The most ancient traces of hominids in the Near East are bone fragments dating back 1.4 million years (Lower Palaeolithic), discovered in the Jordan Valley, at Tel ‘Ubeidiya (north of Bissan). They are thought to belong to groups related to Homo erectus, who migrated from Africa to Asia and Europe along the Afro-Syrian Rift. Remains of Homo erectus are rare. The recent discovery of a skull fragment of the “Galilee Man” in the Zuttiyeh cave (north of Lake Tiberias) tells us something more about him. The fragment is between 300,000 to 250,000 years old, belonging - according to some scientists’ opinion - to the ancient Homo sapiens sapiens. Far richer archaeological evidence exists from the Middle Palaeolithic Age (100,000 - 35,000 years) but this raises complex issues of the parallel and/or mixed evolution of Neanderthal man (Homo sapiens neandertaliensis) and modern man (Homo sapiens sapiens). Over this long period, their material cultures were similar (use of fire - known to Homo erectus, flint, tools, burial rites, etc.).
At Kebara (south of Mount Carmel), the bones of Neanderthals have been dated to as far back as 150,000 years; others, far more recent, again discovered at Kebara and at Amud, are 58,000 years old. These finds are therefore contemporary with modern man, while the oldest remains of modern man, approximately 92,000 year old, have been identified on the sites of es-Skhul Cave and Jabal Qafzeh. These discoveries suggest a precocious differentiation of modern man (Homo sapiens sapiens) in Palestine - similar remains have come to light in Ethiopia and South Africa - and the simultaneous presence of Neanderthal man (Homo sapiens neandertaliensis). Why the Neanderthals disappeared remains an enigma, although some specialist historians lean towards the theory of genetic absorption.
During the Upper Palaeolithic era, stone cultures diverged much more quickly. A new era succeeded it circa 12500 BCE with the development of the Natoufian culture which spread through the entire Near East. Natoufian communities settled down, forming the first permanent villages with permanent structures and round houses. Alongside these newly sedenterised people were itinerant (semi-nomadic) communities, mainly populating the peripheral regions (Negev and Transjordan). As they made their home in one place, these people began to domesticate their environment and produce goods necessary for subsistence. This phenomenon of the neo-Stone Age occurred at more or less the same pace throughout the entire Fertile Crescent.
Between 9500 and 8000 BCE, cereal crops were grown in Palestine. Later, in South Anatolia (south-eastern Turkey) and the Zagros (Iraq and Iran), animal domestication developed circa 7500 BCE. Sedenterisation appears to have been the most decisive factor behind these changes; other significant innovations were the appearance of new techniques such as pottery making (circa 6000 BCE), new social structures (the construction of large, rectangular houses, for example, reflects a more complex collective and hierarchical organisation than previously known), and a religion that worshipped gods.
The Chalcolithic Age in Palestine was characterised by the introduction of copper extraction and manufacture, but also the reproduction of a model of socio-political organisation already present in Mesopotamia. With the first signs of urbanisation of Palestine in the Bronze Age, a social model that fostered new inequalities came into force; in traditional communities, a council of elders had maintained civic authority, but now an aristocracy replaced it and controlled a more or less extended area spreading out from the city-state.
Antagonism between these economic and political centres (the city-states) and external power-seekers (the urban centres of Egypt and Mesopotamia) as well as the semi-nomadic tribes (the majority of people in the region), manifested in reinforcement of the fortifications of those cities. Between 2200 and 1900 BCE, incursions by these tribes put an end to this first urban experience, not only in Palestine, but in the entire cultural area that the Egyptians termed “Asiatic” - that is to say, the countries of Sham and Mesopotamia.
After this interval, the urban network was reconstituted, striking a balance between areas governed by pastoral tribes and those administered by the cities. From the eighteenth to the fifteenth century BCE, urban civilisation reached its peak, and its rulers, named the Hyksos (in Egyptian: “ruler of foreign countries”) imposed their authority as far as the Nile Delta. In the fifteenth century BCE, Pharaoh Thutmose III conquered the Hyksos and thus took control of the Syro-Palestinian region, appointing local suzerains as his intermediaries. Local-regional characteristics were less influential as to, economic, diplomatic, literary and religious relations, which came under the predominant influence of Egypt and Mesopotamia – whose Babylonian language thus became the lingua franca - to form a single homogenous culture.
The arrival of the “Peoples of the Sea,” as the Egyptians called them, on the shores of the Mediterranean, hastened the end of Egyptian rule in Palestine. This was also hastened by the breakdown of the old politico-economic city-state system. Amongst the new arrivals, the Philistines, the largest group, were installed in the south, in Egyptian territory. Their confederation of five cosmopolitan towns (Ascalan, Asdod, Gaza, Gath and Ekron) was ruled by a military and mercantile aristocracy. Their culture seems to have been a mixture of linguistic, political and religious traits which revealed Canaanite and Egyptian influences.
The Philistines integrated harmoniously into the indigenous population. Unfortunately, not a single Philistine text is extant, which could otherwise shed light on the process of their fusion into the indigenous population, or their relations with their neighbouring powers, in particular the Egyptians, Judaeans and Israelites. Whether in the interior of the land or in the mountains, power alternated between farmers settled in cultivated areas in the interior and tribes of semi-nomadic shepherds in mountainous areas or in the steppes or less fertile peripheries of the country.
Palestine was divided into four distinct political sectors: the Galilee to the north, under Phoenician influence, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the centre, and societies in the south that were hard to administer but which were loyal to Arabo-Edomite control. The towns’ defences were fragile but guaranteed them an independent status for a while. It is known today that the arrival of the Hebrews, coming in successive waves, came at the same time if not a little after that of the Philistines, and was peaceful. They were part of the waves of Aramaeans who settled all over the Near East, being accepted by the people already living there.
The first millennium BCE saw a profound evolution in politics and religion. One of the groups believing in Yahwism, or the worship of one God, Yahweh, supplanted the others: it became the official religion. It was this millennium that saw the birth and development of the Bible, created in different stages, and coming as a response to and an expression of monotheism. Six hundred years earlier, Pharoah Akhenaton had had the plural of the word “God” obliterated in all Egyptian temples, an undertaking which had been only partially completed. The slow process of political and social maturity had - over time - stimulated religious and intellectual activity, of which the Old Testament offers some choice examples.
Circa 1000 BCE, King David established his authority in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. In their effort to establish a national identity, the different regions created an ideological and religious heritage which was inevitably influenced by their neighbours: dynastic genealogies and theories of the creation of the world owed something to Mesopotamian and Egyptian myth, as did the adaptation of certain rites and rituals, and so forth. The God of the Israelites (Yahweh) slowly emerged supreme over the multiple oriental divinities: “You shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you.” (Deuteronomy 6:14) The Prophets were responsible for defining acceptable or unacceptable behaviour.
Royal scribes of the court sang the praises of the Jerusalem dynasty: “And Solomon, the son of David, was strengthened in his kingdom, and the Lord his God was with him and magnified him exceedingly.” (2 Chronicles 1:1) The little kingdom was overshadowed for a long time by its more glorious neighbor Israel, until the final capture of the latter in 722 BCE after repeated coups by the Neo-Assyrians (Israel lasted merely a little more than 200 years after its establishment).
At the time of the Neo-Assyrian conquest (722- 586 BCE), the Syro-Palestinian kingdoms were first obliged to pay tribute to the conqueror and were then transformed into Assyrian provinces. This event marked the end of their independence. Only Judaea and, further south, the Arab kingdoms maintained some autonomy. The coastal principalities and the kingdom of Samaria were destroyed, and their populations suffered deportation carried out in proportion to their resistance. As to Samaria, the Old Testament suggests that 27,000 people were deported, while most of the population was allowed to stay. This policy of deporting the population, common practice throughout the empire, enabled the conqueror to reinforce the Assyrian campaign by crushing local power.
Population transfers, however, were practiced in two senses. The kingdom of Judaea, for example, gained much by offering asylum in 722 BCE to the banished Samarian aristocratic class which had been dispersed after the crushing of Israel, during the fall of Samaria. Jerusalem became a dynamic intellectual and religious centre based on the theme of an ingathering of the Diaspora by divine protection: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3) In the second half of the sixth century BCE, the monotheism affirmed: “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.” (Isaiah 45:22) Politics unceasingly reinforced religion. Moreover, influences coming from across the sea, from the Greek world, intensified.
Cultural and religious exchanges followed in the wake of commerce. The idea of one unique god became progressively forged; the different kingdoms centred their official religion on the worship of one national god. Israel associated its God with the national temple, and the other kingdoms also consecrated a sacred place to their god. Popular religious practices inherited from the old Canaanite roots had not disappeared, however, and continued to perpetuate the antique religious unity of the Orient. Ancient agricultural rituals and fertility rites were deeply ingrained in local tradition everywhere. Even in Israel, nature religions jealous of the unique God continued to be practised for a long time alongside the worship of Yahweh. The exact moment when monotheism triumphed in the form we know it today is the subject of lively discussion among historians of religion; some say that it appeared only in the Hellenistic period, with the encounter with Greek philosophy.
The neo-Babylonian conquest precipitated the fall of proud Jerusalem in 586 BCE, sending its inhabitants into the Exile to Babylon. The kings of Gaza and Jerusalem (Zedekiah), with their families, priests and other officials thus came into contact with the highest civilization of their time. Those who returned in 538 BCE brought precious political and religious knowledge back with them, unknown by those who had stayed. They re-established Jerusalem on a strong ideological base in the midst of a changing world: the mixture of populations had given a new unity to the Orient. Aramaic had become the empire’s lingua franca. But the Greek world was preparing to descend on the Levant… This is the period when the traditions found in the Torah or Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy - also known as the Five Books of Moses), as well as the “historic” revisions of the texts (Joshua, Judges, Kings and Samuel) were compiled. Jewish culture was strengthened by its opposition to the increasingly pervasive hellenisation. The priestly hierarchy put an unprecedented emphasis on the sanctity of Jerusalem and the centrality of the (Second) Temple. Their intolerance of pagan religions took the form of destruction of ancient places of worship dedicated to traditional deities in Judaea, and threatened even the Samaritans who had no intention of giving up, despite all, their temple on Mt. Jarzim.
The Persian Achemenide kings struck up alliances with exiled aristocrats in order to oust regional authorities loyal to their Babylonian rulers. This strategy was common throughout the vast Persian Empire from Egypt to present-day Pakistan. The Persian desire to take political, economic and spiritual power did not pass without arousing much resistance in the region; the most striking example was the conflict between the Judaeans and the Samaritans. During the two centuries of Persian domination, the region was divided into small provinces amongst which the most prosperous were undoubtedly the maritime cities, open to Mediterranean trade, particularly with Greece. At this time, the Phoenician suzerains (Tyre and Sidon) controlled the entire Mediterranean Levantine coast, with the exception of Gaza — the most important urban centre in the region, whose longstanding links with Greece were a prelude to its later hellenisation.
With the constitution of the Hellenistic Empire by Alexander the Great, and then its dismantling, Palestine became a buffer zone between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid monarchies: Ptolemy and Seleucus, Alexander’s longstanding Greek generals, took control of Egypt and Syria respectively, while Palestine rotated between the two. A process of hellenisation was engaged: Greek became the official language of the administration in Palestine, and the use of a Greek name together with a Semitic name became common, at least among the elite; cities were founded or reorganised on the lines of the Greek state or polis, but although the elite class embraced hellenisation, the people were more reserved.
During the second century BCE, a social and political crisis gave rise to an expansionist movement issuing from Judaea, the only region of Palestine where the majority of the population was Jewish. The cities along the coast and in the interior (Gaza, Samaria and the north of Transjordan) fell provisionally under the dominance of the Maccabee and then the Hasmonean dynasties. Judaism was imposed as the sole religion of the kingdom. During the reign of the Maccabees, the “purification” of territory was effected by deportations, massacres and forced conversions (children had to be circumcised). The Kingdom of Judaea under the Hasmoneans was more open-minded in religious matters and accorded with the hellenisation of the region, as indicated by the use of Greek certificates, names, and the Greek language. Greek remained the official administrative language; Aramaic was the language in daily use; Hebrew, the religious language, was reserved for the study of holy texts and religious services.
Rome conquered Palestine after it had first become involved in internal political struggles there during the Hasmonean dynasty. Pompey reduced Judaea to the status of a client state. From 37 to 4 BCE, the Roman Empire supported a man, loyal to Rome and whom they trusted, who ruled the province under the title of king (having been crowned in Rome in 40 CE by the Senate): Herod the Great, the son of an Arab princess and an Edomite. Herod kept Judaism as the official religion of the royal court, while also allowing the worship of Graeco-Roman gods and the imperial cult. He was a great patron of Graeco-Roman culture and was especially famed for his construction of palaces, temples and cities. On his death, his kingdom was absorbed by the Roman province of Syria, and Caesarea became the capital of the Roman governor.
Herod had spent state money lavishly; he also confiscated and divided up the land for his veteran soldiers and Roman generals, causing a general impoverishment of the peasant masses. Popular revolts, tinged with messianic overtones, increased during the first century CE. In 132 CE, Hadrian announced the restoration of Jerusalem as a Roman colony, renamed Aelia Capitolina, dedicated to Jupiter Capitolina, and his prohibition of circumcision of infants then detonated a new revolt in the province of Palaestina Prima. The measure banning circumcision was not applied, but Jews were banned from entering Jerusalem (Aelia Capitolina), except for one day each year when they were permitted to wail at the ruins of the temple.
Palestine became the scene of frequent religious confrontations between pagans, Samaritans, Jews and emerging Christian sects. From the end of the first century CE, Pharisee rabbis excluded Nazarenes (the disciples of Jesus) from the synagogues. Still an obscure period, nevertheless it was a decisive time for the development of Christianity, which was seeking its identity and spreading with varying success. Critics of Christian currents note that conflicts between different groups of converts (whose interpretations were influenced by Judaism or paganism) was characteristic of this period in the formation of Christianity.
In 324 CE, Emperor Constantine made Byzantium the capital of the new Eastern Roman Empire. The policy in favour of Christians marked a major shift in the empire and confirmed the edicts of tolerance towards Christianity made by Emperor Galeius (311 CE), and Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 CE. This decision contributed to the rapid development of Christian religious communities, bringing a vast wave of pilgrims to Palestine, which began to be known as the Holy Land of the Christians.
The large numbers of pilgrims boosted commerce and the development of handiwork by artisans (silk, leather, etc.) and agriculture, controlled by the religious foundations – churches and monasteries, the land owners of vast properties. However, pagan rites lasted until Emperor Justinian forbade freedom to those cults; finally, at the end of a long process, towards the middle of the sixth century, Christianity was imposed by imperial command when Justinian in 529 CE ordered all pagans to be baptised.
The victory of the Arab-Muslim armies at the battle of Yarmuk (636 CE or 14 of the Hegira) sounded the end of Byzantine rule in the Near East. Yarmuk heralded a new era: a large number of the region’s inhabitants (Christians, Samaritans and Jews) progressively converted to Islam, and almost completely adopted Arabic as the language of the region. Palestine, together with its Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Samaritan components, from now on was assimilated into the Arab Empire, as Palestine was integrated into the vast Umayyad Caliphate (661-749 CE) and then ruled by its successor, the Abbassid Caliphate (750-969 CE) it remained important because of the numerous pilgrimage routes across it and because of the statute of the holy city of Jerusalem (Beit al-Maqdis - the House of the Sanctuary). The political and cultural structures were maintained and the new rule was greatly strengthened by the support of the well-established Christian landowners.
At the end of the tenth century, the power base was reinstated to the interior of the country as the Fatimid dynasty began its conquest of Palestine, taking it from the Baghdad-based caliphate: local powers also rebelled, most notably the Bedouin tribe of Banu Jarrah who tried to create an independent state. But new outside forces were preparing to conquer Palestine. In 1070 CE, the Seljuks, a Turkish Sunni dynasty, took Jerusalem and tried to create a kingdom in Palestine and in southern Syria, in the name of the struggle against the Fatimid Shiites. These power struggles and the parcelling out of territory created favourable conditions for Western ambitions in the Near East and the formation of Latin states.
The Crusades, launched by the papacy and supported by many kings or European lords, were promoted under the title of a “holy war,” but they had political motives, whether to expand the power of the church in Rome, to establish a fiefdom, or to divert attention from the misery and violence in Europe. “The Crusades will turn the thirst for eternal salvation into plundering ardour.”(G.Duby). In 1187 CE, the forces of Salah ed-Din al-Ayyubi al-Kurdi (Saladin) (1138-1193), a Muslim leader originally from Kurdistan, put an end to the first Latin kingdom in Jerusalem (1099-1187). After defeating the Crusader armies, in July 1187, at Hittin (near Tiberias), he liberated Jerusalem and all the ports of Palestine. During the Third Crusade (1189-1191), the king of France, Philippe Auguste, and the king of England, Richard the Lionheart, in 1191 took St. Jean d’Acre (Akka in Arabic), creating the kingdom of Acre, though they were not able to take Jerusalem.
During the next century, Palestine was at the mercy of conquests, treaties, and still more conquests, and was partially occupied until the fall of the last Crusader fortifications (Jaffa in 1268, Ascalan in 1270, and Acre in 1291). After Mameluke Sultan Baybar took St. Jean d’Acre, Palestine remained under Mameluke rule (1250-1516); the Mamelukes were a military aristocracy which for two and a half centuries ruled over a prosperous state ranging from Syria to Egypt, in which Palestine was relegated to the status of a province of no political importance, and was far from any power struggles.
From 1515 to 1517, the Ottoman armies under Sultan Selim I Yavuz (“the Cruel”) seized power from the Mamelukes in Syria-Palestine, in Egypt, and in Western Arabia before extending their territory as far as the Maghreb (Morocco). The Ottomans (or Osmanlis), originally from Anatolia, took their name from one of their leaders, Othman, who died at the beginning of the fourteenth century. As a general policy, they respected existing political and religious structures wherever they conquered. Local leaders, the aristocracy and the different religious communities maintained their privileged status and were integrated into the Ottoman administration on condition that they pledge allegiance to the Sultan.
Palestine was at first part of the administrative province of Damascus but became an independent province (pachalik) at the beginning of the eighteenth century; it was itself divided into three sanjaks: Acre, Nablus and Jerusalem. It was on these administrative bases that the pashas, or governors, supported by the local farmers, imposed order and collected taxes. During this period, the Palestinian countryside, and also the cities in the interior experienced a general decline. The diversion of commercial routes in favour of the Atlantic, after the discovery of the Cape Route by Vasco da Gama, diminished the commercial importance of the Palestinian ports (Acre, Haifa, Jaffa, Gaza) while the Sultan of the Sublime Port pursued a foreign policy of capitulations (economic and political concessions to the European powers and merchants) commencing in the sixteenth century. A first treaty of this kind was signed in 1535 between Suleyman the Magnificent and Francis I of France.
TheViceroy of Egypt, Mohammad Ali, took advantage of the Ottomans’ weak defences and governed Palestine from 1832 to 1840. The European powers supported the Ottoman Empire against Egypt, using their position to have an increasingly greater say in Turkish internal affairs. The ostensible need to “protect” Christians in the Orient, and other minority groups, became a favoured device to consolidate European presence on the ground. In the nineteenth century, Ottoman reforms of land ownership permitted a semi-feudal class to become owners of immense fiefdoms. Independent farmers and especially the ports Jaffa and Haifa and the towns, essentially Jerusalem, experienced an economic boom based on increased exports, soaring numbers of pilgrims and the establishment of European religious communities.
Circa 1900, Palestine’s population was 600,000 (87% Muslim, 10% Christian, and 3% Jewish). During World War I, the Palestinian population suffered from Turkish repression, forced mobilisation and requisitions. These final years of Ottoman domination contributed to fix in the collective memory the image of the Ottoman authority as parasitical and brutal.
In April 1920, the Supreme Council of the League of Nations put the Middle East under the guardianship of the two main colonial powers at that time, Great Britain and France. This year was designated by the Arabs as the Year of the Catastrophe. Great Britain supported a policy in favour of Zionism, against the indigenous (Palestinian) Arab people who, although representing 90% of the population in the 1920s, were simply referred to as the “non-Jewish community!” Representatives of the British Mandate tirelessly promoted Jewish immigration to Palestine and helped train Zionist military brigades. In this context, Winston Churchill declared: “I challenged Wavell [an English general opposed to the idea of training a Jewish army], and wrote to Dr. Weizmann authorising this army. Nevertheless, not a dog has barked!” Representing 10% of the population of Palestine in 1917, the Jewish population increased to 17.7% in 1931 and to 28% in 1939.
The Palestinian National Movement, in the hands of traditionally elite families, opposed these developments very ineffectually. Internal rivalries, and fear of losing favoured status or prerogatives in any direct confrontation with the mandatory powers, considerably weakened the movement. Nevertheless, popular resistance was expressed in frequent demonstrations against the British authorities and the Zionist settlers, with the principal demands being an end to Jewish immigration and the repeal of the Balfour Declaration. Such revolts always voiced the Palestinians’ fear of being dispossessed of their land; the purchase of land by European and American Zionist organisations (the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency for Palestine) always involved the expulsion of peasants who had been farming the land according to traditional law; they would pay rent to an Arab absentee landowner in order to farm his land. For those landowners, their land was primarily a speculative investment. Zionist organisations built up population centres of farmers and soldiers on land they purchased, often using the collective structure of the kibbutz to develop the land.
In 1929, following many expulsions of Palestinian peasants, on the one hand, and violation of the Status Quo concerning access of Jews to the Buraq Wall (Wailing Wall), on the other, a general revolt took place throughout Palestine. The Anglo-Zionist alliance was reinforced and British authorities increased their support for immigration more than ever. In Europe, anti-Semitism reached its climax in Nazi Germany, leading to an unprecedented genocide in which more than five million Jewish men, women and children were annihilated in concentration camps. Most surviving Jews, especially those from central Europe, supported the Zionist movement, although it had its Jewish detractors. Jewish immigrants flowed into Palestine continuously while the Western powers closed their doors to them. Between 1932 and 1948, approximately 350,000 Jews immigrated to Palestine.