A Short History of the Land of Israel

A piece of Edomite glass (C 2100 years old) that I found on a dig in Beit Guvrin.

Last week’s and this week’s classes have both dealt with general overviews to the land of Israel, dealing with such things as roads, borders, broad history, and the like. I’ll break down some of the other information in a future post, but I thought it might be helpful for me to give you a brief history of the different periods of history that we encounter here. This way, if I later refer to something as taking place in a certain period, I can refer you back to this brief overview! After reading this, if you would like to take a trip to Isreal and take one of the holy land tours to learn more about the history, you can go to immanuel-tours.com for more information on this.

Some of these are broad eras that apply to all of civilization, and others are specific to this location. The latter is the case the more modern we get. Also, in some cases, the period may start at different times in different parts of the world. (For example, Muslim period begins at different times in different parts of this area, depending on when the Muslims conquered various lands.)

Stone Age
150,000 – 6000 BCE
Until the use of metal on a daily basis by humans, the preceding period is called the Stone Age, due to the stone tools used. These were made of flint or ceramics, and the like.

The Stone Age is split into three sub-eras:
Paleolithic or Ancient Stone Age is from approximately 150,000 BCE to 80,000 BCE.
Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age 80,000 – 18,000 BCE
Neolithic or New Stone Age 18,000 – 6000 BCE

The agricultural revolution, in which cultivation of animals and crops began, started towards the end of the Neolithic era, and continued in the next era…

Chalcolithic Era
6000 – 3300 BCE
Named from the Greek word for copper, this is seen as a “seam period” between the preceding and succeeding eras. As copper tools began to come into use, agricultural cultivation became the norm. Humans moved from being solely hunter-gatherers to starting to settle down and build homes.

Bronze Age
3300 – 1200 BCE
By adding a mere 5% tin to the 95% copper, man found that his tools became much stronger. This alloy is known as bronze. Now, the next major revolution in the development of man takes place: urbanization. We begin to see organized settlements, with walls for protection, and a hierarchy of kings/leaders and priests.

The first written documents that have ever been found date to this period as well. Since history is the study of the human past based on written documents and archaeology is the study of the human past based on artifacts, this period marks the actual beginning of “history.” Everything prior to this date is what is known as “prehistoric.”

As with the Stone Age, the Bronze Age is split into three main periods:
Early Bronze 3300 – 2200 BCE (still very little writing, and thus mainly prehistory)
Middle Bronze 2200 – 1550 BCE
Late Bronze 1550 – 1200 BCE

This is also the era of the Jewish patriarchs, with Abraham born in 1812 BCE (1948 on the Jewish calendar). Technically, this period is described by a subperiod known as Middle Bronze IIB (we didn’t go into depth on this subcategorization). Overall, the Bronze Age in Israel is referred to as the Canaanite period.

Iron Age
1200 – 586 BCE
In Israel, this era is known as the Israelite period, and corresponds with the period stretching from Joshua‘s conquest of the land through the destruction of the First Temple. The Exodus from Egypt takes place somewhere around the seam between the end of the Bronze and beginning of the Iron Age.

The major enemy of the Israelites once they first settled the land of Israel were the Philistines. One of the major challenges the Israelites faced was that the Philistines already had iron weapons and chariots, but the Israelites do not. By the end of this period, of course, most of mankind does.

Further breakdown:
Period of the Judges 1200 – 1000 BCE From Joshua through Saul, the first king of Israel.

The United Kingdom C 1000 – 930 BCE Not to be confused with the British kingdom of the same name! 😉 King Saul was the first king of the Jews, and had many pluses and minuses as a ruler. By the end of his rule, the Philistines are pressing hard, and kill Saul and three of his sons.

The Israelites unite to choose David as their next king (especially since he had previously defeated the large Philistine warrior, Goliath). David had already been ruling over the tribe of Judah for the previous 7 years. He establishes a capital city in Jerusalem, and then his son Solomon takes over and further expands the borders and influence of the kingdom. He also builds the first Holy Temple of the Israelites in Jerusalem. Thus the remainder of this period is known as the First Temple Period as well.

Split Kingdom 930 – 586 BCE Following Solomon’s death, the tribes of Israel split and were never again united under one monarchy. The southern kingdom of Judah encompassed the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Simon (plus part of the Levite tribe). It continued to be ruled by the Davidic dynasty, each king succeeded by his son. The northern kingdom of Israel contained the remainder of the tribes, and was ruled by a series of short dynasties of only a king or two.

By 722 BCE the Assyrians conquer and destroy the kingdom of Israel, exiling most of the Israelites there to what is now Iraq (though a number also fled as refugees to the southern kingdom). This is the origin of what has become known as the “Lost Tribes of Israel.” It should also be noted that it is not really accurate to refer to these as the “Ten Lost Tribes.” From Iraq, the Assyrians brought people to Samaria, and those people later became known as the Samaritans. They were a sect that took on some Jewish practices, but also had many customs that were unique to them.

In 701 BCE, Sennacherib the Assyrian tries to take Judea as well, but King Hezekiah successfully defends Jerusalem. However, by 586 BCE a new power rules in Mesopotamia: the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar attacks Judea and destroys the Holy Temple. Half the Israelites are brought to Babylonia and half to Egypt.

Second Temple Period
586 BCE – 70 CE
Even though the Second temple was not built in 586 BCE, it is around for the bulk of this period, and thus lends its name to the span of time. We also (of course) have sub-periods in this era.

Persian Period 586 – 333 BCE The Persian conquest of Babylonia is in 539 BCE, followed by a declaration by Cyrus that the Israelites would be allowed to return to Israel to rebuild their temple. In 536 they return and construction is completed in 516 BCE. Thus only 70 years separate the two temples. In 333 BCE, the area is conquered once again by a little known man by the name of Alexander. Alexander the Great, that is.

Hellenistic Period 333 – 63 BCE Alexander lived a short life, but accomplished much. When he died in 301 BCE, his kingdom was split between his generals. Rule of the land of Israel changed hands during the remainder of this period. The first part from 301 to 200 BCE is the Ptolemaic, which is based in Egypt. From 200 to 167 the Seleucids (based in Antioch) ruled. And for a short 100+ year period, the Jews once again ruled themselves. 167 – 63 BCE is known as the Hashmonaic or Hasmonean era. This is the era that follows the story celebrated by Jews today as Hanukkah. It is also approximately when the piece of glass I found on a dig, pictured at the start of this post, dates from.

Early Roman Period 63 BCE – 70 CE Pompeii conquered Israel in 63 BCE. The population of Israel is still 95% purely Jewish. Israel is now the Roman province of Judea. In the year 70 CE, the Second Temple is destroyed by the Romans.

Roman Period
70 – 324 CE
One of the most notoriously vicious Roman rulers of Israel is Hadrian, who ruled from 118 – 138. During this time, however, there is a three year period of Jewish rule, during the famous Bar Kochba revolt of 132-135. In response, Hadrian wanted to wipe all references to the Israelites away. He changed the name of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina and Judea to Palestina. He is the first to use that term.

Byzantine Period
324 – 640 CE
Christianity had been an illegal religion in the Roman empire. But the Roman emperor Constantine was faced with a problem. His mother converted to Christianity! What was he to do? So in 324 he declares Christianity an acceptable religion in the Roman Empire, though he himself never gave up Paganism.

This next era takes its name from his capital city. Though later named Constantinople, its original name was Byzantium. Constantinople, by the way, when pronounced in Arabic, became Istanbul (notice the “stan” in both and the “-ple” sound equaling the “-bul”).

Muslim Period
640 – 1099 CE
The Muslim Conquest reached Israel in 640, though other countries’ Muslim eras begin in later years. Islam began as a religion in only 622, but they became strong very quickly, and the Arab people entered the land of Israel for the first time, about a half a millennium after Jewish Rule ended there. This era is also marked by rule of Israel changing between three different Muslim dynasties, each of which wanted to place the capital in a different city. The Ummayad wanted it in Damascus, the Abasic in Baghdad and the Fatimic in Cairo. But by 1096, Pope Urban II calls for a Crusade to take the Holy Land back from the infidels, and free the Holy Sepulchre.

Crusader Period
1099 – 1266 CE
The First Crusade reaches Israel in 1099. Over the years of this period, the land passes back and forth with the Muslim pushing the Christians out and new Crusades taking it back.

Mamluk Period
1266 – 1517 CE
A group of Egyptian Muslims, led by Baibars, wanted to retake the land. In 1260, they actually succeeded in defeating Genghis Khan and the Mongolians, who had actually reached Israel! If Khan had gotten through the land, he would have made his way to Egypt, so they met him earlier. Still, it wasn’t until 6 years later that they successfully conquered Israel from the Crusaders.

Just this week I went to the tours of the tunnels that run alongside the Kotel HaMa’aravi / Western Wall (I’ll write about that in a different post, hopefully). And though I’d known that the buildings that came up to the Kotel used to reach much higher than where the ground level of the plaza now is, I only learned on this trip that it was the Mamluks who were responsible. They wanted everyone in the Old City to be able to see over the top of the wall of the Temple Mount, to look at the Dome of the Rock. So they built a massive platform on arched supports, and then built new buildings on top of them! These last to this day, and most people walking through the Arab Quarter have no clue that they are walking high above the original ground level of the city. Impressive engineering!

Ottoman Period
1517 – 1917
About 900 years earlier, the country was ruled over by a different group whose name is tied to the land of Turkey — the Byzantines. But that was really the Roman Empire, based in Turkey. In 1517, the Ottoman Turks themselves expanded their holdings, and reached the Holy Land, capturing it from the Mamluks. The Turks are, of course, Muslim as well, but they are not Arabs. This may explain part of why they weren’t on friendly terms with the Mamluks.

Their rule in Israel lasts for the next 400 years, until the end of World War I. They built a lot in the land of Israel, and in fact, the walls that today surround the Old City of Jerusalem are Ottoman walls, not ancient walls by any means. (We like to point out how the “Old City” of Jerusalem is obviously much older than the rest of the city, it is not really the Old City. Ir David / The City of David is the much older city of Jerusalem!) As another example, the train tracks that today are used from Jerusalem to Beit Shemesh are in fact the ones built by the Turks in the 1800s.

British Mandate
1917 – 1948
Although the official “British Mandate” didn’t come until 1921, we use the term to refer to the whole period of British rule in Israel. But 1917 marked the Balfour Declaration which stated:

that the British government “view[ed] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

The Mandate’s purpose was to help rule part of the former, now-defunct Ottoman Empire until self-sufficient governments could effectively rule the area.

This period stretched from the end of World War I until the State of Israel was declared in 1948.

The State of Israel
May 14, 1948 – Present
Towards the end of 1947, the United Nations decided to partition the British Mandate lands into three parts: Jewish, Arab and UN-administered Jerusalem. Only the Jews accepted the plan, and on May 14, 1948 Israel declared its independence. The next day, five surrounding Arab countries (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq), with troop assistance from three other Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Sudan), attacked the fledgling Jewish state. Of course, the Jews had been under attack on a less formal basis for a long time before that. Arab riots against Jews were common in the Holy Land in the 1920s and 1930s. Also, following the UN’s announcement of the partition plan, Arab groups began attacking Jews in December 1947, even before Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The war ended a year later.

From this period until the present day, the Land of Israel has returned to the People of Israel as the State of Israel. The Jews of the world have returned from the proverbial Four Corners of the Earth to reclaim their historic homeland.

Unfortunately, they’ve also had to fight a series of wars with their neighbors, defending their very right to exist. Thankfully, there has been some progress. Over the years, Israel has signed peace treaties with two neighboring Arab countries: Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. In 1991, it was attacked by a country that was neither a neighbor, nor in direct conflict with it: Iraq. When the U.S. launched the first Gulf War, the Iraqis saw fit to attack Israel with Scud missiles. (Logical, right?)

Israel has made tremendous progress technologically, culturally and agriculturally. It was the only place on Earth to finish the 20th Century with more trees than it had at the beginning of the century, thanks largely to the efforts of the JNF. Israeli wines have returned to their former glory, and are winning international awards. Israel has had 9 Nobel Prize winners. And its technology sector has become legendary, in the fields of computer science, biotech, green tech, and other areas.

I know I’ve gotten a little “propagandist” towards the end of this piece, but the truth is, I am at least as proud for the miracles of the State of Israel as I am for the amazing history you can see evidence of when you visit here. It is for these reasons, and more, that I am so proud to now call myself an Israeli. And it is for these reasons that I hope to show as many of you as possible the amazing land and country that is Israel!

I hope this short history primer is helpful and informative!

6 thoughts on “A Short History of the Land of Israel

    • Fun Joel says:

      My pleasure! Thanks for checking out the blog. Be in touch if I can help with anything moving forward. 🙂

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