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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.)

Princes of Judah in Exile (Canaan)
597 - 539 BC
Incorporating Persian Satraps of Judah

Although the early Israelites reputedly founded the small kingdom of Israel in the mid eleventh century BC, it remained a somewhat turbulent semi-tribal entity which was beset by regional quarrels and attacks, especially by Ammon and the Philistines. It held a largely united front until an internal civil war caused it to be divided in two (according to the Old Testament), creating Samaria in the north and Judah in the south.

From 925 BC Jerusalem was the capital of the southern division of two of the twelve Israelite tribes, these being the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and retaining Edom as a dependency. The civil war rumbled on with occasional flare-ups over successive generations, weakening both states. In the end it was an external threat which finished both kingdoms. The northern kingdom of Samaria fell to the Assyrians in 721 BC and Judah was taken by its Babylonian overlords in 586 BC, following one rebellion too many.

The imposed governors of Babylon's Yehud province commanded Judah from the north, 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. Some of these people never returned, forming the basis of the Babylonian Jews. With good land going begging back in their old homeland, 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.

FeatureThe shock for the Judeans in their defeat by Babylon went deeper than simply losing their territory and freedom. Their god, Yahweh, had been defeated by alien gods (although their own view was more along the lines of their having been defeated for not being true to Yahweh, and also for having failed to keep the Sabbath). Perhaps a radical change was needed in the way Hebrews worshipped. During this period, those books which made up the Old Testament were assembled from writings which covered the previous five or six centuries (including the story of Noah and the flood - see feature link).

However, the Hebrews who managed this were probably, and perhaps suddenly, leaning towards a monotheistic message, and a rejection of the polytheism which had gone before. The Old Testament is littered with examples of text which seems to have been amended to cover up that previous polytheism, even to the extent that Yahweh's consort is obscured. It seems more likely that the true monotheism which Hebrews, Christians, and Muslims follow today was only truly solidified by the second century BC, perhaps during the Maccabaean period.

Persians & Medes

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Sean Bambrough, from the BBC documentary series, Bible's Buried Secrets, first broadcast 22 March 2011, from The Persian Empire, J M Cook (1983), from A Political History of the Achaemenid Empire, M A Dandamaev, from The Histories, Herodotus (Penguin, 1996), from Ctesias' Persica in its Near Eastern Context, Matt Waters, from Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F Unger (1957), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), and from External Link: Encyclopaedia Iranica.)

597 - 560 BC

Jehoiachin / Jeconiah

'Prince of Judah'. Former king of Judah.

597 - 560 BC

As the dethroned final independent king of Judah, Jehoiachin retains his status in Babylon, at least as far as his own people are concerned. He is the 'Prince of Judah' until 560 BC during the exile, although one record of him in Babylon states that he and his five sons are recipients of food rations. That must be early on, however. In 562 BC he is freed from captivity by the new king, Amêl Marduk, and given a position in the royal court.

Babylon was one of the biggest, most heavily-populated centres of population in the ancient world of the early first millennium (click or tap on image to view full sized)

587/586 BC

Zedekiah, the Babylonian puppet king of Judah, rebels against Babylonian overlordship and Jerusalem is sacked as a result. Zedekiah himself is captured and forced to watch the execution of his children before his eyes are poked out.

Much of the population is moved to Babylon, beginning the Jewish Diaspora and starting a group which will become classified as Babylonian Jews. Judah becomes the Babylonian province of Yehud. The First Temple is burnt to the ground after being pillaged. The last fragment of the Israelite kingdom has been destroyed and its line of kings ended, although Zedekiah himself is taken to Babylon with his enslaved people.

586 - 538 BC

Gedaliah, the Babylonian governor of Judah, is killed by the remaining populace during a rebellion which is instigated by Baalis of Ammon. In retribution, even more of the population is shipped to Babylon, increasing the numbers for Babylonian Jews who will never return. The names of any subsequent Babylonian governors of Judah seem to be unknown.

Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great freed the Indo-Iranian Parsua people from Median domination to establish a nation which is recognisable to this day, and an empire which provided the basis for the vast territories which were later ruled by Alexander the Great

560 - after 537 BC


Son. 'Prince of Judah'. Persian governor of Judah (539 BC).

539 - 538 BC

Persia's Cyrus the Great enters Babylon. Cyrus adopts an enlightened attitude to his subjects and allows the Judeans to return to Jerusalem, after officially handing over all their captured idols and treasures. He also proclaims that they can rebuild their temple. This policy is probably to encourage pro-Persian support in the Levant, a region which bears distinctly pro-Egyptian sympathies. Some do not return, however, these later being labelled Babylonian Jews.

During the Persian period, the kingdom or state of Moab disappears from the historical record. The fate of the Moabites is not clear, but they may be migrating northwards to fill Israelite lands which have been emptied by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia. The Edomites certainly are allowed to do just this, but they retain their identity while the Moabites seem not to.

537 - 520 BC

Sheshbazzar is instructed by Cyrus the Great to begin construction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, sited over the ruins of the First Temple. He is supplied with the store of gold and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had removed.

Second Temple in Jerusalem
Construction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem was begun on the order of Persian King Cyrus the Great, with the work being under the direct command of his satraps in Judah, Sheshbazzar and Zorobabel

In 520 BC, Zorobabel (Zerubbabel), a grandson of Jehoiachin (although the precise connection is debated), is commanded to complete the now-stalled work on the 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. A large swathe of Hebrews in Babylon follow the pair back to Jerusalem to help repopulate the region.

520 - ? BC

Zorobabel / Zerubbabel

Nephew. Satrap of Judah for Persia.

c.517 BC

The Second Temple is completed and the population at last know for certain that the Ark of the Covenant has been lost when it is not available to be re-sited inside the new temple's Holy of Holies. They already had doubts, knowing as they did that it had not been taken into captivity with them.

As the exilarch, or leader, of the Jewish community in Mesopotamia, Zorobabel also fulfils the role of satrap of Yehud Medinata (Judah) within the jurisdiction of Ebir-nāri for an uncertain period of time.

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