History Files

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.)

Hasmonaean (Jewish Independent / Maccabaean) Dynasty of Judah (Canaan)
165 - 37 BC

The early Israelite kingdom of Israel splintered in the late tenth century BC, forming Samaria in the north and Judah in the south. Ultimately both kingdoms were conquered by external threats, with Samaria falling to the Assyrians in 721 BC and Judah to its Babylonian overlords in 586 BC. The imposed governors of Babylon's Yehud province commanded Judah from the north of the country, such was the devastation in Jerusalem itself. Babylonian occupation and overlordship would be followed by similar periods under Persia, the Greek empire, Ptolemaic Egypt, and the Seleucid empire in Syria, before the second century BC Judean revolt would give Jerusalem its freedom.

Prior to the revolt it was the 'Great Priests' who were the ultimate authority when it came to Judean affairs, although there may have been Persian governors in place to handle communications with the empire. Unfortunately, their names have been lost if such a position even existed. Jerusalem enjoyed a good deal of self-governance during this period.

The region's overlord during the second century BC, Antiochus IV of the Seleucids, had tried to introduce Hellenic culture into Jerusalem as part of a steady process of Helenicising the entire empire, especially its eastern provinces. In Jerusalem the sanhedrin (high priesthood) itself became heavily Hellenised, but the populace in general distrusted such attempts to change their way of life. This distrust degenerated into open revolt when all worship of Yaweh was banned on pain of death, and an altar to Zeus Olympios was erected in the Second Temple itself.

The resulting Maccabaean revolt split Judea away from Seleucid control. Judas Maccabeus led the anti-Greek Jews and the angered Hasideans in a guerrilla war, and several times they were able to defeat Seleucid generals who had been sent to stop them. Judas refused a partial amnesty and instead conquered Judea, with the exception of the Acra in Jerusalem. In December 164 BC he was able to tear down the altar of Zeus and re-consecrate the Second Temple. The Jews were subsequently able to recreate their own independent state based around Jerusalem.

Second century BC Greeks in internecine strife

(Information by Peter Kessler and from the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, from A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson (1987), 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 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 Appian's History of Rome: The Syrian Wars at Livius.org, and Diodorus of Sicily at the Library of World History (dead link), and Mattathias Maccabeus (Jewish Encyclopaedia), and Hasmonaeans (Jewish Encyclopaedia).)

168 - 159 BC

Menelas / Menelaus

High priest of Judah, seemingly with Seleucid backing.

167 - 166 BC

Mattatia Maccabeus

Son of Johanan, high priest of Judah. Died.

167 BC

Former high priest of Judah, Jason, had taken control of Jerusalem in 168 BC, murdering many adherents of his rival, Menelaus, expelling the Seleucid garrison, and generally wreaking havoc. The response by Antiochus IV had been to destroy the city's walls, loot the Second Temple treasury, remove Jason, and restore the Seleucid garrison.

Jerusalem of the Hasmonaean period was an expanding city with a burgeoning population and a thriving spirit of independence which was supported by the lack of Seleucid coordination and ability to recapture the city

The population, unsettled by these changes, is now even further riled when it is forbidden from practicing circumcision or celebrating the Sabbath, while also being ordered to sacrifice to pagan gods and seeing the Second Temple being rededicated to Olympian Zeus.

The elderly Mattatia Maccabeus (originator of the Maccabaean line of leaders) is seemingly also a direct relative of Hasmonai (originator of the Hasmonaean name for the period), both of whom rebel against Seleucid overlordship (see the Jewish Encyclopaedia for more on this link). Refusing to sacrifice, Mattatia leads his followers into the hills to wage guerrilla warfare against the Greeks, shortly before his advanced age claims him.

165 - 160 BC

Judas Maccabeus

Son. Freed Judea of Seleucid rule. Killed.

162 BC

The reign of young Antiochus V of the Seleucid empire is a busy one. Recognised by Rome in favour of his uncle, Demetrius, he and his regent, Lysias, then suffer the revolt of Timarchus, satrap of Media in 163 BC. They win a victory in the ongoing war against Judas Maccabeus at Beth-Zechariah in 162 BC, but then Antiochus' advisor, Philip, revolts in Antioch.

Judas Maccabeus
This oil painting, 'The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus', was created in 1635 by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) for Maximiliaan Villain van Gent, bishop of Tournai

A peace treaty is agreed with the Maccabaeans, giving them favourable terms because the Seleucid troops are needed in Antioch and Media. Antiochus is killed by his own uncle before he can use those troops.

162 - 159 BC


High priest of Judah, seemingly with Seleucid backing. Died.

160 BC

On 27 March, Judas Maccabeus defeats a Seleucid force under Nicanor at Adasa, killing the Greek general in the process. Possibly this is when Ammon is conquered and drawn into the kingdom. In less than a year, Judus Maccabeus himself is killed at Elasa by another Seleucid force under the command of Bacchides.

Jonathan Apphus succeeds his late brother, while Onias IV flees to Egypt where he founds a temple at Leontopolis (which survives until AD 66). He holds the governing position there as Judean high priest in opposition to Alcimus in Jerusalem.

c.160 BC

Onias / Honi IV

Son of High Priest Onias III. Rival high priest in Egypt.

160 - 143 BC

Jonathan Apphus

Brother. Assumed position of high priest (159 BC). Killed.

152 BC

The rebellion of Seleucid pretender Alexander Balas really gets underway in 152 BC. He is supported by Egypt and Rome, both of which are only too happy to see chaos and confusion within Seleucid territory, as well as by Cappadocia.

Pergamon ruins
Pergamon rose to prominence during the years of division in the Greek empire following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC when his empire was divided among his generals - now it worked in tandem with Cappadocia

Jonathan Apphus of Judea also supports the rebel, and in return is recognised as high priest of Judah. This serves as official recognition of the Hasmonaeans and unites their leadership with the position of high priest. Judea subsequently enjoys several years of peace, especially when Seleucid ruler Demetrius is defeated near Antioch.

146 - 145 BC

The son of Demetrius, Demetrius II, begins a revolt against Alexander Balas, ruler of the Seleucid empire. Demetrius' general, Apollonius, is defeated by Judea's Jonathan Apphus, but Alexander's position grows increasingly tenuous. He attempts to flee at the start of 145 BC but is killed by Nabateans.

142 - 134 BC

Simon Thassi

Brother. Assassinated, instigated by son-in-law, Ptolemy.

142 BC

Seleucid rival claimant Antiochus VI has already been recognised in Antioch (in 145 BC), and Demetrius has been forced to flee to Seleucia near Babylon, although he only makes it thanks to soldiers from Judea who save his life.

In 142 BC, despite the killing of Jonathan Apphus of Jerusalem, the Maccabees remain uncontested there once Demetrius recognises his successor and withdraws the Seleucid garrison for his war efforts. This, in effect, is a de facto recognition of Jerusalem's independence.

134 BC

Antiochus VII is the last Seleucid emperor of the east. He invades Judea in 134 BC and besieges Jerusalem. John Hyrcanus is made high priest by him, but Antiochus makes no other intervention into the religious sphere of Jewish life. After the death of the Arsacid King Mithradates I in 132 BC, Antiochus goes on to launch a campaign to recover lost Seleucid domains in the east.

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

134 - 104 BC

John Hyrcanus (I)

Son. Elevated by Seleucid emperor.

126 - 123 BC

Despite the apparent victory of Seleucid pretender Alexander II at Tyre and Damascus, he is unable to conquer Syria even with the support of John Hyrcanus in Judea. Seleucus V has succeeded his father, although 'only' as co-ruler with his mother, Cleopatra Thea. The war goes on, mostly well to the north of Judea.

109 BC

The Seleucid civil war continues through 111-109 BC, while Antiochus IX and his ally, Ptolemy IX Soter of Egypt, support the Samarians (of the former northern Jewish kingdom of Samaria) against John Hyrcanus of Judea, until Rome intervenes on the side of the Jews and against Antiochus IX and the Samarians. At the same time, Idumaea is drawn into the Hasmonaean kingdom.

104 - 103 BC

Aristobulus (I)

Son. Gained power by imprisoning mother. Died of illness.

103 - 76 BC

Alexander Jannæus

Brother. Died at the siege of Ragaba fortress.

93 - 90 BC

A number of Nabataeans are forcibly converted to Judaism by Alexander Jannæus (Jannaeus). Once he has safely put down a local rebellion he invades and occupies the Nabataean towns of Gilead and Moab. There he imposes tribute, although the amount requested is unknown.

The city of Petra
Petra was founded in the sixth century BC on the site of an earlier but far more minor settlement, and grew to its full magnificence as the Nabataean capital in the second century BC

The Nabataean king, Obodas I, has prepared for such an attack and is soon able to respond by ambushing Alexander's forces near Gaulane. The Judean army is destroyed in 90 BC and Obodas is able to gain control of the Hauran and Jebal Druze. Seleucid ruler Demetrius also involves himself against Alexander Jannæus, but he soon has to break off to return to the Seleucid civil war.

76 - 67 BC

John Hyrcanus (II)

Son and high priest, while mother Alexandra ruled Judea.

67 - 63 BC

Aristobulus (II)

Brother (son of Alexandra).

64 - 63 BC

Rome oversees the end of the fading Seleucid kingdom in 64 BC, securing it control of Syria. In the following year it invades a Judea which has been weakened by the feuding between John Hyrcanus and Aristobulus.  Under the leadership of Pompey 'the Great', the siege of Jerusalem ends Hebrew independence, although Jerusalem retains autonomy. John Hyrcanus II now governs there by Roman decree.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla
Lucius Cornelius Sulla was the victor in Rome's first full-scale civil war (88-82 BC), after which he became dictator of the Roman republic, thereby laying out a path which others could follow in the same century

63 - 40 BC

John Hyrcanus (II)

Restored under Roman vassalage. Captured by Parthians.

40 - 37 BC

Mattathias Antigonus

Son of Aristobulus. King and high priest. Executed.

37 BC

Following a bitter three-year war by Herod of Idumaea, backed by Rome, and victory over Antigonus, the latter is executed in Antioch by order of Mark Antony. Herod 'the Great' becomes king of the Jews. The days of the Hasmonaean dynasty have ended, to be replaced by a Herodite dynasty which controls the region as a Roman puppet. The line of high priests continues, but it is no longer in charge of Judea.

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