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. I also recommend reading the series in order for context.
Part 1 concludes with the Romans renaming the province of Judea to ‘Palestina’, but the changes to come were in more than just name. The Roman ‘de-judeazing’ efforts had certainly resulted in a diminishing Jewish presence in Palestine, but something much more momentous was looming. When Rome took Judea, the entire Empire was primarily Pagan in religion. Palestine had a majority Jewish population, but also had minorities of Christians, Greeks, and Pagans. Throughout the Empire, Christians were a persecuted minority similar to the Jews, but that was soon to change. During Constantine the Great’s reign in the early 4th century, the Empire turned decidedly Christian (the emperor himself converting). Eventually Christianity became the state religion, naturally bestowing social and economic benefits upon all Christians. The Emperor Justinian was especially harsh in disenfranchising all who did not accept the state religion. Over time the Empire’s population, including that of Palestine, began converting to Christianity. This is not to say that the entire population converted, but over the next couple hundred years Palestine slowly turned into a Christian majority. For the first time in roughly 1600 years, the main settled population of Palestine was not Jewish.
This remained the status quo until the early 600s (see map 1). The Persian Empire conquered Palestine from the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, but only 14 years later in 629, it was recaptured by the Byzantines. These two ancient behemoths had battled each other for centuries, but not for much longer. In the 630’s, an upstart religion exploded outwards from the deserts of Arabia, a region previously considered to be an uncivilized backwater. They cut the head off one behemoth (the Persian Empire) and severely crippled the other, while expanding westwards as far as the Atlantic Ocean (see map 2). This new religion was Islam, and just after their prophet’s death in 632 the Caliphate (Islamic Empire) was born, commencing this extensive series of conquests.
In 637 after a long siege, Jerusalem fell to the Caliphate, thus consolidating their rule over Palestine. The Byzantines would never again re-conquer Palestine. This conquest left Palestine in Muslim hands until the end of World War I (the exception being a short period of crusader rule).
As happened during the time of Christian rule, and for similar reasons, the population slowly began to convert to the new dominant faith, Islam. The Caliphate had also devised Dhimmitude, a system developed to control the many non-Muslim subjects they now ruled. Christians and Jews were forced to pay jizya (a non-Muslim tax), banned from constructing new places of worship, and generally treated as second-class citizens. Its impossible to know exactly when, but at some point this resulted in the majority of Palestine’s population becoming Muslim. Once again, not all minorities were converted and the region still retained many of its pre-Islamic faiths albeit in smaller numbers. Christianity did resurge to a certain extent during the 98 years of crusader rule (beginning in 1099), but the effects did not last.
Over the roughly 1,200 years from the Islamic conquests until the twilight of the Ottoman Empire (in the late 1800s/early 1900s) a slew of Islamic dynasties ruled Palestine and the surrounding area. I will not be delving into this period in too much detail, but instead will provide a short discussion on how the inhabitants of Palestine evolved during that time.
As we approach modern times, the inhabitants of Palestine tend to fit into three major and distinct social groupings, all of whom have ‘evolved’ differently over the millennia. These groups are 1) the fellaheen (the rural mass of Palestine’s inhabitants), 2) the urban class, and 3) the Bedouins.
1) The Fellaheen
Although Palestine endured innumerable wars, conquests, and other such periods of social upheaval, there has never been a full displacement of its population. This is not to say that people haven’t settled or left the region, but it means that there is some form of continuity from even before the Israelites. Many of the conquerors of Palestine did not bring substantial settlers to the region, especially the Romans and Turks (Ottomans). When settlers did come, there was a significant amount of mixing with the settled population, resulting in the ‘mixed bag’ that make up the ancestry of the fellaheen. Within the fellaheen there are traces (biologically and culturally) of Israelite, Syrian, Greek, Arab, Latin, Egyptian, Circassian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, and many others. In some cases these groups have been completely absorbed. In others, they show aspects of their distinct origins. In some cases, even whole towns are composed of settlers from other parts of the various Empires that controlled Palestine. Many place names are based off of the Hebrew bible, whereas most Roman and Greek names have been discarded, providing further evidence of continuity between the various invaders. One noteworthy exception to this is the Greek name Neapolis, today’s Nablus. Some have argued that the fellaheen are entirely the descendants of the Arab invaders. To label them as such would be inappropriate, although the Arab invaders (like all the others) did mix to some extent with the population.
2) The Urban Class
In contrast to the fellaheen, each successive conquest of Palestine resulted in the displacement of the previous urban population to a considerable extent. In many cases entire cities or towns were sacked and re-populated. But in most cases cities would often comprise of more than just their latest conquerors. Palestine’s cities have always been teaming with diversity including merchants from across the Middle East and Mediterranean, slaves and ex-slaves from all parts of the various empires, refugees, and many more. Some of these groups came in such numbers that large amounts of their descendants are still present today (Armenian refugee’s for example). The following words from James Parkes in his book A History of Palestine from 135 A.D. to Modern Times sums up the history of Palestine’s cities quite succinctly.
“They have always been cosmopolitan; they have always contained different quarters where different races and tongues lived their own lives, sometimes unimpeded, sometimes all alike crushed under the heel of a master alien to all of them.”
The urban population of Palestine has been so dynamic over the years, that defining them as direct ancestors of one people or another would be entirely incorrect.
3) The Bedouin
The Bedouin are a nomadic people who live throughout Palestine, and the rest of the Middle East. Up until recently in the Middle East, the word ‘Arab’ was actually used primarily to refer to the Bedouin and to the Effendi (the upper class). This is because these two groups are the closest to being the direct descendants of the invading Arabs of the 7th century (the effendi, being the descendants of the rulers themselves, are relatively small in number). However, even the Bedouins have experienced limited amounts of mixing. Over the centuries some fellaheen have joined the Bedouin when their towns had been destroyed.
These three groups make up the majority of the inhabitants of Palestine from the Arab invasions until the mid-1800s. The long period of Islamic domination in tandem with the common usage of the Arabic language has made the Arab infusion very profound. Of all the various conquerors, the Arab influence on the region is the most significant. That being said, within Palestinian culture one can still observe evidence of pre-Islamic and in rarer instances even pre-Israelite customs.
This part of the series is meant to illustrate the extremely complicated nature of the history and evolution of the inhabitants of the region. It should make clear to anyone the folly of considering modern Palestinians to be either 100% or 0% ‘indigenous’ (as discussed in the introduction). That being said, significant continuity does exist. Speaking in the late 1940’s, Parkes offers further wisdom on the subject by saying, “Of the Muslim peasant stock of today, it is possible to say that its oldest elements are composed in the main of ex-Jews and ex-Christians.” However,the extremely careful wording of this conclusion is evidence of the complex nature of the evolution of Palestine’s inhabitants. Many invaders have influenced their genetic composition, but cultural, ideological, and technological diffusion from surrounding areas has played an even more essential role. Purely discussing genetic composition does not adequately explain the evolution of Palestine’s inhabitants.
Part 3 will begin in the mid-1800s, and chronicle the events that helped to generate the beginnings of a nationalist sentiment among the inhabitants of Palestine.
Table of Contents
This is a short description of the history of Palestine. What can you add?
Special thanks to Margaux Carter for her editing advice