The History of Palestine: Canaan Before it was Israel
By: Ahmed Abu Sultan/Arab America Contributing Writer
The history of Palestine is the study of the past in the region of Palestine, defined as a geographic region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Situated at a strategic point between Europe, Asia, and Africa, and the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity, and is attributed heavily to Islam, the region has a tumultuous history as a crossroads for religion, culture, commerce, and politics. Palestine has been controlled by several independent kingdoms and great powers, including Ancient Egypt, Persia, Alexander the Great and his successors, the Roman Empire, several Muslim dynasties, and the Crusaders. In modern times, the area was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, then the United Kingdom. Since 1948, Palestine has been divided into Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Other terms for approximately the same geographic area include Canaan and the Holy Land.
The earliest human remains in Palestine were found in Ubeidiya, 3 km south of the Sea of Galilee in the Jordan Rift Valley. The remains are dated to the Pleistocene, 1.5 million years ago. These are traces of the earliest migration of Homo erectus out of Africa. Wadi El Amud between Safed and the Sea of Galilee was the site of the first prehistoric dig in Palestine, in 1925. The discovery of Palestine Man in the Zuttiyeh Cave in Wadi Al-Amud near Safed in 1925 provided some clues to human development in the area. Qafzeh is a paleoanthropological site south of Nazareth where eleven significant fossilized Homo sapiens skeletons have been found at the main rock shelter. These anatomically modern humans, both adult and infant, are now dated to 100,000 years old, and many of the bones are stained with red ochre, which is conjectured to have been used in the burial process, a significant indicator of ritual behavior and symbolic thought and intelligence. 71 pieces of red ochre also littered the site.
Mount Carmel has yielded several important findings, among them Kebara Cave that was inhabited and where the most complete Neanderthal skeleton found to date. The Tabun cave was occupied intermittently during the Lower and Middle Paleolithic ages. Excavations suggest that it features one of the longest sequences of human occupation in the Levant. In the nearby Es Skhul cave, excavations revealed the first evidence of the late Epipalaeolithic Natufian culture, characterized by the presence of abundant microliths, human burials, and ground stone tools. A dwelling unearthed at Tell es-Sultan, Jericho.
Between 10,000-5000 BC, agricultural communities were established. Evidence of such settlements was found at Tel es-Sultan in Jericho and consisted of a number of walls, a religious shrine, and a 7 m tower with an internal staircase Jericho is believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with evidence of settlement dating back to 9000 BC, providing important information about early human habitation in the Near East.
By the early Bronze Age, independent Canaanite city-states situated in plains and coastal regions and surrounded by mudbrick defensive walls were established relying on nearby agricultural hamlets for their food. The Canaanite city-states held trade and diplomatic relations with Egypt and Syria. Parts of the Canaanite urban civilization were destroyed around 2300 BC. Incursions by nomads from the east of the Jordan River who settled in the hills followed soon thereafter.
In the Middle Bronze Age, Canaan was influenced by the surrounding civilizations of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Minoan Crete, and Syria. Diversified commercial ties and an agriculturally based economy led to the development of new pottery forms, the cultivation of grapes, and the extensive use of bronze. Burial customs from this time seemed to be influenced by a belief in the afterlife. The Middle Kingdom Egyptian Execration Texts attest to Canaanite trade with Egypt. The Minoan influence is apparent at Tel Kabri. A DNA analysis published in 2020 showed that migrants from the Caucasus mixed with the local population to produce the Canaanite culture that existed during the Bronze Age.
During 1550 BC, the Canaanite cities became vassals to Egypt as the Egyptian New Kingdom reunited Egypt and expanded into the Levant under Ahmose I and Thutmose I. Political, commercial and military events towards the end of this period were recorded by ambassadors and Canaanite proxy rulers for Egypt in 379 cuneiform tablets known as the Amarna Letters. These refer to several local proxy rulers for Egypt such as Abdi-Heba in Jerusalem.
Canaanites and Israelites
For too long, historians relied on the stories in the Hebrew Bible to create a narrative of the period. But as more archeological finds have been unearthed that paints a radically different view of Iron Age Palestine, the stories have largely been discarded as myths. Sometime in the 12th century, the Philistines occupied the southern coast of Palestine. The Philistines are credited with introducing iron weapons, and chariots. Over time the Philistines integrated with the local population and they, like the other people in Palestine, were engulfed by first the Assyrian empire and later the Babylonian empire. In the 6th century, they disappeared from written history.
Traces of early Israelites appeared at about the same time as the Philistines. The Israelites inhabited Palestine’s barren hill country, a loosely defined highland region stretching from the Judean Hills in the south to the Samarian hills in the north. The population, at most forty-five thousand, were poor and lived relatively isolated from the Canaanite city-states that occupied the plains and the coastal regions. By the 8th century BC, the population had grown to some 160,000 individuals over 500 settlements split into the two kingdoms Israel in the north and Judah in the south. In contrast to the Philistines, the Israelites did not eat pork, preferred plain pottery, and circumcised their boys.
Long before Israel was a State, many cultures and people lived in the land of Palestine. Ever since our ancestors settled, Palestine has been landed to provide refuge for all cultures. Philistines for example were considered to be the militant mercenaries of Greek origin to bring the end of the Bronze Age by introducing Iron. However, they eventually assimilated with the local cultures that they attacked after their time of warfare was over. So why is it changing now? Why are some people favored over others? It is the unfortunate reality that we are oblivious to.
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