Think of Palestine’s past and images of Israel displacing the Canaanites from around 1200 BCE, establishing a united kingdom, even an empire, under King David and then his son Solomon slip easily into our minds. We think of the divided kingdom: apostate Israel in the north ruled from Samaria and Judah in the south with its Jerusalem temple. We know these kingdoms were removed by the Assyrians and Babylonians by around 600 BCE and that the Jews returned once again after a period of captivity.
And they re-returned to “the land of their fathers” to “re-establish the Jewish State” as proclaimed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence of 1948. The historical right of the Jews to the land of Palestine remains evident today to possibly most Christians and anyone taught this historical outline.
Archaeological-Historical Periods in Palestine
- Early Bronze Age 3150-2000 BCE
- Middle Bronze Age 2000-1550 BCE
- Late Bronze Age 1550-1200 BCE
- Iron Age 1200-587 BCE
- Persian 538-332 BCE
- Hellenistic 332-63 BCE
- Roman 63 BCE – 330 CE
- Byzantine eras 330-636 CE
- Early Caliphates 636-661 CE
- Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, Seljug 661-1098 CE
- Crusaders 1099-1291 CE
- Ayyubid and Mamluk 1187-1517 CE
- Ottomans 1517-1917 CE
- British 1920-1948 CE
- Israeli 1948 – present
The question we might ask, then, is what is the history of the Palestinians? The biblical narrative leaves them no room for a history in the land. Are they late trespassers? Are they rootless Arabs with no genuine attachment to any land in particular?
Until his retirement Keith Whitelam was Professor and Head of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Stirling and Professor and Head of the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield. His recent publication, Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past, surveys the archaeological evidence for the history of Palestine from the Bronze Ages through to the end of the Iron Ages and compares what he sees with the Palestine from more recent times according to travelers’ reports and current geo-political maneuverings.
He concludes that our Western view of Palestine’s history has been determined by the biblical narrative and conflicts with the archaeological evidence before us.
The past matters because it continues to flow into the present. However, Palestine has been stripped of much of its history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is as though Palestine only came into being with the British Mandate (1920-48) and came to an end with the declaration of the modern state of Israel (1948). The growth of towns, the shift in villages, or the population movements of three millennia before have become divorced from this ‘modern’ Palestine. (Kindle Locations 42-46).
Whereas others who have been gaining their independence from imperial domination ever since the nineteenth century and especially since World War 2 have been able to construct their own national histories as an essential part of their national identities,
what is peculiar here, and possibly unique, is that with the retreat of the European powers, and Britain in particular, the post-colonial history [of Palestine] that was written was not undertaken by the indigenous population but by a new colonial power. It was a reflection and reinforcement of what had gone before. It was a colonial Zionist narrative, which as a European enterprise in its origins, simply reiterated and reinforced the notion of external conquest and the bringing of culture and civilization to the region.
Palestine lost it history first to the European imperial powers and then to a Zionist construction of the past which rapidly became its national narrative. The history of Palestine became embedded under two layers of imperial and colonial history; layers which are so thick that they are almost impenetrable. (Kindle Locations 48-53, my bolding and formatting in all quotations)
Since then we have heard it said that the Palestinians are an “invented people” (Newt Gingrich) and that Palestine before the modern State of Israel was a “land without a people” (Golda Meir, Joan Peters).
Whitelam recognizes the consequences of this belief:
What underlies his claim is a very important principle: the idea that a nation without a past is a contradiction in terms. If the Palestinians do not possess a past, they cannot possess a national consciousness or be a people. Therefore, they have no right to a land or a state. (Kindle Locations 69-71)
I began by outlining the images of the history of Palestine that come to our mind most readily today. Keith Whitelam’s book gives readers the reason or the historical background that explains why these images are so dominant in our culture. Ever since the eighteenth century, even back long before to the days when the early European maps were being drawn, western Christian nations have seen Palestine as “culturally theirs”, or as the land of “their religious heritage”. (See the seventeenth century map of Palestine below and Whitelam’s commentary.)
Facts that contradict this religious myth are denounced even today. The Israeli archaeologist, Ze’ev Herzog, was denounced by Israel’s Minister of Justice and Deputy Prime Minister for undermining Israel’s security and giving aid to Israel’s enemies when he published what had become an accepted view among many archaeologists at the time: that there was no Exodus or conquest of Canaan and that at the very best the kingdom of David and Solomon was a very small tribal affair.
What our traditional view of Palestine’s history overlooks is the daily lives and routines of the ordinary people in the land through the millennia: their adaptability to maintain security of their livelihoods through the changing and often unpredictable seasons, the shifting economic fortunes of the various urban and rural centres, and the catastrophes from time to time of warfare, or natural disasters such as epidemics or climate shifts.
The so-called great men, monarchies, and imperial powers have followed on from one another in the region, attracting most attention like the froth of the waves breaking on the shoreline. Yet underlying this surface movement . . . was a substratum that moved slowly to the rhythms of time absorbing and dissipating the effect of the waves.
It is this story, an essential part of Palestine’s past, that was ignored by western visitors and scholars in favour of the events and characters described in the Bible. (Kindle Locations 302-306)
Whitelam asks us to look beyond the names of kings and conquerors through to the archaeological signs of a humanity with the same sorts of hopes, aspirations, fears that we all share.
Yes, the archaeological evidence does inform us of changes to the lives of the inhabitants of the region around the 1200 BCE mark. There had been an economic collapse in the decades that mark the close of the Bronze Age. Cities no longer provided the security and income the rural populations needed so many of them moved to settle away from the plains and old trade routes and to live in smaller communities in the hills.
What one needs to notice, Whitelam reminds us, is that far from being a unique moment in Palestine’s history we are seeing events at the end of the Early Bronze Age being mirrored. The Iron Age to follow (thought of as the period of Israel’s homeland) was not unique, either, but reflected the rise of the Middle Bronze Age and foreshadowed the future revivals of Roman and Byzantine Palestine.
Signs of such shifts are part of the pattern of Palestine’s history over the millennia. As trade returns, say to the coastal cities, rural populations are again attracted to these centres; as neighbouring imperial powers encroach on the region, new economic and infrastructural realities and new trading and security priorities shift the economic and demographic patterns again. The rural peoples were adaptable and through their mix of agriculture and pastoralism they were able to adapt, even move to new areas, to survive.
Whitelam throughout the book demonstrates that there is nothing unique about the Iron Age. There is no reason arising from the archaeological evidence to interpret any of these shifts as indications of new ethnic races invading or infiltrating and replacing the indigenous inhabitants. Yes there were new migrations from time to time but there is no indication that one ethnic group ever replaced another. Yes Jerusalem did at one time rise to some prominence but so did many other cities in the region, and generally to greater dominance.
Changes in the economic fortunes of the different regions, in the demographic patterns, in the relative levels of prosperity and destitution, in political fortunes, were as “rhythmical” as the cycles of the seasons and the monthly patterns of agricultural life.
Whitelam finds literary testimony to these changing fortunes in both biblical texts (Genesis, Ruth, Isaiah, Lamentations) and Canaanite literature (Armana letters, the Ugarit story of King Keret, the Gezer calendar, the fourteenth century BCE Baal poem) as well as in travellers’ reports through the ages (Ibn Battutah, Claude Conder, Rev William Thomson, Edward Robinson, Eli Smith).
Suddenly we see the growth of hundreds of small, rural villages in those regions which had been sparsely populated in the Late Bronze Age and which were removed from the direct control of the major towns. The countryside became dotted with small, unwalled villages, most newly established in the twelfth century BCE, arranged in a variety of patterns, with many located on hilltops near arable land. Again, this is not something new or unique in the history of the region. Nor is it a pattern of settlement imposed from the outside by invading Israelites. It is a privileged glimpse of important rhythms that resurface from time to time to remind us that they are ever present, even if not always visible. (Kindle Locations 776-781)
Palestine regularly suffered settlement contraction only to see a revival in subsequent periods. The Iron Age, therefore, was not a unique period in the history of the region. The revival of early Iron Age Palestine in the countryside was part of a much wider regional response by rural and pastoral groups to the decline or disruption of towns. It is part of the rhythms of Palestinian history.
The fact that we glimpse similar responses in many different areas to the general recession that afflicted the eastern Mediterranean shows that the changes in settlement in Palestine were not primarily the result of new groups coming from outside and taking over the land. That this kind of demographic shift is not unique to Palestine, but is a common response of rural communities, can be seen from the way in which populations throughout southern Europe, Greece, Anatolia, and Syria-Palestine responded to the disruptions of the Mediterranean basin at the end of the Late Bronze Age.
Similar conditions elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean basin provoked very similar responses from the rural population. Central and southeastern Europe in the twelfth century witnessed a proliferation of small, rural settlements, comprising a few buildings with silos for grain storage, situated on good agricultural land and devoted to farming and herding. We see similar shifts in settlement away from the exposed lowlands to the protection of the highlands from Greece to Syria.
What we are witnessing is the struggle to survive and the harsh choices that have to be made in the face of economic recession and disruption. (Kindle Locations 1045-1056)
But what about the Israelites? If you are still asking that question, Whitelam replies:
We simply cannot know how these villagers referred to themselves and others in neighbouring villages or what the designations they used might signify. Nor are these particularly important questions. The modern nationalist obsession with such labels—the attempts to impose ethnic difference—is not appropriate for the ancient past. (Kindle Locations 1084-1086)
It is not easy to think of Palestine’s history this way. Whitelam’s descriptive powers and extensive knowledge help.
Surveying the thousands of years of stones, bones and artefacts since the early Bronze Age (from ca 3150 BCE) Whitelam enables readers to identify an integrated history of natural rhythms, a “constant ebb and flow in the fortunes of individual towns” along with the rural regions, always “in the process of growth, stagnation, or decline.”
The people of the countryside accordingly through the same periods adapted and regularly moved in order to survive. “Mobility and adaptability” have been the constant traits of the those engaged in agriculture and pastoralism through the millennia.
Yet the idea that the history of the land was broken by the incursion of the Israelites who established a unique, unified nation-state and world-class empire over most of Palestine and Syria is
a belief that is so deeply ingrained in western popular and political thought that it has become extremely difficult to imagine the past in any other way. (Kindle Locations 1140-1141)
It is that very scenario that would indeed
be completely out of keeping with the history of the region (Kindle Locations 1146-1147)
The very notion that such a kingdom and new civilization and ethnic group took control to break the patterns of the past should, Whitelam advises, cause us to re-examine our perceptions and the way we were reading the evidence. There is no evidence for political centralization or competing states with capital cities and highly hierarchical structures of administration
Yet this vision of the past is little more than a mirage. Little, if any, attention has been paid to the rhythms of Palestinian history. It is only as our perspective changes, as we concentrate on the rhythms of Palestinian history, that the vision dissolves.
Only then do we see how the structures of the Bronze Age towns were maintained and revived with the increase in population and the revival of the economy as the Iron Age progressed.
Rather than this being some unique turning point in the history of Palestine—a justification for Western imperial control or the current Israeli government policies of occupation—it becomes an integral part of the rhythms of Palestinian history that continue to the doorstep of the present. (Kindle Locations 1148-1153)
The biblical vision we have of Palestine founders again on the evidence for the supposed deportation of the population of Judah to Babylon in the sixth century. Population did decline in the immediate vicinity of Jerusalem but many places elsewhere there was no such decline. Nebuchadnezzar did not uproot the general population.
The end of the Iron Age again illustrates the rhythms and patterns of Palestine’s past, the differing responses of its fragmented landscape and its inhabitants to the deep seated movements of history. It is not a special period—to be set apart as though it is something unique—but one that is integral to the history and rhythms of Palestine’s past. (Kindle Locations 1638-1641)
What of today’s Palestine? How does today compare with the past?
The increasing interest taken in the region by the Assyrians, and later the Babylonians, was fuelled by the desire to control, stimulate, and exploit the arteries that carried the life-blood of trade. It is a recurrent theme, repeated over many centuries, which continues into the present day. . . . Palestine has always been of interest to those powers that aspired to global domination. (Kindle Locations 1745-1747, 1754)
Becoming aware of the “deep history” of Palestine that is found at the level of those people whom historians, focused as they are on kings and empires, have so often made invisible clarifies our vision.
An integrated history of Palestine bestows dignity on the silent voices and actions of the many: the constant movement of pastoral groups across so-called boundaries, the movement back and forth to the fields each day, the transport of goods on small craft along the coast, or the movement of flocks and herds following the rhythms of time.
If we view the mosaic that is Palestine over the centuries, despite the almost constant threat of empire, it is a region that is difficult to subdue and control, as the present demonstrates so clearly. It is ever resistant to state or imperial control, finding ways—some times through direct conflict but more often than not by subtle ways of non-participation—to maintain its local identities and autonomy.
As such, even during periods of strong central control, it has looked persistently for opportunities to throw off the shackles of empire. Despite the colonial present—the overwhelming use of force and terror to subdue the indigenous population or imperial constructions of the past— Palestine’s past can still be measured differently.
The adaptability of the inhabitants in the face of the overbearing power of fate and the hostility of civilization . . . along with the connectivity and ever-changing configurations of the different regions of Palestine have governed this history. It is the rhythms of time that have guided what the vast majority of the population have done, even up to the present. It is when we take this perspective that we can begin to see what was important in Palestinian history . . . (Kindle Locations 1808-1819)
But to understand just how deep-seated these ideas and images are and why they are so difficult to dislodge, we need to go back a few centuries. John Speed, the English cartographer, produced an atlas in 1611 called The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain which included detailed maps of the counties of England, along with those of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. It was later expanded in 1627 with A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World, containing maps of other parts of the world. Speed included a map of Palestine at the very end of the volume.
Although in the atlas he claims to be ‘presenting an exact geography of the kingdom of England, Scotland, Ireland and the Isles adjoining’, it is noticeable that his map of Palestine features the route of the Exodus, the land divided among the tribes after its conquest and an inset of Jerusalem. This is not a real place with contemporary inhabitants, towns or villages but an imagined land. He has also drawn it as though it is a typical English county.
Like his maps of the various English counties, it includes an inset of its major town and is decorated with the same symbols for towns and villages, historic events, ships and large fish. The ship and large fish is a recurrent image in these maps, alluding to the story of Jonah and the whale in the Bible. Significantly, the ship off the coast of Palestine is flying the English ensign. Speed describes Great Britain as ‘the very Eden of Europe’, a land flowing with milk and honey, and says there is no land like it except that conquered by Joshua and divided among the tribes.
In Speed’s atlas, Palestine is already part of the empire . . . . (Kindle Locations 94-106)