Return of the Holy Land

The Roman province of Palestine did not rank high in Roman considerations, and an appointment to govern Palestine was no great prize. Not, that is, until Constantine, son of Helena (a devout Christian, and a discoverer of many holy sites and artifacts), became Emperor of Rome, and founder of the City of Constantinople (today's Istanbul).

Following Constantine's adoption of Christianity in 313, Palestine was transformed from a backwater of the Roman Empire, into Terra Sancta, the Holy Land. From now on Palestine became a synonym for the Holy Land, at least in the Christian world.

The Holy Land under Byzantine Rule 313-636

By the end of the 4th century the Land of Israel had become a predominantly Christian country. One wealthy visitor after another (the Emperor s mother, Helena, was of course the most important), with the help of local guides, discovered sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Galilee which were connected in some way with a story from the Bible, usually to do with Jesus himself; churches were erected on these and monasteries were established in many parts of the country. When Rome was sacked by Attila the Hun, and the center of the Empire moved to Byzantium (today's Turkey), many people of means settled in the Holy Land, including Eudocia, the Empress who divorced her husband and settled in Jerusalem where she rebuilt the town. Magnificent 5th century structures replaced the earlier 4th century buildings (and many modern churches are built on the same sites today). By the end of the 6th century the population (between the rift valley and the Mediterranean) had reached a peak of perhaps 6,000,000.

At the end of the 4th century, an enlarged Palestine was divided into three provinces: Prima, with its capital at Caesarea; Secunda, with its capital at Scythopolis (Bet She an); and Salutaris (from 425 Palestina Tertia), with its capital at Petra. A dux of Palestine commanded the garrison of all three provinces.

As the inspirational center of the Christian world, church history began to play its part in Palestine. The bishop of Caesarea, the capital of Palestina Prima, was metropolitan of the province, but Jerusalem challenged his position, and eventually Juvenal, bishop of Jerusalem from 421 to 458, was recognized as patriarch of all three provinces of Palestine. Other Christian disputes centered on doctrine: The monks of Palestine supported the Monophysites but were subdued by military force, and eventually orthodox views of the nature of Jesus became the norm in Palestine. Other, non-Christian, parties also expressed their discontent.

The Jews in the Galilee rebelled in 352, the Samaritans around the same time and again under Justinian I (527-565).

Apart from these disturbances the country was largely peaceful and even prosperous until Chosroe II, king of Persia (today's Iran), invaded and conquered Palestine in 614, holding it for 14 years before the Byzantine Empire regained the Holy Land. The Jews, who had been denied the right to hold public positions and forbidden to enter Jerusalem, welcomed the Persian invasion. In this invasion by the followers of Zoroaster, they saw, among other things, a sign of potential messianic deliverance. In gratitude the Persians granted Jews the administration of Jerusalem, an interlude that lasted about three years. In 628 the Byzantine Empire regained the Holy Land and in the subsequent (payback?) persecutions more Jewish communities disappeared. The Byzantine army pursued the Persians back to Persia in an attempt to regain the True Cross, which the Persians had taken with them from Jerusalem where it had been found, in the fourth century, by Helena. In the end the Emperor Heraclius ransomed the cross and entered Jerusalem with it in a triumphant procession. But Byzantine rejoicing was short-lived. The new religion of Islam was about to take wing under the Arabs.

Arab Rule (636-1099)

The Arabs derive from the Arabian peninsula. Shortly after Mohammed, the founder of Islam, died in 632, his followers went on a crusade to spread the message of Islam by the sword, led by Omar. He founded the administrative basis for the new empire, creating the office of kadi and establishing a sysem of taxation and appointing a group to select his successor. When he was assassinated, they chose Mohammed's son-in-law, Uthman.

When the Arabs conquered this Mediterranean part of the Middle East they initially maintained the administrative divisions of their predecessors, primarily as military units. Palestina Secunda became Jund al-Urdunn (jund = army). Palestina Prima became Jund Filastin. But Palestine was soon incorporated into the province of Syria-Palestine, ruled from Damascus, and subdivided into a number of districts, none of which bore any relationship to the Holy Land. These sub-districts continued to be ruled from Damascus as part of some larger province of the empire, even when the center of the Arab empire shifted to Baghdad and later to Cairo. The name Palestine survived in the West as a synonym for the Holy Land, precise borders unknown, until the British defined it as a geographical unit in the aftermath of WWI.

The Arab conquest of the Land had come four years after the death of Muhammad (632). Omar, abu Bakr's successor, pointed out to his enthusiastic followers, that this was a war that they could not lose; if they won, they won; if they died in an attempt to spread the word of Islam, they were guaranteed a place in Heaven. Arab rule lasted more than four centuries, with caliphs ruling first from Damascus, then from Baghdad and then Egypt. Ancient patterns reasserted themselves, and the Mediterranean seaboard was soon caught up in a tug of war between Arab rulers in Egypt and in Mesopotamia.

The Umayyad dynasty 

Based in Damascus, the family of Mu'awiya in 661 took over from the rulers of Mecca and Medina. Palestine was incorporated into Syria, forming one of the main provinces of the empire. Each jund was administered by an emir, assisted by a financial officer (a pattern which more or less continued until Ottoman rule in the 16th century).

Close to home, and especially after they had lost control of Mecca and Medina to the descendants of Hussein Ali [H#ussein ibn  Al+ ibn Ab+ T#lib , Mohammed s grandson and son of Muhammad's cousin, the first Shi ah Imam, and the fourth Caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib], the Umayyads paid special attention to Jerusalem. In 691 Abd-al-Malikh (685-705) erected the Dome of the Rock on the site of the Temple. In 705 his son el-Walid, built the Mosque of al-Aksa at the southern end of the same compound. These were promoted as alternative sites of pilgrimage at a time when opposition forces controlled Mecca and Medina. Palaces were built in Jerusalem, but it was Ramle, on the coastal plain near Lydda, that was created in the 7th century to replace Caesarea as the regional capital.

In its struggle against Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula, Syria-Palestine had become a mainstay of Umayyad power. Arabization and Islamization proceeded rapidly. Omar II (717 720) imposed a variety of humiliating restrictions on his non-Muslim subjects, and conversions of convenience, as well as conviction, increased. These, combined with a steady inflow from the desert tribes, changed a predominantly Christian population into a Muslim, Arabic-speaking population. Together with the Moslem conquest a small Jewish population returned to Jerusalem after a 500 year absence and settled there.

Abbasid rule

In 750 the Abbasid dynasty, based in Baghdad, replaced the Umayyad, though Syria-Palestine did not submit to its new masters as easily as they might have wished. The Umayyads had allied themselves with the Yaman (South Arabian tribes), the Abbasids favored the Qays (North Arabian tribes). In 840 Abu Harb, a Yemenite, led a revolt of mainly local (Holy Land) peasants, who regarded him as a savior from the hated Abbasids. The insurrection was put down but unrest persisted. Under the Abbasids, the process of Islamization gained momentum. The Abbasid rulers settled and fortified the coast of Palestine to secure it against the Byzantines. Science, philosophy and mathematics made a quantum leap forward, but in the later 9th century, internal decay set in. The Tulunid dynasty (868 905) of Egypt began to assert independence, and took Syria and Palestine with it. In 903 the Qarmatians, an Isma ili sect, rebelled in the Holy Land, holding an independent strip of territory till 906. The Abbasids briefly restored their authority, but soon the Holy Land came under the rule of the Ikhshidids (935 969) from Egypt.

The Fatimid dynasty

At the same time, the Shi ite Fatimid dynasty was rising to power in North Africa. In 969 it seized Egypt from the Ikhshidids, then Syria, threatening Baghdad itself. Once more the Holy Land, caught up in an ancient tug of war, was reduced to a battlefield. Once more internal issues added fuel to the fire. The caliph al-Hakim (996 1021) reimposed discriminatory laws upon Christians and Jews and added new ones. In 1009 he ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In 1071 the Seljuqs captured Jerusalem; side by side with Muslim visits, pilgrimages by Jews and Christians began again, despite the political instability. In 1098 the Fatimids recaptured the city only to relinquish it a year later to a new enemy, the crusaders of western Europe who, in answer to an appeal by Pope Urban II, had come from Europe to recover the Holy Land from the Infidel.

The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1291)

In July 1099, after a five-week siege, the Crusaders captured Jerusalem, massacring most of the city's non-Christian inhabitants: Seeking refuge in their synagogues, those Jews not burnt to death were sold into slavery. Over the ensuing 200 years, the Crusaders dominated the region.

During the first decades, the Crusaders extended their power over the Mediterranean seaboard, through treaties, agreements and bloody military victories. A conquering minority, confined mainly to fortified cities and castles, ruled the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, named for its capital. Most of those with means and estates in Europe went back home; those with a less promising future carved out new estates for themselves in the Middle East.

They soon realized that survival required political alignments with some Arabs against others, and did their best to drive a wedge between the centers in Damascus and Cairo. The rise of military orders such as the Knights of St. John, the Templar and Teutonic knights, provided the nucleus of a standing army. Survival required also a regular flow of goods and people. Mostly land-based, they reached agreements with the Italian cities of Genoa, Pisa, Venice and Amalfi. These supplied the ships required in return for monopolies on goods from the east; however their own internal rivalry often eclipsed their common enmity with the Arabs.

Nevertheless, when the Crusaders opened up transportation routes from Europe, pilgrimages to the Holy Land became popular. Jews too sought to return to their homeland. Apparently 300 rabbis from France and England arrived together, some settling in Acre (Akko), others in Jerusalem.

The Arab world, in most spheres vastly superior to the Europeans, still had no military answer to a group of knights in heavy armor on large horses, the Arab forces much like infantry facing tanks. But after the Second Crusade, when the newcomers attacked indiscriminately all Arabs as the Infidel, failing to recognize the alignments that the early settlers had made with some Arabs against others, Zenga, Nur-ad-Din and finally, Salah ad-Din (Saladin) unified the Arab world under the Kurdish Ayyubids, and a final showdown took place, just west of the Sea of Galilee.

On July 4 1187, at the Horns of Hattin, Saladin crushed the entire Crusader army, and took the country leaving only Tyre remained in the crusaders control, which turned out an Arab mistake. The loss of the Holy Land was such a shock to Europe that the Third Crusade was led by three kings; Friedrich (Barbarossa) of Germany, Philip Augustus of France, and Richard the Lion-Hearted, King of England. Friedrich, probably the ranking member of this elite group, never made it to the Holy Land: his ship sank and he drowned (it was never a good idea to wear armor on the water). Richard, who as King spent only a few months in England (and those to raise money to pay for his Crusade), lived, for most of his reign, on his vast estates in Aquitaine or Normandy, where he owed allegiance to King Philip. But on their arrival it was Richard who took command of the armed forces. Philip, disgruntled, soon abandoned the enterprise, and returned to France. Richard, from the base of Tyre, fought Saladin in the forests (shades of Robin Hood, though these were primarily oak trees) of the coastal plain. Although the Crusaders regained a foothold in the country after Saladin's death (1193), their presence was limited to a network of fortified castles, along the coast, with the Crusader capital in Akko (Acre). Richard, nervous of what might be happening back home (in France) while he was busy in the East, settled for the re-established Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem without Jerusalem. But some Christian rights were soon regained in the Holy City.

Friedrich Hohenstaufen, who led the 5th Crusade under duress (excommunicated by the Pope for refusing to go), negotiated visiting rights to the Holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 1229, and a Christian presence lasted until 1244, when the Ayyubid Sultan as-Salih restored sole Moslem control over the hilltops. The Crusader Kingdom did not have long to last: The rise to power of Baybars, the first Mameluke to rule Egypt, signaled the beginning of the end of the Crusader Kingdom. One by one Crusader strongholds fell. His successor, al-Ashraf, completed the job, and the last Crusader sailed from Atlith after a final bloody defeat at Akko (May 18, 1291).