History of Palestine
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The history of Palestine is the study of the past in the region of Palestine, generally defined as a geographic region in Western Asia between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and various adjoining lands. Situated at a strategic location between Egypt, Syria and Arabia, and the birthplace of major Abrahamic religions the region has a long and tumultuous history as a crossroads for religion, culture, commerce, and politics. Palestine has been controlled by numerous different peoples, including the Ancient Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, Tjekker, Ancient Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, early Muslims (Umayads, Abbasids, Seljuqs, Fatimids), Crusaders, later Muslims (Ayyubids, Mameluks, Ottomans), the British, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (1948–1967, on the “West Bank“) and Egyptian Republic (in Gaza), and modern Israelis and Palestinians. Other terms for the same area include Canaan, Zion, the Land of Israel, Southern Syria, Jund Filastin, Outremer, the Holy Land and the Southern Levant.
The region was among the earliest in the world to see human habitation, agricultural communities and civilization. During the Bronze Age, independent Canaanite city-states were established, and were influenced by the surrounding civilizations of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Minoan Crete, and Syria. During 1550–1400 BCE, the Canaanite cities became vassals to the Egyptian New Kingdom who held power until the 1178 BCE Battle of Djahy (Canaan) during the wider Bronze Age collapse. Modern archaeologists dispute parts of the Biblical tradition, the latest thinking being that the Israelites emerged from a dramatic social transformation that took place in the people of the central hill country of Canaan around 1200 BCE, with no signs of violent invasion or even of peaceful infiltration of a clearly defined ethnic group from elsewhere. The Philistines, part of Sea Peoples of Southern Europe, arrived and mingled with the local population, and according to Biblical tradition, the United Kingdom of Israel was established in 1020 BCE and split within a century to form the northern Kingdom of Israel, and the southern Kingdom of Judah. The region became part of the Neo-Assyrian Empire from c. 740 BCE, which was itself replaced by the Neo-Babylonian Empire in c. 627 BCE. A war with Egypt culminated in 586 BCE when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II and the local leaders were deported to Babylonia, only to be allowed to return under the Achaemenid Empire.
In the 330s BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the area now called Palestine, and the region changed hands numerous times during the wars of the Diadochi, ultimately joining the Seleucid Empire between 219 and 200 BCE. In 116 BCE, a Seleucid civil war resulted in the independence of certain regions including the minor Hasmonean principality in the Judean Mountains. From 110 BCE, the Hasmoneans extended their authority over much of the area, creating a Judean–Samaritan–Idumaean–Ituraean–Galilean alliance. The Judean (Jewish, see Ioudaioi) control over the wider region resulted in it also becoming known as Judaea, a term that had previously only referred to the smaller region of the Judean Mountains. During 73–63 BCE, the Roman Republic extended its influence into the region in the Third Mithridatic War, conquering Judea in 63 BCE, and splitting the former Hasmonean Kingdom into five districts. In 70 CE, Titus sacked Jerusalem, resulting in the dispersal of the city’s Jews and Christians to Yavne and Pella. In 132 CE, Hadrian joined the province of Judaea with Galilee to form a new province and renamed it Syria Palaestina, and Jerusalem was renamed “Aelia Capitolina“. During 259–272, the region fell under the rule of Odaenathus as King of the Palmyrene Empire. Following the victory of Christian emperor Constantine in the Civil Wars of the Tetrarchy (306–324), the Christianization of the Roman Empire began, and in 326, Constantine‘s mother Saint Helena visited Jerusalem and began the construction of churches and shrines. Palestine became a center of Christianity, attracting numerous monks and religious scholars. The Samaritan Revolts during this period caused their near extinction.
Palestine was conquered by the Islamic Empire following the 636 CE Battle of Yarmouk during the Muslim conquest of Syria. In 661 CE, with the assassination of Ali, Muawiyah I became the uncontested Caliph of the Islamic World after being crowned in Jerusalem. In 691, the Dome of the Rock became the world’s first great work of Islamic architecture. The Umayyad were replaced by the Abbasids in 750. From 878 Palestine was ruled from Egypt by semi-autonomous rulers for almost a century, beginning with Ahmad ibn Tulun, and ending with the Ikhshidid rulers who were both buried in Jerusalem. The Fatimids conquered the region in 969. In 1073 Palestine was captured by the Great Seljuq Empire, only to be recaptured by the Fatimids in 1098, who then lost the region to the Crusaders in 1099. Their control of Jerusalem and most of Palestine lasted almost a century until defeat by Saladin‘s forces in 1187, after which most of Palestine was controlled by the Ayyubids. A rump Crusader state in the northern coastal cities survived for another century, but, despite seven further Crusades, the Crusaders were no longer a significant power in the region. The Mamluk Sultanate was indirectly created in Egypt as a result of the Seventh Crusade. The Mongol Empire reached Palestine for the first time in 1260, beginning with the Mongol raids into Palestine under Nestorian Christian general Kitbuqa and reaching an apex at the pivotal Battle of Ain Jalut. In 1486, hostilities broke out between the Mamluks and the Ottoman Turks and the Ottomans captured Palestine in 1516.
In 1832, the region was conquered by Muhammad Ali‘s Egypt, but, in 1840, Britain intervened and returned control of the Levant to the Ottomans in return for further capitulations. The turbulent period of Egyptian rule experienced two major revolts (the 1834 Arab Peasants revolt and 1838 Druze revolt) and a significant demographic change in coastal areas, populated by Egyptian Arab peasants and former soldiers of Ali. The end of the 19th century saw the beginning of Zionist immigration and the revival of the Hebrew language. Increasing Jewish immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries added considerably to the Jewish communities in Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias and Jaffa.
During World War I the British government issued the pro-Zionist Balfour Declaration of 1917. The British captured Jerusalem a month later. The League of Nations formally awarded Britain a mandate over Palestine in 1922. The land west of the Jordan River was under direct British administration until 1948, while the land east of the Jordan was a semi-autonomous region known as Transjordan, under the rule of the Hashemite family from the Hijaz, and gained independence in 1946. The 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine was a nationalist uprising by Palestinian Arabs against British colonial rule and mass Jewish immigration.
After the Nazi Holocaust, pressure grew for the international recognition of a Jewish state in Palestine. In 1947, the British Government announced its intention to terminate the Mandate. The United Nations General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish states, with a special international regime for Jerusalem. The Arabs rejected the partition of Palestine, but the Jews declared the independence of the State of Israel in May 1948. During the 1948 Palestine War, Israel overran far more territory than was proposed by the Partition Plan; Jordan captured the region today known as the West Bank, while in the Gaza Strip the All-Palestine Government was announced in September 1948. In what is known as the Nakba, or “Catastrophe”, hundreds of Palestinian villages and over 70,000 Palestinian homes were ruined and destroyed . 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their native land by the Israelis. The Palestinian refugees were unable to return following the Lausanne Conference, 1949. During and after the 1948 war, a wave of Jewish refugees from Arab countries arrived in Palestine, further exacerbating the situation for Palestinian Arabs. The question of the right to return of the refugeees and their descendants remains a source of dispute. The All-Palestinian Government was later moved from Gaza to Cairo and eventually dissolved in 1959 by Egyptian President Nasser. Gaza was taken into Egyptian military administration.
The Palestinian national movement gradually regrouped in the West Bank and Gaza, and in refugee camps in neighbouring Arab states. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) emerged as its leading umbrella group. During the Six Day War in June 1967, Israel seized East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt, as well as the Golan Heights from Syria. Despite international objections and UN resolutions, Israel began a policy of establishing illegal Israeli settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories. The PLO under Yasser Arafat gradually won international recognition as the representative of the Palestinian people. From 1987 to 1993, the First Palestinian Intifada against Israel took place, ending with the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. These accords established a Palestinian National Authority (PNA – also referred to as the Palestinian Authority, or PA) as an interim body to run parts of Gaza and the West Bank (but not East Jerusalem) pending an agreed solution to the conflict.
During the Second Intifada (2000-2005), Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and began building the West Bank barrier. In 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections and took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, triggering the Israeli and Egyptian Blockade of the Gaza Strip (2007-the present). In 2008-09 and again in 2014, Israel bombed millitants in Gaza in response to rocket fire. These operations were however criticized for causing civilian deaths.
In October 2011, UNESCO admitted the “State of Palestine” as a member in October. In November 2012, the State of Palestine was upgraded in the UN to non-member observer state status, a move that allows it to take part in General Assembly debates and improves its chances of joining other UN agencies.
A dwelling unearthed at Tell es-Sultan, Jericho
The earliest human remains in Palestine were found in Ubeidiya, some 3 km south of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias), in the Jordan Rift Valley. The remains are dated to the Pleistocene, c. 1.5 million years ago. These are traces of the earliest migration of Homo erectus out of Africa. The site yielded hand axes of the Acheulean type.
Wadi El Amud between Safed and the Sea of Galilee was the site of the first prehistoric dig in Palestine, in 1925. The discovery of Palestine Man in the Zuttiyeh Cave in Wadi Al-Amud near Safed in 1925 provided some clues to human development in the area. Qafzeh is a paleoanthropological site south of Nazareth where eleven significant fossilised Homo sapiens skeletons have been found at the main rock shelter. These anatomically modern humans, both adult and infant, are now dated to about 90–100,000 years old, and many of the bones are stained with red ochre, which is conjectured to have been used in the burial process, a significant indicator of ritual behavior and thereby symbolic thought and intelligence. 71 pieces of unused red ochre also littered the site. Mount Carmel has yielded several important findings, among them Kebara Cave that was inhabited between 60,000–48,000 BP and where the most complete Neanderthal skeleton found to date. The Tabun cave was occupied intermittently during the Lower and Middle Paleolithic ages (500,000 to around 40,000 years ago). Excavations suggest that it features one of the longest sequences of human occupation in the Levant. In the nearby Es Skhul cave excavations revealed the first evidence of the late Epipalaeolithic Natufian culture, characterized by the presence of abundant microliths, human burials and ground stone tools. This also represents one area where Neanderthals—present in the region from 200,000 to 45,000 years ago—lived alongside modern humans dating to 100,000 years ago. In the caves of Shuqba in Ramallah and Wadi Khareitun in Bethlehem, stone, wood and animal bone tools were found and attributed to the Natufian culture (c. 12,800–10,300 BCE). Other remains from this era have been found at Tel Abu Hureura, Ein Mallaha, Beidha and Jericho.
Between 10,000 and 5000 BCE, agricultural communities were established. Evidence of such settlements were found at Tel es-Sultan in Jericho and consisted of a number of walls, a religious shrine, and a 23-foot (7.0 m) tower with an internal staircase Jericho is believed to be one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world, with evidence of settlement dating back to 9000 BCE, providing important information about early human habitation in the Near East. Along the Jericho–Dead Sea–Bir es-Saba–Gaza–Sinai route, a culture originating in Syria, marked by the use of copper and stone tools, brought new migrant groups to the region contributing to an increasingly urban fabric.
By the early Bronze Age (3000–2200 BCE), independent Canaanite city-states situated in plains and coastal regions and surrounded by mud-brick defensive walls were established and most of these cities relied on nearby agricultural hamlets for their food needs. Archaeological finds from the early Canaanite era have been found at Tel Megiddo, Jericho, Tel al-Far’a (Gaza), Bisan, and Ai (Deir Dibwan/Ramallah District), Tel an Nasbe (al-Bireh) and Jib (Jerusalem). The Canaanite city-states held trade and diplomatic relations with Egypt and Syria. Parts of the Canaanite urban civilization were destroyed around 2300 BCE, though there is no consensus as to why. Incursions by nomads from the east of the Jordan River who settled in the hills followed soon thereafter.
In the Middle Bronze Age (2200–1500 BCE), Canaan was influenced by the surrounding civilizations of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Minoan Crete, and Syria. Diverse commercial ties and an agriculturally based economy led to the development of new pottery forms, the cultivation of grapes, and the extensive use of bronze. Burial customs from this time seemed to be influenced by a belief in the afterlife. The Middle Kingdom Egyptian Execration Texts attest to Canaanite trade with Egypt during this period. The Minoan influence is apparent at Tel Kabri.
New Kingdom at its maximum territorial extent in the 15th century BCE
During 1550–1400 BCE, the Canaanite cities became vassals to Egypt as the Egyptian New Kingdom reunited Egypt and expanded into the Levant under Ahmose I and Thutmose I. Political, commercial and military events towards the end of this period (1450–1350 BCE) were recorded by ambassadors and Canaanite proxy rulers for Egypt in 379 cuneiform tablets known as the Amarna Letters. These refer to several local proxy rulers for Egypt such as Biridiya of Megiddo, Lib’ayu of Shechem and Abdi-Heba in Jerusalem. In the first year of his reign pharaoh Seti I (ca.1294-1290 BCE) waged a campaign to resubordinate Canaan to Egyptian rule, thrusting north as far as Beit Shean, and installing local vassals to administer the area in his name. A burial site yielding a scarab bearing his name, found within a Canaanite coffin excavated in the Jezreel Valley, attests to Egypt’s presence in the area. Excavations have established that the late 13th, the 12th and the early 11th centuries BCE witnessed the foundation of perhaps hundreds of insignificant, unprotected village settlements, many in the mountains of Palestine. From around the 11th century BCE, there was a reduction in the number of villages, though this was counterbalanced by the rise of certain settlements to the status of fortified townships.
In 1178 BCE, the Battle of Djahy (Canaan) between Ramesses III and the Sea Peoples marked the beginning of the decline in power of the New Kingdom in the Levant during the wider Bronze Age collapse.
During the beginning of the Iron Age (c. 1175 BCE), the Philistines occupied the southern coast of Canaan, and mingled with the local population, losing their separate identity over several generations. Pottery remains found in As, Gath (city), Ekron and Gaza decorated with stylized birds provided the first archaeological evidence for Philistine settlement in the region. The Philistines are credited with introducing iron weapons and chariots to the local population.
Modern archaeologists dispute parts of the Biblical tradition. In The Bible Unearthed Finkelstein and Silberman describe how, up until 1967, the Israelite heartland in the highlands of western Palestine was virtually an archaeological ‘terra incognita’. Since then the traditional territories of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh have been covered by intensive surveys. These surveys have revealed the sudden emergence of a new culture contrasting with the Philistine and Canaanite societies existing in Palestine during Iron Age I. This new culture is characterised by the lack of pork remains (whereas pork formed 20% of the Philistine diet in places), an abandonment of the Philistines/Canaanite custom of having highly decorated pottery, and the practice of circumcision. According to Prof. Faust Avraham of Bar-Ilan University, the Israelite ethnic identity had been created, not from the Exodus and a subsequent conquest, but from a transformation of the existing Canaanite-Philistine cultures.
Finkelstein and Silberman write: “These surveys revolutionized the study of early Israel. The discovery of the remains of a dense network of highland villages — all apparently established within the span of few generations — indicated that a dramatic social transformation had taken place in the central hill country of Canaan around 1200 BCE. There was no sign of violent invasion or even the infiltration of a clearly defined ethnic group. Instead, it seemed to be a revolution in lifestyle. In the formerly sparsely populated highlands from the Judean hills in the south to the hills of Samaria in the north, far from the Canaanite cities that were in the process of collapse and disintegration, about two-hundred fifty hilltop communities suddenly sprang up. Here were the first Israelites.”
From then on, over a period of hundreds of years until after the return of the exiles from Babylon, the Canaanites were gradually absorbed by the Israelites until after the period of Ezra (~450 BCE) when there is no more biblical record of them. Hebrew, a dialect of Canaanite became the language of the hill country and later the valleys and plains.
The first use of grapheme-based writing originated in the area, probably among Canaanite peoples resident in Egypt. All modern alphabets are descended from this writing. Written evidence of the use of Classical Hebrew exists from about 1000 BCE. It was written using the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet.
According to the Hebrew Bible, the United Kingdom of Israel was established by the Israelite tribes with Saul as its first king in 1020 BCE. In 1000 BCE, Jerusalem was made the capital of King David‘s kingdom and it is believed that the First Temple was constructed in this period by King Solomon. By 930 BCE, the united kingdom split to form the northern Kingdom of Israel, and the southern Kingdom of Judah. These kingdoms coexisted with several more kingdoms in the greater Palestine area, including Philistine town states on the Southwestern Mediterranean coast, Edom, to the South of Judah, and Moab and Ammon to the East of the river Jordan. The socio-political system during this period was characterized by local patrons fighting other local patrons, lasting until around the mid-9th century BCE when some local chieftains were able to create large political structures that exceeded the boundaries of those present in the Late Bronze Age Levant.
Archaeological evidence from this era is believed to corroborate some Biblical events. In 925 BCE, Pharaoh Sheshonk I of the Third Intermediate Period is recorded to have invaded Canaan following the Battle of Bitter Lakes, and is thought to be the same as Shishak, the first Pharaoh mentioned in the Bible who captured and pillaged Jerusalem. There was an at least partial Egyptian withdrawal from Palestine in this period, though it is likely that Bet Shean was an Egyptian garrison as late as the beginning of the 10th century BCE. The Kurkh Monolith, dated c. 835 BCE, describes King Shalmaneser III of Assyria’s Battle of Qarqar, where he fought alongside the contingents of several kings, among them King Ahab and King Gindibu. The Mesha Stele, from c. 850 BCE, recounts the conquering of Moab, located East of the Dead Sea, by king Omri, and the successful revolt of Moabian king Mesha against Omri’s son, presumably King Ahab (and French scholar André Lemaire reported that line 31 of the Stele bears the phrase “the house of David” (in Biblical Archaeology Review [May/June 1994], pp. 30–37).). Inscriptions at Tel Dan and Tell es-Safi record parts of the conquest of the region by Hazael of Aram Damascus in the 830s BCE.
Developments in Palestine during this period have been the focus of debate between those who accept the version in the Hebrew Bible of the conquest of Canaan by the Israelite tribes, and those who reject it. Niels Peter Lemche, of the Copenhagen School of Biblical Studies, submits that the biblical picture of ancient Israel “is contrary to any image of ancient Palestinian society that can be established on the basis of ancient sources from Palestine or referring to Palestine and that there is no way this image in the Bible can be reconciled with the historical past of the region”. For example, according to Jon Schiller and Hermann Austel, among others, while in the past, the Bible story was seen as historical truth, “a growing number of archaeological scholars, particularly those of the minimalist school, are now insisting that Kings David and Solomon are ‘no more real than King Arthur,’ citing the lack of archaeological evidence attesting to the existence of the United Kingdom of Israel, and the unreliability of biblical texts, due to their being composed in a much later period.”
Sites and artifacts, including the Large Stone Structure, Mount Ebal, the Merneptah, and Mesha stelae, among others, are subject to widely varying historical interpretations: the “conservative camp” reconstructs the history of Israel according to the biblical text and views archaeological evidence in that context, while scholars in the minimalist or deconstructionist school hold that there is no archaeological evidence supporting the idea of a United Monarchy (or Israelite nation) and the biblical account is a religious mythology created by Judean scribes in the Persian and Hellenistic periods; a third camp of centrist scholars acknowledges the value of some isolated elements of the Pentateuch and of Deuteronomonistic accounts as potentially valid history of monarchic times that can be in accord with the archaeological evidence, but argue that nevertheless the biblical narrative should be understood as highly ideological and adapted to the needs of the community at the time of its compilation.
Neo-Assyrian Empire at its greatest extent
Assyrian inscriptions from c. 740 BCE record the military victories of Tiglath Pileser III in the region, during which period the Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered most of the Levant. The Bible records the Israelite cities becoming vassals to the Neo-Assyrian Empire during this period. At around this time, the Siege of Gezer (c. 733 BCE), 20 miles (32 km) west of Jerusalem, is recorded on a stone relief at the Assyrian royal palace in Nimrud. Further military expeditions into the region are recorded in the annals of Sargon and Sennacherib, as well as in the bible. According to the bible, between 722 and 720 BCE the northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire and the Israelite tribes—thereafter known as the Lost Tribes—were exiled. The most important finding from the southern Kingdom of Judah is the Siloam Inscription, dated c. 700 BCE, which celebrates the successful encounter of diggers, digging from both sides of the Jerusalem wall to create the Hezekiah water tunnel and water pool, mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, in 2Kings 20:20.
The Neo-Assyrian Empire was replaced with the Neo-Babylonian Empire in c. 627 BCE, following the death of Ashurbanipal and the successful revolt of Nabopolassar.
The region was controlled briefly by Pharaoh Necho II of the Twenty-sixth dynasty of Egypt between the Battle of Megiddo (609 BCE) and the Battle of Carchemish four years later, and further conflict between the Babylonians and the 26th dynasty of Egypt is recorded during 601–586 BCE. According to the bible, this culminated in 586 BCE when Jerusalem and the First Temple were destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II. Most of the surviving Israelite leaders, and much of the other local population, were deported to Babylonia.
Achaemenid Empire under Darius III
Main article: Yehud Medinata
Following King Cyrus the Great‘s defeat of the Neo-Babylonian Empire at the Battle of Opis, the region became part of the Eber-Nari satrapy or District number V (corresponding the regions of (Syria, Phoenicia, Palestine and Cyprus) according to Herodotus and Arrian, which included three administrative areas: Phoenicia, Judah and Samaria, and the Arabian tribes. The Phoenician cities of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, and Aradus were vassal states ruled by hereditary local kings who struck their own silver coins and whose power was limited by the Persian satrap and local popular assemblies. The economies of these cities were mainly based on maritime trade. During military operations, the Phoenicians were obliged to put their fleet at the disposal of the Persian kings. Judah and Samaria enjoyed considerable internal autonomy. Bullae and seal impressions of the end of the 6th and beginning of the 5th centuries mention the province of Judah. Its governors included Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel under Cyrus and Darius I; Nehemiah ; Bagohi, who succeeded Nehemiah and whose ethnicity is difficult to determine; and “Yehizkiyah the governor” and “Yohanan the priest”, known from coins struck in Judah in the 4th century BCE. From the second half of the 5th century the province of Samaria was governed by Sanballat and his descendants.
According to the bible and implications from the Cyrus Cylinder, Jews were allowed to return to what their holy books had termed the Land of Israel, and having been granted some autonomy by the Persian administration, it was during this period that the Second Temple in Jerusalem was built. Sebastia, near Nablus, was the northernmost province of the Persian administration in Palestine, and its southern borders were drawn at Hebron. Some of the local population served as soldiers and lay people in the Persian administration, while others continued to agriculture. In 400 BCE, the Nabataeans made inroads into southern Palestine and built a separate civilization in the Negev that lasted until 160 BCE. The end of the Persian period was marked by a number of revolts in the region, including a significant uprising against Artaxerxes III in 350 BCE, which resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem.
The Seleucid Empire in c. 200 BCE
In the late 330s BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the region, during his six-year Macedonian conquest of the empire of Darius III of Persia. Alexander’s armies took Palestine without complication while traveling to Egypt after the Siege of Tyre, beginning an important period of Hellenistic influence in the land.
During 323–301 BCE, the region changed hands numerous times during the wars of the Diadochi, with rulers including Laomedon of Mytilene, Ptolemy I Soter and Antigonus I Monophthalmus. In 312 BCE Ptolemy I Soter defeated Antigonus’ son Demetrius I at the Battle of Gaza, but withdrew from the region shortly thereafter. It is probable that Seleucus I Nicator, then an Admiral under Ptolemy’s command, took part in the battle, as following the battle he was given 800 infantry and 200 cavalry and immediately travelled to Babylon where he founded the Seleucid Empire. The region was finally re-captured by Ptolemy I Soter after Antigonus I Monophthalmus was killed at the Battle of Ipsus. Ptolemy had not taken part in the battle, and the victors Seleucus I Nicator and Lysimachus had carved up the Antigonid Empire between them, with Southern Syria intended to become part of the Seleucid Empire. Although Seleucus did not attempt to conquer the area he was due, Ptolemy’s pre-emptive move led to the Syrian Wars, which began in 274 BCE between the successors of the two leaders. The northern portion of Palestine ultimately fell into the hands of the Seleucid Empire in 219 through the betrayal of Governor Theodotus of Aetolia, who had held the province on behalf of Ptolemy IV Philopator. The Seleucids advanced on Egypt, but were defeated at the Battle of Raphia (Rafah) in 217. However, in 200 BCE Southern Palestine also fell under the control of the Seleucid Empire following the Battle of Panium (part of the Fifth Syrian War) in which Antiochus III the Great defeated the Ptolemies.
The landscape during this period was markedly changed by extensive growth and development that included urban planning and the establishment of well-built fortified cities. Hellenistic pottery was produced that absorbed Philistine traditions. Trade and commerce flourished, particularly in the most Hellenized areas, such as Ashkelon, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Gaza, and ancient Nablus (Tell Balatah).
The Persians had not interfered with the internal affairs of the various subject-peoples of the region, but the Greeks followed a policy of deliberate Hellenisation, encouraging, although not normally enforcing, Greek culture. Hellenisation took root first in the densely settled coastal and lowland areas, and only really began to impinge on more backward areas such as Judea in the early 2nd century. According to Josephus and the Books of the Maccabees, the continued Hellenization of Palestine by the Seleucids resulted in an uprising in the Judean Mountains, known as the Maccabean Revolt. Although the revolt was quelled in 160 BCE at the Battle of Elasa, the Seleucid Empire entered a period of rapid decline in 145–144 BCE, beginning with the overthrowing of King Alexander Balas at the Battle of Antioch (145 BCE) (the capital of the empire) by Demetrius II Nicator in alliance with Ptolemy VI Philometor of Egypt, as well as the capturing of Seleucia (the previous capital of the empire) by Mithradates I of Parthia. By 116 BCE, a civil war between Seleucid half-brothers Antiochus VIII Grypus and Antiochus IX Cyzicenus resulted in a breakup of the kingdom and the independence of certain principalities, including Judea. This allowed Judean leader John Hyrcanus to carry out the first military conquests of the independent Hasmonean kingdom in 110 BCE, raising a mercenary army to capture Madaba and Schechem, significantly increasing the regional influence of Jerusalem The Hasmoneans gradually extended their authority over much of the region, forcibly converting the populations of neighbouring regions, and creating a Judean–Samaritan–Idumaean–Ituraean–Galilean alliance in the process. The Judean (Jewish, see Ioudaioi) control over the wider region resulted in it also becoming known as Judaea, a term that had previously only referred to the smaller region of the Judean Mountains.
During 73–63 BCE, the Roman Republic extended its influence into the region in the Third Mithridatic War. During the war, Armenian King Tigranes the Great took control of Syria and prepared to invade Judea but retreated following an invasion of Armenia by Lucullus. According to Armenian historian Movses Khorenatsi writing in c. 482 CE, Tigranes captured Jerusalem and deported Hyrcanus to Armenia, however most scholars deem this account to be incorrect.
Extent of the Roman Empire under Augustus, 30 BCE – 6 CE
Following the Roman conquest of Judea led by Pompey in 63 BCE, Aulus Gabinius, proconsul of Syria, split the former Hasmonean Kingdom into five districts of legal and religious councils known as sanhedrin based at Jerusalem, Sepphoris (Galilee), Jericho, Amathus (Perea) and Gadara. Roman rule was solidified when Herod, whose dynasty was of Idumean ancestry, was appointed as king. Following a brief intervention by Pacorus I of Parthia, from 37 Iudaea under Herod I was a client kingdom of the Roman Empire.
Urban planning under the Romans was characterized by cities designed around the Forum—the central intersection of two main streets—the Cardo, running north-south and the Decumanus running east-west. Cities were connected by an extensive road network developed for economic and military purposes. Among the most notable archaeological remnants from this era are Herodium (Tel al-Fureidis) to the south of Bethlehem, Masada and Caesarea Maritima. Herod arranged a renovation of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, with a massive expansion of the Temple Mount platform and major expansion of the Jewish Temple around 19 BCE. The Temple Mount’s natural plateau was extended by enclosing the area with four massive retaining walls and filling the voids. This artificial expansion resulted in a large flat expanse, which today forms the eastern section of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Around the time associated with the birth of Jesus, Roman Palestine was in a state of disarray and direct Roman rule was re-established. In 6 CE, the Herodian governorate ended with the deposition of Herod Archelaus as the ethnarch of the Tetrarchy of Judea. The Herodian Dynasty was then replaced by Roman prefects and after 44 CE by procurators, beginning with Coponius. Herodians continued to rule elsewhere in Palestine. Senator Quirinius was appointed Legate of the Roman province of Syria (to which Judea had been “added” according to Josephus though Ben-Sasson claims it was a “satellite of Syria” and not “legally part of Syria”) and carried out the tax census of both Syria and Judea known as the Census of Quirinius. Caesarea Palaestina replaced Jerusalem as the administrative capital of the region.
Most scholars agree that Jesus was a Galilean Jew, born around the beginning of the first century, and hold that Jesus lived in Galilee and Judea and did not preach or study elsewhere. Using the gospel accounts with historical data, most scholars arrive at a date of birth between 6 and 4 CE for Jesus, but some propose estimates that lie in a wider range. The general scholarly consensus is that Jesus was a contemporary of John the Baptist and was crucified by Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Most scholars agree that his crucifixion was between 30 and 33 CE.
As a result of the First Jewish-Roman War (66–73), Titus sacked Jerusalem (in 70 CE) destroying the Second Temple, leaving only supporting walls, including the Western Wall. According to Josephus, the estimated death toll was 250,000–1,100,000. Pharisee rabbi Yokhanan ben Zakai, a student of Hillel, fled during the siege of Jerusalem to negotiate with the Roman General Titus. Yokhanan obtained permission to reestablish a Sanhedrin in the coastal city of Iamnia (modern Yavne) (see also Council of Jamnia). He founded a school of Torah there that would eventually evolve, through the Mishna in around 200 CE, into Rabbinic Judaism. The region’s leading Christians (Jewish Christians) relocated to Pella. Other Jewish groups such as Sadducees and Essenes are no longer recorded as groups in history.
In 106 CE, the Nabatean territory was incorporated into the Roman province of Arabia.
The Roman empire at its peak under Hadrian showing the location of the Roman legions deployed in 125 CE
In 132 CE, the Emperor Hadrian joined the province of Iudaea (comprising Samaria, Judea proper, and Idumea) with Galilee to form new province of Syria Palaestina. Hadrian probably chose a name that revived the ancient name of Philistia (Palestine), combining it with that of the neighboring province of Syria, in an attempt to suppress Jewish connection to the land. However Cassius Dio, the Roman historian from whom we have the bulk of our understanding of the revolt, does not mention the change of name nor the reason behind it in his “Roman History”. Jerusalem was renamed “Aelia Capitolina” and temples were built there to honor Roman gods, particularly Jupiter. In 135 CE, the victory in Bar Kokhba’s revolt by Hadrian resulted in 580,000 Jews killed (according to Cassius Dio) and destabilization of the region’s Jewish population.
Jerusalem was re-established as the Roman military colony of Aelia Capitolina; a largely unsuccessful attempt was made to prevent Jews and Christians from living there. Many Jews and Christians left Palestine altogether for the Diaspora communities, and large numbers of prisoners of war were sold as slaves throughout the Empire. Christianity in particular was practiced in secret and the Hellenization of Palestine continued under Septimius Severus (193–211 CE). New pagan cities were founded in Judea at Eleutheropolis (Bayt Jibrin), Diopolis (Lydd), and Nicopolis (Emmaus). Some two hundred Jewish communities remained, as gradually certain religious freedoms were restored, such as exemption from the imperial cult and internal self-administration. The Romans made no such concession to the Samaritans, to whom religious liberties were denied, while their sanctuary on Mt.Gerizim was defiled by a pagan temple, as part of measures were taken to suppress the resurgence of Samaritan nationalism.
A number of events with far-reaching consequences took place during this period, including further religious schisms between Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism such as a council held by the bishops of Palestine in Caesarea in 195 that decreed that Easter was to be always kept on a Sunday, and not with the Jewish Passover. The Romans destroyed the community of the Mother Church in Jerusalem, which had existed since the time of Jesus The line of Jewish bishops in Jerusalem, which is claimed to have started with Jesus’s brother James the Righteous as its first bishop, ceased to exist, within the Empire. Hans Kung suggests that the Jewish Christians sought refuge in Arabia and he quotes with approval a view that this created a paradox of truly world-historical significance that while Jewish Christianity was swallowed up in the Christian church, it preserved itself in Islam.
During 259–272, the region fell under the rule of Odaenathus as King of the Palmyrene Empire after the capture of Emperor Valerian by Shapur I at the Battle of Edessa caused the Roman Empire to splinter until Aurelian defeated the Palmyrenes at the Battle of Emesa (Homs).