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Near East Kingdoms

Levantine States

 

Sephardi Jews (Israel)
Incorporating Hispanic 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.

Sephardi Jews (or Sephardic Jews) were formed in Iberia. Also referred to as Sepharadim or Hispanic Jews, the principal term comes from the Hebrew Old Testament name of Seharad for Iberia (at the time a location of the westernmost Phoenician colonies, such as Gadir). The term can also be applied less specifically (and only in modern terminology) to Mizrahi Jews, who are generally influenced by Sephardic laws and customs. A number of Sephardi Jews in the 1500s were conversos, 'New Christian' converts who had left Spain anyway and who - sometimes but not always - converted back to Judaism.

The Old Testament points out that King Solomon imposed a tax on Iberian exiles, presumably Israelites who had joined the Phoenician colonies in Iberia. While this cannot be discounted at all, there is no archaeological evidence (to date) to support the supposition. The earliest archaeological evidence of a Jewish presence in Iberia covers the first century AD, with a notable community also existing amongst the conquered Lusitani of the later Roman period.

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 Spanish towns unearthing ancient synagogues (The Jerusalem Post), and Oldest Jewish archaeological evidence (Science Daily), and Jewish Encyclopaedia, and Lost medieval synagogue (The Guardian).)

c.955 BC

The First Temple of Jerusalem is completed, apparently by craftsmen from Sidon under King Hiram of Tyre. The temple now houses the Ark of the Covenant. King Solomon of Israel also enters into a matrimonial alliance with Sidon and imposes taxes on Iberian exiles, presumably Israelites who have joined the Phoenician colonies in Iberia (such as Gadir).

Although no archaeological evidence has been found to support such a presence in this period, it would provide the very earliest basis for the later existence of the Sephardi Jews.

Ruins of Gadir (Cadiz)
The surviving ruins of the Phoenician city of Gadir are few in number although some signs of them can be found, but did these pillars provide a name for the nearby 'Pillars of Heracles' (the modern Straits of Gibraltar) thanks to Hercules himself supposedly completing one of his labours here?

AD 418

One of the grandsons of Wallia, ruler of the tribal Visigoths, is Ricimer, the power behind the throne of the Western Roman empire during its last days. Allowed by the emperor to settle in southern Gaul in a treaty signed in 418, Wallia's successor, Theodoric, founds the kingdom of the Visigoths.

Although the kingdom is centred on Tolosa (Toulouse) in Gaul, it stretches ever deeper into Iberia. There the Visigoths take command of former Roman provinces which include Celtiberian peoples such as the Carpetani and Olcades. They also place on an equal footing both the peninsula's Christian population and its Jewish Diaspora population of Sephardi Jews. As Arians themselves, the Visigoths may even prefer the Jewish population to the Catholic one as the former offers them no political enmity.

711 - 714

The Visigoth kingdom in Iberia is overrun by the Umayyad invasion following the battles of Jerez de la Frontera and Ecija. Cordova is captured (in 711), as is Seville and Toledo (in 712). The Battle of Segoyuela sees Saragossa captured (in 713, capital of the former Vascones tribe), and Valencia falls (in 714).

Map of the Visigoth & Suevi kingdoms in AD 470
In AD 469/470 the Visigoths expanded their kingdom to its largest extent (upper map), reaching Nantes in the north and Cadiz in the south, but it was not to last (click or tap on either map to view full sized)

Following the defeat of King Roderic, the Visigothic Count Theodemir (or Tudmir), takes control of south-eastern Iberia from his base in Murcia. He quickly enters into an agreement with the Umayyads so that he can continue to rule a client state, while promising to hand over anyone who plots against Islamic rule. Thanks to this agreement, Christians are largely unmolested, and other parts of Iberia soon capitulate on the same basis.

912

Under the early rulers of Umayyad caliphs of Iberia, the region's Jewish Diaspora population of Sephardi Jews prospers, with their culture and learning experiencing something of a golden age. They hold high offices, produce notable poetry and literature, and excel in transcribing Islamic texts into romance languages, thereby assisting lost knowledge from the ancient empires (especially Rome and the Sassanids) to re-enter Europe as it continues to recover from its dark age.

1066

The traditional tolerance and understanding between the ruling Muslims in Iberia and their Jewish Diaspora subjects suddenly declines through one incident. The Granada Massacre of 1066 erupts on 30 December 1066 when a Muslim mob storms the royal palace in Granada.

Battle of Los Navos de Tolosa
Ongoing battles between the Almohads and the Iberian Christians would end up in North African defeat at the Battle of Los Navos de Tolosa in 1212

After having conspired with neighbouring Almeria to become a vassal ruler of Granada, the Jewish vizier of Granada, Joseph ibn Naghrela, is killed and crucified, and then much of the city's Sephardi Jew population is massacred.

1090

Yusuf ibn Tashufin returns to Iberia and defeats the minor princes one by one, first at Cordoba, then at Seville, and finally at Zaragoza. Only Zaragoza is not conquered despite the defeat of its ruler.

Yusuf's Almoravids add southern and eastern Iberia to their empire, uniting a great area of western Africa and Southern Europe under one ruler for the first time since the days of the Roman empire. However, the subsequent situation for the country's Sephardic Jews tends to deteriorate under this puritan dynasty.

c.1300

Built in the 1300s in Nasrid-controlled Andalusia, a synagogue belonging to the region's community of Sephardi Jews is rediscovered by archaeologists in 2021. The location is the city of Utrera, with the building's survival after 1492 being an extremely rare case.

In his 1604 history of Utrera, a local priest, historian, and poet by the name of Rodrigo Caro describes an area of the city centre as it has been in earlier centuries, writing: 'In that place, there were only foreign and Jewish people... who had their synagogue where the Hospital de la Misericordia now stands'.

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

1391

The Massacre of 1391, or Pogroms of 1391, consists of a display of anti-Semitism and violence against the long-established Jewish Diaspora population in Spain (or, specifically, Castile). It proves to be one of the most horrific and brutal anti-Semitic outrages of the Middle Ages.

Encouraged by the preaching of Fernando Martinez, a priest from Seville, around four thousand Jews there are murdered. Their houses and business are put to the torch or are otherwise destroyed, and those who avoid the bloodshed quickly convert to Catholic Christianity in the hopes of surviving the apocalyptic behaviour of Spaniards.

It has been claimed that over half of Spain's Jewish population makes this conversion, a huge increase on the previously steady but low number of converts in normal years in the face of increasing hostility.

1453

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.

Fall of Constantinople
The fall of Constantinople not only ended the last vestiges of the Roman empire, now dating back almost two millennia in its many forms, but it also opened up south-eastern Europe to the Ottoman Turks

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 Spain's increasingly harsh treatment of them.

1492

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 the country's population of Sephardi Jews being expelled from Spain in the same year. The main reason is to prevent them from influencing the recent tidal wave of conversions to Christianity (involving over half the country's Jewish population since 1391).

Further Jews convert to Christianity to avoid being kicked out of centuries-old homes. 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, and into France, Britain, and the Netherlands. A small number head to India where they join the Cochin Jews while some also enter Ottoman-controlled Greece, where they remain distinct from the embedded Romaniote Jews.

Old Bethlehem
The town of Bait Lahem (Bethlehem) in Islamic-controlled Falasteen (Palestine) remained largely a backwater region during the immediate post-Crusader period

A few more convert to Christianity so that they can be allowed to return to Spain. A large contingent will later be categorised as 'Eastern Sephardi' thanks to their heading into Ottoman Europe and the Balkans. The choices taken here will result in categorisation into various Sephardic sub-groups by modern Israel, based largely on variants of Spanish spoken or new languages and practices adopted along the way.

By the start of the sixteenth century Spain has largely been emptied of its Jewish communities which could claim between fifteen hundred years of settlement there, or anything up to two thousand three hundred if they indeed did settle in early Phoenician trading colonies in Iron Age Iberia.

1496

The hand in marriage of the daughter of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand, also named Isabella, is being sought by Manuel I of Portugal. Manuel is required to purify Portugal of Sephardi Jews as a condition of marriage. The kingdom subsequently embarks upon a period of enslavement, forced conversion, pogroms, and Jewish Diaspora emigration whilst blocking the ports to prevent Jews from leaving the country.

Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain
The marriage in 1469 of royal cousins Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile eventually brought stability to both kingdoms but also presaged an era of Spanish dominance in world affairs

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.

1657

One benefit of the creation of a 'Commonwealth of Britain' is that, in 1657, Oliver Cromwell rescinds the 'Edict of Expulsion' of 1290, ending the national banning of members of the Jewish Diaspora (probably Ashkenazi Jews). The majority of initial resettlement most likely involves Sephardi Jews, expelled from Spain in 1492.

Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell
Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, effectively the monarch of England, Scotland, and Ireland without ever actually taking the highly dangerous step of having himself declared king and without fully implementing the reforms required to establish a full republic

1703 - 1705

The Naqib al-Ashraf Revolt (or uprising) sees the general population of Jerusalem rebel against the Ottoman authorities. Between May 1703 and October 1705 the revolt is led by Muhammad ibn Mustafa al-Husayni al-Wafa'i. An Ottoman siege results in al-Husayni and his chief followers fleeing the city, later to be captured and executed.

This event follows on very closely from the arrival of between five hundred to a thousand members of the Jewish Diaspora from Europe in 1700 (although any potential connection between the two events is unclear). They join a very poor and downtrodden Jewish community of around two hundred Ashkenazi Jews and a thousand Sephardi Jews.

1869

Expansion outside of Jerusalem's Old City walls has been gradual over the previous decade, but it now accelerates. Two more suburbs are started in 1869. Mahane Israel comes first, built by Jews from the Mahgreb in Africa (part of today's Mizrahi Jews grouping which covers all of North Africa's former Jewish Diaspora communities, but heavily intermixed by this time with Sephardi Jews who, since 1492, have entered North Africa in large numbers).

Damascus Gate in 1860
This view of the Damascus Gate in 1860 shows that Jerusalem was still confined behind the Old City walls, afraid to develop outside due to the high levels of banditry

1881

The first modern-era wave of Jewish migrations back to Palestine begins with an event known as the First Aliyah. The Jews are fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, most notably in the 'Pale of Settlement' within the Russian empire under Alexander III.

The Jewish population of the 'Pale' (mainly Ashkenazi Jews) is restricted from moving eastwards into Russia proper and is now being discouraged from remaining in the western border regions of the empire.

Several months prior to this event however, migration by Yemenite Jews to Palestine has already begun. Communities are drawn back from Ottoman-controlled Yemen by improving standards and employment, especially due to European backing in the region.

At this point the Jewish population of Palestine consists largely of Sephardi Jews who had arrived during the restored Islamic Palestine period and the subsequent early Ottoman Palestine period, along with their inter-marriage relationships with Arabised Jewish families which had remained in the region since the Herodite period (if not always in Jerusalem itself), and Mizrahi Jews who have migrated from eastern parts such as the ancient city of Babylon. Mixed into this are a small number of Ashkenazi Jews who are mainly made up of strictly orthodox groups such as the Haredi.

Second Aliyah to Palestine
Poland-Lithuania's long-standing Jewish population was gradually forced to emigrate during the later Russian empire period, with most either going west or returning to Palestine

1948

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. Sephardi Jews trickle back in some numbers, while still retaining large communities in Western Europe.

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

2022

The modern population of Israel consists of a dominating combination of Sephardi Jews and Mizrahi Jews, the latter with a history which covers various eastern states and regions. Minority Jewish Diaspora populations remain in Arab countries, or in Turkey, or in Iran where they do still have some protections which are sometimes of a somewhat dubious value.

 
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