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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient 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.)

Great Jews & High Priests of Judah / Yehud Medinata (Canaan)
c.515 - 159 BC
Incorporating Persian Satraps of Judah

The early Israelite kingdom of Israel splintered in the late tenth century BC, forming Samaria in the north and Judah in the south. From 925 BC Jerusalem was the capital of the southern division for two of the twelve Israelite tribes, but continuing civil war meant that both kingdoms were weakened. Ultimately they were both conquered by external threats, with Samaria falling to the Assyrians in 721 BC and Judah to its Babylonian overlords in 586 BC, following one rebellion too many.

The imposed governors of Babylon's Yehud province commanded Judah from the north of the country, such was the devastation in Jerusalem itself. This period of Babylonian occupation and overlordship would be followed by similar periods under Persia, the Greek empire, Ptolemaic Egypt, and the Seleucid empire in Syria, before a Judean revolt would give Jerusalem its freedom.

Large numbers of Israelites and Judeans had been shipped off to Assyria and Babylon respectively following the fall of their kingdoms, leaving some areas considerably reduced in terms of population. This was the true start of the Jewish Diaspora. With good land going begging, the Edomites and probably Moabites too began migrating northwards to fill the vacuum. Their movement allowed Arab tribes to venture northwards from their desert territories, with the result that the Kedarites and Nabatu became players in international politics during the seventh and sixth centuries BC.

From the time of Ezra and Nehemiah in the mid-fifth century BC until the conquest of the region by Alexander the Great, the religious leaders and teachers of the Jewish people were the 'Great Assembly' and the sopherim (the 'Great Jews' or 'Great Priests'), who could trace their descent from the Israelite Judges of pre-kingdom Israel.

The great priests disappeared under Hellenic control, when it was realised that a new institution of a similar nature was required in order to maintain religious unity and teach the law, so the sanhedrin were formed (the 'High Priests'). However, under the Greek empire and its Seleucid descendant, Judean culture and religion was under pressure to Hellenise. This would result in Judean revolt. The chronology down to the Greek conquest is disputed, but the version used here seems to be the most reliable.

Persians & Medes

(Information by Peter Kessler and from the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information from The Persian Empire, J M Cook (1983), from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), 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 From Alexander to Cleopatra: The Hellenistic World, Michael Grant (University of California, 1982), from The History of Ancient Israel, Michael Grant (University of California, 1984), and from External Links: Encyclopædia Britannica, and Bible Atlas.)

c.515 - 490 BC

Jeshua / Joshua 'the High Priest'

Son of High Priest Jehozadak. Worked with Zorobabel.

520 - c.517 BC

In 520 BC, Zorobabel (Zerubbabel), a grandson of the 'Prince in Exile' Jehoiachin, is commanded to complete the now-stalled work on the Second Temple. His superior would be Tattenai of Ebir-nāri, while he is accompanied in his work by Joshua, first of the high priests of Judah.

Xerxes the Great and Esther
Xerxes is pictured with Esther, daughter of Mordecai, who marries him to foil a plot by the chief adviser, Haman, to organise a pogrom against the Jews (Xerxes in this Old Testament story is known as Ahasuerus)

fl c.510s? BC


Uncertain Persian governor of Judah.

c.490 - 470 BC


Son of Joshua. Claim to be high priest is disputed.

c.470 - 433 BC



459 BC

Ezra, a 'scribe', leads the second body of exiled Israelites back to Jerusalem from Babylon. He also writes the Book of Ezra, and according to tradition collects and edits the books of the Old Testament. Those who remain form the basis for today's classification of Mizrahi Jews, while smaller groups gradually head into the Arabian peninsula where they form the Yemenite Jews.

446 - 433 BC

Nehemiah / Nechemiah

Persian governor of Judah. Author of the Book of Nemiah.

446 - 444 BC

Nehemiah, probably of the house of Judah, is appointed governor of Judah by Artaxerxes I of Persia. Despite hindrance from Tobiah III of Ammon, he commands that Jerusalem be rebuild and restored, and this process ends with the restoration of the city's walls in 444 BC. After his period of governorship is over, he returns to Persia, but has to revisit Judah two years later to put right the abuses of power which have taken place in his absence (at least in part by Tobiah).

c.433 - 410 BC

Joiada / Judas

Son (or perhaps grandson) of Eliashib.

431 - 413? BC

Nehemiah / Nechemiah

Second governorship. Governed until his death?

Judah is annexed to the satrapy of Coele-Syria, and is subsequently governed by the high priest under the jurisdiction of the governor of Syria. The internal government of the country becomes more and more that of a hierarchy.

Darius II
Two sides of a drachm showing Darius II which was actually issued much later - in the first century BC by the Parthian kings of Iran - and which shows Darius in a Parthian-style tiara adorned with a crescent

c.410 - 371 BC

Jonathan / Johanan

Son of Joiada. Removed for marrying a Samaritan.

410 - 400 BC

Correspondence between the Jews at Elephantine in Egypt and those of Jerusalem fully ceases in this period. With Persian influence having been removed from Upper Egypt in 410 BC, the Egyptians on Elephantine take the opportunity of destroying the Jewish Temple, convinced that the Jews have been collaborating with the occupying power. The Jewish community seems to move to western Abyssinia, in Ethiopia, where it flourishes as the Falasha Jews.

c.371 - 320 BC

Jaddua / Jaddus

Son. Sometimes identified as Simeon Justus.

333 - 332 BC

In 334 BC Alexander of Macedon launches his campaign into the Persian empire by crossing the Dardanelles. Much of Anatolia falls by 333 BC and Alexander proceeds into Syria during 333-332 BC to receive the submission of Ebir-nāri, which also gains him Harran, Judah, and Phoenicia (principally Byblos and Sidon, with Tyre holding out until it can be taken by force). Athura, Gaza, and Egypt also capitulate (not without a struggle in Gaza's case). With Judah having been captured, the 'Great Assembly' and sopherim disappear.

Alexander the Great crosses the River Graneikos
Alexander the Great crossed the River Graneikos (or Granicus) in 334 BC to spark a direct face-off with the Persians which had been brewing for generations, and his victory in battle near the river sent shockwaves through the Persian empire

c.320 - 280 BC

Onias / Honi I


312 BC

The Wars of the Diadochi decide how the late Alexander the Great's empire is carved up between his generals, but the period is very confused, especially in the east. In this year Alexander's former general, Ptolemy of Egypt, conquers Jerusalem and grants its people autonomy.

c.280 - 260 BC

Simon I 'the Just' / Simeon Justus


c.260 - 245 BC



c.245 - 240 BC


Uncle. Son of Jaddua.

c.240 - 218 BC

Onias / Honi II

Son of Simon.

c.240 - 238 BC

High priest Onias II of the line of Zadok withholds taxes from Egypt. The Ptolemaic government transfers the lay branches of the high priestly authority to Tobias (or Tobiah), head of the Tobiads house, who then becomes the official tax collector. Tobias is succeeded by his son, Joseph, and the family becomes pre-eminent in Judah.

Ptolemy III Euergetes
Ptolemy Euergetes (246-222 BC) increased Egyptian imperial borders at the expense of Seleucid Syria, something which few of his successors were ever able to manage

218 - 185 BC

Simon II

Son of Onias II.

198 BC

Antiochus III of the Seleucid empire invades Coele-Syria as part of the Fifth Syrian War and defeats Ptolemaic General Scopas at Panion near the source of the River Jordan in 200 BC. This gains him control of Judah and Phoenicia, and Antiochus grants special rights to the Jewish temple state. The sanhedrin is established around three years later, officiated over by the high priests.

185 - 175 BC

Onias / Honi III

Son. Murdered near Antioch in 170 BC.

175 BC

As well as founding many cities and colonies across the empire, Antiochus IV also introduces a steady Hellenisation of the Seleucid empire, especially of its Oriental (eastern) peoples. Various eastern temple organisation are riled by this, and none more so than that of Judah. They are loath to relinquish the relative freedoms which they have enjoyed since the time of Antiochus III.

At this time they are divided into two parties, the orthodox Hasideans or Hasidim (the 'Pious Ones') and a reform party which favours Hellenism. Onias III now comes into conflict with the Seleucid authorities, with the result that he is replaced by his brother and is later murdered. The Seleucids believe they have the authority to appoint high priests of their choice, breaking the hereditary nature of the position.

Philip V of Macedonia
This silver tetradrachm bears the head of Philip V of Macedonia (the former Seleucid homeland), one of its great later kings and a contemporary of Seleucus IV Philopator, but also the cause of Roman intervention into Macedonian affairs

175 - 172 BC


Brother. Paid higher tribute for the post. Exiled.

172 BC

Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV has been in favour of the reform party which is headed by Jason, but now his rival Menelaus is appointed in his place. This is in return for an even greater payment of tribute than that given by Jason for the post. Jason flees Jerusalem for Sparta.

172 - 168 BC

Menelas / Menelaus

Non-aligned. Originally called Onias, as per Josephus.

168 BC


Retook the high priesthood. Imprisoned Menelaus.

168 BC

While Antiochus IV has been campaigning in Egypt, former high priest Jason has conquered Jerusalem, other than the citadel, and has murdered many adherents of his rival, Menelaus. He expels the Seleucid garrison. Then he abandons his pro-Greek stance while the Seleucids are facing off against Egypt and the Parthians. He encouraged disturbances by the still-new and severely xenophobic Jewish sect, the Hasideans (the 'Pious Ones').

In 169 or 168 BC, Antiochus IV marches into Jerusalem, destroys its walls, loots the Second Temple treasury, and restores Menelaus and the Seleucid garrison. The population is unsettled by these changes.

168 - 159 BC

Menelas / Menelaus

Restored by Antiochus IV of the Seleucid empire.

167 BC

Antiochus IV forbids the Jews from practicing circumcision or celebrating the Sabbath, while they are also ordered to sacrifice to pagan gods. He rededicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem to Olympian Zeus.

Antakya Mosaic Museum
Although the mosaics exhibited today in the Antakya Mosaic Museum in Turkey generally date to the first to fifth centuries AD, Seleucid Antioch of the third to first centuries BC would have been just as grand a city

In response to this suppression of Judaism, Jews flock to side with the Maccabean Revolt, named after the Maccabaeus family which leads it. This family is part of the priestly clan of Joarib. An elder member of the family, Mattathias, refuses to make pagan sacrifice at Modein, near Lydda. He flees with his five sons to the Gophna hills to avoid retaliation.

Many Jews rally to him and the weakened Seleucids are unable to manage a viable opposition. A Maccabaean-led splinter state is formed within Judah, governed by rulers who do not belong to the Israelite royal houses.

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