For this reason we find here at an early date political organizations, and the sites of ruins and inscriptions bear witness to the high culture which once prevailed. The natural richness of the country and its favourable situation on the seacoast made the South Arabians at an early period an important commercial people. In the fertile lowlands of the South Arabian Djôf the Kingdom of Ma'in (Minaeans) flourished. It is generally dated as early as the middle of the second millennium before Christ, although for the present it is better to maintain a somewhat sceptical attitude as regards this hypothesis. At all events, the Minaeans, at an early period, probably avoiding the desert by a journey along the eastern coast, emigrated from North-eastern Arabia. To the south and south-east of the Minaeans were the Katabans and the Hadramotites, who were cognate in language and who stood in active commercial relations with Ma'in, under whose political protectorate they seem to have lived. The spirit of enterprise of this kingdom is shown by the foundation of a commercial colony in the north-western part of the peninsula in the neighbourhood of the Gulf of Akabah, viz., Ma'in-Mussran (Mizraimitic, Egypt Ma'in). The downfall of the Ma'in kingdom was, according to the usual assumption, connected with the rise of the Sabaean kingdom. The Sabaeans had likewise emigrated from the North, and in constant struggles had gradually spread their dominion over almost all Southern Arabia. Their capital was Ma'rib. Their numerous monuments and inscriptions extend from about 700 B.C. until almost the time of Mohammed. At the height of its power, Saba received a heavy blow by the loss of the monopoly of the carrying trade between India and the northern regions, when the Ptolemies entered into direct trade relations with India. Still the Sabaean Kingdom maintained itself, with varying fortune, until about A.D. 300. After its fall the once powerful Yeman was constantly under foreign domination, at last under Persian. Ultimately, Southern Arabia was drawn into the circle of Islam. Its characteristic language was replaced by the Northern Arabic, and in only a few localities of the southern coast are remnants of it to be found: the so-called Mahri in Mahraland and the Socotri on the Island of Socotra.

Northern Arabia had in the meanwhile followed its own path. To the east of Mussran to far into the Syrian desert we hear of the activity of the Aribi (at first in the ninth century B.C.), from whom the entire peninsula finally received its name. Assurbanibal, especially, boasts of important victories over them in his struggles with them for the mastery of Edom, Moab, and the Hauran (c. 650). Some of the tribes possessed the germs of political organization, as is shown in their government by kings and even queens. While these ancient Aribi for the most part constituted nomadic tribes, certain of their descendants became settled and achieved a high culture. Thus, about B.C. 200 we hear of the realm of the Nabataeans in the former territory of the Edomites. From their cliff-town of Petra they gradually spread their dominion over North-western Arabia, Moab, the Hauran, and temporarily even over Damascus. Their prosperity was chiefly due to their carrying trade between Southern Arabia and Mediterranean lands. The language of their inscriptions and coins is Aramaic, but the names inscribed upon them are Arabic. In A.D. 106 the Nabataean Kingdom became a Roman province. Its annexation caused the prosperity of the above-mentioned Palmyra, whose aristocracy and dynasty were likewise descended from the Aribi. Subsequent to these many other small Arabian principalities developed on the boundary between civilized lands and the desert; but they were for the most part of short duration. Of greatest importance were two which stood respectively under the protection of the Byzantine Empire and the Persian Kingdom as buffer states of those great powers against the sons of the desert: the realm of the Ghassanites in the Hauran, and that of the Lahmites, the centre of which was Hira, to the south of Babylon.

In the second half of the sixth century A.D., when Southern Arabia had outlived its political existence, Northern Arabia had not yet found a way to political union, and the entire peninsula threatened to become a battle-ground of Persian and Byzantine interests. In one district alone, the centre of which was Mecca, did pure Arabism maintain an independent position. In this City, A.D. 570, Mohammed was born, the man who was destined to put into motion the last and most permanent of the movements which issued from Arabia. And so in the seventh century another evolution of Semitism took place, which in the victorious power of its attack and in its mighty expansion surpassed all that had gone before; the offshoots of which pressed forward to the Atlantic Ocean and into Europe itself.


At an early epoch South Arabian tribes emigrated to the opposite African coast, where Sabaean trade colonies had probably existed for a long time. As early as the first century A.D. we find in the north of the Abyssinian mountain — lands the Semitic realm of Aksum. The conquerors brought with them South Arabian letters and language, which in their new home gradually attained an individual character. From this language, the Ge'ez, wrongly called Ethiopian, two daughter-languages are descended, Tigré and Tigriña. The confusion of this kingdom with Ethiopia probably owes its origin to the fact that the Semite emigrants adopted this name from the Graeco-Egyptian sailors, at a time when the Kingdom of Meroë was still in some repute. And so they called their kingdom Yteyopeya. From Aksum as a base they gradually extended their dominion over all Abyssinia, the northern population of which today shows a purer Semitic type, while the southern is strongly mixed with Hamitic elements. At an early date the south must have been settled by Semites, who spoke a language related to Ge'ez, which was afterwards to a great extent influenced by the languages of the native population, particularly by the Agau dialects. A descendant of this language is the Amharic, the present language of intercourse in Abyssinia itself and far beyond its boundaries.


See the articles on the separate titles treated above; also MASPERO, Histoire ancienne, des peuples de l'Orient classique (1895); MEYER, Gesch. des Altertums, I (1909), extending to the sixteenth century B.C.; BARTON, Sketch of Semitic Origins (New York, 1902).

About this page

APA citation. Schühlein, F. (1912). Semites. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Schühlein, Franz. "Semites." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Jeffrey L. Anderson.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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