KRAXFACTS: Who are the Palestinians? – Part 1: Ancient History

Written by: Michael Kravshik. 

This post is part of a six part series answering the question “Who are the Palestinians?” I recommend checking out the introduction post (click here) for background information on the series, a timeline, and sources.

We begin our story about 1.5 million years ago. It is from this time period that we have found the earliest human remains in Palestine. Unfortunately, from here we will have to fast-forward about 1.496 million years, most of which we know little about. In Egyptian writings from 1550-1400 BCE, the area is referred to as Canaan. Some of the texts include only areas west of the Jordan River as Canaan, others incorporate the whole thing. These texts also mention that the people of the region were not homogeneous. For a number of years, the Hittite Empire (centred in what would be southern Turkey today) and Pharaonic Egypt (during the New Kingdom Era) fought each other for years over what, today, is Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon. For most of this time, Palestine was under Egypt’s sphere of influence. The first written acknowledgement of ancient Israel was an Egyptian inscription from the reign of Pharaoh Merneptah (1213-1203 BCE). It contained only a small passing reference, locating it in the area we are referring to as Palestine (keep in mind that the word Palestine, or even its ancient variety, wasn’t in use yet). By 1200 BCE, the region entered a veritable ‘dark age’ lasting about 350 years. Urban centres dissipated, trade slowed and the two Empires began to crumble. Less writing exists from this era, but we know scraps of information about some of the various peoples who lived there, as follows:

  • Amorites: nomadic Semitic peoples from the upper Euphrates/Bekaa Valley.
  • Aramaeans: related to Amorites and Israelites, they are also Semitic nomadic people from the Syrian interior.
  • Canaanites: used in different contexts in different sources. The Canaanites lived throughout the Levant and were likely the ancestors of the Phoenicians, who are generally linked to the Lebanese coast. Tyre and Byblos (two Lebanese cities) are usually associated with Canaanites in writings.
  • Israelites: related to the Amorites and the Aramaeans, yet they spoke a language more similar to that of the Canaanites.
  • Hurrians: from the Upper Euphrates. This phrase might be a synonym for Israelite, or could refer to an entirely separate group of people.
  • Shashu: nomadic people from the interior of Syria-Palestine.
  • Hittites: descendants of the Hittite Empire in Anatolia and in their former Imperial holdings in northern Syria.

This list is not comprehensive, but helps to generate an image of a very mixed region with numerous different but related peoples, all of whom lived in close quarters.

The last group of people I will talk about is a particularly important, if not poorly named, set of folks called the ‘Sea Peoples’. These people were essentially pirates or sea raiders who ended up sticking around and settling, similar to the Vikings. They predominantly came from the Mediterranean islands, and were ethnically and culturally related to the Mycenaean Greeks. Egyptian writings tell us that Ramses III defeated them and surviving groups settled all across the Mediterranean shores. There were several groups of these Sea Peoples, with at least nine identified by contemporary Egyptian sources. One of these groups, the “Plšt,” settled on the coast of modern day Israel around 1100 BCE and were called ‘Philistines’ (note that in the Hebrew Bible, the word Philistines is sometimes used to describe all the various groups of Sea Peoples). This is the origin of the modern word ‘Palestine’ used today.

By 850 BCE, the dark ages end and we have a clearer picture of Palestine. At this time there were two Jewish Kingdoms, Israel and Judah. They had taken the place of David’s biblical united Israel, and encompassed most of Palestine. On the coast, the Philistine city-states were independent of both these Kingdoms, and to the north of Mount Carmel (where modern day Haifa sits) and along most of the Lebanese coast, the Phoenicians remained independent as well (See Map 1).

Map 1: David's Kingdom (click to enlarge)

Map 1: David’s Kingdom (click to enlarge)

In 586 BCE, the Babylonians conquered Israel and left Judah as a vassal state, enslaving most Israelites and bringing them to Babylon. In 538 BCE, the Persian Empire destroyed Babylon, took Palestine and, in the Decree of Cyrus (the Persian Emperor) of that same year, allowed the Jews to return. In 332 BCE during Alexander the Great’s legendary campaign that conquered the Persian Empire, Palestine fell to the Greek/Macedonian Empire. Those familiar with Jewish traditions will have heard the story of the Maccabees (Jewish warriors). In 166 BCE, the Maccabees rebelled, threw out the Greeks, and created the Maccabean Kingdom with roughly the same borders as the Davidic Kingdoms (See Map 2).

Maccabean Kingdom (click to enlarge)

Map 2: Maccabean Kingdom (click to enlarge)

In 63 BCE, the burgeoning Roman Empire conquered the Jewish Kingdom and made it into the Roman province Judea. The Judeans unsuccessfully revolted against the Empire three times, the last being in 135 CE. Subsequently, the Roman Emperor Hadrian began a process of ‘de-judeazing’ the province. Along with many other discriminating policies, part of this process was changing the name of the province from Judea to ‘Syria Palestina’ after the former coastal city-states of the Philistines (See Map 3). Different sources use variations of this name (as the map shows), but the significant aspect they all share is the reincarnation of the Philistine name in its more modern form, Palestine (the english variety). The implications of this simple name change have reverberated for millennia.

Map 3: Roman Palestine (click to enlarge)

Map 3: Roman Palestine (click to enlarge)

In Part 2, I will discuss the evolution of the inhabitants of the region of Palestine from ancient times until we reach the direct ancestors of modern Palestinians.

Go to Part 2: Evolution of the Inhabitants

Table of Contents

Introduction: Who are the Palestinians?

Part 1: Ancient History

Part 2: Evolution of the Inhabitants

Part 3: Nationalist Inklings 

Part 4: Modernity and Change

Part 5: Nationalism and Revolt

Part 6: World War and Three Years


This is a short description of ancient Palestinian history. What can you add?

Special thanks to Dorothy Charach for her editing advice

6 thoughts on “KRAXFACTS: Who are the Palestinians? – Part 1: Ancient History

  1. Pingback: KRAXFACTS: Who are the Palestinians? – Introduction « Krax in Logic

  2. Pingback: KRAXFACTS: Who are the Palestinians? – Part 2: Evolution of the Inhabitants « Krax in Logic

  3. Pingback: KRAXFACTS: Who are the Palestinians? – Part 3: Nationalist Inklings « Krax in Logic

  4. Pingback: KRAXFACTS: Who are the Palestinians? – Part 4: Modernity and Change « Krax in Logic

  5. Pingback: KRAXFACTS: Who are the Palestinians? – Part 5: Nationalism and Revolt | Krax in Logic

  6. Pingback: KRAXFACTS: Who are the Palestinians? – Part 6: World War and Three Years | Krax in Logic

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