Looking beyond: The ancient history of the Levant and how it has shaped today

Masada: this ancient fortress stands tall in the Judean Desert and is a reminder of the region’s ancient history and the plight of the Jewish people. Source: doubanban (via Pixabay)

by Ricky Menzies and Gethyn Long

When looking beyond the rather modern Israel-Palestine conflict, one quickly realises that this region of the world has a very rich history; the land not only has a hugely important religious history but has a complex political history too. This article takes a look at the medieval history of the region which now houses Israel and Palestine, and then moves on to consider the role of the Roman Empire in the history of the land in an effort to look beyond the recent Israel-Palestine situation and emphasise how rich in history, religion and politics this region truly is.

The medieval period lasted from approximately 5th century AD to the mid-15th century, ending with the conquest of Constantinople and the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, also known by historians as the Byzantine Empire. Medievalists in Europe have been looking more inward as of recent, seeing how Eurocentric the boundaries of the medieval period are and acknowledging that, even when discussing places such as the Middle East, it may be useful to judge their importance based on how much impact they had on Europe rather than studying the nations themselves.

From this Eurocentric perspective, the lands of Israel and Palestine are important for studying both the Crusades and the Byzantine Empire. While nearly all of European history can be connected to the importance of the Levant – the western side of the Middle East – and the holy sites within, when looking at the works of traditional historians there has been a focus on the grand politics of kings and theocrats, instead.

The Byzantine Empire and the Crusades are intrinsically linked. At the start of the medieval period, the Byzantine Empire controlled modern-day Greece, Turkey, the entire Levant and as far south as Egypt, and its influence is still there today. Byzantine architecture is still littered across Israel and Palestine today, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem being an example of this. There are also still remnants of religious control from the Greek Eastern Orthodox Church in these holy sites, which can trace their lineage back to those Eastern Romans, too.

The Byzantine Empire would lose control of the area shortly after the turn of the 7th century, however. War with the Persian Empire, and then with Muhammed’s Arab Caliphate, saw the beginning of the end for the Eastern Romans. For the Byzantines, their time in the Levant and their importance to the narrative would diminish, but their failure to hold the Holy Land would be the catalyst to the Crusades.

The Crusades were a series of events leading to one of the most contentious parts of European history. To briefly summarise what led to the Crusades, Islam’s rise in the 8th century as the dominant religion of the Middle-East led to three of five of the traditional Christian patriarchs, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, falling under Muslim control. Then, in 1054, the Great Schism between the Latin western and Greek eastern traditions of Christianity drove the two halves of the Christian world apart, and it was not until 1095 in what is now modern-day Turkey did Pope Urban II see an opportunity to unite the two Churches and claim the Holy Land for Christ. Hence, the first Crusade lasted from 1095-1099, setting a precedent for a series of religious conflicts that would last until the end of the 15th century. While the Crusader States would rise and fall in power, throughout the late medieval period, the idea of liberating the Holy Land was always there in the European mindset.

For Europe, the Crusades marked a large cultural stepping stone into some of the major ideas we follow today. Romanticism traces its ideology back to the crusading knights who returned with conflated ideas of chivalry and romance that we know today, and stories such as the more popular interpretation of King Arthur, rather than the traditional Welsh version, can be traced to the ideas of Crusading and struggling for your religion. 

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, is a reminder of the Byzantine Empire. Source: Neil Ward (via Wikimedia Commons)

The experience of the Crusades in the Middle East, however, is still felt bitterly to this day. From the Muslim perspective, the Crusades are seen as violent attempts to destroy Islam and bring Christian dominance over what is now the Muslim world. European forces intervening in the Middle East today are still referred to as Crusaders with the word used in spite.

From the perspective of those from the Middle East, the medieval period is known as the Islamic Golden Age. Despite chaos, the culture, science, and economies of the Islamic countries flourished and the Middle East was the centre of a cultural revolution that spread across Eurasia. 

From the European perspective, it’s difficult to comprehend Middle Eastern history in the same way that we see the West. The idea of the nation state is difficult to apply to the Middle East.“Countries” as we perceive them were rather plots of lands owned by a certain ruler who did not always reflect nor represent the culture that he ruled over, and there are many cases of religiously led states under the Caliphates who placed their subjects’ religion before their nationalities. From a Western perspective, the Middle East doesn’t fit with the Western idea of statehood; this is one of the major factors that led to the European colonial powers arguably creating such a mess when providing independence to the modern states in the Middle East post World War II.

As for the land that is now Israel, following the withdrawal of the Byzantine Empire, Israel and Palestine swapped hands repeatedly. From invading Persians to Arabic religious leaders, Christian conquerors and slave soldiers, Jerusalem and its surrounding areas have been traded back and forth between the powers of the region as though it were a game.

The grand politics of the Middle East is vast and could not be done justice in a single article. The medieval history of the region specifically is a vastly underappreciated and is part of not just Islamic, Christian, or Jewish but world history that has had lasting impacts on the progression of the world today and we are still wading through the tides of its impact. The Medieval Middle East is an epic tale and one that we can all learn and share from.

Moving away from the medieval history of the Levant, this article now discusses the rich history of Masada, an ancient fortress in the Judean Desert, and the siege of Jerusalem and their involvement in the fate of the Jewish community of Jerusalem in ancient times.

Herod the Great, also later known as the King of Judea and probably most famous for his mention in the Bible for the massacre of the innocents in an attempt to rid the world of Jesus before he could grow up to become King of the Jews, played a pivotal role in the building of so many great monuments of the ancient world, including Masada. He built this monumental fortress on top of the mountain at Masada to act as a refuge during the Jewish revolt when he was tasked to take back Jerusalem for the Romans.

Moving forward in time, Judea, an area north of Masada that today constitutes the southern part of the West Bank, became a powder keg of tension between classes, ethnic identities and religion, and eventually saw the execution of thousands of Jewish citizens. This sparked a resistance against the Romans which eventually pushed out the Romans from Jerusalem and ignited the Great Jewish Revolt which saw the Sicarii then march south to Masada in 66CE and massacre the 700 strong Roman garrison.

A depiction of Judea. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Small scale battles across Judea ensued causing catastrophic losses which led to the Romans having to retreat from the region. However, once word got back to the eternal city of Rome, Emperor Nero decided that enough was enough and sent one of his most seasoned veteran commanders, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, to crush this rebellion.

With around 60,000 troops, Vespasian travelled from village to village, systematically burning them to the ground and taking no prisoners. This saw the 10,000 strong field army of the Jewish rebellion scattered across the land in an attempt to escape with their lives, seeking haven in the fortified strongholds such as Masada and within the walls of Jerusalem. 

The region of Galilee was brutalised by the Roman army, too, leading to in-fighting between the different Jewish factions within Jerusalem. The Romans saw this and took advantage of the situation, allowing the Jewish factions to kill each other, making their job easier in the long run. 

Content that Jerusalem could wait, Vespasian then marched his forces south and took every other settlement vulnerable to attack. After the slaughter of thousands of Jewish people in Judea, he then began his march on Jerusalem; only a miracle could save the Jewish people of Jerusalem now. However, luck was on their side, for 68CE, the year of the four emperors, was upon them. Emperor Nero was forced to commit suicide and several revolts and rebellions took place in the eastern sect of the Empire; the Roman Empire was eating itself alive.

Eventually, however, Titus, Vespasian’s son, marched on Jerusalem with an army even larger than Vespasian had commanded in the previous years. He surrounded the city with his Roman Legions and the Jewish rebels, who were still fighting amongst themselves, finally called a truce to attempt to attack and push back the Roman Soldiers who had positioned themselves on the Mount of Olives. This was mildly successful, communicating to Titus that the Jews would not submit meekly; the siege of Jerusalem had begun.

Fifteen days of constant attack on the wall between the Western gate and the Psephenus Tower, saw the Roman siege engines breach Jerusalem. The Jews retreated to the inner parts of the city, however, this would eventually prove to be fatal. Titus ordered a wall to be built around the remains of the city that eventually starved the Jews into submission. Jerusalem fell.

After the Siege of Jerusalem, the Jews were eradicated from the land of Judea. The last of the Sicarii Jews were found at Masada where one final act of resistance occurred where Flavius Silva marched for the fortress.

Masada stood 2.5km from the Dead Sea amidst a desolate landscape. A tortuous zigzagged trail called the Snake Path led to the top of the mountain and the fortress was well prepared with access to food and water so the inhabitants could hold out indefinitely. The stronghold held approximately 1000 Jewish fighters led by Eleazar Ben Ya’ir who was faced with the 10,000 strong Roman army marching his way.

The Romans arrived in the autumn of 73CE and in textbook Roman style, immediately set up a perimeter around the complex, just as they had at Jerusalem. Silva knew traditional means of taking the fortress with the quick storming of the walls with ladders would be impossible because of the narrow path that led up to the summit. The path also offered too much of a steep incline for siege equipment alone, and so some ingenuity had to be used.

The Romans took advantage of a natural spur called The White Rock which offered a potential beginning for a huge siege ramp on the western side and a man-made 20 degree incline was made by throwing stones and dirt into the gorge between the ground and the mountain that eventually would lead to the top. As the famous saying goes, Rome was not built in a day and neither was this.

The Snake Path up to Masada fortress. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The ramp took two months to complete, but finally, the Romans were ready for their siege. A 25-metre siege tower with a battering ram was constructed and wheeled up the ramp, preparing for a full force assault the next day. On the 15th April 73CE, inside the complex of Masada, the last of the Jews felt complete hopelessness as it became clear the Romans would take Masada. On the instructions of Ben Ya’ir, the remainder of the Jews committed suicide, rather than be taken as slaves.

When the Romans broke into Masada, they were met by deafening silence. All but two women and five children died. The symbolism of this event lives on to this day and is a point of pride for the Israeli Defence Force who gather on top of the mountain and take a vow to “never allow Masada to fall again”.

This brief discussion goes to show how complex and how rich the history of the land which now houses Israel and Palestine truly is. This article has touched upon a mere few aspects of the history of the Holy Land, but it is evident that the medieval history of the Middle East and specifically the Levant has played a role in shaping European politics today. What’s more, it is important to discuss the former experiences of the Jewish Community in this region of the world. Ultimately, understanding the political and religious history of the Holy Land serves to deepen our understanding of the region today, and also serves as a reminder that the history of the region goes beyond that of the current Israel-Palestine conflict.

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Why Did Gair Rhydd Visit Israel and Palestine?

• To hear from people on the ground about the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

•To encourage greater understanding of the complexities of the conflict to help us facilitate discussion about the situation upon returning home outside of the traditional media narrative.

•To prompt us to begin considering how discussions can move forward in the hopes of one day finding a solution to the conflict.

•To show us first-hand how fragile Israeli-Palestinian relations are to broaden our understanding of the struggles faced by all who are intimately affected by the conflict.

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This trip was facilitated by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS). They have been around since 1919, addressing the concerns of 8,500 Jewish Students in Universities. They aim to lead campaigns fighting prejudice, creating inclusive environments, and educating people on divisive issues. To find out more about the work UJS do, head over to their website.