11 min read

A history of Israel and Palestine – 4,000 years of history in 2,500 words

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

The land at the heart of the Middle Eastern crisis is at the centre of world attention again. For those whose grasp on the history behind the situation is hazy, Graham Tomlin offers a brief survey.
A blue and gold domed mosque sits surrounded by old stone buildings of a city.
Dome of the Rock, over the skyline of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash.

The story begins around 1800 BC, in the middle/late Bronze Age. According to the Bible, a nomadic tribal chief called Abraham received a mysterious call from God – known by the name of YHWH – not another tribal god among many, but the Creator God above all the gods. He was to move from his home in Ur in Mesopotamia, in modern day Iraq, to travel to Canaan in the west - a fertile strip of land bordering the Mediterranean Sea, a land inhabited at the time by various tribes known as Canaanites and ruled by the Egyptian Pharaohs. 

Biblical texts report that somewhere around 1400 BC, the small tribe which understood itself to be the descendants of Abraham migrated further to Egypt. There, they experienced severe hardship, and sought to escape back into the land of the Canaanites, through a miraculous event known as the Exodus in around 1250 BC. 

Over the coming centuries they began to settle in the land. The biblical stories depict this as a largely violent conquest, although the archaeological evidence suggests gradual assimilation into the land. It may have been a mixture of the two.  

The growing kingdom 

Around 1000 BC, the people now known as Israel, after one of Abraham's descendants, chose a king for the first time, called Saul, but it was his successor David who expanded the Israelite kingdom, capturing the ancient Jebusite stronghold of Jerusalem, making it the capital of the new nation. His son Solomon later built a Temple in the city, dedicated to YHWH, the God of the Israelites.  

Infighting within the nation resulted in a division into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. In 722 BC, Israel was overrun by the Assyrians to the north, and in 587, Judah fell to the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed Solomon’s Temple. 

Most of the Israelites were taken into exile, some scattered into Syria, many taken away to the dominant empire of Babylon. In 538 BC, by which time the Persians had taken over as the dominant empire in the region, Cyrus, the Persian king, gave permission to the descendants of the exiles to return to their ancestral land. In around 520 BC the Temple was rebuilt, even though it was a mere shadow of the former building. Around 445 BC, Nehemiah, against much opposition, tried to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, to make it a fortified city. 

In 333 BC, the remarkable young Greek warrior, Alexander the Great, conquered the land. When he died in 323, two empires emerged from the territories that he ruled – the Ptolemaic and the Seleucid empires. These empires took it in turns to rule over the land until the Maccabees, a radical Jewish group, revolted against the Seleucids and formed a Jewish kingdom for the first time since the exile. This was the Hasmonean kingdom which lasted from 142 BC until it was overrun by the expanding Roman Emperor, with Pompey conquering Jerusalem in 63 BC. 

The Roman and Byzantine empires 

In 37 BC, Herod the Great, a half Jewish-half Idumean, ambitious yet paranoid man became king of Judaea with the permission of the Romans. He built several remarkable buildings, including a new, grand Temple in Jerusalem, the one present at the time of Jesus. In or around 6 BC, Jesus of Nazareth was born. He lived, taught, and performed miracles around Galilee and eventually journeyed to Jerusalem, where he was crucified by the Romans, after which his followers have always claimed that he rose from the dead, and appeared to many witnesses. The Christian community's presence in the land has shaped it in many ways until recent times as we shall see.

During this time, Judaea remained part of the Roman Empire. In the 60s AD, Jewish rebels revolted against Roman rule, a rebellion which was crushed by the Romans, who proceeded to flatten Herod’s temple. There has never been a Jewish temple on that site since that date. 

70 years later, the Jews revolted against the Romans again, an uprising known as the Second Jewish Revolt, under Bar Kokhba. Yet again, the rebellion was put down – more severely this time. Much of Jerusalem was destroyed by the emperor Hadrian, who rebuilt it as an entirely new Roman city called Aelia Capitolina, trying to erase Jewish presence to put an end to the successive revolts, and renamed the land Palestina, after the Philistines, a seafaring tribe who had arrived in the land before the time of King David.

In 312, after an internal political and military struggle, Constantine became the first Christian emperor. This was the beginning of the Byzantine empire, named after the city of Byzantium, a new capital, chosen to rival Rome. In 326 Constantine authorised the building of Christian churches in the land, including the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, over the site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. 

The rise of Islam 

In the 7th century, Christian Byzantine rule over Jerusalem came to an end. The new faith preached by Muhammad (570-632) inspired determined armies to spread northwards from the Arabian desert. The second Caliph, Omar, accepted the surrender of Jerusalem bringing it under Arab, Muslim rule for the first time, although people of Arab descent had been in the land for a long time before – they are mentioned in the New Testament in the second chapter of the Book of Acts. 

Since the Roman destruction of the temple in AD70, during the Byzantine period the site of the old Jewish temple had been kept as a dump for rubbish. In around 690, a Muslim ruler, Abd-al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock as a shrine on the site, to mark Muhammad’s reported night journey to heaven, followed soon by the Al Aqsa mosque nearby on the same site. Jerusalem now became a site of Muslim Pilgrimage. 

In the early 11th century, tensions between Muslims and Christians led Caliph Hakim to demolish much of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was rebuilt shortly afterwards, but in a much less impressive format. In 1099 western Christians, hearing of attacks by Muslims on their holy places, and inspired by the idea of re-taking the Holy Land for Christendom, arrived in Jerusalem as part of the First Crusade. The Second Crusade arrived sometime later, but the Crusader armies were finally beaten by the Muslim leader Salah-ud-din (Saladin) in the battle of Hattin in Galilee in 1187. A third crusade tried to win the land back but was unsuccessful and the last Crusaders were banished back to Europe in 1291. 

From the 13th to the 16th century, the land was ruled by the Mamluks, an Egyptian military class of former slaves. Meanwhile, the Byzantine empire came to an end in the mid-C15th when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, or Turks. This was the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over the land of Palestine for 400 years, from 1517 to 1917. In the C16th the Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent built the famous walls of Jerusalem that are still standing today. 

Throughout this long period, most inhabitants of the land were Arabs, descendants of the early settlers, and remnants of the Arab conquest. They were a mix of Christians and Muslims, while there were a number of Jews who lived in the land. 

The rise of Zionism 

In the 19th century, the long story of European anti-semitism began to gather pace, manifested for example in the famous Dreyfus affair which took place at the end of the century. The idea grew that Jews needed a homeland, with the first Zionist conference to advance the idea taking place in Basle, Switzerland in 1897. The obvious candidate, for historic reasons, was Palestine. The problem was there was already an Arab population long established in the land. 

Towards the end of the first world war, the Ottoman empire began to break up. The Middle East was divided up into zones ruled by different European powers, with the British taking control of Palestine. The British recognised the gathering momentum for a Jewish homeland in Palestine and declared support for the idea in the Balfour declaration of 1917, while claiming at the same time to acknowledge the rights of the Arab peoples of the land. Before long, Jewish immigration to Palestine began to increase in volume, leading to increasing tension with the existing, predominantly Arab population.  

In Europe, the extermination of six million Jews in the Holocaust gave a radical urgency to the need for a homeland where Jewish people could feel safe. Many European Jews fled to Palestine, hoping to find a home and safety there. The British found themselves increasingly caught in the middle of violent and deadly clashes between Arab and Jewish groups. Underground Jewish militia sometimes targeted the British, such as in the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel, the British headquarters in Palestine, by the Irgun, a Jewish militant group, which killed 91 people, most of them British soldiers. 

Recognising their position was untenable, the British decided to withdraw from Palestine. In November 1947 the United Nations adopted Resolution 181, a proposal to partition the land into Jewish and Arab states of roughly equal size, although the Jewish territory was larger than the Arab one. The Arabs refused to accept the plan, as they felt they were the rightful owners of the land, and the Jews were newcomers.  

When the British Mandate over Palestine came to an end in 1948, almost immediately, the Jews declared the creation of the State of Israel. Surrounding Arab countries immediately attacked the new state, but Jewish forces resisted successfully, and, under the leadership of David Ben Gurion, Jewish groups started to occupy Arab towns and cities, removing much of the Arab population, who for the most part were forced to leave. When this Arab-Israeli war finished, the new Jewish state held about 75 per cent of the land of Palestine, though with a significant Arab population still present within Israel. Around 700,000 Palestinian former residents became refugees, either in camps within Israel, or in surrounding countries such as Jordan, Syria or Lebanon. This period is known by the Israelis as the War of Independence, but by the Arabs as the Nakba – the catastrophe.

Israel as a nation grew and prospered. After a period of increasing tension between Israel and the surrounding Arab states of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, in 1967, to establish a buffer between themselves and their Arab neighbours, Israel issued a series of successful pre-emptive strikes, and after just six days, had occupied the Sinai Peninsula, formerly Egyptian territory, the Golan Heights belonging to Syria, and the West Bank of the river Jordan, including East Jerusalem, which had been under Jordanian rule.  

UN Resolution 242 urged Israel to surrender the land that had been occupied. Instead, Israel began to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, enclaves where Jewish people lived within the territories, although these were regarded as illegal under international law. Settlement building has increased in recent years under more recent Israeli governments and remains one of the points of tension - Jewish settlements built on land that could in future become part of a Palestinian state, if one ever came into being.

In 1973, the boot was on the other foot as Egypt launched a strike on Israel on the festival of Yom Kippur, which, although ultimately beaten back by the Israelis, dented Israel’s sense of invulnerability to attack from their neighbours.  

International pressure to resolve the long-running tension began to mount, and in 1978, under the mediation of US President Jimmy Carter, the Camp David accords were signed by Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt and Menachem Begin, Prime Minister of Israel, establishing peace between the two nations. This was seen by militant Muslims as treachery and Sadat was assassinated by Egyptian Islamic Jihad in 1981.  

Nonetheless, Israel withdrew from Sinai as promised, in 1982. Even though peace was established with Egypt, this did not bring an equivalent sense of harmony within the other occupied territories, particularly the West Bank. In the 1960s and 70s, Palestinian groups had carried out a campaign of attacks on Israel and Israeli targets abroad including the notorious attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, yet these had largely ceased by the late 70s. From 1987 to 1993, a Palestinian uprising against what they saw as Israeli occupation of their land, known as the first intifada increased tension across the region. As a result, secret talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials led to the Oslo Accords of 1993, signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, in which Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organisation recognised the state of Israel and Israel gave up land in Gaza and the West Bank to the limited control of a Palestinian Authority, although with still some element of Israeli influence and control. Just as Sadat had been assassinated for what was seen as surrender on the Arab side in 1981, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist in 1995 for what was seen as a betrayal of the Israeli cause. 

The 21st century 

What was meant to be a peace process rolled on. The Camp David meeting in 2000, which was expected to bring about further progress for the Palestinian cause failed to do so and triggered the second intifada which lasted until 2005, much more violent and deadly than the first, with Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel and Israeli retaliation in the West Bank and Gaza. To stop incursions from Arabs into Israeli territory, the Israelis proposed building what they called a Security Wall, but as the Wall of Separation by the Palestinians, who felt that the wall was effectively a land grab, as at points, it stretched into land which hitherto had been traditionally part of the West Bank. 

In 2005, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to withdraw troops and settlements from Gaza, yet in 2007, the Islamic militant organisation Hamas took over control of Gaza in a brief war with Fatah, the Palestinian party who had held control until this point. Hamas, unlike the PLO or Fatah, remained dedicated to the elimination of Israel and thus became a dangerous neighbour to Israel. In 2014, in a period of rising tension, Hamas rocket attacks into Israel provoked Israeli air strikes and a ground invasion. In this war, around 67 Israelis and around 2000 Palestinians died. 

In 2017, President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, something which had not happened before as Jerusalem had always been a divided city and claimed by both sides as their capital city. 

In recent years Israel has sought to normalise relationships with Arab states, signing the Abrahamic Accords in 2020 with Bahrain, the UAE, and Morocco, with a possible deal with Saudi Arabia tentatively on the way. 

The Hamas attacks on southern Israel in 2023 and the Israeli response in Gaza will have set back any progress in resolving this long-running tragedy for many years, in what is a familiar pattern of attack and retaliation. 

The history is tangled, much more complex than outlined in a brief survey like this. Any attempt to understand the present needs to engage with the history of this fertile, fought-over and precious land, home to two great peoples with contested, but deep roots in the land, who we pray will one day be able to live together in peace – the peace brought and taught by the Prince of Peace.  

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7 min read

Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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