History Files

Near East Kingdoms

Levantine States


Israelites & Israel

Today's Israel and Palestine are irrevocably linked in terms of their history. The former was carved out of a large proportion of the already-expanded latter from 1948. Before that though lies four thousand years of history, sometimes recorded, sometimes alluded to, and sometimes a complete mystery. Unpicking it to establish a relatively stable story has been the work of decades, and even today there are differences of opinion regarding many of the details.

The region in which both names came to be created was Canaan, the long Mediterranean coast between ancient Syria and Egypt which today is known as the Levant. Various independent or united Semitic-speaking city states formed in this region from around 3000 BC onwards, reaching a peak of independent development in the second millennium BC. It was during the climate-induced social collapse of the late thirteenth century BC that both a state known as Israel and a region known as Palestine emerged, giving both terms similar founding dates (very approximately), with the Phoenicians emerging to the immediate north during the same period.

Then came the Jewish Diaspora and the age of great empires in the form of the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Eastern Romans, Islam, and the Ottomans, until the twentieth century saw the most recent phase of empire-building come to an end and individual sovereign states emerge.

The term 'Israelite' is often used interchangeably with the terms 'Hebrew' and 'Jew', but these terms are not strictly interchangeable. The specific term 'Israelites', or 'people of Israel', is best used only for periods after the followers of Yahweh undertook their exodus from Egypt. It can also be used conveniently for the earlier period in which these people were subject to patriarchs (approximately between the eighteenth and sixteenth centuries BC).

The term loses its accuracy after the united kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon divided into the kingdoms of Samaria and Judah around 927 BC. The Old Testament tends usually to use the term 'Hebrew' for the entire period before 1000 BC, but it is best to avoid it here due to controversy surrounding its origins (regarding whether it descends from 'Eber', the ancestor of Abraham, or habiru, a general term for brigands and the dispossessed).

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler and from the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information by Sean Bambrough & Wayne McCleese, from The Amarna Letters, William L Moran (1992), from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, from Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F Unger (1957), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times, Donald Redford (Princeton University Press, 1992), and from External Links: Encyclopædia Britannica, and Bible Atlas.)

Crusader Palestine
AD 1099 - 1244

The early Israelites created the kingdom of Israel in the late eleventh century BC, although it quickly divided into Samaria and Judah and was conquered by Near East empires in the first millennium BC. Later, the second century BC Jewish Hasmonaean state was captured by Rome, and a puppet Herodite dynasty installed.

Less than a century later Rome saw fit to take direct control of Roman Judea, but two major revolts in the first two centuries AD saw Jerusalem destroyed, the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina built at least partially over the top of it, and Judea being renamed as the province of Roman Palestine. It was under the leadership of Umar I 'the Great' that Islam began its rapid expansion outside Arabia. Eastern Roman Emperor Heraclius was defeated in 636, and Palestine and Phoenicia were taken in 636 and 637 respectively. For much of the next millennium and-a-half Palestine remained dominated by Muslim leaders.

The First Crusade was called by Pope Urban II in 1095 during a momentous speech in Clermont-Ferrand in France. He led his audience towards warfare involving Turks who were attacking the Christian Eastern Roman empire, He begged the soldiers present to attack the Muslims rather than their fellow Christians. A papal indulgence promised the immediate remission of all of the sins of any who participated in the expedition. The crowd responded with a chant which was to become the war cry of the First Crusade. 'Dieu li volt!' ('God wills it!').

Having traversed Europe from west to east, the nobles, soldiers, and camp followers of the First Crusade assembled in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. By the middle of 1096, the main force was ready to leave, and the Crusades began in earnest. The captured lands were known collectively as Outremer, meaning in French, 'beyond the sea', that sea being the Aegean.

The following two centuries would see a peak of Crusader activity create a short-lived European empire in the Near East, before the tide turned and Islamic forces began to gain the upper hand. During that period, however, the opening up of the Levantine coastline to European trade and passage persuaded many Jewish Diaspora groups to return to their ancestral home. Documents from the period indicate that, around 1211, three hundred rabbis from France and England arrived in a group, some settling in Acre (ancient Akko), and others in Jerusalem.

Crusaders commonly persecuted Jews, however, in part because Jews had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Muslims to defend their homeland. But in part the Crusaders also brought with them their national prejudices against Jews. Jews in the Crusader states were forbidden from owning land, so they largely seem to have become traders and merchants. Only Jewish Galilee seemed to remain untouched.

Saladin and Guy de Lusignan at Hattin

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from the BBC documentary series, The Crusades, first broadcast on 18 January 2012, from The Third Crusade: Richard the Lionhearted and Philip Augustus, Sidney Painter (in A History of the Crusades - The Later Crusades, 1189-1311, Kenneth M Setton, Robert Lee Wolff, & Harry W Hazard (Eds, University of Wisconsin Press, 1969)), from Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World, Vol 2, André Wink (Brill, 2002), from The Turks in World History, Carter Vaughn Findley (Oxford University Press 2005), from The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, Susan Wise Bauer (2010), from Contemporary Letters on the Capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, S D Goitein (Journal of Jewish Studies 3, 1952), and from External Links: The Story of the First Crusade (dead link), and Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Encyclopaedia Iranica, and History: Foreign Domination (Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, now available only via the Wayback Machine).)

1096 - 1098

Nicæa in western Anatolia is the first Islamic town to fall to the Crusaders. With Islam regarding this as little more than a well-armed raid, little direct action is taken against it. Anyway, the ruling Seljuq Turks and the more local Seljuqs of Rum are more interesting in their ongoing internecine feuds.

The coming of the Crusaders occurred at a time at which the Islamic world was deeply involved in factional in-fighting, and at first they were dismissed as being a mere Byzantine raid

1098 - 1099

The county of Edessa is created in 1098, and Jerusalem is captured in 1099. Most of the city's non-Christian inhabitants are massacred in the process. Barricaded in their synagogues, the Jews defended their quarter, only to be burned to death or sold into slavery.

Some of the latter later have their freedom purchased by Jewish communities in Italy (possibly Ashkenazi Jews) and Egypt (later to be defined as Mizrahi Jews), with the redeemed slaves being taken to Egypt. Jerusalem's Jewish population takes decades to recover.

On the day of the victory, 15 July 1099, and still covered in the blood of their dead enemies, the Crusaders assemble inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to give thanks for their victory. Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Crusader kingdom and the principal city of all of the Crusader territories.


The Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem is defeated by Saladin at the Battle of Hattin. Although the other captured nobles are ransomed, all of the captured Knights Templars and Knights Hospitallers are executed. Thousands of Christian prisoners are marched the six hundred and forty-four kilometres to Abuyyid Cairo, where they are forced to work on extending the city's fortifications and building the citadel.

Saladin accepts the surrender of Guy de Lusignan
Saladin accepts the surrender of Guy de Lusignan and the Christian armies following the massive success of his army at the Battle of Hattin

Saladin then besieges Jerusalem itself, before coming to peace terms with its defenders. The city is evacuated by the crusader knights. One of Saladin's first acts upon taking possession of the city is to invite Jews to re-inhabit it.


Documents from this period indicate that around this year a total of three hundred rabbis from France and England arrive in Palestine in a group, some settling in Acre (ancient Akko), and others in Jerusalem. The opening up of the Levantine coastline to European trade and passage persuades many diaspora groups to return to their ancestral home.

1219 - 1220

Sultan Al-Mu'azzam Isa of Damascus has become obsessed with destroying Crusader fortifications. Between 1219-1220 he dismantles much of Jerusalem in pursuit of this aim, in the process driving away much of the city's Jewish community (which largely remains away until the 1270s).

1228 - 1229

The Fifth Crusade hits the region and Jerusalem is ceded to the Christians at Acre while the Abuyyids squabble amongst themselves. For allowing Jerusalem to fall into Christian hands, al Kamil I (Nasir ad Din) of Egypt is vilified by many Muslims, but it brings peace with the Crusaders.

Philip Hohenstaufen
One of the great crusader kings, Philip Hohenstaufen climbed through the ranks of the nobility during his lifetime, from bishop of Würzburg, through duke of Tuscany and then Swabia, to become emperor of the Germans

From the moment of his accession in 1227, al Nasir II of Damascus has faced opposition from his uncle, the very same al Kamil I. That uncle now attacks him, taking Jerusalem (before handing it over to the Christians) and Nablus. Appealing to another uncle, al Ashraf, ruler of the ancient city of Harran, al Nasir is betrayed when both uncles team up.

Damascus is besieged between late 1228 and June 1229, when it falls. As agreed, al Kamil takes Palestine and al Ashraf gains Damascus and the north, acknowledging his brother as overlord. The dispossessed Al Nasir is compensated with the emirate of Kerak in the Transjordan.


As Salih II Ismail of Damascus is quickly reconciled with an Nasir Dawud after the latter has fallen out with Ayyub. Together they decide to curtail Ayyub's ambition to conquer further Ayyubid territories. In July, Ismail reaches an agreement with Jerusalem so that the Crusaders will protect southern Palestine from Ayyub's possible attacks.

The price is high, though, as he is forced to cede all of the land west of the Jordan (won by Saladin in 1187), including Gaza, Jerusalem, and Nablus, along with his own fortresses at Hunin, Safad, and Tiberias. He is denounced throughout the Arab world for his actions.

Great Citadel of Damascus
The Great Citadel of Damascus was built between 1076-1078 and 1203-1216, but the Mongols captured it in 1260 and razed it. Today the ruins remain in place


The Abuyyid Sultan as Salih II Ayyub allies himself with the former emirate of Khwarazm against Ismail of Damascus. At the Battle of La Forbie, they defeat Ismail, allowing the Abuyyid leader to reclaim the sultanate for himself. He also now defeats a concerted attempt by the Latins to stop him from establishing control over a restored Islamic Palestine.

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