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Palestine’s Incredible History

Today Palestine is within the borders of Israel and Jordan, north of the Negev desert, which includes the coastal plain, the Gallilean, Samarian, and Judean hills, the Jordan River Valley, and an eastern desert plateau. With its central city of Jerusalem, Palestine is the spiritual center for virtually one third of the earth’s population. It is no wonder that this area continues to be such a hot bed. It is claimed by Jews and the modern nation of Israel, Christians (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Armenian groups competing for major religious sites), Muslims (Sunni and Shi’ite sects), the nation of Jordan, and Palestinians, represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization.


Man’s first arrival in the region is traced back approximately 600,000 years. However, the earliest known inhabitants were the Phoenicians, referred to as Canaanites (Semitic for merchant), who migrated from the Red Sea around 3500 BC. The Canaanites took advantage of their location at the center of routes linking three continents and built trading ties with the peoples of Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Egypt’s Old Kingdom dynasties. The city-states that they established included Jericho.

Palestine’s prime location made it the focus of territorial conflicts and occupation. The period of 3000 - 1000 BC saw invasions and periods of domination by the Egyptians, Hittites of Anatolia (Turkey), the Philistines (people from the Aegean Sea, and namesakes of Palestine), and various Semitic tribes that migrated from Mesopotamia. These Semitic tribes included Hebrews, Aramaeans, and Amorites.


The Hebrews, or Jews, were a group of nomads led by Abraham in approximately 1800 BC from Ur, near Babylon, to settle in Palestine. Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, had twelve sons, whose descendants became the Twelve Tribes of Israel. A long period of drought forced the Hebrews to leave Palestine for Egypt where they were persecuted for several decades by Pharoahs Sety I and Ramses II.

Moses led the Hebrews out of slavery around 1270 BC (the Exodus). The Jewish religion recounts that Moses received the Ten Commandments from God (Yahweh) during the 40-year voyage to the Promised Land of Palestine. Later, Joshua led this new nation of Hebrews in conquering parts of Palestine (1230 BC). However, the Philistines were militarily superior and controlled the central town of Jerusalem. Finally, David, their great king, led the Hebrews in defeating the Philistines around 1000 BC, establishing the capital at Jerusalem. David’s son, Solomon, built a glorious temple in Jerusalem to house the Ark of the Covenant, a chest containing the Ten Commandments. At Solomon’s death, ten of the Twelve Tribes broke away to form Israel, a land to the north of Jerusalem, and the area around Jerusalem became known as Judea.

Israel fell to Assyria in 722 BC, and the people were scattered in mass deportations and became known as the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Judea fell to Babylon in 586 BC. The Judeans were exiled to Babylon and Solomon’s temple was destroyed. When the Persians defeated Babylon a half century later, the Judeans were allowed to return home to Judea under Persian control. The Persians allowed the Jews to have considerable autonomy in rebuilding the city of Jerusalem. The Jews codified their Mosaic law into the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament that deal with creation, the migrations of Abraham, and the Exodus of Moses. The Jew’s concept of a universal God, Yahweh, is argued to be Judaism’s greatest contribution to world civilization. It was the basis for the ensuing Christian religion, as well as some of the teachings of Mohammed (Islam).

The Greeks under Alexander the Great conquered the Persians and controlled Palestine and Judah in 331 BC. Alexander's successors, the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria, continued to rule the country and tried to impose Hellenistic culture and religion (multiple gods) on the Judeans. However, the Jews regained control with the Maccabaean Revolt (141 BC) and set up an independent state again. Then, in 63 BC the Romans conquered the region.

The Roman-aligned ruler, King Herod, authorized the Jews to have a certain level of religious autonomy and sought their support by building a new temple (37 - 4 BC) at the site of Solomon’s temple ruins. However, Herod’s Roman successors were not as diplomatic and the Jews rebelled, in 66 AD and again in 132 AD. Both revolts were quelled and the Jews suffered Rome’s punishments.

After the 132 AD rebellion, Jerusalem was flattened, and the Romans built a new city. The Jews left Palestine, becoming known as the Diaspora ("scattered"), but they have remained bonded with their religion based on the Torah and the laws of the Talmud, written in the first century AD. They believe that God will return to resurrect the faithful on Judgment Day, appearing first at Jerusalem.


During the rule of King Herod, Jesus was born (5 BC) in Bethlehem, near Jerusalem. He spent his infancy in Egypt where his family fled to escape Herod’s massacres of newborn children, then later returned to the Judean town of Nazareth. Jesus became one of the many teachers and reactionaries who toured Palestine at that time, preaching a philosophy of life which at times was viewed as adverse to that of Judaism’s leaders. In one sense, Christianity grew out of the dissatisfaction that many Jews felt with their self-serving priests and leaders under Roman rule. In 30 AD Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish feast of the Passover. He was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives, and charged with blasphemy. He was crucified by the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, under insistence of the Jewish leaders.

Christianity grew with Jesus’ followers spreading their belief in Jesus’ teachings as the Son of God, demonstrated by his miracles and his rising from the dead. The Romans viewed Christianity as a radical offshoot of Judaism, outlawing it and martyring the new believers. However, as the Roman Empire continued to slide, Christianity grew and strengthened.

Then in 313, the Romans made an about-face when Roman emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity and became a Christian himself. In 324 AD the Roman empire was split in half and Constantine moved to Byzantium (now Istanbul) to rule the eastern half. He renamed Byzantium to Constantinople in the process. The Byzantine Empire that Constantine founded soon grew to outstrip the empire of fading Rome.

Constantine’s mother, Helena, made a pilgrimage to Palestine and Jerusalem in 326 AD. Helena designated some of the main sites of Christian history, including Jesus’ birth place in Bethlehem and Jerusalem’s stations of the cross, as well as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Helena constructed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the crucifixion site and Jerusalem became the foremost Christian pilgrimage site.

However, Jerusalem was lost to the Byzantine empire under a Persian occupation (614 - 629 AD). Then, in 638 AD Muslim Arab armies invaded and began 1300 years of Muslim domination. During this period, there developed increasing tensions between Christianity’s Roman arm and the Byzantime order, resulting in a final schism of Christianity into two religions (Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox) in 1054 AD. Roman papal claims to supremacy were not reconcilable with Orthodoxy’s conciliar principle. A third major branch of Christianity grew in Europe out of the Protestant Reformation’s protests against the Roman Catholic Church in the early 1500s. All Christians believe in Jesus as the Son of God and that their individual everlasting life results from following Jesus’ model of faith and living.


The Muslim’s were a relatively new group of Arabs bonded by a common belief in the teachings of Mohammed (Islam, or "Surrender to God’s Will"). Mohammed was born in Mecca in 570 AD and began to receive messages from God (Allah) through the angel Gabriel. By 630 AD Mohammed had built a massive following and had conquered Mecca and all of Arabia, expanding westward to Palestine by 638 AD. Mohammed’s teachings and prophecies were gathered into a book called the Koran. The Islamic religion believes in one God and is based on the five pillars: faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage. Soon after Mohammed’s death Islam split into sects, the Shi’ite Muslims, who believe in the hereditary descendancy of leadership (Caliphate) from Mohammed, and the Sunni Muslims, who believe in an elected Caliph.

Jerusalem became the third holiest Islam city to Muslims because Mohammed designated Jerusalem as the first direction Muslims face when praying. Additionally, Mohammed is believed to have ascended to heaven from the area of Solomon’s temple. The Muslim’s built the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque on the site of the destroyed Jewish temples of Solomon and Herod.

The Jerusalem that today’s visitor finds started taking shape during this period of early Muslim domination. Islamic architecture and Byzantine buildings existed side by side, and the Muslims allowed Christian pilgrims to continue visiting many of the holy sites. Over time most Palestinians adopted the Islamic culture and religion, but the remaining Christians and Jews were allowed autonomous community and freedom of worship.

Various Muslim dynasties affected Palestine over the following centuries, including the Abbassid and the Seljuks (1071 - 1243 AD) who barred Christian pilgrims from Jerusalem. The Muslims preserved Greek learning and enjoyed a golden age of science, art, philosophy, and literature, while breaking new ground in mathematics.

In the meantime, the Byzantines called upon their Roman and European neighbors for help to reclaim their Palestinian pilgrimage sites. The First Crusade was launched in 1097, resulting two years later in the slaughter of 40,000 Muslims and the capture of Jerusalem. The Crusaders were able to control Jerusalem for almost 90 years. When they again lost the city to the Muslims, three subsequent Crusades failed to recapture it.

In later centuries, Jerusalem passed from the Muslim dynasties to Turkish Ottoman rule. There is very little architectural legacy from the Ottoman rule of 1453 - 1917 AD. The Christian and Jewish communities, however, were allowed a large measure of autonomy during this period.

The 20th Century, the new nation of Israel

It was not until WWI that a British agent and adventurer, Thomas E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), coalesced the Arab tribes into a successful revolt against the Ottoman Empire. The British and French had promised independance to the Arabs in return for their support against the Turks. However, these two countries secretly agreed to carve up the Arab region for themselves, setting up the Mandate system in which Britain governed Palestine. The Arabs protested violently.

In the meantime, Jews had started migrating back to Palestine at the end of the 1800s. The Jewish population grew quickly, partly from a renewed Zionism and partly in fleeing increasing European anti-Semitism. The Jews clearly wanted to settle into Palestine, and the Arab population began to react violently against this influx. Britain had also made another agreement with the Jews, that in return for their WWI support, they would be granted a new nation in Palestine. In 1922 the League of Nations incorporated this promise in its formally issued Mandate.

Britain found it difficult to resolve its contradictory promises to the Arabs and the Jews as the tensions mounted in Palestine. Jewish immigration rose sharply after the rise of the Nazi regime. Arab fear of Jewish domination resulted in attacks on the Jews, as well as revolt against the British. When WWII drew to a close, Britain declared the Mandate unworkable and turned the problem over to the United Nations.

The Jews (then 600,000 strong, with a semi-autonomous government) were better prepared than the Palestinians (1,300,000 strong) for the resulting showdown. When the UN proposed a partition in November, 1947, the Jews accepted it, while the Arabs rejected it. A war ensued in which the Palestinians were defeated. When the nation of Israel was established in 1948, five Arab armies came to the aid of the Palestinians and immediately attacked. Here again Israel prevailed and enlarged its territory. In the process Jordan took the West Bank of the Jordan River, dispossessing 780,000 Palestinians, and Egypt took the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians spread throughout the neighboring countries, but they have maintained their identity.

In 1964 the Palestinian Liberation Organization was founded to represent the Palestinian interests. In 1967 during the Arab-initiated Six Day War, Israel expanded by occupying the West Bank, including control of all Jerusalem, and Gaza. Ensuing years have seen the Yom Kippur War (1973), the Israeli invasion of Lebanon (1982), and PLO terrorist strikes, termed the Intifada. Limited Palestinian self-rule was inaugurated in 1994 within the West Bank and Gaza.

Today world pressure is pushing Israel to further restore the rights of the Palestinians in ceding the occupied territory. However, the 1995 assassination by a Jewish extremist of Israel’s prime minister, Yitzah Rabin, has seemed to erode much of the groundwork towards peace. Tensions and conflicts in Palestine have continued, much of it focused on control of Jerusalem. It remains ironic that Jerusalem’s name is derived from the Hebrew word, Yerushalayim, meaning City of Peace.

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