Chapter no.3 : Jews under Arab- Muslim Occupation:Arabization without Islamization

Jews under the Arab-Muslim Occupation (640—1071/1099): Arabization without Islamization


The Arab occupation of the Land of Israel lasted from 640 to 1071, roughly 400 years. The Seljuks, Muslim Turks, conquered the land from the Arabs, but on the eve of the first crusade, they lost it to the Fatimid who ruled it until 1099, when the Crusaders took over. Saladin, who was not an Arab, but a Muslim Kurd from Iraq, defeated the Crusaders in 1187 and ruled until his death (1192). Following the Battle of Hattin and the conquest of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187, he took over other parts of the country while the Crusaders maintained their hold over the rest. An agreement signed by his successors with the Crusaders returned the Galilee to them and they moved their capital to Acre. The Mamelukes, Muslim Turks, conquered the Land of Israel from the Crusaders in 1260 and ruled it until 1516, when it was taken over by the Ottoman Turks who ruled the Land of Israel for 400 years. The Muslim rule in the Land of Israel ended in 1918 and a Mandate over the country was given to the British.

The Arab-Muslim Occupation (640—1071/1099)

During this period, the term ‘Arab’ was used to describe a native of the Arabic Peninsula, and according to Prof. Moshe Gil, it was interchangeable with the term Bedouin, which included nomads in the past and in the present. The Arabic-Muslim army that invaded the Land of Israel was comprised of Bedouin tribal warriors accompanied by their families, who entered the country in two flanks: The right flank entered trough the Jordan Valley, and the left flank entered through Eilat and proceeded towards the Mediterranean. Both flanks battled the Christian-Byzantine army from 634 on, and following a series of victories the land came under Arab-Muslim rule in 640.

The Arab occupation did not bring about stability to the country. The Arab-Muslim rule changed many times: At first, the country was ruled by the Umayyad dynasty. Then, in 750, the dynasty of Abbas took over, and in 942 it was the turn of the Fatimid. The Seljuks fought the Fatimid and took over the land in 1071, although the struggle between the Seljuks and the Fatimid did not end then, and the Fatimid regained control shortly before the Mameluke occupation.

In addition to the fights among various Arabic families for control over the area, the country suffered robbery and pillage by Bedouins who invaded it from the Arab Peninsula, the Sinai desert, Trans-Jordan, and the Syrian desert, as well as Byzantine raids on the coastal cities. Bedouin tribes alternated control over parts of the country, and the safety of the population was jeopardised. The Land of Israel was a battlefield throughout the Arabic occupation.

During the Arabic period, the Land of Israel was of a low priority for the Arabic rulers. The Umayyad government centre was in the Arab Peninsula at first, moving to Damascus in 660. The rulers of the Abbas dynasty moved their centre to Baghdad, while the Fatimid and the Seljuks ruled from Egypt. The Land of Israel was an occupied territory and a source of revenue from tax and land confiscations that benefited the rulers. In his article “Status of the Land of Israel under Muslim Rule”, Prof. Moshe Gill describes it as “a gold mine for Muslims”: From the year 670 to 975, the Arabs collected from 304,000 dinars per year (during the 820’s) to 850,000 dinars per year (during the 860’s). The average annual tax collected was about 400,000 dinars.

The security situation, the cut-off from Europe and the neglect on the part of the rulers greatly harmed the country’s economy, causing it to deteriorate and the population to decline. While during the Roman-Byzantine period the population was protected, during the Arabic occupation it was not, yet had to pay its taxes regularly.

Prof. Moshe Gill provides testimonies from Muslim geographers and from the Cairo Genizah letters (an archive of Jewish letters) that throw light on the economic conditions during the Arabic occupation. Many of the rural settlements were deserted and destroyed and the cultivated area shrank in size. Many of the Jews and Christians were farmers, particularly those in small settlements. Jews worked also in pottery manufacturing, smithies, glass manufacturing, mats making, textiles, flour mills, and soap manufacturing, as well as commerce. Most of the Jewish merchants came from the Maghreb, i.e., North Africa. The commercial ties with Europe were severed and most of the trading was internal or with Egypt, which had become the trade centre under the Fatimid occupation. The constant fighting, however, hurt trade and manufacturing, the economy deteriorated and the country’s population was impoverished.

The Population Composition during the Arabic Occupation

Scholars agree that during the Arabic occupation the country’s population was comprised of a Christian majority, a Jewish and Samaritan minority, and Bedouins who lived on the edge of the desert.

Prof. Moshe Gill believes that most of the Christians were Aramaic-speaking Syrians, but according to Prof. Moshe Shamir in his article “Cities of the Land of Israel under Islamic Rule” the coastal cities had a large Christian population of Greek origin, were heavily influenced by the Hellenistic culture and the commonly-spoken language was Greek. On the eve of the Arabic invasion, there was a massive movement of Christians fleeing the coastal cities to the Byzantine Empire and to Trans-Jordan. Most of those leaving belonged to the top business community and the Hellenistic classes, leaving behind the lower classes who were mostly Aramaic-speakers originating in what is now Syria and Lebanon.

Prof. Ronnie Ellenblum, who specialized in the history of the Crusader rule in Israel, has shown in his study “Frankish Rural Settlements in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem” that during the Crusader period the western Galilee, the south of Samaria, and Judea, were still populated by a Christian-Byzantine population, so there is no doubt that Christians had been the majority in the country during the Arabic period. Prof. Moshe Gill quotes Muhammed ben Abdallah Al-Ma’afary from Seville who toured the country in 1095 and reported that Christians form the majority of the population. But, as Michael Assaf wrote in his book “History of the Arab Rule in the Land of Israel” that throughout the 7th and 8th centuries, Christians were the majority but this majority started to decline during the Abbasside and Fatimid periods. Christians left because of the economic conditions and the lack of personal safety.

The Samaritans were persecuted during the Byzantine period, and their rebellions were cruelly suppressed, resulting in a decline in their population. According to information from the Samaritan History Museum, on the eve of the Arabic occupation there were about 200,000 Samaritans in the Land of Israel, most of them concentrated in the north of Samaria, with a minority in other locations. Michael Assaf, however, estimates their numbers at no more than 100,000.

The Jews were persecuted by the Christian-Byzantines as well, and on the eve of the Arabic invasion Jews were massacred, causing many to flee, further reducing the Jewish population. There is no data about the number of Jews living in the country on the eve of the Arabic occupation. Based on his analysis of various factors, Michael Assaf estimates that their number then was 150,000--200,000. In his study “In Roman and Byzantine Times”, Michael Avi-Yona also estimated that during the Christian-Byzantine period there were 150,000—200,000 Jews in Israel. It is not known, however, how many remained in the country or how many survived the pogroms at the end of the Christian-Byzantine period. In his article “The Population of the Land of Israel” Maggen Broshi determined based on archaeological surveys, that the total population in the country was 1,000,000 at most. Avi-Yona estimated that the Jews comprised 10% of the population, in which case they would have numbered 100,000.

During the Arabic occupation, in the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries, Jews from communities in the Arab Peninsula, North Africa, and Babylon returned to Israel and its Jewish population increased slightly, but from correspondence preserved in the Cairo Genizah we learn that the security situation in the country made many leave, particularly during the Fatimid period.

An archaeological survey conducted by Mordechai Avi’am uncovered a cluster of Jewish settlements in the Eastern Galilee during the Byzantine period, and the fact that most (36 out of 58) survived to the Crusader period shows that there was still a centre of Jewish population in the Eastern Galilee during the Arabic period.

Documents from the Cairo Genizah presented by Prof. Moshe Gill contain evidence of Jewish communities in Israel, particularly from the 10th to the 11th centuries. In the Galilee, Tiberias was the centre of Jewish spirituality, with several synagogues and two communities: Jews from Babylon and Jews from Jerusalem. There were also Jews in Acre, Haifa, Gush Halav, Pequi’in, Dalton, Kfar Cana, Kadesh Naphtali, Tzipori, Kfar Hananya, ‘Ivlin, Kfar Mandi, Safed, ‘Akhbara, and Biriya. According to the 10th century Arabic Geographer Al Muqadassi, there were large Jewish settlements in Gush Halav and Kadesh Naphtali, and Jews lived also in Ramle, Hebron, the coastal cities, Tzo’ar (near the Dead Sea) and Eilat. Ramle was the largest Jewish centre in the South, with three communities, 2 synagogues, and 5000 Jews. The community in Hebron was well organised and had a synagogue near the Cave of Machpelah. During the Arab occupation Jews lived in Caesarea, Jaffa, Ashkelon, and Raffiah.

The Genizah letters also tell of deteriorating security under Fatimid rule as a result of 60 years of constant fighting against extremist Shiite elements, the Byzantines, and Bedouin assaults. Letters describe horrors committed by Bedouins in Jerusalem and Ramle. An earthquake (1033), drought and pestilence added to these troubles, and combined with the economic hardship caused a significant decline in the number of Jews on the eve of the Crusades. The Genizah letters record the presence in Egypt of refugees from Kfar Mandy, Ivlin, Amoukah, and other locations in Israel.

In his study Michael Assaf mentions Jewish settlements in the Negev and notes that Eilat was called “City of the Jews” by the Geographer Al Bakri (d. 1094). Assaf points out that in addition to coastal cities and Tiberias, Raqat and Hammat, other Upper Galilee Jewish places mentioned in the Cairo Genizah documents include the Fort of Dan, Ba’al Gad, ‘Akal, Zeitoun, ‘Alma, Al-‘Alawiya, and Tirtzah, as well as Jerusalem, Hebron, and Ramle in Judea. Assaf mentions several factors that caused the significant decline of Jewish population numbers at the end of the Arab occupation due to desertion, which was caused by the unstable security conditions.

Prof Moshe Gill summarised the Jewish situation in Israel during the Arab occupation as evident from the Genizah documents. Genizah letters describe “generations of decline and impoverishment in body and spirit in the wake of the extraordinary troubles of the times and the transformation of the Land of Israel into a constant battle field. The Jewish settlement fought for its actual physical existence”. But the letters also reflect “the continuance of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel through generations of Arab occupation. This settlement was a direct descendent of the Jewish settlement of ancient times”.

What guaranteed the survival of the Jews despite their duress was the preservation of their community organisation. Throughout the Arabic occupation the Jews maintained community autonomy, a separate judicial system, and a central welfare and leadership system. The Genizah letters contain information about the Yeshiva of Israel from the 10th and 11th centuries, and a portion of the 250-year long list of the Israeli Geonim (Yeshiva scholars) was preserved. The letters provide information about the organisational structure of the Yeshiva and its authorities: The head of the Yeshiva, the Gaon, was considered “Head of the Jews”, holding extensive authority over the Jewish communities in the entire country, appointing the local leaders and judges. The Yeshiva was deeply involved in the lives of the communities and raised its own tax from them.

The Extent of Arabic Settlement in Israel during the Arabic Period

Scholars are divided over the extent of Arab settlement in the Land of Israel during the Arabic Muslim occupation. Most scholars agree that during the Umayyad rule there was no significant Arabic settlement in the country and the population composition remained essentially unchanged, but they disagree over the Abbasside and Fatimid periods.

According to Prof. Moshe Gill “there is no evidence that the Muslim conquest brought about a significant change in the composition of the population”. Although tribes penetrated the country, there was no permanent land settlement. “This was a land ruled by Muslims but not a Muslim land”. Gill emphasizes that the fact Arabic geographers are silent over the question of a Muslim majority in the country testifies that there was no majority; had there been one, they would have been happy to mention it.

Prof Moshe Sharon, Henry Lamans, and Yoram Zafrir expressed similar views in their studies (see below).

In his article “Arabic Conquest and Rule”, Hayim Zeev Hirshberg agrees that at first the Arabs preferred to live in their camps, but gradually moved to more permanent forms of settlement. They bought or confiscated lands and settled in the villages and the towns.

The Extent of Settlement during the Umayyad Period (640 – 750)

Prof Moshe Gill writes that during the Arab occupation the Bedouin tribes Banni ‘Assan and Banni Joddam lived on the Southern borders of the country. They had served the Christian-Byzantine rulers as mercenaries and were in the process of converting to Christianity. Papyri discovered in the area of Nitzana (‘Ouja) document the invasion of 59 tribes of Yemeni origin from the Arab Peninsula into the country at the time of the Arabic conquest. They were among the warriors and their garrisons were located outside the populated areas. The Arab rulers used to relocate them as needed.

Michael Assaf determined that during the first 30—40 years following the Arabic conquest there was not a significant Arabic settlement in the country because the forces were not enough to continue the conquest of other territories and settle as well. During the first years following the conquest, deserted Byzantine estates as well as deserted settlements of Greek Christians were confiscated and taken by the rulers and their relatives. The policy of distinguishing between Arabs and non-Arabs resulted in their settling in separate settlements or separate neighbourhoods in mixed towns. Surrender treaties of cities such as Bet Shean and Tiberias included transfers of 50% of the houses to the Arabs. In the coastal cities, however, settlement was initiated for security reasons. The coastal cities were under constant attacks by the Byzantine navy and therefore were settled by garrisons who were given homes of Christian Greeks who fled before the conquest. The Umayyad rulers leased lands to the tribes in return for their military services, while the local inhabitants continued to work the land as tenants. The Caliph Mou’awiye confiscated all Byzantine estates and portioned them among his relatives and favourites (this seems to refer to the Western Galilee, where Byzantine estates were concentrated). Farmers became tenants of the Arabic estate owners. Arabic land settlement began at the time of Othman or toward the end of Omar I's rule.

Prof Moshe Sharon too explains in his study “Process of Destruction and Nomadisation in the Land of Israel” that there was no significant Arabic settlement in the country following its conquest, because the conquering armies, who were comprised of Bedouin tribes, continued north to conquer Syria, and west towards Egypt and North Africa. Arabic tribes that stayed behind were of the warrior class, mostly Yemenites, who were not inclined to settle in towns or villages and were also not inclined to work the land, preferring to live in camps outside urban or rural centres, relocated by the Caliph as needed. Religious clerics, however, did arrive with the conquerors’ army.

Prof. Nehemiah Levtzion in his book “Islam, an Introduction to the Religion’s History” concurs that during the first stage following the conquest, Arabs did not enter the settled areas and did not mingle with the local population. They concentrated in military camps on the edge of the desert and maintained their tribal structure and nomadic life style. The only settlement initiative encouraged soldiers (Arab and Persian) to settle in the coastal cities to protect them against attacks by the Byzantine fleet. In Jerusalem and Tiberias, however, Arabs settled in deserted homes of the Greek-speaking social elite that had fled the country with the Arabic conquest. The Umayyad rulers, wishing to avoid undermining the security and economic conditions in the country, were not supportive of Bedouins entering the populated areas, but when the Abbasside dynasty took over in the 10th century, Bedouin invasions increased.

In her article “The Role of the Conquest in Shaping the Layout of Settlement in the Land of Israel during the Early Muslim Period”, Dr Milka Levi-Rubin determined that the main change in population composition took place in the coastal cities. The change was evident in the almost total desertion of the coastal cities by their Christian population as the Arabic army approached. The Christian population was, until then, the economic, social and cultural back bone of the country. Most of those leaving belonged to the elite affluent, Greek-speaking classes, and those staying behind were mostly Aramaic-speaking lower classes who had immigrated to the Land of Israel from what is now Syria and Lebanon.

Archaeological research supports somewhat the theory that there was no significant change in the composition of the population under Umayyad rule. In 2005, the archaeologist Ittamar Texel reported on archaeological surveys he carried out in a lecture titled “Characteristics of the Rural Settlement in the Land of Israel at the Beginning of the Early Arabic Period” and concluded that “from surveying the types of sites and from the (little and uncertain) information given by these surveys, it seems that during the first few decades following the Muslim conquest, and perhaps even by the end of the 7th century, there was no significant change in the size of the rural population in the Land of Israel. Direct and indirect changes in the area’s economy, on the one hand, and the increasing pressures from the Muslim rule, on the other hand, gradually brought about (particularly during the latter half of the Umayyad period) the weakening of quite a few rural communities and the gradual decline in their size and number. This decline gathered momentum from the 8th century onwards.”

The Abbasside and Fatimid Periods (8th – 11th centuries)

Yoram Zafrir described in his study “The Arabic Conquest and the Process of Population Impoverishment in the Land of Israel” how “during the Muslim period, and generally through the Middle Ages, a most significant process of decline in the population of the Land of Israel took place”. Zafrir brings archaeological evidence that show that the process reached its climax during the Abbasside period, from the mid 8th century, although signs of population decline are apparent already in the Umayyad period. The reasons for this crisis, according to Zafrir, were:
In the first place, neglect: once the government centre moved to Baghdad, the government did not allocate resources for the country’s prosperity. Secondly, the trend of replacing the Christian administration with an Arab-Muslim one lowered its efficiency, while the anti-Christian sentiments drove Christians out of the country. Zafrir studied the Arabic population in the country based on the Nitzana Papyri (late 7th century) and M. Kokhavi’s archaeological survey. These sources attest to the desertion of Arabic settlements in the Negev Mountain area due to the difficult living conditions, water and land shortages, insecurity caused by Bedouin pillage raids, Bedouins taking over settlements and populating them on-and-off, and demolishing buildings for their construction materials as seen fit.

According to this archaeological survey there were 470 settlements in the southern area in the Byzantine period, and only 76 remaining during the Arabic period. Fifty of them were located in the Jordan Valley, where desertion was halted thanks to irrigation works carried out by the Umayyad government. Around Sde Bokker, 8 settlements remained during the Arabic period out of 45 that existed during the Byzantine period. The Byzantines converted the inhabitants of the Judean desert to Christianity, but the population left with the collapse of Byzantine rule because, contrary to the Byzantine government’s custom of reducing taxes and providing protection during times of drought, the Arab-Muslim rule was only interested in collecting taxes. The deserted settlements were taken by Bedouins who continued their nomadic life-style.

Prof. Sharon determined in his study “Processes of Destruction and Nomadisation in the Land of Israel” that Bedouin invasions for settlement began only in the mid 9th century, increasing around the mid-10th century and particularly through the 11th century. During the 9th century, Bedouin tribes settled in the Negev area, and from the mid-10th century, and particularly in the 11th century, Bedouin tribes invaded the Jordan Valley. Throughout the Arabic Muslim period other Bedouin tribes conducted raids into the country, and for some time also ruled sections of it (article on the Bedouin invasions of the Land of Israel will be published latter).

Michael Assaf quotes a report by the Arab Geographer Al Ya’akubi from the end of the 9th century about the settlement of Arabs and Persians in the Galilee, around Ramle-Lydda, in the coastal cities, Nablus, and Yavne. He mentions 6 Arabic tribes that settled in the country. Assaf brings similar reports of 10th century Arabic historians. The picture emerging from the Arabic sources is of Arabic settlement in estates confiscated from the Byzantines in the Western Galilee, settlement in Tiberias and the Eastern Galilee, around Ramle-Lydda and in the Jordan Valley. According to Assaf the Arabic sources tended to obscure the presence of Christians and Jews in the country and exaggerate the extent of Arabic settlement. The 10th century Arabic Geographer Al Mouqadassi reported the presence of Samaritans and non-Arabic Christians.

Prof. Moshe Gill notes that with the Abbasside conquest the presence in the country of the tribes that served as garrisons was limited, their allowances were cancelled and they were relocated to Egypt and Iraq. The tribe Bannu Al Ash’ar (originally from the South of the Arab Peninsula) resided in Tiberias during the Abbasside period. The Arabic author Al Mas’oudi wrote that from the end of the 10th century to the mid 11th century there was only one mosque in Tiberias compared to 3 synagogues, attesting to the small number of Muslims in the city. Muslims began settling in Hebron only from the 10th century. Muslims were living in Eqron, which had a large mosque. In Nablus, Arabic tribes were living in the 9th century alongside the Samaritans. In Bet Shean the population included Arabs as well as non-Muslims.

In his research on the Crusader period, Ronnie Ellenblum determined that, as a result of the decline in Samaritan population in north Samaria at the end of the Byzantine period, Bedouin tribes began moving into that area during the Arabic Muslim occupation. Their process of permanent settlement, however, was slow and was not yet completed at the time of the Crusader conquest.

In a lecture on Samaria, Dr. Levi-Rubbin determined that Arabic historians give evidence of significant Muslim settlement in Samaria, side by side with the Samaritans, during the 9th century, and that Arabic penetration into the area began in the 7th century. In Saladin’s time, i.e., in the 12th century, Arabs were the majority in Samaria.

In his research “The Coastal Cities of the Land of Israel during the Arabic Period, 640 – 1099”, Amikam Elad states that an effort was made by the Arabic rulers to encourage Arab and Persian soldiers to settle in the coastal cities, by handing out land and homes that had been deserted. Mosques were built in the coastal cities and Muslim clerics opened schools for Islam.

The Extent of Arabic Settlement - coclusions

Michael Assaf determined that by the end of the Arabic period, in addition to the Arabs, Turks and Muslim Berbers from North Africa and Egypt had also settled in the country. The numbers of Non-Arabic Christians and Jews was on the decline. Assaf discusses the debate over the size of the Muslim-Arab population. The discussion includes several factors: Population conversion to Islam, Arabic immigration, and natural increase.

Regarding the extent of conversion to Islam, see below.

Regarding the extent of immigration into the country, Assaf mentions a study by the renowned Middle-East researcher Henry Lamans, which asserts that the country was not attractive to immigrants because of the ever lasting wars, both internal and external, which claimed many lives and turned entire regions into wilderness. The epidemics and the famines also deterred immigration.

Assaf mentions disagreements among scholars over the extent of the Arabic natural increase in the country. A. Kremer is in the opinion that natural increase was high due to polygamy. Lamans, however, is in the opinion that the birth rate was offset by disease, famine, internal and external wars, and deplorable sanitary conditions.

Prof Moshe Gil agrees with Prof Sharon that there is no evidence the Arab-Muslim conquest resulted in significant change in the composition of the population. Although tribes penetrated the country, in most cases they did not do so for settlement purposes. Based on texts written by Arabic geographers Prof Gil determined that the country’s villages were populated mostly by their earlier, non-Muslim residents. The Arabs in the Land of Israel were not farmers but warriors and owners of confiscated lands.

Based on Latin sources and the archeological survey carried out by Mordechai Avi’am, Ronnie Ellenblum determined in his study of the Crusader period that at that time the Western Galilee, South Samaria, and Judea were still mostly Christian, and that a cluster of 36 Jewish settlements existed in the Eastern Galilee. The population along the coast was mixed: Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. The picture emerging here is of a country that did not yet have a Muslim majority.

In summary, historical research and archeology, both reject the notion of a significant Arabic immigration and settlement in Israel during the Arab conquest period due to the security, economic, and sanitary conditions. Studies show that during the Arabic period many Bedouins raided and invaded the country for pillage and robbery, but not for significant settlement. The process was the reverse: the country was continuously depopulated. Entire areas became a wasteland as a result of the wars and Bedouin raids.

The absence of demographic data makes this debate difficult to settle.

The Arabization Policy

Arabization meant imposing the Arabic language, culture, and customs, but did not include converting the population to Islam.

The Arab conquerors did not call the country Palestine, but rather Al Sham, meaning “left”, because the Land of Israel is to the left of the rising sun. This term included Syria as well.

The Umayyad rulers maintained the Byzantine administrative division: Palestina Prima, which included Judea, Samaria, and part of the coast, and whose capital was Caesarea, was called Hijaz Filastin(Hijaz means district)/ The Capital was first moved from Caesarea to Lydda, and in 717 was moved to Ramla, the only city the Arabs built (in 716) in the Land of Israel.

Palestina Secunda, which included the Galilee, the Sea of Galilee, and part of the Jordan Valley and whose capital was Tiberias, was named Hijaz al Urdun, i.e., the Jordan District. Jerusalem’s Roman name, Aelia Capitolina, was maintained for a while, then changed to Bet Al-Maqdas (‘Beit Hamikdash’ – the Temple) and then to Al Quds.

The Arabs did not have an educated class that could take over the administrative system, nor did the Umayyad welcome any shake-ups until their rule was stabilised. The Greek language, therefore, remained as the official language and Christian officials continued to administer the country’s affairs. The top echelon, however, were the Arabs, who gave themselves estates – villages that provided their income.

The Arabization process began only at the end of the Umayyad period, as evident in the gradual take over of the administration by Arab administrators, the use of Arabic for official matters, the replacement of Byzantine coinage with Arabic one, and the spreading of the Arabic culture as a way of living.

The rulers, however, were often forced to abandon the efforts to replace the administration with Arabic administrators due to the absence of an Arabic educated workforce. Prof. Levtzion determined that most of the time the rulers did not enforce this decree because they needed the ‘Dimma’ (the ‘protected’, i.e., the non-Muslims such as the Jews and the Christians) to administer the country’s affairs. Prof.Gil, too, notes that Christians and Jews were allegedly barred from the country’s administration, but the fact that for many years this prohibition was mentioned again and again is a sign that it was not enforced. Christians and Jews were employed in administration even by the Fatimid rule.

Prof. Levtzion states that, unlike the slow Islamization process which was never completed during the Arab-Muslim occupation, the Arabization process was more successful. Arabization did affect the rate of conversion, particularly among the Christians, although, as mentioned, this process was not complete (p. 212).

The Legal and Religious Status of Jews and Non-Muslims

The legal-religious status of non-Muslims was determined by the Laws of Omar. This collection of ordinances for dealing with non-Muslims was developed during the time of the Caliph Omar II (717-720). The religious persecutions that characterized the Byzantine period ceased, Jews (and other non-Muslims) were allowed freedom of worship according to their own religions, and Jews could also judge according to their laws without hindrance, although by the Laws of Omar they were regarded as second-rate subjects.

The Laws of Omar stated, for example, that:

The construction of new synagogues was forbidden, and Jews should pray quietly;
Jews must wear a yellow patch, cut the hair off the front of their heads, and must not wear clothes similar to those of Arabs, so that they may be easily identified as Jews;
Jews (and other non-Muslims) must not carry a sword or ride a horse, and must clear the way before Muslims;
A Muslim’s testimony is to be given priority in any dispute between a Jew (or a Christian) and a Muslim;
Inheritance laws must follow the Muslim law;
It is forbidden to prevent one’s relatives from converting to Islam.

In addition, second-class subjects had to pay special taxes, in accord with the Quran’s decree that non-believers should be taxed particular taxes. The Quran outlines three levels of the Jaziya tax levied on non-Muslims according to income: the rich, the middle class, and the poor. In effect, however, each town was taxed a general, set amount. The Cairo Genizah contains evidence of dispute between the government and the Jews of Tiberias in the year 1030 over the amount of the general tax. The army was in charge of tax collection.

The Arab rulers also confiscated Jewish lands and handed them to the ruling Arabic classes. In 685 the Umayyad built the Dome of the Rock on the site of the ruined Second Temple, and made the site a holy place for Muslims, to compete with the religious centre in Mecca which was controlled by their rivals. The Jews lost the last hold they had on the Temple Mount.

Zealous Muslim clerics pressured their rulers to vigilantly enforce Omar’s Laws, but according to Prof. Levtzion, during the first 400 years of Islamic rule (i.e., the Arabic-Muslim period in the Land of Israel) Dimmi’s were treated with tolerance because most of the time Omar’s Laws were not enforced. In the 11th century religious extremism increased bringing with it more attempts to enforce the Laws. Prof. Bernard Lewis explains that the increase in religious extremism came about as a result of the struggles within Islam between the Sunnis and the Shiites, and the struggles between Islam and Christianity. The anarchic state of affairs during most of the Fatimid period, however, made strict enforcement impossible.

Islamization Policies during the Arab Occupation

Islam distinguishes between ‘Dar Al Islam’ (the Land of Islam) and ‘Dar Al Harb’ (the Land of Sword, i.e., non-Muslim territories). It is the duty of Muslim rulers to increase the Land of Islam at the expense of the Land of the Sword, by means of a ‘holy war’ (Jihad), but there is no obligation to convert the conquered local population to Islam. Islam calls also for “Da’wah”, preaching to convert, but emphasises it should be done by pleasant persuasion.

In the matter of conversion, Islam also distinguishes between the People of the Book (i.e., Jews and Christians) who are tolerated, and pagans whose forceful conversion is permitted. This was the religious attitude, but political considerations were sometimes used to justify exceptions. Omar’s Laws intended to set the status of non-Muslims under Muslim rule as protégés.

Scholars are divided over the issue of conversion to Islam. Most scholars are of the opinion that the Umayyad rule was not interested in converting the non-believers. Islam at its outset did not embrace a policy of Islamization, and the Arabic rulers preferred collecting taxes from non-believers rather than converting them. A gradual change in policy began during the Abbasside period, with the transition in emphasis from Arabism to Islamism. Religious debates between Muslim and Christian clerics and Muslim and Jewish clerics were introduced during the 9th century. The Muslim clerics attempted to tone down the differences between the religions in order to attract the non-Muslims to Islam.

Prof Avraham N. Pollack in his article "Origins of the Arabs in Israel" disagreed with the majority. He determined that the Umayyad ran a strong campaign for Islamization, constructing the Dome of the Rock in an attempt to turn Jerusalem into a Muslim religious centre in order to divert pilgrims from Mecca. Enticements for converting included exemption from the non-believers tax, participation in government, exemption from inheritance laws (which discriminated against non-Muslims), and exemption from land confiscation.

According to a contrary opinion, most of the Umayyad, Abbasside, and Fatimid rulers preferred their income from the non-believers tax over conversion, and religious persecution took place only under particular rulers (see below).

Michael Assaf determined that “rarely were the protégés pressured to convert. For most of the time, there is no evidence that the monarchy was interested in converting or assimilating the protégés into the Arabic culture” (pp. 107-108). “Happily for the protégé communities, the revenue issue in the Arabic monarchy became increasingly worrying and onerous, and this stopped the religious zeal from crossing certain limits” (p. 120).

Prof Gil determined that during the first hundred years (640 – 740), i.e., during the Umayyad period, there is hardly any evidence of conversion among the local population, while evidence exists of the rulers’ reluctance to convert the non-believers. The Arabs maintained their strict segregation from the rest of the population. Being Muslim meant belonging to a separate social class whose membership was hereditary and privileged. Laws were passed to ensure this segregation: Non-Muslims were forbidden to dress as Muslims, associate with Muslims, or enter their homes; It was forbidden for non-Muslims to teach their sons the Quran.; Non-Arabs wishing to convert needed to find a Muslim to act as their protector; Non-Arab converts were not considered equal to Arab-Muslims and were not exempt from the non-believers tax; Non-Arab converts could only serve in the auxiliary forces and claim a third or up to a half of the booty. Converts gained equality only toward the end of the Umayyad period, under the Caliph Omar. Before then, the non-Muslim population did not have a strong motive to convert.

A change in policy took place during the Abbasside period, when the emphasis shifted from Arabism to Islamism, but the Abbasside rule was constantly fighting for its survival and under such conditions had little resource to spare for Islamization. The Fatimid were Shiite, while most of the population in Egypt, their centre, was Sunni. Being the minority, the Fatimid preferred dimmi’s in their administration, and were mostly tolerant towards them, except during the reign of the Caliph Al Hakkim. Jews were the court physicians and held key position at the top of the Fatimid government. Documents in the Cairo Genizah mention a Jew by the name of Menashe in charge of the interests of the Fatimid army in Syria and Israel, who looked after the Jews.

Prof Levtzion agrees that the Umayyad did not encourage conversion to Islam. He determined that during the first 200 years there was no systematic, directed policy although there were a few politically-motivated individual cases. The policy of discouraging conversion was born primarily from the idea that Islam was the religion of the Arabs, and there was no intention of including the conquered population in the political-religious community. Theoretically and practically, “the conquests had territorial goals, not conversion goals”. The Umayyad rulers were also of the opinion that a policy of religious tolerance without conversion would facilitate their establishment. Equally important, they feared the loss of tax revenues. Non-Arab converts were taxed a higher land tax than the Arabs. The government exempted converts from the non-believers tax only in cases that had political considerations. The candidate for conversion had to join an Arabic tribe as an attaché (Miali) of an inferior status. When the Caliph Omar II gave converts equal rights to Muslims, the opportunity for exemption from the non-believers tax may have created a motive to convert, particularly among the lower classes who struggled to pay their taxes. The Caliph Omar, however, required converts to pay the same charity tax as Muslims, and did not exempt them from the land tax (the Haraj), although Muslims were taxed at a lower rate than others. The rulers who succeeded Omar II again discouraged conversion.

During the Abbasside period the distinction between Arabs and non-Arabs was abolished, and replaced by the distinction between Muslim and Non-Muslim. “This change marks the end of the age of tolerance towards non-Muslims, increasing pressure on non-Muslim minorities”. Prof Levtzion emphasises, however, that “we have little evidence for large scale conversion to gain exemption from the Jeziah”, the poll tax (p. 217). Prof Levtzion believes that, in principle, the Arabic rulers did not carry out a systematic, consistent policy for converting their subjects to Islam.

In his study on “Mediterranean Society”, Prof Shlomo Dov Goytin notes that “other than these two exceptional persecutions [during the reign of the Caliph Al Hakkim and in Andalusia] no unusual pressure was put on minorities to convert to Islam during the Fatimid and Ayoub periods, although obviously Christians and Jews were encouraged to convert” (pp. 378—379).

Did the Local Jewish Population Convert to Islam?

As in other subjects, scholars are divided over this issue as well.

According to one view, Jews converted en-masse during the Arabic conquest.

David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben Zvi published a book in 1918 titled “Eretz Israel, Past and Present”. The book’s thesis is that “the falahs [farmers] do not descend from the Arabic conquerors who took over the Land of Israel and Syria in the 7th century . . . The falahs originated from the rural population the Arabs countered in Israel in the 7th century. . . The rural population the Arab conquerors found was mostly Jewish” (p. 196). The authors hypothesized that the Jewish urban, educated and well-off population emigrated due to the security situation and the religious and economic decrees while the Jewish farmers, who did not have the means to emigrate, remained on their land. Some pretended to convert to Christianity during the Byzantine period, but during the Arab occupation they realy converted to Islam. The main motive for conversion was their loyalty to the land rather than their faith, as the farmers were tied more to the land than to their religion. The authors considered other motives as well: the heavy tax burden, the danger of being driven off the land, and Mohammed’s teachings being closer to their heart than Christ’s teaching. Another explanation offered by the authors is that converting to Islam allowed them to join the ruling classes and the ease to convert to Islam: “It was enough to declare once that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is the messenger of Allah”. Unfortunately, the book’s thesis was not supported by any historical documents and it is impossible to know what the authors based it on.

In his article Prof Pollack discusses the “romantic wishful thinking (that the Arabs in Israel are descendents of the Jews) that in this way it may be possible to sustain a Jewish majority in the country”. He found in the commentary on the Book of Daniel written by Rabbi Se’adya Gaon (892 – 942) proof that there was conversion to Islam of the Jews in Israel in his time, but rejected the hypothesis that there was wide spread conversion to Christianity during the Byzantine period, based on the Jerusalem Talmud and the archaeological finds of numerous synagogues built during that time. Prof Pollack determined that according to Jewish, Arabic, and Christian sources there was a belief among the Jews that the Arabic rule will fulfil the Jewish Messianic vision. Pollack quoted a Jewish Midrash (commentary) arguing that “the Caliph will build the home of the Lord of Israel” (he did not mention which Midrash it actually was).

Although Pollack was of the opinion that there was significant conversion to Islam during the Umayyad period, he warned that “viewing Ishmaelites in 10th century Jerusalem as converted Jews should not automatically apply to those in the 20th century, for the ethnic development and migration did not stand still over the centuries”. In other words, the immigration into Israel of Muslims from Lebanon and Syria, of Balkans, Kurds, Algerians, Caucasians, and Bosnians following the Crusader period in the Mameluke and Ottoman periods, resulted in ethnic mixing and “eventually a population formed that could no longer be simply defined as converted Jews . . . although there are strong blood and origin connections between it and the Jews”. In short, Pollack disagrees with Sand’s claim that the Arabs living in Israel today are descendents of Jews who converted to Islam.

In his article “The Land to Its Workers and Converting the Falahs to Judaism”, Shmuel Almog rejected the idea that the Arabs in Israel are converted Jews. He analysed the early Zionist movement leaders’ fantasy that the Arabs in Israel were descendents of the Jewish people and their hope that they will be reabsorbed into the Jewish people. In his definition of this phenomenon, which died out after World War I, Almog explains that “despite the fact that the ideas of racial links between the falahs and the Jews were never more than a romantic wish, they became a complete thesis that shaped the form of the renewed Jewish culture” (p. 175).

There is some evidence from the Arabic period of conversion among Jews:

According to an Arabic source from the time of the Caliph Mou’awiya (661—680), 42 Jewish scholars converted to Islam at the end of the 7th century.

Prof Levtzion determined that the Caliph Omar the second (717—720), held exceptional views about conversion during the Umayyad period.

Mou’awiya Al Ash’ary, a Tiberian Jew, is known to have converted and served as a Wazir in the court of the Caliph Al Mahdi (775—785).

A famous case of conversion occurred during the Fatimid period. A Baghdad Jew named Jacob Ibn Khals, was promoted as a clerk in Israel during the Fatimid period. He converted at the end of the 10th century and was promoted to Wazir.

It is widely believed today that there was no wide spread conversion of Jews to Islam. Since 1918, and more so since 1967, many studies on this subject were published, and most scholars reject the idea that conversion was wide spread, although individual cases of conversion are known.

Prof Shlomo Dov Goytin based much of his research “Mediterranean Society” on the collection of letters from the Cairo Genizah dated to the 11th – 13th centuries. He determined that “conversion to Islam was not common during the classical period of the Genizah, and therefore we hear very little about inheritances of Jews who converted” (p. 520). Prof Goytin quoted a letter from the Genizah telling of Jews who were forced to convert while others preferred death or exile to Byzantium, Yemen, or other countries”. The letter referred to the conversion decree during the reign of the Caliph Al Hakkim.

His central thesis, however, was that “the disadvantages of being a minority were not so dire as to cause mass conversion to Islam” (p. 379). There is some evidence in the Genizah documents of single cases of individuals of all classes who believed, for one reason or another, that they would benefit more from joining the ruling faith. But Prof Goytin noted that this was not typical of Jews in Israel but rather of “people who were living in a foreign land and so were uprooted from their regular environment” (p. 379). According to Genizah documents many converts did not sever their ties to their former religion and it was usually difficult for a convert to enter Muslim society.

Prof Levtzion concluded that “the Jews held on to their faith and only a few converted to Islam” (p. 248). The converts converted not so much from spiritual attraction to Islam but more from fear or for benefit. He believes that the demise of community organisation and leadership did not take place among the Jews as it did in the Christian communities. The strength of the community was the main reason for the psychological strength of the Jews. The community continued to offer its services. Very few cases of conversion are recorded in the Genizah documents between the 10th and 12th centuries.

Prof H. H. Ben Sasson determined in his book “History of the People of Israel during the Middle Ages” that “the vast majority of the Jewish people under Muslim rule held fast to their faith” (p. 33).

Prof Moshe Gil is also of the opinion that there was no mass conversion of Jews under Muslim rule. Although Omar’s Laws turned the Jews, along with other non-believers, into second class citizens, “there is no mention in the Jewish, Christian, or Muslim sources of mass conversion of Jews to Islam at any time or place” (p. 49).
Genizah 11th century documents list Jewish settlements in the Galilee in the 11th century, i.e., at the end of the Arabic occupation. Mordekhai Avi’am’s archaeological survey also confirms that during the Crusader period there were still at least 36 Jewish settlements in the Galilee. Prof Gil wrote that despite the difficult conditions of the Jewish population during the Arab-Muslim period, the Genizah letters describe “the continued existence of Jewish settlement since time immemorial". There is no evidence of conversion. Jewish settlements survived the Arabic period very much thanks to its community organisation. The community formed the main barrier against assimilation and desertion of the Jewish faith. It maintained the sense of belonging to a nation, and the unique values of the Jewish faith were preserved within it from one generation to the next” (pp. 130-131).

Dr Milka Levi-Rubin, in a lecture to students, confirmed there were few cases of conversion to Islam among Jews.

Dr A. Y. Braver, in his article “The Jewish Element among Arabs in Israel”, rejected the idea that the Jews converted to Islam and determined that “anyone claiming it [the Jewish people] converted for the benefit of material gain is defaming its memory, is wrong and misleading” (p. 424). He also rejected Prof Pollack’s commentary on the Book of Daniel and determined that the Arabs in Israel arrived as immigrants.

Religious Persecution and Pressures to Convert

The Umayyad dynasty was Sunni, and the Sunnis were more tolerant than the Shiites who were known for their religious zeal. The Abbasside dynasty was not Shiite, but relied on Shiite Persian administration. Religious zeal increased during the Abbasside period and policies emphasised Muslim identity over Arabic identity (contrary to the Umayyad period). Following this change more rigid enforcement policy of Omar’s Laws was determined upon. The need for tax revenue, however, moderated religious fervour. The Fatimid, who were a Shiite minority whose centre was in Sunni Egypt, treated Jews with tolerance and required their assistance in the administration of the Kingdom’s affairs, except during the reign of the Caliph Al Hakkim.

The Abbasside Caliph Haroun El Rashid (786—800) ordered the destruction of synagogues and churches but there is no evidence this was carried out.

The Caliph Al Muwatukal (847—861) not only enforced Omar’s Laws, but added his own:
Non-Muslims had to wear a yellow scarf and a two-buttoned hat in a colour different to those worn by Muslims;
New churches were to be destroyed, with mosques built in their places where sites were suitable, and 10% of Christian homes confiscated;
Non-Muslims were forced to hang wooden figurines in the form of the devil over their homes to distinguish them from Muslim homes, and non-believers’ homes were not to rise higher than Muslim ones;
Non-believers’ graves must be lower than Muslim ones.

The Caliph Al Muktader (908—932) added more:
Non-Muslims were barred employment in the government, except medical services;
New dress codes required non-believers to wear honey-coloured clothes, and their children to affix coloured patches to their clothes.

There is evidence of religious persecution and forced conversions during the reign of the Fatimid Caliph Al Hakkim (976—1020). Nissim Danna describes Al Hakkim’s policies towards Jews and Christians in his book “The Druz in the Middle East”. In the early years of the Millennium the Caliph decreed that:
Christians must wear blue coloured (or, according to another version, black) clothes, a belt and a black hood, and wear a wooden (or, according to another version, iron) cross weighing 5 Kg round their necks;
Jewish and Christian women must wear one red shoe and one black;
Jews must wear wide black belts and carry a wooden calf’s head around their necks in memory of the sin of the golden calf (according to one version. Another version mentions wooden hoops weighing a little more than 2 Kg).

Persecution of the Christians was inspired by the struggle between the Arabs and the Byzantines. The Christians were victims of this struggle.

The Caliph ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and the construction of a mosque on its ruins as well as converting two other churches into mosques. The celebration of Easter was forbidden, Christian pageants were forbidden, and all the churches and monasteries in the Land of Israel, as well as synagogues, were ordered to be destroyed.
Christians and Jews were forbidden to use wine for religious purposes.
The last stage in these persecutions was the decree to convert, or leave the country. Many dimmi, Christians as well as Jews, fled the country as a result.

These laws were in force until 1014 or 1017. The Caliph retracted his laws and allowed the forced converts to return to their faith, rebuilt the demolished places of worship, and admitted that “a Muslim by force is not a true Muslim”. According to another version the persecutions continued until his death in 1020, and only ceased during the reign of his successor, A-Zahar.

To summarise, most scholars have determined that there is no basis for the claim that Jews converted en-masse to Islam during the Arabic period, although individual cases of conversion are known. Jews under Islam enjoyed relatively better conditions than under Christianity. The Muslim State did not interfere in its subjects’ religious rituals or legal autonomy. Jews did not live in ghettos and religious persecution was not common.

The fact that during the Crusader period there were still 36 Jewish settlements in the Galilee alone is testimony to the Jews’ devotion to their faith through the Arabic occupation.

The Jews’ situation as protégés was far better than their status under Christian-Byzantine rule and no unbearable situation developed that would force them to convert:
I. The robustness and coherence of the Jewish community organisation prevented Jews moving out of it.
II. Omar’s Laws were not rigidly enforced through most of the Arabic-Muslim period.
III. Taxes under Arab-Muslim rule were not much heavier than during the Christian-Byzantine period.
IV. Most of the time, the Arab rulers avoided converting the local population, preferring the revenues earned by taxing it instead.
V. The rulers allowed the Jews and other non-believers to observe their religious rites almost undisturbed, and upheld their legal autonomy.
VI. During the first few centuries of the Arabic occupation the status of converts was not equal to that of born Muslims, so there was no real motive to convert.
VII. The Arab-Muslim control over the area was never complete, due to the Bedouin raids, inter-Arab conflicts, and fights against the Christian enemy. It is doubtful, therefore, that the rulers could effectively enforce an Islamization policy. The Jews suffered more from Bedouin raids and the deterioration of the security and economic situation than from pressures to convert.


1. Avi Yona, Michael. In Roman and Byzantine Times. 1962.
2. Avi’am, Mordechai. Archaeological survey, in Allenblum, Roni (see below)
3. Almog, Shmuel. The Land to Its Workers and Converting the Falahs to Judaism, in Nation and its History, ed. Shmuel Ettinger, Vol 2, 1989, pp. 165-175
4. Elad, Amikam. The Coastal Cities of the Land of Israel during the Arabic Period, 640 – 1099. Katedra 8, 1978, pp. 156-178.
5. Assaf, Michael. History of the Arab Rule in the Land of Israel. 1935.
6. Ben Gurion, David, & Ben Zvi, Yitzhak. Eretz Israel, Past and Present, 1918
7. Ben Sasson, H.H. History of the People of Israel during the Middle Ages. 1969
8. Braver, A.Y. The Jewish Element among Arabs in Israel, in Molad, vol 214, 1968, pp. 424-427.
9. Broshi, Maggen. The Population of the Land of Israel, in From the Destruction of the Second Temple to the Arabic Conquest, ed. Zvi Barras et al, 1982, pp. 442-457.
10. Bereslavskh, Yossef. Jews of the Land of Israel in War and Defense up to the Crusades. 1942
11. Goytin, Shlomo Dov. Mediterranean Society. Ed. Yaakov Lassner. 2005
12. Gil, Moshe. View of an Era: Status of the Land of Israel under Muslim Rule and during Political Change in the Muslim World, in History of the Land of Israel – Muslim and Crusader Rule, ed. Yehoshua Fraver, 1981, pp. 17-160.
13. Gil, Moshe. Affairs of the Land of Israel during the First Muslim Period, Katedra 70, 1994, pp. 29-58
14. Hirshberg, H.Z. Arabic Conquest and Rule, in History of the Land of Israel, ed. Yoel Rappel, 1989.
15. Sand, S. When and How was the Jewish People Invented? 2008, pp. 176-183
16. Texel, Ittamar. Characteristics of the Rural Settlement in the Land of Israel at the Beginning of the Early Arabic Period. 2005
17. Levtzion, Nehemiah. Settlement of Muslim Nomads and Conquerors as a Factor in the Islamisation Process. 2006
18. Levtzion, Nehemiah. Islam, an Introduction to the Religion’s History. 1998. Vol 1. pp. 195-253, 259-262.
19. Levi-Rubin, Milka. The Role of the Conquest in Shaping the Layout of Settlement in the Land of Israel during the Early Muslim Period, Katedra 121. 2007. pp. 53-78
20. Levi-Rubin, Milka. New Evidence from Samaria. A lecture to students.
21. Pollack, Avraham N. Origins of the Arabs in Israel, in Molad 213, 1967, pp. 297-303; Molad 214, 1968, pp. 427-429.
22. Frankel, Yehoshua. Bedouin Penetration into the Land of Israel during the Fatimid Period, 969-1096, Katedra 11. 1979. pp. 86-108.
23. Zafrir, Yoram. The Arabic Conquest and the Process of Population Impoverishment in the Land of Israel, Katedra 32. 1984. pp. 69-74.
24. Kedar, Binyamin Z. Jewish Population during the Arabic Period, in History of the Land of Israel, ed. Yoel Rappel, 1989.
25. Shamir, Moshe. Process of Destruction and Nomadisation in the Land of Israel under Islamic Rule 633-1517, in Issues in the History of the Land of Israel under Islamic Rule, ed. Moshe Sharon, 1976.
26. Sharon, Moshe. Cities of the Land of Israel under Islamic Rule, Katedra 40. 1986. pp. 83-120.
27. Allenblum, Roni. Frankish Rural Settlements in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.
28. Ashtor , A. Social and Economic History of the Near East in the Middle Ages,1976.
29. Danna, Nissim. The Druz in the Middle East. 2003

Research mentioned in Michael Assaf’s book:
Kremer,A., Kulturgeschichte des Orients, pp.11-115.
Lammens,H, La Syria, pp.7-120.

Chapter One - The Roman Policy: Elimination the Jewish National-Cultural Entity and the Jewish Majority in the Land of Israel

The Roman conquest proved a calamity for the Jewish people. The Romans
destroyed the Jewish independence and canceled its population majority in
Israel. Following the Great Revolt (66 – 70 A.D), and increasingly after the
Bar Cochva revolt (132 – 135 A.D), the Roman policy as dictated from above was
to turn the Jews into a minority in their land, and to eliminate the
rebellious Jewish nationality. For a while, the Romans also tried to force the
Jews to integrate into the Hellenistic culture through religious persecution.


The Jews never accepted the loss of their national independence, or the
settlement of foreigners on their lands, or the religious persecution. They
ignored Rome’s stronger position and rose against its rule again and again,
throughout the Roman occupation:

57 BCE: Rebellion against Gabinius, following his raiding the Temple

54 BCE: Rebellion against Crassus, following his raiding the Temple riches.

66-70 CE (fall of Massada 73CE): The Great Revolt, motivated by the desire
to throw off the bondage of Roman occupation, as well as for religious

115-117 CE: Rebellion against Trayanus, erupted in Israel and other places
in the Empire, following Lucius Quitus’ appointment as Proconsul in Judaea
(having cruelly crushed the Jewish revolt in Messopotamia) and his policies.

132-135 CE: Bar Cochva revolt against the Hellenisation of Provincia Judea.

351 CE: Rebellion against Gallus and his corrupt government.

The causes for rebelling were:

I. Economic hardship

The Roman occupation put an end to the economic prosperity of the
Hashmonaean era. Heavy taxes hurt the farming sector. The Romans also
confiscated lands and built cities for foreigners, or else handed the lands to
retiring Roman soldiers. The Roman proconsuls preferred employing foreigners
in their construction projects because the Jews required Kosher food and would
not work on the Sabbath or the holy days. Jews suffered discrimination in all
areas of life, not just in employment. Following the Great Revolt, the Romans
established a new tax, the “Jews’ tax”, in addition to their regular taxes.

During the 3rd century CE (235-284) Rome underwent a political,
economic, and social crisis which was felt throughout the Empire. The Jewish
population in Provincia Palestinia was severely affected, as farmers collapsed
under the weight of taxes and the Roman soldiers’ profiteering, the local
currency devaluation, the high cost of living, and the loss of soil
productivity due to administrative contortions. Consequently, Jewish farmers
could no longer make a living and were faced with the choice: Rebel or be
forced to leave the country.

Most of the Roman taxes were levied on land owners, and most of the Jews at
that time were farmers. Taxes included:

The Arnona, or property tax: levied on land owners requiring them to
provide the army with food. To ease the strain on the farmers, the Jewish
religious leadership relaxed the law of Shmitta (the seventh year in a
seven-year cycle where the land lies fallow and farmers are forbidden to tend

The Tyronia tax: levied on land owners requiring them to send new recruits
to the army or pay a ransom. Effectively, this became another tax levied on

Hospitality tax: accommodate soldiers, commanders, and top military
personnel, or pay a ransom.

Angria: forced labour, transportation of goods, provision of horses for the
army and other animals for the postal service.

Liturgy: services and provisions for the municipality and the public.

Crown tax: another excuse to collect money from the population.

The Roman government employed military and police units to punish those who
fell behind on their payments. Since most of the Jews in Israel were farmers
or land owners, the taxes and the economic crisis of the 3rd
century brought many to the bread line. Poverty became common.

II. Government corruption

Most of the Roman proconsuls were corrupt and avaricious persons who used
their position for personal gain at the expense of the people.

III. Religious conflict

The Roman emperors and their proconsuls did not understand the nature of
the Jewish religion as a monotheistic religion that combined faith with
national identity. Consequently they repeatedly offended the religious and
nationalistic sensibilities of the Jewish population. The Jews held fast to
their religion to the point of sacrificing their lives. The religious theme of
these rebellions attests to the important place religion played in Jewish
life. The Hashmonaean revolt against Antioch Seleucus (168 BCE), long before
the Roman occupation, was fuelled by religious and nationalistic sentiments,
similar to the rebellions against Rome.

The Roman proconsuls’ desecration of the Temple by entering the
sanctum sanctorum (“holiest of the
holy” section, forbidden to all but the High Priest), pillaging the Temple’s
gold and treasures, and attempts to erect statues of the Emperors offended the
Jewish religious sentiments.

The Emperor Adrian believed that one culture and one religion (the pagan
one) would unify and consolidate the Empire. He wanted to turn Jerusalem into
a pagan city and destroy its Jewish character; circumcision was forbidden as
well as study of the Torah, and the name of Judaea was changed into
Syria-Palastina in an effort to erase its Jewish identity.

Although Christian anti-Jewish legislation took effect as early as 315 CE,
following the Emperor’s embracing of Christianity in 313CE and cessation of
Christians persecution in the Empire, the Jews’ situation worsened when
Constantine made Christianity the Imperial religion in 324 CE.

IV. Favouring of foreigners’ interests (Greek Hellenists, Syrian
Hellenists, and others) over those of the Jews: Government-supported foreign
(non-Jewish) immigration into the Land of Israel took place since the time of
Alexander the Great. But under Roman rule, encouraging foreign settlement on
lands taken from their Jewish owners, thereby reducing the Jews’ means of
living and pushing them off their land became a policy. As part of its
Hellenisation policy Rome encouraged foreigners to settle in the Land of
Israel, including retired army personnel who were given lands that belonged to
Jews. Encouraged by the Roman government, many cities in Israel, including the
coastal cities of Caesaria, Ashkelon, and Gaza, and the cities of Bet Shean,
Tiberias, and Tzipori became Polis cities, i.e., Hellenistic cities governed
by foreigners. There was interminable friction between the foreign and the
Jewish residents of these mixed cities, with the Roman government usually
siding with the foreigners. The foreign residents wanted to get rid of the
Jewish residents and harassment of the Jewish population became common. The
first blood libels against Jews, made up by foreigners, originated in this

V. Jewish vs. Hellenistic cultural struggle: The Hellenistic culture,
prevalent throughout the Roman Empire, aspired to be a universal culture. The
Jewish culture, by contrast, was a fusion of religion and nationalism. The
Jews’ refusal to integrate into the Hellenistic culture generated resentment
towards Judaism throughout the Roman Empire, and among the growing foreign
population in Israel. Up to the time of Adrian, the Roman government
encouraged the establishment of Hellenistic cities for foreigners in Israel.
From the time of Adrian on, the Hellenisation of the Roman Empire, and
Provincia Judaica in particular, became an imperial policy. This policy was
the main cause for the Bar Cochva revolt.

The country’s Hellenisation proceeded by means of transforming Jewish
cities such as Tiberias, Beth Shean, and Tzipori into Hellenistic cities,
which meant eliminating their Jewish character, building Hellenistic temples
and other establishments, and transferring their government to foreigners. The
“straw that broke the camel’s back” was the decision to turn Jerusalem into
Aelia Capitolina.

Following his suppression of the Bar Cochva revolt, Emperor Adrian changed
the province’s name from Judaea to Syria-Palastina, after the coastal strip
Pleshet, named for the Phillistines who migrated from Crete in the 12th
century BCE and established the cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gat, and
Gaza. This name change was meant to erase all trace of the Jewish state and
nation in the Hellenistic world.

Construction and

The Romans indeed developed the country, but most of the construction work
was not in view of Jewish needs, but to provide for the foreign population,
for whom the Romans built cities replete with temples, baths, amphitheatres
and more. For its garrisons the Roman Government laid roads, such as the road
from Kfar Otnai to Tzipori (whose name was changed to Deo-Caesaria). This road
connected the Roman garrison camp in Otnai (whose name was changed to Leggio,
and later became the Arabic A-Lajoun) at the origin of the Keynee stream
(south of today’s Kibbutz Megiddo in the Yizrael Valley), to Tzipori and
Tiberias. Along this road the Romans built a series of forts.

The Decrease in Jewish

To refute what they call the “Diaspora Myth” of the Zionist movement,
post-Zionists claim that the Romans never exiled the populations of the
countries they conquered. The true significance of the Diaspora Myth is much
broader as it includes the nearly two millennia from the destruction of the
Second Temple to the return to Zion in our modern era. In the context of the
Roman period the Myth relates to the exile of some quarter of a million war
prisoners and their selling in the Roman slave markets, and a determined
policy to erase the Jewish character of the land through religious persecution
and economic edicts that forced Jews off their lands and out of their country.

On the eve of the Roman occupation of Israel (63 BCE) the Hashmonaean
kingdom had an estimated population of 3 million, 90% of whom Jews. At the
break-out of the Bar Cochva (132 CE) the Jewish population of Israel numbered
1.3 million, and was less than 50% of the country’s total population. By the
time the revolt was suppressed, between 700,000 and 800,000 Jews were left.
What happened to the Jewish majority in Israel during these less than 200

I. Exiled war prisoners

The Roman economy was based on slave labour, supplied by war prisoners sold
in slave markets throughout the Roman Empire. Between 63 BCE and 135 CE, the
Romans sold into slavery about 250,000 Jews from Israel: The number of slaves
sold by Pompeius after his conquest in 63 BCE is not clear, although it is
known that Jewish war prisoners were paraded in his march of victory. In 54
BCE, Marcus Liquinius Crassus transferred 30,000 Jewish prisoners to Rome
after suppressing a revolt that erupted because of his attempt to rob the
Temple’s riches. According to Josephus Flavius the number of prisoners of war
from the Great Revolt was 97,000, five thousand of whom were given to Emperor
Nero as slaves after the conquest of the area surrounding the Sea of Galilee.
No formal data exists for the number of slaves Adrian transferred to the Roman
markets, but it is known that the price of slaves dropped markedly due to the
large number of Jews sold into slavery. A reasonable estimate places the
number at 100,000. This estimate is based on the following data: Before the
revolt, there were 1.3 Jews in Israel. Between 400,000 (according to a Jewish
source) and 580,000 (according to Dio Cassius, a Roman historian) were killed
and murdered during the revolt, leaving about 700,000-800,000 alive after it
was suppressed. The 100,000-200,000 difference may be the number of Jews who
fled the fightings and those who were sold into slavery.

According to Josephus Flavius, prior to the Great Revolt there were 204
Jewish villages and cities in the Galilee. Prior to the Bar Cochva revolt
there were 63 Jewish villages and cities in the Galilee. What happened to 141
Jewish settlements in 60 years (between 70CE and 130CE)?

After the Bar Cochva revolt, in 135CE 56 Jewish settlements were left
standing. What happened to 7 settlements in 3 years?

Dio Cassius tells us that during the Bar Cochva Revolt, 985 Jewish
settlements in the Land of Israel were demolished by the Roman army. The
Judaea district was emptied of Jews as a result of the killings, murders,
demolitions, and the policy of turning Judaea and its capital Aelia Capitolina
(formerly Jerusalem) into a Jewish-free zone.

II. Casualties

The number of casualties – killed, murdered, or committed suicide – as part
of suppressing the revolts was one of the causes of the decrease in Jewish

The proconsul Florrus killed 3,600 Jews in Jerusalem in 66CE, even before
the outbreak of the Great Revolt. When Castius Gallus conquered Jaffa, his
legionnaires killed 8,400 of the city’s Jews. In Gamla, 5000 jumped off the
cliff to avoid being taken prisoners, while 4,000 were slaughtered by the
Romans. Josephus Flavius tells how the Sea of Galilee turned red from blood
following the Roman conquest of the area. We know that the Romans killed 1,200
of the elderly and the sick. A quarter of the population was killed, i.e.,
250,000 casualties.

During the Bar Cochva revolt casualties numbered between 400,000 (Jewish
source) and 580,000 (Dio Cassius). Beitar was the site of a cruel massacre,
and Jewish sources, in a literary attempt to describe the extent of the
horrors, speak of blood reaching to the knees of the Roman horses.

III. Economic and religious Reasons

In addition to those who were killed or sold into slavery, there were many
Jews who were forced to leave the country because of the religious and
economic policies carried out by the Romans.

Israel’s economic state influenced its status as leader of the Jewish
world. After Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi died, the Presidency began to lose its
influence and the Rabbis (the Wise Men) gained greater status, while the
Jewish centre in Babylon began to grow in strength.

In summary, the Diaspora and the dwindling of Jewish population in the Land
of Israel during the Roman period were a direct result of Roman policies,
which aimed not only to destroy the national independence of the Jews, but to
turn them into a minority in their own land by means of land confiscations,
heavy taxes, foreign settlement, cruel suppression of revolts, and breaking
their national and cultural spirit. Hundreds of thousands were killed,
murdered, and died of hunger and disease, hundreds of thousands of prisoners
of war were sold into slavery, and many fled the religious and economic

Chapter 2: The Failed Efforts of the Christian-Byzantine Rule to Convert the Jews into Christianity

The Christian-Byzantine occupation’s policy towards the Jews (395 – 640 A.D)
included religious and economic decrees, pogroms, destruction of synagogues and
a focused policy on the part of the government and the church to convert the
Jews, along with other local non-Christians, into Christianity.
Israel’s population during the Christian-Byzantine occupation included, according to Avi-Yona in his study “In Roman and Byzantine Times”, between 1.5 and 2 million people (Avi-Yona was a world-renowned archaeologist who based his research on original sources and archaeological research). Another archaeologist, Maggen Broshi, estimated in his study “The Population of the Land of Israel in the Roman-Byzantine Period” that the province’s population was no greater than one million. Based on archaeological studies, Zeev Saffray estimated in his article “Population Size in the Land of Israel in the Roman-Byzantine Period” that it ranged between 2 and 2.5 million.

These divergent estimates for the country’s population are due to the fact
that no population census data is available for that period. Historiography and
literary evidence were the main sources used by researchers in the past, but
through comparative study these have been found to be at times unreliable,
containing inaccuracies and exaggerations. Today, archaeology is considered an
important tool for estimating the population size based on archaeological
surveys and excavations.
Avi-Yona estimated the Jews comprised 10% of the population during this
period and suggested their number was between 150,000 and 200,000. Various
sources, such as the Cairo Genizah, tell of the existence of 43 Jewish
settlements during this period – 12 cities and 31 villages. The villages were
situated mostly in the Galilee, and a few in the Jordan Valley. In the south and
in the Negev, Jews lived in cities. Jews also lived in the cities along the
Mediterranean coast. According to an archaeological survey conducted in the
Galilee by Mordechai Avi’am, reported in Prof. Ronny Ellenblum’s book “Frankish
Rural Settlements in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem”, 58 small, medium, and
large Jewish settlements existed in the Eastern Galilee during this period.
Yossef Braslavi in “This Land” was also of the opinion that a Jewish majority
existed in the mountainous Galilee during this period, which included two
metropolitan centres (Tiberias and Tzipori) and a scattering of rural villages.
In 358 , Provincia Palaestina was divided into two administrative units:
Palaestina Prima, which included the south, the coastal plains, and Samaria; and
Palaestina Secunda, which included the Galilee and the Golan. One of the
purposes of this administrative division was to cut off the Jewish population in
the Galilee from Jewish centres in the rest of the country. A third
administrative unit, Palaestina Tertia, was established, including the Arava and
Mt. Se’ir, along with Petra (previous capital of the Nabataeans) and the former
Provincia Arabia.
Christianity Becomes the Empire’s Official
In 313, Emperor Constantine decreed a new policy of tolerance towards the
Christian faith. This brought an end to the persecution of Christians in the
Roman Empire, and Christianity became an accepted religion in principle and the
preferred religion in practice. The next step in promoting Christianity was the
Emperor’s decree that Christianity be the official religion of the Roman Empire.
In the Nicaea Council in 325, the Emperor decreed One religion and One emperor
for One empire. The Christian Church became an ally of the Imperial court.
Policies towards the Jews, however, changed back and forth: During the reign
of Emperor Julian (“The Heretic”, 360-363), the Emperor’s adversity to
Christianity brought about an improvement in the Jews’ situation, and hopes rose
for the reconstruction of the Temple. Although all the Emperors from 363 on were
Christians, the ups-and-downs in Jewish policies continued. From 395, however,
with the final splitting of the Empire into Byzantium in the east and Rome in
the west, the influence of the Christian Church in the Byzantine Empire grew
gradually stronger and the Jews’ condition worsened accordingly.
The Church promoted the view that God had forsaken the Jewish people and that
the status of “the Chosen People” had been passed on to the Christians; The Jews
were the Chosen People in flesh, whereas the Christians were the Chosen People
in spirit, and therefore the Holy Land belonged to them. The Christian Church
persisted in its efforts to transform the Land of Israel into a Christian land.
It pressured the Imperial rulers to consider the Jews as enemies of the Empire
because they resisted conversion, which would have proven the truth of the
Christian dogma.
The official policy in Provincia Syria-Palaestina through the
Christian-Byzantine period was to encourage the settlement of Christians from
around the Christian world in the Land of Israel, and to convert the local
population, which included pagans (Greeks, Nabataeans, remnants of other ancient
peoples), Samaritans, Jews, and others, into Christianity.
The religious persecution of the Jews was a continuation of the Roman
policies to break the Jewish national and cultural spirit and to destroy their
national unity, while applying economic sanctions to strangle the Jewish
economy, and in addition, convert them to Christianity. The Church was not
averse to pogroms and the destruction of synagogues. For religious and political
reasons, the Christian government also objected to the relations between the
Province’s Jews and the Jewry of Babylon and other diasporas, and made efforts
to cut those ties.
When did the Christians become a majority in
the Country?
Scholars are divided over this issue. Some are of the opinion that the
Christians gained majority some time between the second half of the 4th
century and the first half of the 5th. Most are of the opinion that
some pagans, mostly Hellenistic, objected to conversion and Christians gained
majority only at the end of the 5th century or the beginning of the 6th.
The monk Bar Tzoma who came to the Land of Israel around 400 wrote that pagans
held the majority in the country, the Christians were few, and the Jews and the
Samaritans were in control, persecuting the Christians.
On the eve of the reign of Constantine the Great (306—337) Christians were a
minority in the Land of Israel. During the 3rd century eight
Christian communities were in existence, during the 4th century there
were 18, but in the 5th century there were already 58 Christian
communities. Up to the 4th century there were no Christians in the
Galilee. Christian sources mention only three Christian villages at the
beginning of the 5th century. The Hellenistic cities, however,
including Acre, Aelia Capitolina, Caesarea, Beth Shean, Tzipori, Tiberias,
Soussita, Banias, Bet Gouvrin, Ovdat, Memshit, Samaria, Lod, Emaus, and others,
were gradually losing their Hellenistic character (these cities were given
Hellenistic names when they became Polis during the Roman or Byzantine periods).
The idols and statues were breaking down, the temples, theatres, and
amphitheatres had been neglected, and their place as the centre of city life was
taken by the newly built churches. The common language in the
Hellenistic-Byzantine cities was still Greek and the Hellenistic influence had
not completely disappeared (some believe the spoken language was Aramaic).
According to Prof Ronny Ellenblum’s book, “Frankish Rural Settlements in the
Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem”, the western Galilee, southern Samaria, and Judaea
were the centres of the Greek Orthodox population, and so were the coastal
cities. Up to the 4th century there were no Christians in the
Galilee, but from the 5th century Christian population increased in
places that were sacred to Christianity.
The Christian population was made up of foreign inhabitants of the
Hellenistic cities: Greeks, Syrian-Greeks, and Byzantines, who mixed with other
non-Jewish inhabitants and were joined by Christian pilgrims and Christian
European refugees fleeing the Germanic and Hunnish tribes invading the Roman
Empire. In his article “The Population of the Land of Israel in the Roman
Byzantine Period”, Maggen Broshi estimates that one third of the country’s
population, about 330,000 persons, was urban. This calculation is based on the
population density (30 persons per 1000 square metres) in relation to the total
urban area (12.4 square kilometers). When Christianity became the religion of
the Empire, the cities became Episcopalian (bishopric) seats, and the population
living in and around those cities were their subjects.
The Conversion Efforts and Their Results
Prof Zeev Rubin wrote in his article “The Spread of Christianity in the Land
of Israel”, that following the death of the Emperor Julian (363), Christians
continued to be a minority in a population which included pagans (many along the
coast and in the south), Jews (most living in the Galilee), and Samaritans
(concentrated in the mountainous area of Samaria). According to Prof Moshe David
Har in “The Land and its Settlement: Areas and Population”, the Samaritans used
the population vacuum formed as a result of the destruction of Jewish
settlements after the Bar Cochva revolt and spread into Judaea, the coastal
cities and other areas.
To carry out its mission to convert the local population, the Church used its
influence and pressured the emperors to legislate against the Jews. The policy
was to isolate, humiliate, incite against the Jews and convert them.
The Imperial policy towards the Jews can be divided into three stages:
Stage I: Laws of Constantine the Great
After Christianity was recognized as the Imperial religion, anti-Jewish
legislation dealt with four issues: Conversion to Judaism was forbidden, those
converting to Christianity were given protection, Jews were conscripted for
service in the municipalities, and Jewish pilgrimage to Jerusalem was forbidden.
Rabbi Sharira Gaon speaks of religious persecutions in Israel during the time of
Abayey and Rabba, i.e., at the end of Constantine’s rule.
Stage II: Laws of Constantine II (337—361).

On 13 August 339 a law was passed to ensure complete separation between Jews
and Christians. It contained three sections: Forbidding marriage between Jews
and Christians under penalty of death; Protecting converts; And forbidding the
ownership of non-Jewish slaves. This third section had far reaching economic
consequences, for Jewish workshop owners and farmers were forbidden the use of
slaves in an economy driven by slave labour. In 353 a law was passed that
forbade Christians to convert to Judaism. Constantine II’s religious
persecutions were the cause of the Gallus revolt that broke out in 351.
Stage III: A concerted attack on Jews and
their establishments from the end of the 4th century to 429.

Between 451 and 527 the Jews enjoyed a respite while the Christian world was
in turmoil over dogmas, which brought about a rift in the Church. However, when
Justinian became emperor in 527 the anti-Jewish policy was renewed and continued
by his successors, during the 6th century and the beginning of the 7th.
This legislation was effective throughout the Roman Empire, although the article
explores only its effects in the Land of Israel.
Prof Rubin lists three ways by which the Church, along with the Imperial
rulers, tried to convert the province’s population into Christianity:
Persuasion, coercion by means of pogroms and terror by gangs of Christian
zealots, and governmental coercion by legislation.
By Persuasion
The number of willing converts was relatively greater among the pagan urban
population. Prof Rubin, however, stated that “the tribes of the desert were more
amenable to conversion than Israel’s settled population. The desert tribes were
a source for soldiers the Empire needed to protect its borders. The Roman
military converted them to ensure their loyalty.”
Among the villagers conversion met with much lesser success. Most of the
increase in Christian population came from the large number of pilgrims who
visited the Christian holy sites in Israel and settled in the country, and from
refugees fleeing the Huns following Rome’s conquest in 410. Thousands of monks
engaged in widespread missionary works to convert the local population. Their
main areas of activity included, at first, Jerusalem and its environs, the
Judean desert, the Negev, the area of Jericho, Beth
Shean, and the coastal plain. The missionaries worked mostly among the
nomads, the Nabataeans, the Saracens (Arabs) in the Judean desert, and the
Bedouins in Trans Jordan.
Monks were not active in Samaria, the major areas of Samaritan settlement, or
in the Galilee, the major centre of Jewish settlement. They came from the
Greek-speaking world – Asia Minor and mainly from the centre of the Byzantine
Empire -- as well as other parts of the Roman Empire.
Coercion by zealot gangs
When persuasion failed, the Church turned to coercion. Groups of Christian
zealots formed to spread Christianity by force, backed by the Church. Their
gangs travelled from place to place, rioting, destroying Jewish and Samaritan
synagogues, murdering and forcefully baptising those who could not stand up to
them. In May 363 an earth quake hit the south of Israel and zealot gangs used
the opportunity to destroy the few Jewish settlements left in the area. This
violence met with conflicting responses from the government. An attempt to
prevent these attacks was thwarted by the Church. A monk named Bar Tzoma wrote
in his biography that he organised a gang of 40 monks who destroyed Jewish and
Samaritan synagogues and burned down pagan temples. Bar Tzoma visited Israel
three times, in around 400, in 437/8, and in 438/9. He acted in the regions of
Jerusalem and the Sinai, but did not go up to the Galilee to convert the Jews.
Instead, he organised a skirmish with Galilean Jews who came on pilgrimage to
the Temple Mount during the Feast of Tabernacles (the Empress Theodocia, wife of
Theodosius II, gave the Jews permission to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem). Even
so, Jews in the Galilee still suffered from the Christian gangs.
Prof Rubin concludes that violence did not bring about a significant wave of
conversions either; on the contrary, it created resistance in the population.
Government Coercion – The Imperial
government passed laws to enforce Christian conversion.
Jews suffered constant harassment by the Church, as part of its extreme
anti-Jewish policy. The aim of the Church was to isolate the Jews, to humiliate
them, to break up their central and local organisation, and to convert them. The
Church’s Jewish policy was designed during the Christian conferences of 306 and
341. In total, the Church influenced the passing of 17 anti-Jewish laws during
the Byzantine period.
Anti-Jewish Legislation
The Emperors repeatedly confirmed existing laws while adding new ones. Jews
were forbidden to convert others into their faith, with conversion and the
circumcision of converts becoming a criminal act. Marriage between Jews and
non-Jews was forbidden, and Jews were not allowed to own non-Jewish slaves,
under penalty of death. As mentioned earlier, this had severe economic
consequences because Jewish workshop owners and Jewish farmers were prevented
from employing slaves in an economy based on slave labour. Purim celebrations
were limited in 408 under the pretext that the holiday has elements that scorn
Christianity. Construction of new synagogues and renovations of old ones was
forbidden in 423, and this law was used by the Church to prevent the
reconstruction of old synagogues that had been destroyed or damaged, and to
prevent the handing back of synagogues that had been transformed into churches.
Archaeological evidence, however, shows that these laws were not always
enforced. Emperor Justinian (527-565) confirmed older anti-Jewish legislation
and added new laws. One new law declared Jews were heretics, and thereby removed
them from the protection of the Christian rule and exposed them to random
violence. Justinian forbade the celebration of Passover in years where the
holiday fell before or during Easter, and forced Jews to read the Torah from the
Greek translation (the Septuagint) or the Latin one (the Achilles translation)
in order to prevent their study of the oral commentaries and to force them to
favour the Christian commentaries. These harsher conditions caused the rebellion
of 556 in which the Samaritans, who suffered religious persecution as well,
participated along with the Jews, and which was cruelly suppressed.
Violation of Civil Rights
Jews’ civil rights were violated by legislation which limited these rights.
They were removed from public offices and their participation in urban
municipalities was forbidden, although they were never exempt from the municipal
financial taxes and duties.
Abolition of the Central and Local Jewish
Jewish local organisation was centred in the synagogues, while the central
organisation comprised the Presidency and the Sanhedrin. To destroy the Jewish
local and central organisation it was necessary to undermine the Jewish internal
autonomy, their independent courts of law and the synagogues. Abolition of the
Presidency was meant to bring an end to the central organisation. From 398 Jews
were made subject to Roman law in roman courts, and in 415 the Jewish courts
lost their authority. Mob attacks on the synagogues and demolition of synagogues
were meant to hasten the dissolution of the community autonomy.
For 300 years, the Presidency managed to protect the Jewish population in the
Land of Israel by maintaining more or less good relations with the ruling
authorities. Presidential messengers were sent abroad to collect donations for
the Jewish population in Israel. The Church became interested in the
“Presidential Treasures”. Up until 415, the Presidents enjoyed Imperial
protection, but from that time on the Presidency was the target of a concerted
attack by the Church. Presidents were accused of building new synagogues against
the law, converting slaves against the law, and violating other anti-Jewish
laws. The death without heirs of the last President descending from Hillel in
429, was used as a pretext to end the Presidency. From then on, the Jewish
leadership in the Province was split according to its administrative sections,
and the link between the Jewish population in Palaestina Secunda (the Galilee)
and the Jewish population in the rest of the country (Palaestina Prima) was
thereby severed. The Land of Israel lost its status as leader of the Jewish
nation, connections between the different communities were weakened, and the
donations collected abroad for the use of the Jewish population in Israel were
transferred to the State Treasury.
The Jewish leadership, however, recovered quickly. The attempt to split the
Jewish population failed when Jews throughout the country accepted the
leadership of the sages in Tiberias. Both the local and central organisation
continued to function, albeit informally.
Administrative Measures for Constricting
Jewish Life
Other administrative measures for constricting Jewish life included
distributing the Province’s land among the cities. The urbanization process
which began during the time of the Ptolemy’s and the Seleucids and continued
during the Roman period, was completed during the Byzantine period. Urbanisation
was accompanied by the process of transforming Jewish cities into Polis.
Tzipory, Tiberias, and Beth Shean had become Polis during Roman times; Lod
became Diospolis, Emaus became Niccopolis, Bet Guvrin became Eleutheropolis
during the Byzantine period. Although only about one third of the population
lived in the cities, the country’s population as a whole was divided among the
cities and made subject to their municipal councils in which Jews were forbidden
to hold office. All of the coastal plain became a region annexed to the coastal
cities; Part of Judea had already been annexed to Aelia Capitolina, formerly
Jerusalem; Mt Tabor and its environs, including Nazareth, were separated from
Tzipori’s region and annexed to the Dabouriye region, which had become a Polis
named Helenopolis after Constantine’s mother. Only the rural upper Galilee
remained independent of any urban centre. Annexing the cities’ environs to the
municipal councils hurt the daily life of the Jews, as the urbanisation had a
social and economic impact. For example, tax collection was in the hands of the
city councils, which were governed by Christians and influenced by the heads of
the cities’ churches.
Forced Conversion Decrees
The Emperor Phocas (602-610) decreed that the Jews must convert. In 607 he
sent the proconsul Georgius to Jerusalem and other cities in Israel in order to
baptise the Jews by force. Georgius met with representatives of the Jews and
demanded their conversion. When they refused, he slapped one across his face and
ordered their forced baptism. The motive for this decree was the Persians’
invasion of Syria and the Emperor’s belief that the Jews will not be loyal to
the Byzantine Empire. The Jews pretended to accept Christianity but continued to
practice the Jewish faith in secret.
The Persians conquered Israel in 614 and were welcomed by the Jews who
quickly and openly returned to Judaism. A force of 20,000 Jewish volunteers
aided the Persians against the Byzantine army, but when the Persians were forced
out in 628 the Jews found themselves in a difficult position. A delegation of
Jews from Tiberias, Nazareth, and the Galilee presented itself before the
Emperor Heraclius and offered gifts. The Emperor promised not to punish the Jews
for their support of the Persians and took an oath to remain on their side, but
when he arrived in Jerusalem he came under pressure from the Church. The Church
incited against the Jews, claiming they killed the Christians and destroyed
churches during the Persian conquest. This claim is rejected by Michael Avi
Yona, who points out that the massacre of the Christians in Jerusalem was
carried out by the Persians, who afterwards gave temporary control of the city
to the Jews. The Jews then evicted those Christians who remained. Heraclius
succumbed to the pressures and accepted a legal charge against the Jews for
murdering Christians and destroying churches in Jerusalem and the Galilee. Many
Jews were executed and others fled to the desert, the mountains, and to Egypt,
while others were massacred by a Christian mob. Following the massacre many more
Jews fled the country and the number of Jews in the Land of Israel dwindled to a
negligible minority. In 634, at the start of the Arabic invasion of Israel,
Heraclius’ decree of conversion was made effective throughout the Byzantine
Empire, but according to Avi Yona “it remained on paper only, for within a few
years the Byzantine Emperor had no power to realise his orders”.
The Fate of the Samaritans
The attempt to convert the Samaritans in the mountains of Samaria resulted in
rebellion. The Samaritans rebelled in 484, 529, and 566 against the religious
decrees and the efforts to forcefully convert them to Christianity. These
rebellions were cruelly suppressed, many were killed in the battles or massacred
by the Byzantine Christian army and many more fled. Twenty thousand Samaritans
were killed during the rebellion of 529, 100,000 to 120,000 were massacred
following the rebellion in 566. The Samaritan Museum estimates that of 1,200,000
Samaritans living in the Land of Israel, only some 200,000 survived the
Byzantine persecution. According to an archaeological survey quoted in Prof
Ronny Ellenblum’s book, the number of Samaritan sites dropped by 50%, from 106
to 49, by the end of the Byzantine period.
Failure of the Conversion Efforts
Prof Rubin determined that “the only ones to survive as a significant
religious minority in the Land of Israel by the end of the Byzantine period were
the Jews. This minority group, whose centre was in the Galilee, suffered
government restrictions and sporadic persecutions, and evidence suggest their
response was to rebel”. Most scholars agree only a few Jews converted to
Christianity during the Byzantine period. In his book “In Roman and Byzantine
Times”, Prof Michael Avi Yona wrote that “the policy of persecution carried out
by Justinian and his heirs removed any possibility to bridge the abyss [of hate
between the government and the Jews ever since Christianity became the Empire’s
religion] and the attempts to turn the Jews into true Christians by force were
not successful”. Epiphanes, a Father of the Church, admitted that the efforts to
convert the Jews failed: “There, in Nazareth and Tzipori, one could never build
churches because there is none among them who is pagan or Samaritan or
Christian”. Yarron Dan wrote in his book, “Urban Life in the Land of Israel at
the End of Antiquity”, that “there were few cases of conversion to Christianity.
Most of the time, the Jews remained Jewish, except during the time of Heraclius’
decree of conversion”. According to Avi Yona, at that time the Jews continued to
practice Judaism in secret. Their forced Christianity was short lived, and soon
after the Arabic conquest they returned to Judaism.
There are two Jews famous for converting to Christianity: Joseph of Beth
Shean and Benjamin of Tiberias.
Joseph of Beth Shean, a city whose foreign residents converted to
Christianity, accepted orthodox Christianity during the time of Constantine II .
The Emperor gave him the title of “Comas” (“friend of the Emperor”) and
commissioned him to build churches in Jewish places. He built churches in
Tiberias, Tzipori, Capernaeum and Nazareth only after Christians settled there.
Prof Avi Yona writes in “In Roman and Byzantine Times” that “the messenger Comas
failed in his religious mission”. According to the Jewish sources he was
expelled from the Jewish settlements.
Benjamin was a Jewish businessman from Tiberias and a leader of the Jewish
community. He hosted the Emperor Heraclius and his retinue on the Emperor’s
visit to Tiberias in 629 following the expulsion of the Persians. He was coaxed
to convert by the Emperor, perhaps in return for the Emperor’s promise to not
punish the Jews for their support of the Persians (Shmuel Saffray, “The Jewish
Settlement in the Galilee: 3rd and 4th Centuries”; Avi
Yona; Yarron Dan, “The Land of Israel in the 5th and 6th
Jewish and Christian Settlement in the
The western Galilee gradually became Christian as a result of converting the
pagan inhabitants who were joined by Christians from Europe and the Byzantine
Empire who came on pilgrimage to Christian holy places and decided to settle in
the country. Jewish settlements were concentrated in the eastern Galilee, where
Christians began to settle, mostly in sites held sacred by Christians. The
Byzantines finally built churches in Tiberias and Tzipori, where pagan temples
once stood, although Jews still formed the majority of these cities’ population.
Christians settled also in Kfar Canna, which was sacred to them, but its Jewish
community was still significant. Jews also formed the majority in Nazareth in
570, according to the traveler Antonius of Placantia. He mentions also Jews
living in Acre, and nicknamed Shikmona (near Haifa) “city of the Jews”.
Archaeological excavations in Shikmona uncovered a Byzantine church, evidence of
Christian settlement, but the Christians there were a minority.
The Jewish Population in the Rest of the
Scholars determined the presence of Jewish population in the following places
based on synagogues found there: Jews were living in Hosifa (Ossafiye) on Mt
Carmel, and in the coastal cities of acre, Caesarea, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gaza, and
Yavne. Jews were living also in the Valley of Jezreel, in Beth Shean and its
environs, in Beth Alpha, Rehov (today Ein Hanatziv), on the site of the present
Ma’oz Hayim and in Hammat Gadder. In the south, in Judea and the Negev, Jews
lived in Hulda, Jericho, Na’aran, Ein Geddy, Tzo’ar, Soussia, Hebron, Eshtemo’a
(Samo’a), and also Lod. A large Jewish settlement of the 5th and 6th
centuries was discovered near Kibbutz Lahav.
The scholars Avi Yona and Maggen Broshi are divided over the size of Jewish
population living in the Negev at that time. Avi Yona estimated it between
52,000 and 71,000, while Broshi estimates approximately 24,000.
The Economic Conditions and Economic
The Jewish economic activity was severely harmed by economic restrictions.
Jews were pushed out of commerce, and the prohibition on slave ownership hurt
Jewish land and workshop owners, such as the Jewish textile industry in
Tiberias, Tzipori and Lod. Making a living from farming also became harder, as
harassment by robbers and ruffians and the heavy tax toll, on top of natural
disasters such as drought and locusts, caused many to leave the land.
Not all farmers owned their lands. At the end of the 4th century
the Colontus law was passed, which turned the owners into tenant farmers on
their own land. The confiscation of land by the Emperors created a situation
where some farmers would lease or become tenant farmers on their own land, and
their status was often hereditary. The government also sold confiscated land to
foreigners and the latter leased the land to Jews. A new class of hired
labourers was born. Land confiscation, natural disasters, heavy taxes, and
harassment combined to force Jews off their land into urban centres, or to
emigrate from the country altogether.
Because taxation was based on land and property evaluation, the tax burden
fell mostly on the farmers. They paid a tax that was made up of land rates plus
tax per head (human as well as animal). They were also burdened with Angariya
(payment in labour) which conscripted them to pave roads for the army. City
dwellers had an easier time – they paid the chrysargyron, a tax in gold and
During the 4th century the economy was in crisis, and farmers paid
their taxes in products since the value of the currency was low, but in the 5th
century the province’s economy began to recover, thanks partly to the large
numbers of Christian pilgrims who began touring the Christian holy places and
contributed to the province’s treasury. With the economic recovery and the
increase in currency value, taxes were paid in money. Around 540 the whole
population, including the Jews, was devastated by a break out of an epidemic.
To sum up: The process of decline in Jewish population which began with the
Great Revolt (66-70) and the Bar Cochva revolt (132-135) continued with the
religious persecution (Aaron Oppenheimer, “Rehabilitating the Jewish Population
in the Galilee”), the economic crisis in the 3rd century, the Gallus
rebellion (351), the religious persecution in the Christian Byzantine period,
and the massacre carried out by the Christians in revenge for the destruction of
churches and massacres of Christians (according to Christian sources) or in
revenge for their aid to the Persians in 614-628 (Yarron Dan, ibid.; Avi Yona,
ibid.). There is no data on the number of Jews executed, murdered, or who fled
at the end of the Christian-Byzantine rule in the Land of Israel. It is likely
that their numbers during the Byzantine period, estimated at 150,000 to 200,000,
declined further on the eve of the Arabic invasion in 638.
The attempts to convert the Jews by various means failed, with only a few
individuals converting. Jewish as well as Christian sources indicate that the
Jews held on to their faith and did not lose their hope for the revival of
sovereignty over their land. One of the Jewish reactions to the harassment and
incitement against them was the return to Jewish names in the 5th and
6th centuries.

Chapter No.4:Arabic Penetration and Settlement during the Arabic- Muslim Occupation,640 - 1099 / Dr.Rivka Shpak Lissak

Chapter 4: Arabic Penetration and the Spread of Settlement in the Land of Israel during the Arabic-Muslim Occupation (640 – 1099 CE)

This is the fourth chapter in the series:
“How the Jewish Majority in the Land of Israel was obliterated”:
Chapter 1: The Roman Policy – Obliterating the Jewish Cultural and National Entity
Chapter 2: The Christian-Byzantine Regime – Failure of Efforts to Convert
Chapter 3: The Arabic-Muslim Rule: Acculturation without Islamization


In his article “View of an Era: Status of the Land of Israel under Muslim Rule and during Political Change in the Muslim World”, Prof Moshe Gil states that the term ‘Bedouin’ was used interchangeably during that era with the term ‘Arab’, referring to those called Bedouins, past and present. Yitzhak Hasson notes in his article “The Spread of Arabic Tribes in the Land of Israel during the First Century of the Hajjara,” that some of the tribes were nomadic and some were not.

The Land of Israel is bordered by desert on several sides: The Syrian desert in the north-east, the Trans-Jordan desert east of the Jordan Valley, the Arabian desert, the Sinai desert, and the Negev in the south. Thus, at times when there was no strong central government, the country was exposed to invasions of Bedouin desert tribes who robbed, murdered, and pushed the local population to leave. The Bedouin tribes mostly originated from the Arabian Desert, but some entered the Land of Israel from the north and from Egypt.

Bedouin tribes tried to enter the country as early as the Roman occupation. But during the Roman period (63BCE – 324 CE) and until end of the Byzantine period (324CE – 640CE) their invasiosn were held back thanks to the two border fortification lines: The Limes Arabia along the border with the Syrian desert from Batzra in the Horan to Eylat, in the south, and the Limes Palestina from Moab in the east, through the west side of the Dead Sea, to the Beer Sheva Valley and on to Rafiah.

Yoram Zafrir’s study, “Security Challenges in the Desert Frontier during the Byzantine Period,” showed that the lines of fortifications, the Limes, were regularly manned with soldiers, and were not only a narrow fortification line but included a wide strip of agricultural settlements. Soldiers serving on the Limes received land as payment. The 10th Legion, which was stationed in Jerusalem after the Great Revolt (66CE – 70CE) was relocated at some point to defend the southern Limes. Its relocation south tells of the security situation in the south resulting from the pressure of the Bedouin tribes. Scholars disagree over when the Romans decided to build the Limas. Zafrir postulates that the decision was made at the time of the Emperor Diocletian, or earlier during the reign of the Emperor Aurelian, i.e., end of the 3rd century or early 4th century CE.

The Nitzana Papyri testify that at the end of the 6th century CE a decision was made to reduce the military personnel and maintain the Limes through the help of the ‘Border Guards’. These were some of the nomads themselves who were given the responsibility for securing the borders. Tribes stationed close to the borders were paid to guard them, under condition that they avoid attacking towns or trade-convoys and prevent the tribes living deeper in the desert from entering the country. The Byzantines supported the Kingdom of the Ghassanid (a Bedouin tribe from the Arabian peninsula) in the Syrian desert on the border of the Land of Israel. The Ghassanid Kingdom acted as a buffer against Bedouin invasion of the country. The Ghassanid tribes, who served as Byzantine mercenaries, moved from a nomadic lifestyle to permanent settlement and were converted to Christianity by monks from local monasteries.

According to Zafrir’s study, conditions along the borders destabilized at the beginning of the 7th century as the Byzantine Empire was weakened by its war with the Persians. Once the Byzantines ceased paying, the Ghassanid tribe considered itself no longer obliged to prevent the southern Bedouins from penetrating the country. The tribe's conversion to Christianity had not struck deep roots yet. It is possible that had the tribe continued to be paid to guard the border, the Arabic conquerors would have met stronger opposition.

Yitzhak Hasson determined in his article that it was not only Byzantium’s weakness that caused the border defenses to be abandoned. Up until the beginning of the 7th century the Ghassanid guarded the border well, but then their kingdom began to disintegrate as a result of internal conflicts, in addition to the cessation of Byzantine payments. According to Hasson, however, Ghassanid battalions fought alongside the Byzantines against the Arabs in the Yarmouk battle (636CE), along with men from the Baharaa, Salih, Tanuh, Lakham, Juddam, and Kalb tribes (called ‘Al Arab al Mousta’arba’ in Muslim sources).


During the Byzantine period the majority of the population in the Land of Israel was Christian, Jews and Samaritans were a minority, and Bedouin tribes lived on its desert frontier. The country’s population was comprised mostly of Greek-speaking Christians of Greek origin and Aramaic-speaking Syrian-Aramaeans forced to convert into Christianity during a conversion campaign carried out by the Church in collaboration with the Christian-Byzantine regime. The Jewish minority was concentrated mostly in the Galilee, the Samaritans lived mostly in Northern Samaria, and the Bedouins lived in the south and on the border of the cultivated areas.

Scholars disagree on population numbers during the Christian-Byzantine period. In his lecture “Bedouins in the Land of Israel under Islamic Rule” (given at Sde Bokker), Prof. Moshe Sharon estimated the population at 3.5 - 4 million. But most scholars disagree. Maggen Broshi, in his article “The Population of the Land of Israel,” based his estimate of 1 million on archaeological findings. Michael Avi Yona, in his book “Historical Geography of the Land of Israel,” gave an estimate of 1.5 million to 2 million.

These data do not take into account, on the one hand, the masses of Jews fleeing the country after the religious persecutions and massacres at the end of the Christian-Byzantine period, and, on the other hand, the Greek-Christians leaving the country on the eve of the Arabic conquest.

The Arabic conquerors left unchanged the country’s administrative structure. The country was divided into three districts:

Palestina-Prima: Judea, Samaria, and the coastal plains, with Caesarea as the district capital. The Arabs moved the capital to Ramle after its construction in 711CE.

Palestina-Secunda: The Galilee, the Valleys, and parts of Southern Lebanon, with Beth Shean (Scythopolis) as the district capital. The Arabs moved the capital to Tiberias.

Palestina-Tertia: The Negev, the Arava, with Petra as the district capital.

Each district was administratively and militarily well organized. The importance of Provincia Palestina grew as the status of Christianity rose in the Empire to become its official religion in the 4th century CE.

The districts’ names were changed to Arabic: Palestina-Prima was renamed Jund Falastin, while Palestina-Secunda was renamed Jund al Urdun.

According to Prof. Moshe Gil, the local population was already suffering from raids on farming communities and trade routes carried out by Bedouin tribes from the Arabian Desert, as the Christian-Byzantine rule weakened and the north-eastern borders defense was abandoned by the Ghassanid.

The Arabic conquest exacerbated the situation by its massacres of Jewish communities. The Arabs raided towns and villages as part of the fight against the Byzantines. Archaeological finds indicate that the Muslim conquest harmed Jewish farming – Father Sophrenius tells of wide spread destruction of Jewish agriculture in the Yezreel Valley, the Galilee and the South, and the demolition of synagogues in many Jewish towns.

The conquerors massacred the Christians as well – some 4000 Christians, Jews and Samaritans were massacred in the Gaza area and their villages destroyed.

The massacres of the Jewish and Christian population, the Bedouin raids and plunder and the struggles among Arabic dynasties for control over the land caused many Jews and Christians to flee the country.

The Islamization and acculturation (to Arabic Culture) policies were formulated only at the end of the 7th century or the beginning of the 8th. The Caliph Abd el Malek (685 – 705) gradually replaced the non-Muslim administration and established Arabic instead of Greek as the administrative language. He also instituted Arabic coinage in place of Persian and Byzantine coinage and introduced the Arabic language and culture to replace the Greek Christian culture.

A. The population on the Eve of the Arabic- Muslim Invasion
On the eve of the Arabic conquest Jews formed about 10% to 15% of the population, i.e., 150,000 to 200,000 individuals. The chapter on the Muslim occupation in the book “The North of Israel – the Galilee, the Golan, and the Valleys through the Ages,” ed. Ruth Polleg, explains that at the time of the Umayyad “the spread of Jewish settlement remained unchanged” and the Galilee was populated by Jews and Christians, but no Arabs. Joseph Braslavski, on the other hand, determined in his study, War and Self- Defense of the Jews until the Crusades, p.5, that the security and economic conditions brought about “the disintegration of the ancient Jewish settlement in the country and its slow death”. Benjamin Zeev Kedar disagrees. In his study "Between Arabs and Crusaders," he describes the restoration of the Jewish settlement between Arabic and Crusader times. Michael Avi Yona determined that on the eve of the Arabic conquest “there were 43 Jewish settlements in the country: 31 villages and 12 cities. Most of the villages were located in the Galilee, although there were a few remaining in the Jordan Valley. In the South and in the Negev Jews lived only in cities”. According to Mordecai Avi’am’s archaeological survey ( brought in Allenblum, Ronnie, Frankish Rural Settlements in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem), there were 56 settlements in the Eastern Galilee during the Byzantine period.

During the Arabic occupation some Jews returned to the Land of Israel. Jewish clans that were expelled from the Arab Peninsula by Muhammad settled in Jerusalem, Ramle, Jericho, and Trans-Jordan. Arabic sources estimated their number in the thousands.

B. Penetration Waves during the Arabic-Muslim Occupation (640 – 1099 CE)

There is no data on the number of Arabs who settled in the country.

In his lecture Moshe Sharon described three waves of Bedouin migration from the Arabian desert to the Fertile Crescent area, including Israel (the third wave, during the Ottoman period, is discussed in chapter Seven). These Bedouin invasions into the country brought ruin and destruction on the local population. Their penetration was made possible when the border defense was neglected as well as due to the Arabic-Muslim rulers’ policy of neglect within the country, that allowed the Bedouins to do as they pleased.

Most scholars agree that during the Umayyad period (640 – 750) there was not a significant Bedouin penetration into the Land of Israel. According to Prof Yitzhak Hasson in his article “The Spread of Arabic Tribes in the Land of Israel”, the Umayyad Bedouin policy was set by the Caliph Mou’awiya (640—680): “His policy was to maintain the order of life in the conquered areas under his rule in order to increase the taxes he raised, and his successors did the same”.

In contrast, during the Abbasside and Fatimid periods (750 – 1099), Bedouin penetration into the country increased gradually, although their penetration was not necessarily accompanied by settlement. Hasson determined that “only the fall of the Umayyad dynasty and the move of the center of the Muslim world from Syria to Iraq spurred the nomadization process”. The tribes who were living in the Negev advanced into the inner regions of the country, but maintained their nomad lifestyle there.

Sharon emphasizes that all the Arabic sources determine that for a long time following the Arabic conquest there was “no significant change in the population composition, which remained essentially the same as that known from the Byzantine period”. The Arabic population in the country was negligible. Sharon determined that “Bedouin tribes in large numbers did not penetrate the western region of the Land of Israel before the Fatimid period, the 10th and 11th centuries”. Prof Gil agrees with Sharon that there was no significant change in the population composition. One of his sources is the testimony of Muhammad Ben Abdallah Al Ma’afary from Seville who traveled the country in 1095 and reported that Christians formed the population majority. If, at the end of the Fatimid period, the majority of the country’s population was Christian, then quite likely this was the situation between the 7th and 10th century as well.

The Archaeologist Itamar Texel gave a lecture in 2005 titled “Characteristics of the Rural Populace in the Land of Israel at the Beginning of the Early Muslim Period,” reporting on archaeological surveys he conducted and concluding that “from surveying the types of sites and from the (little and uncertain) information given by these surveys, it seems that during the first few decades following the Muslim conquest, and perhaps even by the end of the 7th century, there was no significant change in the size of the rural population in the Land of Israel. Direct and indirect changes in the area’s economy, on the one hand, and the increasing pressures from the Muslim rule, on the other hand, gradually brought about (particularly during the latter half of the Umayyad period) the weakening of quite a few rural communities and the gradual decline in their size and number. This decline gathered momentum from the 8th century onwards.”

The First Wave, during the Umayyad Period

The Umayyad ruled the Land of Israel from 640 to 750CE. They moved their government center from the Arabian Peninsula to Damascus. The Land of Israel was only one part of their empire and was not their top priority. Throughout the period, the country was a battle field where the Umayyad fought other factions, adversely affecting the local economy. Nevertheless, the population was taxed by the government: at first, all non-Muslims had to pay the same tax, but as time went on this tax was split into the poll tax (Jeziye), land tax (Kharaj) and non-believers tax (Ahal Al Dhimma tax). Revenues from the non-believers tax were an important income source for the rulers.

The first migration wave began in the 7th century with the rise of Islam. The Muslim army emerging from the Arabian Peninsula was comprised of Bedouin warriors who moved along with their families and flocks. Prof Moshe Sharon, however, rejects the theory that the 7th century Arabic conquest was immediately accompanied by massive Arabic settlement in the country. He gives several reasons for the absence of massive Arabic settlement in the Land of Israel prior to the 10th century:

I. Umayyad policies (640-750CE) prevented Bedouins from entering the country.
The ruling Umayyad dynasty’s interest was to maintain the existing administrative and economic systems and to keep the peasant population on the land. Regional governors appointed by the Umayyad took pains to prevent the entry of Bedouins into settled areas. The Christian traveler Arkulfus who traveled the country in 670CE, shortly after the Arabic conquest, described it as densely populated with Christians from Jerusalem to the Galilee. Umayyad rulers signed treaties with the Christian and Jewish populations and promised to secure their lives and property. They kept in place the Christian administrators and Greek continued to be the administrative language until the 8th century, and in some places to the beginning of the 9th century.
II. The conquering army continued on to new conquests
Bedouin warriors did not settle on the land because they continued to advance towards Syria and other destinations. Arabic warriors advanced northwards to the Taurus Mountains, east towards Iran, and south-west towards Egypt and North Africa, and from there to Spain. Michael Assaf also states in his book, History of the Arab Rule in the Land of Israel, that the conquest thrust could not spare forces for settlement. The Arabs’ system was to establish cities in the conquered areas that served as military bases from where warriors emerged to conquer the surrounding areas. Israel is the only country where no such cities were built: Ramle was the only city built by the Arabs, in 711CE, nearly 100 years after the conquest. It was not a military base but an administrative center which replaced Caesarea as the capital of the Byzantine Palestina-Prima district. Sharon emphasizes that Arabs comprised a negligible minority in Ramle’s population. The Arabic geographer Al Ya’akubi wrote that Ramle’s population was mixed, and comprised mostly of Samaritans and Jews.
III. Preference for living in the periphery of settled areas
As the Bedouin warriors at that time were nomads, those who reached Israel were not interested in urban or agrarian life and preferred to live as nomads on the border of the settled region rather than within it. Furthermore, the settled regions were under the protection of the rulers. The Umayyad Caliphs themselves constructed their palaces on the border of the desert – for example, the Hisham palace near Jericho.Prof. Nehemia Levtzion, in book, Islam, an Introduction to the Religion’s History, wrote that the Arabs tended to segregate themselves, maintain their tribal social structure and nomadic life style, and did not settle in the populated region.

Hasson lists additional reasons for warriors avoiding the settled regions:

I. Fear of disease – the epidemic that broke out in the country in 639 resulted in the death of many warriors (some estimate as many as 25,000 died) including Muhammad’s cousin and commanders of the Arab army.
II. Absence of empty space – the Umayyad did not exile the local population. Only the Byzantine aristocracy and military fled the country, and, according to some historians, the Greek-Christian urban upper classes left as well.

Hasson notes one exception: Bedouins settled in Tiberias and Beth Shean. Prof Levtzion writes that Arabs occupied houses in inland cities – Tiberias, Jerusalem and others, that had been deserted by the Greek Christian upper classes who fled because of the Muslim conquest. Assaf writes that the surrender agreements of Beth Shean and Tiberias mention the transfer of 50% of the houses to Arabs.

At the end of the 7th century or the beginning of the 8th, a decision was made to also settle Muslims in the coastal cities of Ashkelon, Acre, Caesarea, and Tyre, to protect the country against Byzantine attacks from the sea. In his article “The Cities of the Land of Israel under Muslim Rule”, Prof Moshe Sharon points out that the Bedouin warriors were fearful of the sea and refused to settle along the coast despite being offered land in return, and therefore Muslim Persians were sent there to settle. Assaf, on the other hand, holds that Arabs did settle in the coastal cities and were given houses deserted by their fleeing Christian Greek owners; but maintained their separation from the rest of the population, settling in their own neighborhoods.

An Arabic 9th century source attests to the composition of the coastal cities population, which included Jews, Samaritans, Persians, Greeks, and a few Arabs.

At a later stage, soldiers released from the Caliph’s Muslim army settled in villages and towns that had been deserted by Christians fleeing ahead of the Arab conquerors, but no numerical data is available.

In summary, Umayyad policies did not emphasize Arabic settlement in the country nor the conversion of its population, but rather acculturation, the introduction of the Arabic language and culture while protecting the local population against Bedouin raids that harmed farming. Islamization policies were hardly enforced with only a few exceptions, as during the time of the Caliph Omar II (717-720). Acculturation (Arabization) advanced faster than Islamization. No significant change in the population composition took place and the population remained mostly Christian, with Jewish and Samaritan minorities.

The Second Wave – Starting in the 9th Century and Increasing during the 10th and 11th Centuries until the Crusaders’ Conquest in 1099.

As mentioned before, Sharon stateted in his study, "The Bedouin and the Land of Israel under Islamic Rule," that although Bedouin penetration began towards the end of the Abbasside period, Bedouin penetration from the South and the East increased during the Fatimid period (942-1071) and the Seljuk period (the Seljuks belonged to the Turcoman tribes of Central Asia. They ruled the country from 1071 until 1089). “From the mid 10th century on, and particularly during the 11th century, we see a steady inflow of Bedouin tribes into the country, from the South and from the North”. This opinion is shared by most scholars.

In 750 CE control of the Land of Israel passed to the Abbasside Dynasty, who ruled until 942CE. The Abbasside chose Baghdad as their capital and its policies regarding the Land of Israel were characterized by neglect. This neglect damaged the economy, most severely the farmers, causing a widespread move off the land. During the Abbasside period the army was comprised of Muslim Persians rather than Arabs, whereas during the 9th century it was comprised of Turcoman tribes. Persians were also in charge of the administration. The Abbasside neglect of the country allowed Bedouin tribes to move in and take over sections of the country, effectively becoming their rulers.

The Abbasside army treated the population cruelly and caused it to rebel in 758, 771, and 800. The rebellion in 800 was led by a Jewish man named Yihye, son of Jeremiah, and was assisted by Umayyad Arabic supporters. The rebellion was harshly suppressed and Yihye was executed. Revolts broke out again in 807, 809-810, and 842, in protest against the Army’s cruelty and the heavy taxes.

The Abbasside rulers’ neglect meant that its local representatives were practically unsupervised in their territories. One of the local governors, Ahmed ben Touloun took over Egypt in 868 and the Land of Israel and Syria in 878. Touloun restored the coastal cities which had been neglected since the Arabic conquest. Touloun’s conquests upset the political situation and the country became a battlefield for the various factions, including the Bedouins. After his murder in 884 things became worse, with control of the land passing from hand to hand for 30 years, until finally the Fatimid took over in 942.

The Fatimid moved their government center to Egypt. In theory, the Land of Israel was under Fatimid rule from 942 to 1099, but in practice it continued to be a battle ground for the Fatimid army fighting against the various elements that took over portions of the country. The government instability allowed the enemies of the Fatimid dynasty, such as the Byzantines and the Carmatians, to raid and conquer various areas. The Byzantines, who had not reconciled themselves to the Arabic conquest of the country, constantly raided the coastal regions. The local population was also involved in these struggles and was divided for and against the Fatimid dynasty. These struggles were motivated by political and religious reasons.

The endless fighting during the 10th and 11th centuries impacted the economic conditions severely. Trade with countries abroad was halted, the roads were unsafe, and consequently farmers’, tradesmen’s, and merchants’ living was hurt. Farmers left the land, the urban centers were dilapidated and their inhabitants impoverished. In his article “Arab Occupation and Rule, 634-1099”, Hayim Zeev Hirshberg describes the economic deterioration: Industry shrank, off-shore markets were lost, and farming collapsed under the heavy tax burden and the general insecurity. All this resulted in increasing emigration from the country. We have no data for the number of Jews who left for economic and security reasons.

On top of all this, three earthquakes that occurred in 1016, 1033, and 1068, accelerated the economic deterioration. The city of Ramle was destroyed in the 1068 earthquake. A severe drought lasted from 1056 to 1063, and again from 1068 to 1074.

The government’s instability and its neglect of border security encouraged the invasions by Bedouin tribes, beginning in the 9th century and throughout the 10th and 11th centuries. Two tribes, Banu Hallal and Banu Suleim, emerged from the Najjad area in the Arab Peninsula and, moving towards the Sinai Peninsula, pushed other tribes and tribe-fragments into the country ahead of them. Banu Hallal and Banu Suleim moved from the Sinai to Egypt in the 10th century and further to North Africa in the 11th century.

One of the tribes displaced by Banu Hallal and Banu Suleim was the Tia tribe – the largest tribe in its time, residing in the center of the Sinai desert. This tribe wandered around the center of Sinai and the Negev, progressing north up to the Ketzi’ot stream. Although the tribe originated from the south of the Arab Peninsula, parts of it settled west of the Euphrates. Some time around 974 the tribe began to move into the Land of Israel from the north, through the Syrian Desert. The tribe spread over the Jordan Valley and Beth Shean Valley, displacing the local population, engaging regularly in robbery throughout the Fatimid period. The leaders of the Tia tribe, Bani Jerah, effectively controlled the country. The Fatimid tried unsuccessfully to halt the Bedouin invasions but their efforts resulted in open rebellion against them. Bani Jerah made Ramle their capital. In 1013 Bedouins took over Egypt and crowned their own Caliph in Cairo. In 1024 they conquered the Land of Israel and ruled it for 5 years. The country constantly changed hands throughout this period.

Bani Jerah and the Tia tribe played a central role in the wars over the country, changing sides as their interests dictated. At times they collaborated with the Fatimid, and at other times with the Byzantines. In his article “Bedouin Invasion of the Land of Israel during the Fatimid Period, 969-1096”, Joshua Frankel distinguishes three stages in the Bani Jerah history in the country:
First Stage: 969-975
Bani Jerah were part of the Carmatian (a Shiite sect) invasion forces in Syria, but were defeated.
Second Stage: 975-1029
The beginning of this period is marked by collaboration with the Fatimid who granted estates to them in the area of Ramle, but later on, exploiting the Fatimid’s decline, Bani Jerah rebelled. In 1013 they took over Egypt, and in 1024 they took over the Land of Israel and ruled it for 5 years.
Third Stage: 1029-1071
The Fatimid succeeded in over powering Bani Jerah and their power in the country declined. Only a few households remained in the country, accepting the rule of the Fatimid, until a new element entered the scene – the Seljuks.

Bani Jerah managed to take over the country because the Fatimid government was weakened by its struggles in Egypt (the Fatimid were a Shi’a minority among the Sunni North African majority) and its fighting in Syria and the Land of Israel against the Carmatians, the Byzantines, Bedouin tribes, and insurgencies of local governors.

As a result of the weakness of the Fatimid, the local population was a prey to robbery, pillage, and murder by Bani Jerah. The Bedouin take-over left in its wake ruin and the destruction of not only the farming sectors but of every other sector of the economy as well. Prof Sharon determined that effectively, Bedouins were the true rulers of the country. Bani Jerah dealt a severe blow to the country's fabric of life. Villages suffered not only of raids, but of the Bedouin custom of grazing their flocks in cultivated fields. Only the coastal cities, protected by the Fatimid navy, escaped the Bedouin treatment. Bani Jerah did not have a long-term view, pillaging merchant convoys instead and destroying commerce, making the roads unsafe so that transporting produce from farms to city became difficult, causing the price of produce and food to sky rocket. A. Eshtor describes in his book, Social and Economic History of the Near East in the Middle Ages, the shrinking of cultivated area and the resulting impact on the declining population in the country in a study of the socio-economic conditions in the Middle East.

Under this Bedouin pressure, farmers moved off the land into the cities, where they were relatively more protected by city walls, or to Judea and Samaria.

Neglecting the security of the population and leaving them in the hands of the Bedouins caused also massive emigration from the country. During the 10th century Jews were compelled by this situation to leave for Babylon and Egypt. In his book, Letters from the Land of Israel, Avraham Ya’ari cites letters from the Cairo Genizah (Jewish Archive) telling of the massacres, rape of women and young boys, destruction, ruin, and the emigration of the Jews. The countryside around Ramle was particularly hurt during the time Bani Jerah ruled the area. One of the letters, from 1024, describes the hardships suffered by the Jews:
The Arabs and the Ishmaelites gathered together and descended as the locust and camped by Ramle . . . They killed all those who stood up to them . . . They hit them and beat them and lashed them many ways . . . Many died and were thrown onto the rubbish heaps and into the pits, in the markets and in the streets, near the buildings and in the entrances . . . The virgins and the children and the young boys were taken to be done with as they pleased and to rape them . . . Whoever were left of the Jews of Ramle fled hungry . . .and most who fled died”.

Jerusalem, too, experienced pogroms and the number of Jews there shrank to 50 (people or families).

Bedouin Penetration into the Land of Israel during the Seljuk Rule (1071-1089)

The Seljuks were Muslim Turcoman tribes originating from Central Asia, who began as mercenaries but ended up overtaking the Arabic Caliphate, including the Land of Israel. The Seljuk dynasty split and one of its descendants took Israel from the Fatimid during the 1070’s. The Fatimid and the Seljuk were rivals not only over control of the area, but also because of their religious differences – the Fatimid were Shi’a while the Seljuk were Sunni.

The Seljuk rebuilt Ramle, which was in ruins, but moved their capital to Jerusalem. Most historians agree those times were hard for non-Muslims. In his book, History of the Jews in the Land of Israel under Muslim Rule, the historian Arye Horesh described the Seljuk period as the “darkest time in our history”. The Seljuk terminated the Jewish center in Jerusalem – the major Yeshiva moved to Tyre and many Jews were forced to leave the city. Jews were still residing in the smaller settlements, especially in the Galilee. However, there are no sources that would help determine their numbers. Because the Seljuk were nomads, wrote Frankel, they competed with the Arab Bedouin tribes over pastures and water sources, but no further information on Seljuk—Bedouin relations is available.

The Fatimid never accepted the Seljuk conquest and tried to remove them. In 1089 the Seljuk Empire was crumbling and the Fatimid retook control of Israel for a short time. The Crusaders did not have to exert great effort to takeover the country in the first Crusade.

C. The Distribution of Arabic Settlements in the Land of Israel and the Population Composition towards the End of the Arabic-Muslim Rule

No data is available for the number of Arabs who settled in the country during the Arabic-Muslim occupation. Hasson determined that “the spread of Arabic tribes and their settlement in the Land of Israel did not interest the early Muslim writers” and therefore “there is no specific, focused information about this subject”. He also stateted that the term ‘Tribe’ referred to an overarching frame that included a group of tribes. Hasson concluded that due to this situation of the historical sources “it is not possible to chart a comprehensive map of the settlement of [Arabic tribes] in the Land of Israel during the 7th century”.

The Juddam Tribe – spread in the area of Eylat, in the Arava, with some spreading in the Jund al Urdun (the Galilee and the Valleys). Scholars, however, struggle to determine the tribe’s region because a considerable number of its members maintained a nomadic lifestyle.

The Lakham Tribe – spread partly around Bethlehem and Mount Hebron. However, according to Prof Gil in his article “Regarding the Settlement Processes of the Arabic Tribes in the First Century of Islam," the tribe did not settle permanently but acquired the right to collect revenue from these regions.

The Kalb Tribe and Bannu El-Ash’ar – Prof Sharon wrote in his article “The Cities of the Land of Israel under Islamic Rule," that the Kalb tribe concentrated in Tiberias and its environs. Joshua Frankel wrote in his article “The Seljuk in the Land of Israel” that the Jerah and Kalb tribes were connected by marriage. Most of the Kalb tribe lived in the area of Damascus and Aleppo.

Prof Gil quotes the Muslim geographer Al Ya’akubi, stating that in the second half of the 9th century most of the tribes in Tiberias belonged to Bannu El Ash’ar, a large tribe originating from the south of the Arab peninsula. However, at the end of the 10th century there was still only one mosque in Tiberias, compared with 5 churches and a synagogue, indicating that Arabs were a minority in Tiberias.

Bedouin Settlement in Northern Samaria

The Muslim geographer Al Ya’akubi reported in 892 that Arabic tribes settled in the city of Nablus alongside its Samaritan residents. The archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, in his "The Land of Ephraim Survey," conducted the surveys in Samaria. He discovered that the number of settled sites in Northern Samaria decreased drastically during the late Byzantine period. Finkelstein discovered a link between the emptying of Northern Samaria of its inhabitants and the almost complete obliteration of the Samaritans by the Byzantine regime. Prof Ronni Ellenblum referred to the subject in his book, Frankish Rural Settlements in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. He agrees with Finkelstein. According to this survey, nomadic Bedouin tribes began filling the vacuum created by the disappearance of the Samaritans. Crusader sources mention nomad Bedouin tribes in Samaria during the Crusader period, i.e., the 12th century. Dr Milka Levi - Rubbin said in a lecture titled “New Evidence – Samaria,” that based on Muslim sources including the geographer Al Ya’akubi, the population in Samaria was comprised of Arabs, Non-Arabs, and Samaritans, with a Muslim majority in the area of Nablus.

Ellenblum refers to a study by Abraham Poliak who investigated the Islamization processed in the region, in his article, L’Arabization de L'Orient Semitique." Poliak concluded that the region became Muslim not as a result of local conversion to Islam but as a result of the gradual transition of Bedouin tribes from a nomad lifestyle to permanent settlement, a process which was concluded during the Crusader period. Of 62 settlements that existed during the Crusader period (1099-1260) and the Mamluk period (1260-1516), 39 did not existed during the Byzantine period and were established after this period. Surveys show that these were newly established settlements that were not built on the ruins of older settlements – no ostraca from the Byzantine period were found in them – and their settlement patterns were different from earlier settlements.

Ellenblum described three stages in the settlement of Bedouin tribes:
In the first stage, the site was deserted by its permanent inhabitants.
In the second stage nomad tribes invaded the area while maintaining a nomadic lifestyle.
In the third stage, the nomads had undergone a process of transition to permanent settlement. Such a transition had already begun in the early Arabic-Muslim period. Historical sources tell of the process of Islamization in the region from the early Arabic-Muslim period up until the beginning of the 12th century. The Muslim inhabitants of Northern Samaria were not converts but Muslims who had settled in the area.

Southern Samaria

In Southern Samaria the Christian-Byzantine settlements had not changed during the Arabic period.

The Ramle district

The Tia Tribe and its leaders the Banni Jerah – Between 975 and 1029 (during the Fatimid period) members of the Tia tribe were given land around Ramle. A few Banni Jerah households remained in the area after the Fatimid managed to defeat the Tia tribe and its Banni Jerah leaders in a series of confrontations between 1029 and 1071.

Prof Gil concluded that “the tribes maintained their lifestyle and were not attracted to farming”. They were military men whose income was derived from taxes on the farmed areas. “Most of the land remained in the hands of its inhabitants who were taxed. During the occupation this population was comprised of Christians and Jews”. According to Prof Gil this was the situation on the eve of the Crusader conquest.

Arabic Settlement in the Cities of the Land of Israel

A number of articles deal with the question of whether, and to what extent, Arabs settled in the coastal cities, and agree that the coastal cities’ population was mixed and did not have an Arabic majority (cf. El’ad Amikam, “Coastal Cities of the Land of Israel”; Milka Levi Rubin, “The Role of the Conquest in Shaping the Layout of Settlement in the Land of Israel during the Early Muslim Period”).

In his article “Cities of the Land of Israel under Islamic Rule” Prof Moshe Sharon discusses Arabic settlement in the country’s cities, on the coast as well as inland.

Coastal Cities
On the eve of the Arabic conquest, Acre, Dor, Caesarea, Arssouf, Jaffa, Yavne, Ashkelon, Gaza, Mimas (Gaza Harbour) and Raffiah had mixed populations comprised of a Christian majority, Jews, and Samaritans. Since the coastal cities came regularly under attack by the Byzantine navy trying to regain control, the Arab rulers had an interest in settling Arab warriors, who were Bedouins, in those cities. To gain their cooperation, they were offered land around the cities and houses that were deserted by their Christian owners who had fled on the approach of the Arab conquerors. The Bedouin warriors, however, were usually not interested in urban settlement as they preferred holding on to their nomadic lifestyle, encamping in the periphery. The Bedouins were particularly reluctant to settle near the sea, and so the Umayyad rulers settled Persians- Muslims in the coastal cities.

The Abbasside regime neglected the coastal cities.

The Fatimid rulers showed greater interest in the coastal cities following the growth of maritime trade in the Mediterranean and the forging of trade relations between Byzantium, the trading cities in Italy, and Egypt. It seems the Byzantines had not given up their ambition to regain control over the coastal cities of the Land of Israel. The Fatimid were interested in building a naval force and establishing their rule over the Southern and Eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and therefore encouraged the settlement of Arabic civilians and warriors in the coastal cities. According to an Arabic source from the 9th century, however, the coastal cities were still populated by Christians, Samaritans, and Jews, with only a small Arabic minority.

The Seljuks, who took over the country for a short time, were nomad warriors who failed to conquer the coastal cities which remained in Fatimid hands until their conquest by the Crusaders.

Cities Inland

The Arabic rulers had an interest in the cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem, Lydda, Tiberias, Saffed, and, of course, Ramle (which they established at the beginning of the 8th century and made the capital of the Palestine Jund in place of Caesarea). The cities were governed by representatives of the central government rather than by a body elected or appointed by local residents.

Different cities interested the Arabic rulers for different reasons.

Jerusalem – The Umayyad worked to transform Jerusalem from a city with a Christian majority and character, to a Muslim replacement for Mecca. For this purpose they built the Dome of the Rock on the ruins of the Jewish Temple and supported the development of traditions that would tie Jerusalem to Islam, such as the tradition of Muhammad’s nocturnal visit to Jerusalem. The Umayyad encouraged Arabic and Muslim settlement in Jerusalem for the same reason, but according to the Arabic historian Al Mukdassi, writing at the end of the 10th century, they were not very successful in that, while the number of Jews settling in Jerusalem grew. Abbasside and Fatimid rulers continued the efforts to transform Jerusalem into a Muslim city. At first, the Arabs referred to Jerusalem by its Roman name, Aelia, but later on they named it Beit Almukdas. The name Al Kuds became common at a later date.

Hebron – Hebron, too, was actively transformed into a Muslim holy city, although its holy status had, from the start, a popular ‘folk’ character. Thus, traditions concerning Abraham were developed and the city was named Al Halili, meaning ‘the friend’, and the Cave of Machpela (traditional burial site of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their wives) was incorporated into Islamic traditions. An effort was made to attract Muslim settlers to Hebron. According to Sosumenus, in the 5th century Hebron and its environs were settled mostly by Jews, and according to letters from the Cairo Genizah, there was a well ordered Jewish community in Hebron during the 10th century.

Ramle – Due to its location near major trade routes, the Capital of the Palestine district was an important commercial and administrative center. Its population, however, included a large Jewish community (supporting three synagogues) as well as Christians and Samaritans.

Tiberias – The Arabs moved the capital of Al Urdun district from Beth Shean to Tiberias. Tiberias had surrendered to the Arabs and signed a defense treaty, but the Arabs changed their policy towards the city, claiming it had broken the agreement. They built a mosque on a confiscated area in the city’s center. Winter tourism was developed in Hammat, and in Sanbara, near Tiberias, the Umayyad built a hotel. Tiberias’ location near trade routes and on the shore of the Sea of Galilee made it an important commercial city. According to Arabic historians the Arabic conquerors demanded half of Tiberias’ (and other cities’) area (cf. Hayim Zeev Hirshberg, “Arabic Conquest and Rule, 634-1099”). Walls were built around the city, according to a Persian traveler who visited Tiberias in 1047.

The largest community in Tiberias, throughout the Arabic period, was the Jewish community. Tiberias maintained its status as the main Jewish center in the Galilee until the end of the 10th century or early 11th century. The Christian community was the next largest based on the fact that there were five churches in Tiberias. The single mosque in Tiberias indicates that the Muslim community was quite small (cf. “The North of Israel – the Galilee, the Golan, and the Valleys through the Ages”, ed. Ruth Polleg). During the 8th and 9th centuries Tiberias was a prosperous city.

Beth Shean – Beth Shean was the Capital of the Palestina Secunda district during the Roman-Byzantine period. The Arabs moved the capital to Tiberias. Beth Shean was a mixed city, populated by Christians, Jews, and Samaritans who were joined by Arabic tribes. The city was a prosperous trade center until its destruction in the earth quake of 749. It was later rebuilt and given its Arabic name, Bissan. Scholars are divided over its fate during the Arabic period – some believe it was a small and insignificant town, while others hold it regained its status as an important trading center.

Jericho – the Umayyad developed Jericho and established a textile industry in it. The indigo textile dye was extracted from plants grown in Jericho and was marketed throughout the country. Farming in the area was also developed and the Umayyad built a palace near the city. The Abbasside, however, neglected Jericho and it shrank back into a small village.

Mt Negev and the Arava

Several archaeological surveys were conducted in recent years in Mt Negev and the Arava (cf. Gideon Avni, “Islamic Penetration into the Border Regions of the Land of Israel – An Archaeological View from the Negev”). In this article, Avni reports the changes in scholars’ approach to this region. Contrary to theories developed by 19th century historians (and popular up until the 1970’s) which identified a clear, distinct transition from the Byzantine period to the Arabic period (evident in a transition from Christianity to Islam), modern historians hold that Arabic penetration into the country was a long and gradual process, with Islam entering the Negev only from the first half of the 8th century. This new theory is based on the Archaeological finds in the Negev and the Arava, a growing debate over the credibility of Arabic sources, and the search for non-Arabic sources.

According to Avni, excavations in the sites of Shivta, Nitzana, and Rehovot indicate they were inhabited continuously from the Byzantine period to the Arabic one, and their population began decreasing during the 9th and 10th centuries. From the 7th century to the 9th century Mt Negev and the Arava were densely populated. Archaeological surveys show that the appearance of mosques alongside churches in the permanent settlements, and “open” mosques in the nomads’ areas, did not take place in the 7th – 8th centuries but in the 9th – 10th centuries.

In summary, on the eve of the Crusader conquest in 1099, the Arabs concentrated in two main areas: Mt Negev and the Arava, and Northern Samaria, with enclaves in the areas of Tiberias, Ramle, and Mt Hebron. In the coastal and inland cities the Arabs were a minority and the population was mixed.


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