Life went on in this wooded land of milk and honey, which had a far more equable climate than now. By 3000-2200 BCE, the pyramid-building time in Egypt, independent Canaanite city-states had developed in Palestine, trading with Egypt, Sumer (Iraq), Lebanon and Minoan Crete. The Canaanites were a mixed collation of tribes and lineages of descent in this intercontinental crossing place. A long time passed before the Jews came along.
Biblical tradition has it that Abraham came here around 1800 BCE with a group of Habiru from Sumer, buying land at Hebron, a Hittite town, and living peaceably with the locals. Later they moved to Egypt due to famine. However, this tradition and the biblical narrative of the origins of the Jews, though strong and enduring, is not entirely backed up by archaeology and historical analysis and it’s possible that Canaanites and Jews were not as different as we’re led to believe today.
Later still, around 1200 BCE, various peoples migrated into the area. These included Phoenicians from Bahrain, Hittites from Anatolia, Philistines from the Aegean and Hebrews returning from Egypt in Exodus days. This time, according to biblical tradition, the Hebrews, led by Joshua, invaded the area, though archaeological evidence suggests they moved in alongside Canaanites and others, occupying hilltops and unused land. They established themselves around Shechem, today’s Nablus, though life was difficult for them for some time to come.
Migration was common around the Middle East – a habit that the Bedouin have retained up to the present day – and while there were zones of influence such as those of the Egyptians and Hittites, countries with boundaries and borders as we know them today didn’t exist. For many centuries people lived in fluctuating patchworks of ethnic settlement.
According to Biblical tradition, the first proper Israelite kingdom was founded in the West Bank highlands by King David, leader of the southern tribes of Judah. It was based in Hebron. Later, the northern Israelite tribes of Shechem adopted him as king. To unite them he conquered the Jebusite town of Zion, which became Jerusalem – it stood in between. He was followed by his son Solomon around 970 BCE, who built the first Temple in Jerusalem, extended Israel’s reach over neighbouring areas and presided over a prosperous nation, ruling for 40 years. After his death around 930 BCE the Israelite kingdom split into two, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, and, despite some religious conflicts and frictions, they survived until around 730 BCE. Realms such as the coastal Philistine city-states (Gaza), Moab (southern Jordan), Ammon (northern Jordan) and the Phoenician trading towns of Lebanon surrounded them.
The area has consistently been multi-ethnic, with adjacent villages, areas and quarters of towns all occupied by different tribes and peoples. Kingdoms were run by dominant clans and lineages but the people under them were ethnically mixed, often village by village, each with their own gods, traditions and ways of living. Even the Jews had not yet settled into their later belief in one God – Yahweh was one of several gods. Most of the time people got on with each other, performing different socio-economic roles within a larger society.
Around 720 BCE, Assyria (in today’s northern Iraq) destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and its inhabitants were dispersed far and wide. Small groups eventually went as far as India, Turkestan, Afghanistan, Yemen, the Caucasus, south west France and even, reputedly, Wales. The southern kingdom of Judah, including Bethlehem and Hebron, was conquered by the Babylonians over a century later in 586 BCE. Its elites were carried off to Babylon, where the Jewish scriptures were laid down during the Babylonian Captivity – and during this period the Jewish faith, its doctrines and rabbinical traditions, took a more solid shape, becoming firmly monotheistic. Some returned after the Persian Cyrus the Great took over Babylon in 538, while others stayed or progressed eastwards into Persia, Afghanistan and Kashmir.
Thereafter the area was largely united under a succession of foreign empires – overlords ruling over ethnically mixed lands. First came the Persians for two centuries, 538-333 BCE; next came the Greeks for two centuries, following Alexander the Great’s whirlwind invasion of 333 BCE; after this, for a century there was an independent Jewish kingdom of the Hasmoneans, 140-37 BCE.
Then came the Romans for over three centuries until CE 330. During the Roman period the Jewish revolts of CE 66-73 and 132-135 led to defeat and further Jewish dispersion around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Some remained in Palestine, gradually losing their ethnic identity and becoming part of the people we now identify as Palestinians. Most ‘Romans’ in the area actually lived Greek-style lives, and the East Roman empire was culturally Greek.
To Westerners, the big event of the Roman period was the life and death of Jesus. Locally, this had but a small effect, and Jews did not recognise him as the promised Messiah. Jesus was one of several Jewish teachers who came and went, and his teachings spread amongst Mesopotamians, Syrians and gentiles in the Roman world, although not without opposition and repression. After three centuries, Christianity became a Roman state religion with two main branches, Catholicism in the west and Greek Orthodoxy in the east. In Palestine a variety of churches had evolved and, under the Greek Orthodox Byzantines, they thrived.
As the declining Roman empire divided into western and eastern halves, the eastern Greek Romans reinvented themselves as Byzantines, ruling Palestine from 330-640. Here came the growth of Christianity as an institutional faith: old Christian churches and communities, originating in the decades following Jesus’ crucifixion, grew in stature and power and Byzantine Palestine prospered for centuries.
The culture of today’s Palestinian Christians has its roots in this time. Many of their ways are Greek in style, though some claim ancestral descent from Yemen, and they are Mediterranean in character. In recent decades a great proportion of them have left for the West.
Over the centuries there was little conflict between Christians and Muslims or, until the 20th century, between them and Jews – they all rubbed along. The Byzantine period was ended by the Arabic Muslim invasion of 630, leading to 1,300 years of Muslim predominance. Christians, Jews and other minorities had rights and protections under Islam and, while not forced to convert, many gradually became Muslims.
Islam, with its legal, philosophical and religious codes, was regarded as an upgrade of earlier faiths and cultures – and Muslims paid less tax. Ancient beliefs and mystery schools pervaded the area and Islam had a unifying, modernising influence. There were social advantages to conversion, rather like the advantages conferred on non-Westerners by buying into Western ways during the 20th century. Islam was pluralistic, drawing on Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism, with lineal grandees such as Abraham and Jesus as prophets. Many Byzantine administrative and trading customs were adopted by the Muslims.
In 691 the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was built by the Islamic Umayyad dynasty of Damascus, Syria – the rock, a significant site in the story of Abraham and Isaac, was also the site of Muhammad’s mystical ascent to heaven. Then the Al Aqsa mosque and the sanctuary of Haram al Sharif were built on the site of the Roman-destroyed Jewish Temple – nowadays a focus of contention between Muslims and Jews. Jerusalem was Sunni Islam’s third most holy place after Mecca and Medina in Arabia. Originally Muslims prayed facing Jerusalem, not Mecca. By the 700s and 800s, under the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad, the area prospered, enjoying an ascendant, cosmopolitan culture and playing a part in a vast Muslim system.
In Europe these were the Dark Ages but in the Middle East – also in West Africa, India, China, SE Asia and Mexico – they were an Age of Light, a zenith of civilisation. The Muslim world was vibrant until the 1200s, a relatively stable culture unified by Muslim law, Arabic language and a commonality that exists today, whatever boundaries and regimes are established to split it up. But trouble came from Asia: around the 1250s the Mongols swept in from the east, ending a golden age. They didn’t last long, and the regional vacuum following their disappearance was gradually filled in the 1300s by the Turkic Ottomans. By the mid-1500s the Ottomans ruled much of the Middle East, the Balkans and the east Mediterranean.
But before the Mongols there was a little local difficulty in Palestine. Europe’s first colonial adventure, the Crusades, came in the 1090s, driven by a desire to retake Jerusalem for Christianity. This they did murderously in 1099, reputedly killing all of Jerusalem’s inhabitants. Here were laid down many precedents for today. They founded the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, covering today’s Israel and Palestine.
Some Crusaders settled, adopting local ways and intermarrying, while others kept apart, coming and going, asserting distinctly European values and feudal rule. There was rivalry between these two camps and their dissonance became their eventual undoing.
Some Muslims today see the state of Israel as a throwback to the Crusades and, arguably, differences between liberal Jews and Zionists of today parallel Crusader times. In both the Crusades and today it was Western money, people and weapons that drove the enterprise, and both saw themselves to be returning home. But these parallels should not be taken too far.
In medieval Europe, persecutions against Jews started in Crusader times, since Jews were seen as exotic, different and responsible for the death of Christ. Ironically, they were identified with infidel Muslims by Europeans. This set a pattern of oppression of Jews in Europe which by the 20th century was to bounce back on Palestine. Meanwhile Jews in Palestine, living in peace largely around Galilee, played their part in the multi-ethnic Middle East. Neighbouring Muslims coexisted with the Christian Crusader kingdom, but waves of aggressively single-minded Crusaders occasionally sailed in from Europe, gaining the upper hand, behaving badly and upsetting people.
By the time Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria, came along, tensions were high. He summoned the Muslims and beat the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, mentioned earlier. Then he took back Jerusalem, bestowing far more mercy on his enemies than the Crusaders had done 88 years before. It was not foreigners with a different faith that troubled him: it was their behaviour. This we see today with Palestinians: most accept Jews and the existence of Israel, at least within its pre-1967 borders, but what troubles them is the chutzpah and force of Israeli behaviour, driven by Zionist impulses.
Salah-ad-Din penned up the Crusaders in Acre and later, by 1291, Sultan Baibars finally got rid of them. Some Crusader families stayed, merging with the population, and some Palestinian Christians, such as my friends Albert and John, thus have Crusader ancestors.
The notion of sharing the Holy Land has a string of historic precedents during the time of Joshua, the Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans, Crusaders and Ottomans. It has been a story in which nationalist and religious rivalry has vied with multi-ethnic, multifaith tolerance. Tolerance is a carefully-cultivated social condition, easily broken by hard-nosed, divisive elements and elites. Today, it could be argued that it’s not a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians but between divisive and multi-cultural people and beliefs.
During the Mamluk period, 1270-1516, the Egyptian rulers of Palestine, anticipating another European invasion, destroyed many of its coastal harbours and cities. Life was centred in the inland highlands of the West Bank and Palestine became peripheral, its Mediterranean and Mesopotamian connections largely lost.
Then came four centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule from 1516 to 1917. The Ottomans had taken the rich Byzantine capital of Constantinople in 1453, renaming it Istanbul, expanding their realm from there. The Holy Land was taken by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, an empire-building general, engineer and lawgiver. After a good start, Palestine gradually became a relatively neglected area of the Ottoman domain, peripheral to the main hubs of Istanbul, Cairo and Damascus.
Life carried on all the same for centuries, with its ups and downs. The Ottoman world eventually creakingly declined in the 19th century as Europe came to dominate the world, and the empire fell in World War One. Already, in its final decades, an Arabic movement in Palestine had campaigned for self-determination, leading to a revolt against the Ottomans in 1906, but events overtook them, and the trouble only really started for Palestinians during WW1. Westerners, in the form of the British and the French, came and broke up the Middle East, occupying the Ottoman lands. But that story comes later.