Palestine | Nur Masalha

Summary of: Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History
By: Nur Masalha


In this comprehensive and insightful summary of Nur Masalha’s book ‘Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History,’ we delve into the vast and intricate history of the region now understood as Palestine and Israel. This crucial piece of history tells the story of the Philistines, ancient civilizations, the origins of the names ‘Palestine’ and ‘Philistia,’ and their connection throughout history. We examine how the region was influenced by various empires and rulers, such as the Egyptian, Roman, and Byzantine, before the emergence of Islam and its transformative impact on the region.

Philistine Discoveries

The 2017 discovery of a Philistine graveyard near Ashkelon debunked the theory that Philistines were Aegean Sea pirates and proved that they were indigenous to the land. Five inscriptions found at the graveyard read “Peleset,” which is an early written form of Palestine. The existence of indigenous Philistines is supported by ancient texts such as an Egyptian text that describes the neighboring peoples against whom the Egyptians fought. This conflicts with the Biblical Cana’anite narrative and confirms that Cana’an is only a Biblical term used to describe Phoenicia. Philistia corresponds to modern-day Israel and Palestine and was the region directly to the south of Phoenicia. At the turn of the Iron Age, Philistines developed a sophisticated urban civilization and established extensive trade networks with Egypt, Phoenicia, and Arabia.

The Cultural History of Palestine

The region now known as Palestine has been home to various cultures and religions for over 1200 years, from the polytheistic trade-rich society described by the “Father of History” Herodotus, to the diverse mix of Greek, Aramaic, and Arabic-speaking practitioners of Christianity and Judaism, to the Roman administrators who expanded infrastructure and renamed cities, including Jerusalem which became “Aelia Capitolina.” Pomponius Mela and Philo were among the many historical figures who documented the shift in the region’s name from Syria Palaestina to Palestine. This name would go on to define the land between Lebanon and Egypt until the Islamic conquest in 637 AD.

Greater Palestine: The Cradle of Early Christianity

When Christianity became the Roman state religion, Palestine’s significance increased as the birthplace of Jesus and the core of Christianity. The now-Christian Byzantine Roman empire split Palestine into three administrative regions, which were united religiously, culturally, and politically until the Muslim period in the seventh century. Greater Palestine, including Caesarea Maritima, hosted a mix of religions, languages, and ethnicities and was famous for its great libraries and philosophical centers. Basic education widely available, even in villages, aimed to provide state and church structures with competent leaders. Palestine’s Arab population was also enlarged with Christian Arabs migrating from Yemen, who later ruled over the region centuries before Islam’s arrival.

The Impact of Muslim Conquest on Palestine

The Muslim conquest of Palestine had a profound impact on the region, cementing the use of Arabic language and resulting in the Islamization and Arabization of the mostly-Christian population. The transition to Arabic was relatively smooth due to its close relation to Aramaic, the most common language at the time. The Muslims’ religious and cultural tolerance allowed for intense urbanization, particularly in Jerusalem, resulting in the construction of grand religious monuments. Despite various Zionist narratives presenting early Muslim Palestine as a region in decline, the economy thrived, with exports such as olive oil, wine, soap, and glassware reaching Mediterranean and European markets. The Muslim conquest and the subsequent “Golden Age” of Islam helped Palestine become a technologically and culturally advanced region.

Palestine under Muslim Rule

Muslim rule restored in Palestine after legendary military commander Salah al-Din’s victory at the Battle of Hittin in 1187. Despite not being able to retake the coastal city of Acre, his descendants freed it from crusader rule in 1291. Ayyubids, who brought some vital administrative changes in Palestine, appointed Jerusalem as its capital city, which it maintained for the next 700 years. The Mamluk dynasty’s rule after the defeat of Mongol invaders in 1260 brought peace and a period of renaissance and construction in Jerusalem and other inland cities. The city’s famous white stone architecture flourished, many of which can still be seen today.

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