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Near East Kingdoms

Levantine States

 

Beta Israel / Ethiopian Jews (Israel)
Incorporating Falasha Jews

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. Prior to that 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, which consisted of the long Mediterranean coastal strip between ancient Syria and Egypt. Today the northern part of this is known as the Levant. Various Semitic-speaking groups formed states in this region from around 3000 BC onwards. During climate-induced social collapse in the late thirteenth century BC, 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 beginnings of 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. Until that happened both Judea and Palestine remained occupied territories.

By the time independence was regained, Jewish groups had been emigrating to and from Israel and Palestine for two thousand years and more, spreading them far and wide across the Old World in a number of generalised groupings. Despite these groupings being joined across those centuries by converted regional locals, most modern Jews still carry a marked Near Eastern heritage in their DNA. Connections between the separate groups have also helped to maintain elements of unified worship in synagogues.

Beta Israel Jews ('Beta Israel' meaning 'House of Israel') or Ethiopian Jews are the modern descendants of Jews who emigrated to ancient Egypt during the last few centuries BC. For the most part they were welcomed, with their community becoming focussed on Elephantine, an island in the Nile close to Aswan. In the second century BC conditions had changed. The Jewish settlers there were forced to escape from Elephantine after their temple was destroyed. Growing intolerance across the land meant a general migration, largely by following the Nile southwards into northern Ethiopia where they eventually resided amongst a predominantly Christian population despite, possibly, being the founders of the Aksumite kingdom there.

There is evidence of a Semitic-speaking presence in Ethiopia from at least as early as 2000 BC. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), a study in 2012 of the DNA of more than two hundred Ethiopians found that their ancestors had intermixed with either Egyptian, Israeli, or Syrian populations around 1000 BC, precisely at the time that the kingdom of Sheba was supposedly at its height, lending much-needed weight to the story of King Solomon and the queen of Sheba.

These 'Falasha' Jews in Ethiopia  were subjected to constant military campaigns by the country's newly-enlargened Christian population, from about the sixth century AD onwards. This lasted on-and-off until at least the seventeenth century, but in twentieth century Ethiopia such persecution increased again. Now independent and militarily strong itself, Israel's government carried out a series of airlifts which ended in 1999 to ensure that as many Falashas as possible returned to their ancestral homeland.

The Arch of Titus

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information 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), from The Histories, Herodotus (Penguin, 1996), from Church and State in Ethiopia, Taddesse Tamrat (Clarendon Press, 1972), from Wollo, Yager Dibab, Getachew Mekonnen Hasen (Nigd Matemiya Bet, 1992), and from External Links: Encyclopædia Britannica, and Bible Atlas, and Jewish Encyclopaedia.)

c.650 BC

A Jewish Diaspora community has become established on the island of Elephantine in the middle of the Nile close to Aswan. Initially made up of settled mercenaries, it now appears to swell with an influx of Judeans probably leaving their homeland to escape the fervent paganism of their king, Manasseh.

The enlarged population, living alongside Egyptians on the island, builds a temple matching that of Solomon's in dimensions and scale. It is this group which will evolve into the Falashas of Ethiopia.

Jewish temple ruins on Elephantine island in Egypt
The Jewish settlement on the island of Elephantine had been founded around 650 BC by Israelites who were escaping a period of unrest and discord in their own state and, living alongside a native population, they even built their own version of the Solomonic temple

593 - 588 BC

Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichus sends an army south to fight the king of the Ethiopians (at this stage an undefined area covering all peoples to the south of Egypt). Some deserters remain and settle in western Abyssinia, according to Herodotus and his 'Land of the Deserters'. There appears to be a large Jewish contingent amongst these deserters. These people may form the earliest stages of Beta Israel outside of Egypt.

525 - 524 BC

FeaturePharaoh Psamtik III is defeated at the Battle of Pelusium and Egypt is conquered by the Persian empire under Cambyses. It becomes a vassal state (a burial just before this defeat is detailed - see feature link). Many Egyptian temples are destroyed, but Cambyses spares the Jewish Temple on Elephantine.

410 - 400 BC

With Persian influence weakening in Upper Egypt of the Twenty-Seventh dynasty, the Egyptians on Elephantine destroy the Jewish Temple in this period, convinced that the Jews have been collaborating with the occupying power. The Jewish community is forced to leave. Correspondence between the Jews at Elephantine and Jerusalem fully ceases by 400 BC, but this Jewish Diaspora community has seemingly moved to western Abyssinia, in Ethiopia, where it flourishes as the Falashas.

Battle of Cunaxa
The Battle of Cunaxa saw the end of just one in a number of internal Persian revolts which often involved thousands of troops on either side, but it and the campaign which surrounded it saved Egypt from the imminent threat of invasion

c.200s/100s BC

The state or kingdom of Axum is founded as the capital of a Jewish kingdom. It survives in this form until the fourth century AD when the country is converted to Christianity at the same time as this new religion is accepted into the Roman empire. The established Jewish population, the Falashas, does remain. It also remains very powerful, with its own line of kings, until it is broken by the Christianised Aksumites.

AD 331

Frumentius, regent of Axum, converts the emperor to Christianity and is created first Coptic bishop of Ethiopia. This act leads to centuries of conflict between the Catholic Christian and Jewish (Falasha) communities in Ethiopia as each vies for overall control of the empire.

Even so, Christianity in Ethiopia is still only skin deep, being deeply influenced by the Judaism which appears to have been established in the country over a thousand years previously. Between AD 331-1959 all Ethiopian archbishops are supplied by the Coptic patriarchate in Alexandria.

523 - 525

King Caleb of Axum wages war against the Falashas in a continuation of the long conflict between the empire's Jewish and Catholic Christian populations. The Falashas are eventually vanquished to an extent, but from their northern strongholds, ruled by their own line of Jewish kings, they continue to strike against the Christian south over the subsequent four hundred years.

Falasha synagogue in Ethiopia
Falasha Jews lived for centuries as the subjects of Axum and its successors and, while today most have left for Israel, some communities still remain

613 - 630

As part of the Byzantine-Sassanid War of 602-628, the Battle of Antioch of 613 sees Eastern Roman Emperor Heraclius defeated. The forces of Sassanid Shah Khusro II consolidate their recent gains and make further advances, entering Palestine through Palaestina Secunda and Palaestina Prima. They are assisted by Jewish forces.

Caesarea Maritima is taken in 614, with Jerusalem falling soon after. But then a few months later a Christian revolt kills many Jews. The city briefly changes hands before the Sassanids re-establish control. However, Sassanid policy has changed by 617, switching from Jewish support to Christian support. Between 622-627 the military situation also changes. Heraclius drives back the Sassanids until an internal revolt in 628 replaces Khusro II.

Heraclius enters Jerusalem in 630 where he abandons a promise to restore Jewish rights in return for aid in fighting the Sassanids. Instead a general massacre is ordered of the Jewish population, devastating the Jewish communities of Jerusalem and Galilee. As a result, many Jews flee to Egypt where many of them eventually become part of the Beta Israel population.

Sassanids
The coming of the Sassanids as replacements for the Parthians meant an entirely new and more vigorous empire being created on the eastern border of the Roman empire

c.970s - 980s

The obscure king of Axum of around AD 900, Wedem 'Asfare, is said to be the grandfather in the female line of one Gudit. She is also said to marry a Jewish prince, a certain Zenobis, son of the king of Šam, which is an Arabic form of 'Syria' but here appears to designate a country on the Red Sea coastal plain, perhaps to the north of Ethiopia (the poorly recorded northern Ethiopian Jewish kingdom, perhaps).

fl c.970s?

Zenobis

Jewish son of the king of Šam (Ethiopia?).

Towards the end of the tenth century she sets out with her husband at the head of an army which he has provided. They plan to attack 'Aksum' in vengeance for harsh treatment which she has received in the past, coming across the Samhar plain from the coast, at Arkiko. Matters reach a head around 970-980, although details are exceptionally obscure. Gudit's victory forms the Zagwe dynasty.

1316 - 1329

Ruling a rather small Christian Ethiopian kingdom which is surrounded by other, Muslim Ethiopian states, King Amda Siyon now campaigns against the kingdoms of Damot and Hadiya. Both are conquered and large numbers of their subjects are exiled.

Map of Ethiopia AD 1300-1600
This map shows the locations of the various minor states which would eventually go into making up modern Ethiopia, along with several neighbouring Muslim states - Dankali holds the origins of modern Djibouti within its borders (click or tap on map to view full sized)

1316 - 1329

The northern province of Enderta is next to fall, although Amda Siyon's initial appointments to govern it prove unpopular and need to be replaced. More northern provinces are attacked in 1329, including Semien, Tsegede, Tselemt, and Wegera. Many in these areas had been converting to Judaism as part of the Beta Israel movement of Ethiopian Judaism, so establishing Christianity there is a priority.

1414

The reign of Ethiopia's King Yeshaq is marked not only by his imprisonment of his brother, Zara Yakob (emperor in 1434), but also by a revolt of the Beta Israel, Ethiopia's population of Jews. Yeshaq marches his forces into Wogera in the Amhara region of northern Ethiopia. The rebels are defeated in battle at Kossege, terminating their efforts, and the Debre Yeshaq church is built there to commemorate the emperor's victory.

? - 1580

Radai

Falasha king in Ethiopia's Simien mountains. Killed.

1564 - 1580

The Solomonic king, Sarsa Dengel, wages a seventeen year crusade against the Falasha Jewish population, slowly destroying their powerful strongholds in the Simien mountains of Ethiopia. The Falasha king, Radai, is taken prisoner and accepts death over conversion to Christianity. The Falashas begin to diminish from this point, from an estimated population of half a million in the early 1600s to one of 28,000 in 1984.

Axum
Axum in what is now northern Ethiopia was the capital of the early kingdom of the same name, but the destruction of that kingdom in the tenth century saw Axum reduced to a provincial town

1607

Having quickly seen off the would-be 'king-maker', Ras Sellase, King Susenyos of Ethiopia launches a pogrom against the constantly troublesome Falasha Jewish population which witnesses twenty years of butchery. This is virtually the end of the Falashas as a group which is able to operate a viable, semi-independent state in its own right.

1948

David Ben-Gurion makes his proclamation of the creation of the state of Israel on 14 May 1948, the last day of British Mandate Palestine. On the following day the neighbouring Arab states of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria attack Israel, prompting the start of the Arab-Israeli War. Saudi Arabia sends its own military contingent to support the Egyptians. The war lasts for a year before a ceasefire is agreed.

The Green Line is established - temporary borders which can be generally agreed by all sides. Egypt gains the Gaza Strip while Jordan controls East Jerusalem and the West Bank region, but an estimated 700,000 Palestinians have been expelled or have fled their homeland, mostly to enter southern Lebanon or Jordan.

Official declaration of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948
The white-haired, sixty-two year-old David Ben-Gurion proclaims the declaration of the creation of the state of Israel, doing so in the small art museum on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv in 1948

The modern state of Israel has been established. It offers a home for Jews of all groups, whatever their part in the diaspora and whatever their history across the two millennia or more since their ancestors had departed the region.

1999

Persecution of the Falashas in Ethiopia has steadily increased, so the state of Israel begins covert airlifts of Falasha populations, taking them back to their ancestral homeland. Despite attempts by the Ethiopian government to put a halt to this, the airlift is completed by 1999 with all of the Falashas being removed to Israel aside from a few small minor pockets who wish to remain. This is perhaps the final organised action to end the Jewish Diaspora, with other remaining overseas communities largely happy to remain where they are.

 
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