A history of Israel and Palestine, Part 3

A Liberal Dose


Two weeks ago, we had reached the 10th century BCE and established the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the cities of Philistia. That was the southern Levant. After the Bronze Age Collapse of around 1200 BCE, there was a shuffling of powers in the northern Levant. The seafaring Phoenician city-states in Lebanon - cities like Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut -prospered in the following centuries, establishing colonies in other parts of the Mediterranean world, most notably the city of Carthage. In modern Syria, Damascus - which had previously been batted back and forth between the Hittites and the Egyptians - became a prominent city under the Arameans (who spoke Aramaic). To the northeast of Syria, the Assyrians became a major power, their central cities being Assur (from which they got their name) and Ninevah, in modern Iraq. Egypt, of course, remained a power far to the south.

For the next thousand years, the area formerly known as Canaan, later as Palestine, would be frequently caught in a tug-of-war between various empires. In the ninth century BCE, the Aramean king of Damascus (Hazael) expanded his kingdom into a proto-Empire, but a century later was crushed by Assyria… who also conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and (according to the Bible) took the inhabitants of the Israelite capitol, Samaria, into captivity, never to return home. By 605 the Assyrians had been greatly weakened and were, themselves, crushed by an alliance including the Medes (from modern Iran) and the New Babylonians (Chaldeans from Iraq). Eight years later the Babylonians conquered Judah and destroyed Jerusalem, taking many of the Jews into captivity in Babylon. They also conquered the cities of the Philistines and took them into captivity, as well. The Philistines maintained their identity while captive for over a century but eventually faded out of history. Their cities were resettled by Phoenicians (remember, descendants of Canaanites). About half-a-century after the Jewish captivity had begun, Babylon was conquered by Persia - who allowed the Jews to return home, escaping the fate of the Philistines. By 539 BCE Persia controlled The Levant. The returned Judeans spoke Hebrew and there were some Arabs in the area speaking their own language, but the common tongue of the whole region was Aramaic.

Whew! Got all that?

In 480 BCE the Persian westward advance was checked by the Spartans in Thermopylae. In 330 BCE the Persian Empire was crushed by Alexander the Great of Macedonia, and now Greeks were in charge of The Levant. When Alexander died in Babylon at age 32, his vast empire was divided among his top four generals, with Seleucus (and his descendants) in charge of Asia Minor, Syria, and Mesopotamia, and Ptolemy (and his descendants) in charge of Egypt -both at one time or another exerting influence in The Levant (and all the rulers, essentially, Greek even though they were being called Syrian and Egyptian). Koine Greek became the official language of the area, and was spoken by rulers and administrators, while most of the common people spoke Aramaic and their local languages.

By 167 BCE, Seleucid king Antiochus IV was suppressing the culture and religion of the Judeans, which led them to (successfully) rise up in revolt under the leadership of the Maccabee family.  The Seleucids were being tested at the same time by several of their conquered peoples, which helped enable the Maccabees to win Judean independence and establish the Hasmonean Kingdom, which ruled most of The Levant for a hundred years.

And then, in 63 BCE, Rome showed up. They destroyed the Seleucid empire, then ended the Hasmonean kingdom and divided it into three provinces: Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. Judea was allowed to have its own king, though: Herod. Throughout the first century CE, Jewish zealots sporadically led insurgencies against the Romans, erupting into full-scale rebellion in 66 CE… and leading to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 CE. The Romans deported 30,000 Jews to Carthage and sold 100,000 into slavery, with many thousands more leaving on their own steam. Two generations later, in 132 CE, there was another Jewish rebellion that led to more death and destruction. At that point Rome changed the name of the province from Judea to Syria Palaestina. When the Roman Empire divided into West and East (Byzantine) in 391, The Levant was under the control of the Byzantine Empire -often at odds in the area with the Persians, with both sides having Arabic allies. Jews had become a minority, and most people in the area were now Christian.

To be continued.       

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech and serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.        


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