A history of Israel and Palestine, Part 4

A Liberal Dose


 After taking a week off from this space to finish producing my lecture videos for my summer class on the American West, I am now back in the saddle (see what I did there?) to resume our exploration of the history of Palestine. When we left off two weeks ago, it was the end of the 4th century, and Rome had divided into Western and Eastern (with capitols at Rome and Byzantium, the latter exercising control over Palestine and the Middle East). Jews were now a minority in the region, with most native inhabitants being Christian (as both halves of the Roman Empire were).

The Byzantines’ chief rival in the Middle East was Persia (in case you didn’t know, Byzantium is now called Istanbul, Turkey, and Persia is now Iran). In the early 7th century - over a century after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West - the final war between the Byzantine and Persian empires took place, and Persia invaded Palestine. The Jews of Palestine fought on the side of Persia, hoping to get independence for Jerusalem and Jewish control over it out of the deal; the Persian-Jewish alliance captured Jerusalem and Caesarea, and the Jews destroyed the Christian churches there and took their holy relics as trophies. Unfortunately for them, the Persians lost the war - and Christian Byzantium retook control of the Levant and were very angry at the Jews of the region. All Jews were expelled from Jerusalem, and their leaders were executed. This was the year 629 C.E.

Seven years earlier, the prophet Muhammed - persecuted in his home city of Mecca, where he had been gaining followers for over a decade -migrated to the city of Medina (both cities are in Saudi Arabia) and began to unify the tribes of Arabia under his teachings. Under Muhammed’s leadership, the spread of the religion of Islam by conquest began. Muhammed returned to Mecca in triumph, in 630, and ordered the destruction of all idols in the city. He died in 632, but his Muslim successors continued his mission.

In 636, they invaded Palestine and conquered it by 640. (Orthodox) Christian Byzantium was now out of power in Palestine, and the Muslims were in. However, Muslims considered Jews, Christians, and Samaritans as “People of the Book” - basically servants of the same God - and Muslims considered both Moses and Jesus to be prophets. As a result, Jews, Christians, and Samaritans were accorded far more latitude under Muslim rule than were members of religions in the other places they conquered. Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem, synagogues and churches were allowed, and European Christians were still permitted to come to Jerusalem on pilgrimages. Still, though, non-Muslims had a secondary status and had to pay a special tax (as did non-Arabic Muslims).

About 20 years later, a new dynasty took over the Muslim caliphate, the Umayyad. The first Umayyad caliph was installed to power in a ceremony held in Jerusalem, which demonstrates the high regard in which they held the city. According to the Koran, Muhammed was once mystically transported from Mecca to Jerusalem, to the site Jews call the Temple Mount as it was the physical location of the destroyed Temple, and from that site the Prophet was transported briefly to heaven where he met God, Moses, Abraham, and Jesus. At the end of the second century, Umayyad caliphs had the Dome of the Rock constructed on the site, and it remains the oldest existing Islamic monument. This one site in Jerusalem, therefore, has profound religious significance for Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike.

During this era, two Arabic tribal groups, the Qays and the Yaman -essentially stemming from the northern and the southern Arab tribes -began a feud that would last for centuries, not abating until the 19th century and in some ways echoing into the present in Palestine. So North vs. South is not just something we do here. Meanwhile, in the following few centuries - depending on the caliph in charge - the status of Christians in Palestine went back and forth from tolerance to persecution and back again.

In the 11th century, the region was invaded by the Seljuk Turks - who were also Muslim - and they took Jerusalem in 1073. The Turks ruled tyrannically for a quarter-century, crushing any attempts at resistance and at different times killing most of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Gaza. They were finally driven out in 1098 by the Fatimid Caliphate.

And then came the Crusades.

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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