From 12,500 – 9,500 BCE Palestine was inhabited by people from the Natufian culture. They were hunter-gatherers who lived in villages gathering and processing wild cereals. They built stone houses and granaries.
The move from hunter-gatherer to farmer happened slowly. There is evidence for this at archaeological sites in Jericho. Jericho is older than agriculture and is the oldest site of human habitation in the world. Archaeologists have found sickles made from flint that could only have been used for harvesting wild wheat. Before 8000 BCE wild wheat was one of many grasses but gradually it crossed with goat grass and formed the ancestor of modern wheat.
In 8,500 BCE the largest settlements such as Jericho held only a few hundred individuals. By 6000 BCE Jericho was an agricultural walled city of 3,000 people in 8-10 acres. Women ground wheat with heavy stone tools, and the men shaped and moulded clay into bricks (some still have their thumbprints).
During the Bronze Age (c. 3,000 to 1200 BCE) independent city-states were established in what was then called Canaan. The Canaanites and their descendants the Phoenicians were seafarers who established colonies in Carthage (Tunis) and Cadiz, in modern day Spain. From 1550 they became vassals to the Egyptian New Kingdom until the 1178 BCE Battle of Canaan. They spoke Semitic languages.
Semitic languages derive from Afro-asiatic ones and originate in the Middle East. Modern examples are spoken by over 500 million people and include Arabic, Amharic, Tigrinya, Hebrew, Aramaic and Maltese. They have been found in ancient texts from 2900 BCE and 2500 BCE.
Several scholars think that the Israelites emerged peacefully from social transformation within the peoples of the central hill country part of Canaan.
The history of the Middle East is much influenced by the Hebrew Bible. This is a collection of stories that metaphorically illustrate the beliefs and religion of the Jewish people. It is not a literal history.
The Bible describes the emergence of the Israelites as:
Sometime in the 2nd millennium BCE a man called Abraham was living in the city of Ur of the Chaldees (thought to be Tall al-Muqayyar) 300km southeast of Baghdad in lower Mesopotamia. God promised him, his son Isaac, and grandson Jacob that they could have the land of Canaan for themselves and their descendants – the “Promised Land”. Abraham travelled and wandered in the deserts until settling in the land of the Philistines. He died aged 175! His wife Sarah was over 90 when she gave birth to Isaac. Isaac’s son Jacob changed his name to Israel, the father of the Israelites, and his twelve sons founded the twelve tribes of Israel. The Children of Israel were named in the Book of Deuteronomy as God’s “Chosen People”.
Scholars now suggest that the Abraham myth was composed centuries later in late 600 BCE by landowners who had stayed in Judah during the Babylonian captivity and attempted to trace their rights to the land through their father Abraham. The captives returning from Babylon based their claim to the land on another myth – the Moses Exodus story. There was considerable tension between the ones who had stayed and the exiles who had developed exclusivism whilst in Babylon. [See later * – when Cyrus returned the captives].
The first extra-biblical record of the name Israel occurs on the Merneptah Stele (c. 1208 BCE) and is an inscription dealing with the defeat of the Libyans by King Merneptah of Egypt. The last 23 of the 28 lines deal with a separate campaign in Canaan (a part of Egypt’s imperial possessions) and states: “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not”. This probably refers to a political or ethnic group within the central highlands of Canaan that was seen as a threat to Egypt’s hegemony and who began to identify itself as Israelite rather than Canaanite.
Archaeological evidence points to a society of villages with populations of 300-400 living by farming and herding.
The Hebrew Bible suggests that the United Kingdom of Israel was established in 1020 BCE.
Around 930 BCE the region split into a southern Kingdom called Judah and a northern Kingdom called Israel following the death of King Solomon.
In 925 BCE Pharaoh Shoshenq invaded Canaan. The Bible calls it Judah and says that he sacked Jerusalem. Reliefs in Egypt mention captured towns in a kingdom called Israel but do not refer to Jerusalem. History is so often a matter of perspective!
From the middle of the 8th century BCE Israel came into conflict with the Neo-Assyrian Empire who first split Israel into smaller units and then destroyed its capital Samaria. Assyrian records suggest that the Assyrian King Sennerachib leveled 46 walled cities, besieged Jerusalem and left after receiving tribute.
The Neo-Assyrian Empire was an Iron Age (1200 – 500 BCE) empire in Mesopotamia. Assyria became the most powerful state in the world in about 900 BCE and dominated most of the Middle East. The Old Assyrian Empire was succeeded by the Middle, then the Neo one. It disintegrated in the 6th century BCE due to civil wars. It had perfected the principles of imperial rule that were then followed by succeeding empires.
In about 830 BCE King Hazael of Damascus defeated the kings of Judah and Israel. King Joash of Judah bribed him with treasure and he left.
Aram-Damascus was an empire based around Syria that lasted from the late 12th century BCE to 732 BCE. Hazael ruled from 842 BCE to 796 BCE. It is described in the Hebrew Bible and in texts from Assyria and Aramaea.
The Hebrew Bible refers to two Exiles when the Jews were forcibly captured and removed from their land. The Neo-Assyrian exile refers to a time (approx 733 BCE) when the Assyrians Tiglath-Pileser 3rd and Shalmaneser 5th conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel. They did not take the southern Kingdom of Judah nor did they take Jerusalem. Several thousand Israelites from Samaria [Samaria was the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Israel and is in the modern West Bank] were resettled as captives and became known as the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. This is not only sourced by the Bible but Assyrian cuneiform states that 27,290 captives were taken from by Sargon 2nd. The actual numbers of captives may have been considerably exaggerated by the captors for self-aggrandisement. It is not clear how many were taken nor when and how they returned.
In 626 BCE Nabopolassur of Babylonia revolted against Assyria and formed the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
The Neo-Babylonian Empire lasted from 626-539 BCE. It was a time of renaissance for southern Mesopotamia. Large tracts of land were opened for cultivation and peace meant resources for canals and irrigation.
In the Hebrew Bible and in the Babylonian Chronicles King Nebuchadnezzar 2nd conquered Judah in 586 BCE and sacked Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar deported the Judean leaders to Babylon.
The Achaemenid Empire (the First Persian Empire) under Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonian empire and the Judaean leaders were returned to Judeah. (* See the Abraham myth mentioned earlier).
The Achaemenid Empire lasted from 550-330 BCE and was notable for building infrastructure such as a postal system, road system, and an official language with a professional army and a civil service.
In c. 330 BCE a Macedonian called Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire. The Palestine region subsequently changed hands several times during the Diadochi and the Syrian wars. Eventually it became part of the Seleucid Empire between 219 – 200 BCE.
The Seleucid Empire lasted from 312-63 BCE and was a Hellenic empire that followed the division of Alexander’s Macedonian empire. It was noted for maintaining Greek culture and customs.
In 116 BCE there was civil war within the Seleucid Empire resulting in the independence of certain regions including the Hasmonean principality in the Judean mountains. The Hasmonean dynasty created an alliance over the Palestinian region and it became called Judaea until the Romans invaded in 63 BCE.