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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.)

Herodite Dynasty of Judea (Canaan)
37 BC - AD 44?

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, Samaria by the Assyrians in 721 BC and Judah by 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 was followed by similar periods under Persia, the Greek empire, Ptolemaic Egypt, and the Seleucid empire in Syria, before a second century BC Judean revolt gave Jerusalem freedom of a sort.

The mainly-independent Jewish Hasmonaean state enduring a troubled century of existence before its nominal masters, the Seleucids, fell and Rome took over as a much more hands-on overlord. Pompey 'the Great', besieged Jerusalem in 64-63 BC to end independence, although Jerusalem retained autonomy under the Hasmonaean rulers. Backed by Rome, Herod of Idumaea then fought a bitter three-year war against Mattathias Antigonus, the Parthian-raised 'king and high priest' of Jerusalem. Antigonus was captured and executed in Antioch, and Herod 'the Great' became king of the Jews under Roman overlordship.

Son of the Hasmonaean official, Antipater the Idumaean, Herod was set up - in effect - as a puppet ruler, although he very much had his own empire-building interests in mind. Despite being pro-Cassius during the civil war between the supporters of Julius Caesar and his murderers, Rome felt it was important to retain Herod's services in Judea in order to keep suppressed the anti-Roman nobility there. Herod was able to appoint the governor of Idumaea as part of his duties. During various periods of his reign and that of his descendants, Judea was sometimes also given control of the client kingdom of Batanaea, just beyond the Golan Heights.

Rome's colosseum

(Information by Peter Kessler and from the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information by Dana Grohol, from the BBC documentaries, The Lost Gospels and The Dead Sea Scrolls, both first screened in 2006, from Cultural and Religious Heritage of India: Christianity, Suresh K Sharma & Usha Sharma (Eds), 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), from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, and from External Links: Catholic Online, and Hasmonaeans (Jewish Encyclopaedia).)

37 - 4 BC

Herod 'the Great'

Brought in from Idumaea to rule Judea.

37 BC

Herod begins the renovation of the Second Temple, and the expansion of the Temple Mount, enclosing and levelling the hill so that it becomes a flat, raised plaza. Today's Western Wall is a surviving remnant of this first century BC work. Various other grandiose building projects during his reign greatly push forward Judea's development.

Second Temple in Jerusalem
The Second Temple had been erected in the Neo-Babylonian era and was now half a millennium old, so Herod gave it a thorough renovation while greatly formalising its surroundings

32 - 31 BC

Supported by Cleopatra of Egypt, Herod launches an attack on the Nabataeans. His well-organised troops, which include a large mounted force, plunder the kingdom and occupy Dium. The Nabataean forces amass near Canatha in Syria, but are attacked and routed.

With Cleopatra now troubled by Herod's success, General Athenion of Egypt sends a force of Canathans to the aid of the Nabataeans, and this enlarged army is able to crush Herod's forces. They flee to Ormiza but Herod returns the following year to once again overrun the kingdom.

30? BC

An earthquake hits Judea, seemingly soon after the conflicts of 33-32 BC. Herod offers the Nabataeans a peaceful continuation of his domination of them but they choose to rebel. They invade Judea, but Herod immediately crosses the River Jordan to Philadelphia (modern Amman) and, once he has sighted the Nabataean forces, he attacks their outer flanks while they are holding off from battle.

The confused Nabataeans are defeated and retreat into a defensive camp. Herod lays siege, with some defenders surrendering before the remainder are refused surrender terms. The Nabataeans lose the battle and effectively remain under Herod's domination.

Petra in Jordan
The Nabataeans developed their land in the Negev Desert, making it liveable by building cisterns and damns to trap water and carving out terraces and, eventually, palaces (click or tap on image to view full sized)

c.11 - 6 BC

According to the New Testament, Jesus, the son of Mary and her husband, Joseph the carpenter (whatever his role in the actual conception of the child), is viewed by some of his peers in Judea as the messiah foretold in the Old Testament.

Exact dates relating to him are uncertain, but the year of his birth is traditionally accepted as being 11 BC or 7 BC. However, the census of Quirnius is held in 6 BC, which is the event which forces Mary and Joseph to return home while Mary is heavily pregnant.

The birth most likely takes place around September, as there is mention of sheep and shepherds being out overnight. In winter sheep are kept indoors overnight so the temperature is clearly too warm for this, and the weather is still convenient for travel. The name of the newborn child is probably more correctly pronounced as Joshua or Yeshua in the original Hebrew, before being passed through Greek, Latin, and English.

The 'Massacre of the Innocents' which is related in the Gospel of Matthew appears to be an anti-Herodite fabrication. Others who write around the same time (Josephus) or who actually meet and know Herod (Nicolaus of Damascus) fail to mention it at all.

Model of Jerusalem in the first century AD
Hans Kroch build this model of the city of Jerusalem of the first century AD in the 1960s, with only the empty streets giving away the fact that it is not a full-sized city

4 BC

FeatureHerod 'the Great' dies (the date is mildly disputed, and see feature link for more on his tomb), by which time he has managed to extend his domains to an extent which has not been seen since the early Israelite kingdom.

FeatureWhile his cause of death is uncertain (see feature link), his enlargened kingdom is divided between his three sons according to his will - Philip, Herod Antipas, and Archelaus - although all of them end up ruling overall at some point.

The state immediately suffers a messianic revolt due to the incompetence of Archelaus. The revolt is brutally crushed by the legate of Syria, Publius Quinctilius Varus. Jerusalem is directly occupied by Roman troops and two thousand Jewish rebels are executed.

4 BC - AD 6

Herod Archelaus

Son of Herod. Puppet under Roman procurator's rule.

AD 6

In or about this year, Rome's Emperor Augustus merges the various territories of Samaria, Judea, and Idumaea into the province of Judaea. Philip is considered a better candidate to govern this large territory, so the failing and unliked Herod Archelaus is removed from his post.

AD 6? - 34


Brother. Puppet. Also governed Batanaea.

26 - 36

Pontius Pilatus (Pilate) is appointed as the fifth Roman prefect or procurator of Judea. The 'Pilate Stone', a carved limestone block found by archaeologists at the site of Caesarea Maritima in 1961, confirms Pilate's existence outside of the New Testament. It is likely that Caesarea Maritima serves as his main centre of operations.

Caesar Augustus
During his long 'reign' as Rome's first citizen, Augustus brought peace to the city and oversaw its transition from failing republic to vigorous and expanding empire

c.30 - 33

Generally accepted by historians to be a healer, Jesus starts to preaches the restoration of God's kingdom (probably meaning a restoration of the church organisation within Judea). He is soon viewed with suspicion by the Jewish authorities, along with the occupying Romans.

On spurious charges he is arrested, tried, and executed by crucifixion about AD 33, the operation being ordered by the Jewish government and overseen by the Romans. A man named Elias, a Georgian Jew, reputedly purchases the robe of Jesus from a Roman soldier on Golgotha to take back with him to Kolkis.

c.33 - 42

FeatureWhether the plans of Jesus had included founding an entirely new church or not, this is what happens, although its birth is clouded in obscurity (see feature link for more).

FeatureLooking at the so-called lost gospels which are later discovered in modern Egypt (see feature link), it seems that Jesus may have intended Mary Magdalene, a disciple (and more controversially, perhaps even his wife - the Gnostic Gospel of Philip describes her as Jesus' 'companion' - which has the same meaning), to head his movement (either to restore the Judean church or to become the focal point of his new church).

Mary is supported by Jesus' brothers, most notably James, but according to the Gnostic writings of the second or third centuries AD, tensions have long existed between Peter and the male disciples on one side, and Mary and possible female disciples on the other side.

Jesus of Nazareth
The teachings of Jesus (whatever his true nature) drew a large following amongst the occupied peoples of Judea and inspired the creation of a new church

Now that Jesus is not around to keep the peace, a power struggle apparently ensues between them. Ultimately, the group headed by Peter wins. Mary and James and their more inclusive church are sidelined, and a male-dominated, hierarchical church emerges, with Peter at its head. He is later acclaimed as the first official 'Bishop of Rome'.

At the same time, one of the best known legends regarding the beginnings of the British Church relates to the visit paid by Joseph of Arimathea following the death of Jesus. Joseph is only mentioned in this role for the first time in the ninth century AD, in the Life of Mary Magdalene which is attributed to Archbishop Rabanus Maurus of Mainz (AD 766-856). Earlier writers fail to say anything about it, so its veracity is open to a very large degree of doubt.

According to myth, legend, and later stories, Joseph travels west, presumably following the ancient Phoenician trading routes to Gaul. He lands at Messalina (Marseille) where he delivers to safety Mary Magdalene and her infant child, the offspring of Jesus (whose descendants, it is claimed, marry into the Merovingians and feature in the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and Da Vinci Code controversy).

Baptism of Clovis in Reims: http://www.museehistoiredefrance.fr/index.php?option=com_oeuvre&view=detail&cid=205
The baptism of the Merovingian leader, Clovis, in Reims in AD 496 made him the only barbarian Christian king at that time and won him increased support from his former Roman subjects in Gaul. This romantic recreation of the event was by François-Louis Dejuinne (1786-1844), completed in 1837

FeatureAccording to William of Malmesbury in his Chronicle of the English Kings, Joseph travels on to reach south-west Britain where later literature claims he founds Glastonbury Abbey (see feature link).

c.30 - 50?

A somewhat remarkable story which is usually ascribed to the reign of Gondophares I of the Indo-Parthian kingdom covers a visit by St Thomas the Apostle. He would seem to use established trade routes to reach India, although it would have to be north-western India for his interaction with Gondophares. He is recruited as a carpenter to serve at the court of the king who is named as 'Gudnaphar' in surviving texts.

Chapters 2 and 3 of The Acts of Thomas show him embarking on a sea voyage to India, while Chapter 17 describes his time in India. He establishes many converts to Christianity, including members of royal families, before passing into a neighbouring kingdom where he suffers martyrdom (at the hands of an unidentified King Mazdai), and is buried there. His remains are later transferred to Edessa in Mesopotamia where they are venerated.

Gondophares Pahlava coin
This photo illustrates both sides of a coin issued by the Indo-Parthian ruler, Gondophares, showing the Greek goddess Nike, and legends both in Greek and Kharoshthi, clearly demonstrating the powerful influence of Greek culture in the region even after the collapse of the last Greek kingdom

34? - 39

Herod Antipas

Brother. Puppet. Exiled for conspiracy against Rome.


It is Herod Antipas who executes John the Baptist over his condemnation of the divorce of Herod's first wife, Phasaelis, daughter of Aretas IV of Nabatea. A brief war is launched by the Nabataeans which causes the Judeans heavy casualties. In the same year Pontius Pilate suppresses an armed revolt by militant Samaritans, but Judean hopes of a return to independence only appear to increase.

39? - 44

Herod Agrippa (I) / 'Herod II'

Grandson of Herod. Puppet. Died suddenly. End of rule.

40 - 43

Apostle Peter leads the first Christians in Galilee in AD 40. By the following year, the expansion of Jerusalem continues under Herod Agrippa. James leads the Jerusalem Christian community in AD 43.

Mary Magdalene at Marseille
Mary Magdalene preaching the Gospel to fishermen in the port of Messalina (Marseilles), possibly the intended head of Jesus' newly-established religion according to recent theory fuelled by the contents of the 'Lost Gospels'


Herod Agrippa (II)

Son. Did not rule. Overlooked in favour of a province.


The sudden and unexpected death of the ambitious Herod Agrippa has sometimes been attributed to poison, although this cannot be confirmed. Rather than allow his son to succeed him, the courtly and inexperienced 'Agrippa II', Emperor Claudius instead puts a Roman procurator in charge of the newly-formed province of Judea.

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