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Near East Kingdoms

Levantine States


Byzantine Jews (Israel)
Incorporating Romaniote 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 practice in synagogues.

Byzantine Jews were those members of the Jewish diaspora who lived within the European borders of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) empire from its formal division in AD 395 to its ultimate extinction in 1453. The formation of the Romaniote Jews was a later event which primarily seems to have occurred through Byzantine Jews settling into communities within the Italy of the exarchate of Ravenna. They were later expelled from Italy, leaving to head for the most part to the Greek islands. Although their dialect of Italian-influenced Greek was notably different from that of the islanders, they were accepted anyway and thrived in small working communities.

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), and from External Links: Encyclopædia Britannica, and Bible Atlas, and Jewish Encyclopaedia.)

AD 395

The Roman empire finally divides permanently between the Eastern Roman and Western Roman portions, acknowledging a state of affairs which has already existed in practise for many years. Palestine and its Jewish Diaspora population of Mizrahi Jews falls under the jurisdiction of the eastern half, as do the Byzantine Jews within the European section of the eastern empire.

Ravenna became an imperial city in 402, and remained Italy's capital under succeeding Gothic, Ostrogothic, and Eastern Roman administrations

404 - 425

From the start of the dynasty of Theodosius in Constantinople, first Emperor Arcadius, and then Theodosius II introduce changes to the equal rights as Roman citizens of the Byzantine Jews, gradually diminishing their position and standing.

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 Palaestina Secunda and Palaestina Prima. They are assisted by Jewish forces under Nehemiah ben Hushiel and Benjamin of Tiberias.

Sassanid policy has changed by 617, switching from Jewish support to Christian support. The military situation also changes, with the Sassanids being driven out of Palestine and ending the war by 630.

A promise by Heraclius to restore Jewish rights in return for aid in fighting the Sassanids is quickly abandoned. Instead the emperor orders a general massacre of the Jewish population, devastating the Jewish communities of Jerusalem and Galilee.

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

As a result, many Jews join the Jewish Diaspora in Egypt where many of them eventually become part of the Beta Israel population. Byzantine Jews within the European section of the Eastern Roman empire also suffer reprisals, having exhibited a certain level of support for Jerusalem's cause.


The capture of Angeli dynasty Constantinople is the Fourth Crusade's 'success', and Latin emperors are established in the city. The Byzantines withdraw to Nicæa in Anatolia, but rival claimants also established holdings in Trebizond, Epirus, and Thessalonica so that, at one point, there are four claimants to the Byzantine throne, as well as the Bulgar and Serb states which also claim dominance over it.

For members of the Jewish Diaspora who are citizens of the fractured empire, especially the long-term resident Romaniote Jews, conditions abruptly worsen. Anti-Semitic legislation is now more easy to pass in smaller states, and the Jews seem to bear the brunt of it. Only the climb to power by Michael VIII Palæologus ends persecution, mainly because he needs the funds which Jews can raise.

The Battle of Antioch on the Meander in 1211
The Battle of Antioch on the Meander in 1211 ended the threat to Eastern Romans that had been posed by the sultanate of Rum, with peace being agreed afterwards and good relations being maintained for over a generation


The Byzantine capital at Constantinople is finally captured by Sultan Mehmed II, bringing to an end the last vestiges of the Roman empire and making Greece an Ottoman province. In order to restore the city to its former glory - and his new capital - Mehmed orders large-scale rebuilding work and for Muslims, Christians, and members of the Jewish Diaspora (largely Romaniote Jews) from all over the expanding empire to resettle there.

The Jews in the city establish themselves well, and remain highly influential there until they are superseded by a fresh wave of Jewish arrivals, mainly Sephardi Jews who are fleeing Castile-dominated Spain's increasingly harsh treatment of them.


The Islamic Nasrids of Granada are finally defeated in 1492, marking the end of the Reconquista. In the same year, on behalf of the Castilian court, Christopher Columbus discovers the Bahamas, Hispaniola, and Cuba. The first Spanish Colony is founded on Hispaniola a year later.

The Alhambra Decree (also known as the Edict of Expulsion) sees Castile-dominated Spain's population of Sephardi Jews being expelled from the country. When looking for new places to settle, some of the remaining Jewish Diaspora communities return to Palestine, usually to adopt local Jewish traditions and language, while others migrate (heavily) into Ottoman empire North Africa. Smaller numbers enter Ottoman-controlled Greece where they remain distinct from the embedded Romaniote Jews.

Jewish synagogue in Utrera, Andalusia, Spain
The importance of the 'extraordinary' archaeological find of a Jewish synagogue in Andalusia's Utrera was difficult to overstate, making it one of now only five such buildings across the whole of Spain to have survived

1530s - 1570s

Although Italy does not possess the political cohesiveness to replicate Spain's general expulsion of 1492, various anti-Semitic acts are perpetrated in this period. Throughout the century members of the Jewish Diaspora in Italy gradually head north as the south becomes increasingly inhospitable to them. Then conditions in Rome worsen after 1556 and in the Venetian republic in the 1580s.

Some are Sephardi Jews who have found a home in Italy since 1492, but the majority are Romaniote Jews who have been in Italy since the time of the exarchate of Ravenna. Now both communities migrate away, into Ottoman-controlled Greece where they either join or sit alongside Romaniote Jewish communities there, or into Eastern Europe to join Ashkenazi Jews in tolerant Poland-Lithuania.

1939 - 1945

Nazi Germany invades Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939, replacing its republic with the German 'Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia'. Slovakia is separated as the Slovak republic. On the day of the invasion, Sub-Carpathian Rus declares independence as Carpatho-Ukraine. Within three days it is occupied by its old master, Hungary, and remains so until Germany itself occupies Hungary in 1944.

German troops enter Poland on 1 September 1939
Nazi-led German troops are shown here progressing in good order through a Polish town on the first day of the invasion of that country, 1 September 1939

Until then Hungary fights on the side of Nazi Germany in the Second World War, losing a large part of its army in Soviet Russia. The Germans occupy Hungary after the latter seeks an armistice. Hundreds of thousands of Jews and gypsies are deported to death camps in this period. After some internal strife, the fascists rule Rumania as part of the Axis Alliance with the Nazis, where anti-Semitic atrocities are committed.

Jews are seen by Germany's Adolf Hitler as racial pollutants. They are used by him and his followers as an excuse for all of the country's ills since the defeat of the First World War. The result is the 'Holocaust' (or 'Catastrophe', the term preferred by modern Israel).

To Hitler it is the 'final solution' in which six million Jews (not to mention hundreds of thousands of other Europeans, mostly Balts and Slavs) are systematically exterminated, generally in organised camps which are set up in occupied Poland and other eastern territories after 1939, but often too in ad hoc arrangements such as mass shootings in front of hastily-dug trenches.

The ruins of Warsaw
The ruins of Warsaw at the end of the Second World War took decades to rebuild, mostly with the Soviet-era concrete which is still visible today

Ashkenazi Jews, the predominant grouping in central and Eastern Europe, form by far the largest percentage of Jews killed. The Romaniote Jews of Greece are also heavily decimated by the Nazi purge.

The true horrors of the Holocaust, while gradually coming to light for politicians and military leaders during the course of the Second World War, are generally unknown by the world until the camps are liberated in 1945.


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. British troops are already pulling out, aware that the region is about to erupt into violence.

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 modern state of Israel has been established. It offers a home for Jews of all groups, whatever their part in the Jewish Diaspora and whatever their history across the two millennia or more since their ancestors had departed the region. The surviving Romaniote Jews divide themselves between Israel, Western Europe, and the USA.

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

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