Chapter 6:The Population of the Land of Israel under Crusader Rule(1099 - 1260/90 )/Dr.Rivka Shpak Lissak

Part No. Three

The Jewish Population


Researchers specializing in the Roman and Byzantine periods have determined that as a result of Roman and Byzantine policies, the Jewish population in the Land of Israel declined dramatically. During the Hasmonaean period, between 3-million and 4-million people lived in the country and 75 % of them were Jews (David Moshe Har, The Country’s Appearance and Settlement: Regions and Populations, p. 109). Under the Byzantine Christian rule the Jewish population numbered only 150,000 – 200,000, and consisted 10% of the total population. This means that between the year 63 BCE and the 6th century CE, the Jewish population decreased by 2.5 million (Michael Avi-Yona, “During Roman and Byzantine Times”, p. 25. See Chapter 1).

On the eve of the Arabic conquest, the Byzantines massacred the Jewish population in revenge of their assistance to the Persians, who occupied the Land of Israel between 618CE and 628CE. In addition to the massacre, trials were brought against Jews accusing them of destroying churches and murdering Christians during the Persian rule. Many Jews, therefore, fled abroad. No data exists on the number of Jews who were massacred, executed, or who fled, but it is reasonable to estimate their population at the time of the Arabic conquest at less than 150,000 (Michael Avi-Yona, “During Roman and Byzantine Times”, pp. 221-240).

Prof.Zeev Rubin, in his study The Spread of Christianity in the Land of Israel (Zvi Barras et al., Eds., The Land of Israel from the Destruction of the Second Temple to the Muslim Conquest, vol. I, 1982, pp. 251-336), examines the conversion efforts during the Byzantine period and concludes that despite coercion, destruction of synagogues, and massacres, Jews did not convert to Christianity in their masses, and only a few individuals did. Thus, at the time of the Muslim conquest there were Jews living in the country, but their numbers were significantly lower. Dr. Schein agrees that the number of Jews decreased on the eve of the Arabic- Muslim conquest.

During the Arabic-Muslim occupation, the number of Jews continued to decline because of the economic and security conditions. The Seljuk conquest in 1070 caused a further decline in the urban communities and particularly in Ramle and Jerusalem. The Yeshiva “Geon Yaakov” moved to Tyre and from there to Damascus. In the Galilee, however, about 30 Jewish rural settlements from the Second Temple period, still survived.

Under Crusaders Occupation

During the Crusader period, the urban Jewish population suffered again, and according to Prof. Prawer, Jews were massacred along with the Muslims. Once the Crusader rule stabilized, however, Jews began returning to the country in the 12th and 13th centuries, bringing about a certain increase in the Jewish population (exact numbers are unknown).

As a result of Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel, “the Jewish community was rehabilitated during the 12th century, and particularly during the 13th” (Prawer, History of the Jews in the Crusader Kingdom, p. 13). These immigrants included Jews from North Africa (the Maghreb), Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Spain, France, Italy, and Germany. Immigration from Europe was made possible when the maritime connection with the Land of Israel was renewed, and was motivated in part by persecution in the countries of origin, although religious-messianic factors played a part as well.

The first wave of immigration began at the end of the 12th century and was described by Yehuda El Harizi, who noted that the immigrants’ countries of origin were North Africa, Egypt, France, and possibly Yemen. The second wave began in 1204 and continued throughout the 13th century. One of its prominent figures was Rabbi Yehiel of Paris who immigrated 1259 with 300 of his students (some say he died en route and his son was the one who arrived with the students). Another figure was Rabbi Meir of Rotenberg, who arrived with a group of Jews who fled the Emperor’s decrees in 1286. Ramban, Rabbi Moshe Ben Nahman, immigrated to Israel after escaping from Spain where he was sentenced to jail following the Barcelona Debate with Pablo de Christiani (a Jew who converted to Christianity).

Two other prominent figures are known, from the Jewish community in Spain. The family of the Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, whose writings have become invaluable assets of the Jewish culture) was forced to flee Spain, arriving in Egypt in 1168 after a short stay in Israel. The poet Rabbi Yehuda Ha Levi left Spain in 1140. A long standing debate over whether he reached the Land of Israel or died in Egypt seems to be settled with the recent discovery of a document from the Cairo Genizah, which confirms that he reached the Land of Israel and died there. Tradition holds that he was run over by a mounted horseman while praying at the Western Wall.

In theory, the Jews’ status was the same as other non-Franks. Scholars are divided over whether the new Crusader rulers renewed the anti-Jewish Roman and Byzantine legislation. Dr. Sylvia Schein believes they did (p. 336), while Prof. Prawer is of the opinion that the anti-Jewish decisions of the 3rd and 4th Lateran Councils were not enforced in the Crusader Kingdom. There were no discriminating dress laws, Jews were not required to wear the yellow patch, and they were free to worship according to their rules, although they suffered from hostility (Prawer, History of the Jews in the Crusader Kingdom, pp. 119-122). The Jewish court of justice was allowed to judge Jews on matters concerning Jews alone.

Change in the composition of the Jewish community

Up to the first Crusade (1099), the Jewish population in the Land of Israel had continuous genealogical links to the Jews of the Second Temple period. From the 12th and 13th centuries, waves of Jewish immigration from Western Europe (France, Germany, Italy, and Spain), North Africa, the Middle East, and Byzantium, changed the composition of the urban Jewish population. Until the 11th century, Jews immigrating to the country came from the East, but, in a process that began in the 12th century and gained momentum in the 13th century, the number of European Jews outweighed that of Jews from the East. Where, in the past, immigrants coming from east of the Land of Israel influenced the character of the Jewish community, during the Crusader period the European immigrants’ influence became greater. This is apparent in the Jewish sources of the period, which before were written in Arabic (using Hebrew letters) and, following the European immigration, were written in Hebrew, the language common to all the Jewish communities.

The Community Organization

The Jews in the Land of Israel continued to be part of organized communities, although the leadership, the Yeshiva of the Land of Israel, moved to Tyre and from there to Damascus, leaving the Jews without spiritual leadership. In the 13th century, following the immigration from Europe, Acre became the Jewish spiritual centre in the Land of Israel.

The Easter Galilee

Unlike other regions in the country where the Crusaders massacred the Jews, the Galilee did not resist their conquest and therefore the Jewish population was spared. Jewish and Latin sources tell that during the 12th and 13th centuries the population in the eastern Galilee continued to fear for life and property because of Bedouin raids and robberies by Muslim highwaymen supported by Damascus. The Crusader army struggled to cope with the constant threat of the Bedouins.

The Galilee was also the arena for struggles between the Crusaders and the Muslims. To deal with this situation, the Crusaders fortified Tiberias, built fortresses in Safed and in Kassar-Hounin (today’s Margaliyot) and another fortress, the Montfort, near Maalot (Arye Graboys, The Galilee at the Time of the Crusades). Safed, and the whole Galilee, changed hands several times in the struggle between the Muslims and the Crusaders for control over the country, particularly after Saladin took over Syria and Egypt and began his efforts to conquer the Land of Israel. After the Battle of Hattin in July 1187, the Galilee was in Saladin’s hands, but in 1192 the western Galilee was retaken by the Crusaders. Their efforts to regain control in the eastern Galilee failed. The fortress in Safed was destroyed in 1219, and in 1239 a treaty signed with the Muslims gave the eastern Galilee back to the Crusaders. A Latin source, dated to the mid-13th century, states that the fortress in Safed was rebuilt in 1240 and was given to the Knights of the Templar Order. The treaty and the reconstructed fortress brought about a temporary improvement in security, until the battle near Eyn Harod in 1261 and the Mamluk conquest. The Druze began settling in the central Galilee and the Golan in the 13th century.

Despite all this, the eastern Galilee continued to be the main region of Jewish settlement, with a few Christian enclaves that existed in sites holy to Christianity since Byzantine times, and Muslim enclaves created by Bedouins and Druze who settled in sites that had been destroyed or deserted. The Frankish Christians did not settle in the eastern Galilee and preferred the western Galilee that was populated by Christians. The eastern Galilee was included in the Galilee Principality, whose lands were distributed among the Crusader nobility.

The number of Jewish settlements in the Galilee decreased from 204 in 66CE to 46 in 135CE (after Bar Kokhba’s revolt was crushed). Following Bar Kokhba’s revolt Jewish refugees from Judea arrived in the Galilee and settled in existing and deserted towns and villages. Synagogue buildings from the 3rd century CE show the gradual recovery of the Jewish population in the Galilee.

Based on Mordekhai Aviam’s archaeological surveys in the Galilee, Ellenblum determined that during the 5th and 6th centuries, under Byzantine occupation, the eastern Galilee was Jewish while the western Galilee was Eastern Orthodox Christian. The Jewish population lived in 58 settlements, 32 (or 54%) of which were large settlements on more than 2.5 acres, 21 (or 36%) were medium in size (1.5 – 2.5 acres), 2 settlements (or 4%) had up to 1.5 acres, and 3 settlements (or 5%) were of unknown size. Since according to the Jewish sources only 46 settlements survived the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135CE, we may conclude that over time the number of settlements increased by 12. The number of settlements that survived the Byzantine massacre of the Jewish population on the eve of the Muslim conquest is unknown, although we know of settlements that were destroyed or deserted.

Prof. Ellenblum found that it is possible to distinguish between settlements continuously populated with the same cultural group, and those settled by a new population of a different culture. Thus it is possible to tell which settlements remained Jewish and which were deserted and then settled by Bedouins and Druze. Demographic and cultural differences are notable also between the eastern Galilee, which was mostly Jewish, and the western Galilee which was mostly Eastern Christian.

Prof. Ellenblum determined that the fact that the number of large and medium settlements in the eastern Galilee (altogether 90%) was higher than those in the western Galilee (17% large and 49% medium, totaling 66%) was the result of differences in the style of settlement between Jews and Christians. The western Galilee had isolated farms, isolated estates, and monasteries which were mostly small agrarian units, whereas the eastern Galilee had community settlements.

Ellenblum believes that these differences had cultural and historical origins, and were structured as a result of the two populations’ different values, community relationships, and manners of worship. Jews could not live far from their community because they had to be within walking distance of their synagogue in order to observe the ban on traveling on the Sabbath. They also needed a minimum of 10 men for prayer (minyan), ritual baths, Kosher food, Jewish burial etc., and such religious services were possible only in a large settlement. The Jewish population had fewer means than the Christians, whose monasteries received support from the Church, and whose farm-owners and estate-owners were wealthy and well connected to the Christian-Byzantine government. Larger settlements allowed the distribution of the costs of irrigation systems, terraces (for farming hilly areas), flour mills, etc. over a larger number of Jewish residents, making them affordable to more people.

The Cairo Genizah (a collection of Jewish mediaeval documents and letters from the Land of Israel and the Diaspora) contains documents from the 10th and 11th centuries which mention settlements from the eastern Galilee: Biriya, Gush Halav, Dalton, Dan Fortress, Tiberias, Kfar Hananya, Kfar Mandi, Akhbara, Tzipori, and Safed, and Acre (in the western Galilee), populated by Jews. Most were Jewish settlements while a few had a mixed population. This list is necessarily incomplete, as it was extracted from letters. Jewish settlements are mentioned also in travelers’ writings, but they too may not have visited all the existing settlements of that time.

Other 13th century sources, including the Cairo Genizah and archaeological surveys, tell of the existence of the villages and towns of El Alawiya, Biriya, Biram, Gush Halav, Dalton, Kfar Hakook, Kfar Kanna, Kfar Hananya, Kfar Navrata, Kfar Amika, Kfar Tanhoum, Meyron, Eyn Zeitim, Alma, Peki’in, and Keissama. According to Arye Graboys in The Galilee during the Crusader Period, Jewish settlements included also Iyo, Poron, and Casal Robert (near Kfar Kanna). Jews lived also in Kfar Yassif, Iblin, Acre, Shaab, and Shefaram. This incomplete list includes 25 settlements.

From Byzantine times to the Crusader period, the number of Jewish settlements declined from 58 to 35. According to Ellenblum, the cause for the decline in number of settlements and population was the demographic crisis in the eastern Galilee at the beginning of the Arab-Muslim period. The eastern Galilee went through a process of partial nomadization and invasion by Bedouin tribes who pushed the Jewish population out of its settlements and then settled on these deserted sites themselves. The Jews, who were not protected by the Muslim rulers, were forced to leave. Graboys also notes that Arabs from the conquering army settled in the Galilee. Muslims from Syria, Iraq, and Iran were settled in the Galilee by the Umayyad rulers (634-750). Prof Moshe Sharon, however, argues in his article The Bedouins and the Land of Israel under Islamic Rule, that during the Umayyad rule (at the beginning of the Muslim occupation) Arabic settlement in the country was insignificantly small. It is known that Bedouins who had settled in the Galilee, left during the Crusader occupation.

During the Crusader period, 18 of the 32 large towns and villages, and 17 of the 21 medium ones in the eastern Galilee, remained (there had been no small settlements). The nomadization process ceased only after the construction of the Templar fortress in Safed. According to a Latin source, this fortress restored order and security to the area and promoted the transition of Bedouins to permanent settlement. The new settlements, which were usually established on the ruins of deserted ones, attracted immigrants from the region. The population of the eastern Galilee gradually became mixed – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. These ethno-religious groups usually resided in separate settlements, and in settlements where the population was mixed, they lived in separate neighborhoods.

A report by Jewish travelers gives some information on the number of Jews living in settlements in the Galilee. Benjamin of Tudela, who toured the country in 1170, tells in his book “Benjamin’s Travels” about 14 Jewish settlements across the country, most of them in the Galilee. He estimated the number of Jews in the entire country at no more than 1300. Rabbi Shimeon son of Rabbi Shimshon from France, who toured the country in 1210, tells of 200 Jews in Acre, 50 in Tiberias and Kfar Alma, and 80 in Biram, Safed, Kfar Amikta, and Navrata. He met 20 Jews each in Meyron, Keissama, and Gush Halav.

Tiberias and Safed were the two urban centres in the Galilee: Tiberias became capital of the Crusader Galilee Principality but often changed hands between the Crusaders and Saladin. Benjamin of Tudela met 50 Jews in Tiberias. In the 13th century Tiberias became famous for its baths and scholars. Towards the end of the 13th century Tiberias lost its status to Safed, but Jews continued to live in it.

A small community in the 11th and 12th centuries, Safed took over from Tiberias at the end of the 13th century. Safed too suffered from the changes in government and in 1219 was demolished by the Ayoubs. Just prior to this, in 1216/18 it was visited by Yehuda El Harizi who tells of a Yeshiva there. After conquering Safed in 1240/43, the Crusaders built a fortress in it.

In their books, travelers spoke of Jews and quoted demographic data, but the question remains whether they quoted the number of men only or the entire Jewish population in a given place. Some travelers spoke of families. If the population of a given place was 80 families rather than 80 Jews, then this would be a large village with some 400 people, which would fit better with the archaeological findings that show that most of the Jewish settlements were large for their time.

In summary, Ellenblum proposes that the Islamization of the Galilee was the result of Bedouin and Muslim migrants’ settlement rather than the conversion of the Jewish population, although it is not impossible that individual conversions took place. Archaeological finds show that 23 of the 58 Jewish settlements of the Byzantine period were deserted under Bedouin pressure, probably during the Arab-Muslim occupation, but 35 survived to the Crusaders occupation.

Jews in Urban Centers

Rumours of pogroms the Crusaders carried out on their way to the Levant in the Jewish population of Germany and France, evoked deep concerns in the urban Jewish population in the Land of Israel. During the Crusader conquest Jews fled from certain cities while others were massacred or taken prisoners. Later on, as the situation stabilized and the trade links with Europe (which had been severed during the Muslim occupation) were renewed, Jews began to immigrate from the Middle East, Byzantium, Germany, France, and Spain, and Jewish settlement in the cities was renewed.

The Jews of Jaffa and Ramle fled with the Muslims ahead of the Crusaders.

The Jews of Jerusalem collaborated with the Muslims in defending the city against the Crusaders, and paid a high price for that. When the resistance was broken, the Crusaders set fire to a synagogue in which the Jews from one of the two Jewish neighborhoods were sheltering, burning them alive. Many other Jews, hiding in the Temple Mount along with the Muslims, were massacred while a few were taken prisoners. These Jewish prisoners were redeemed by Jewish communities in Ashkelon, Egypt, and Italy. Most of the Jews redeemed by the community in Ashkelon were sent to Egypt, a few dying on the way. Those who remained in Ashkelon lived in poverty. A few of the prisoners were held to ransom for too high a price, and converted to Christianity to be freed from slavery. The Crusaders banned Jewish settlement in Jerusalem and settled Eastern Orthodox Christians from the Trans-Jordan in the former Jewish neighborhoods.

When Saladin conquered Jerusalem, he invited Jews back and the Jewish community in Jerusalem was renewed. They were joined by Jews from Ashkelon, North Africa, France, and England, creating three communities in Jerusalem between 1191 and 1211: An Ashkeloni community, a Mughrabi (from the Maghreb, North Africa) community, and an Ashkenazi community (from France and England). Jerusalem changed hands again several times and the Jews were allowed to settle in it and banned from it repeatedly.

Ramban (Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman from Spain) visited Jerusalem in 1267 and found there about 300 Eastern Christians. At the end of the 13th century the Jewish community in Jerusalem was renewed.

The Jews of Haifa collaborated with the Muslims in defending the city. Many died in the massacres following the city’s conquest in 1101. Those who survived were taken prisoners and were redeemed by the Jewish communities in Syria. Haifa remained without any Jews.

As mentioned above, the Jews of Jaffa fled ahead of the Crusaders. Benjamin of Tudela met one Jewish man there in 1174.

In Caesarea, Benjamin of Tudela met some 200 Jews and some 200 Samaritans.

There were no Jews living in Arsouf at the time of the Crusader conquest (based on population lists in Meron Benvenisti’s book, The Crusaders in the Holy Land, p. 27).

The Jewish population in Acre grew in the 13th century following the immigration of Rabbi Yehiel of Paris (or his son Jacob, according to Dr. Shine who holds that the Rabbi died en route to the Land of Israel) and his students. The Jewish population of Acre in the 13th century was mixed, including Jews who had immigrated from France, Germany, England, Venice, Crete, various places in Israel, from the East, and especially from Egypt. Ramban also settled there and so did, temporarily, Rabbi David (grandson of Rambam). Acre became the spiritual centre for the Jews of the Land of Israel.

Despite Ashkelon’s surrender in 1153, its population was robbed and massacred. The continuity of Jewish presence in the city was not broken despite the fact that many chose to leave for Egypt. In 1174, Benjamin of Tudela found in Ashkelon 200 Jews, 300 Samaritans, and 40 Karaites out of a population of 10,000, mostly Franks and Eastern Christians.

A small Jewish population remained during the Crusader period in the inland cities of Behtlehem, Beit Guvrin, Beit Nouva, Latroun, Ramle, Lydda, and Hebron.

The Samaritan Population

Ellenblum refers to archaeological surveys conducted in Samaria, and to studies which show a decline in Samaritan population in northern Samaria during the Byzantine period.

In Roman times, a large Samaritan population lived in Samaria. These were descendents of peoples displaced by the Assyrians and settled in the area of the northern Kingdom of Israel after its defeat in the 8th century BCE (the Assyrians’ policy was to displace conquered peoples to prevent their uprising). The upper classes of the Kingdom of Israel were exiled to Assyria (today’s Iraq) while populations from there were transferred to Samaria. They adopted parts of the Jewish religion, but were not recognized as Jews and were not accepted to the Jewish community by the Jews returning from Babylon following Cyrus’ declaration in 538BCE. This created centuries-long tension between the two.

The archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, who conducted the surveys in Samaria, discovered that the number of settled sites declined drastically in the late Byzantine period. Finkelstein linked the emptying of northern Samaria of its population with the Byzantines’ nearly complete annihilation of the Samaritan community. Ellenblum supports this conclusion.
It is important to note that the area in southern Samaria, which was populated by Byzantine Christians, remained populated, and a large number of its settlements continued to exist throughout the Arabic and Crusader periods.

The Samaritans were persecuted by the Byzantines because of their refusal to accept Christianity. Scholars estimate that in the 4th and 5th centuries some 1.2 million Samaritans lived in the region between Syria and Egypt. Persecution and restrictive edicts caused the Samaritans to rebel against the Byzantines several times – in 484, 529, and 566. These rebellions were crushed, the Temple on Mt. Grizim was demolished, and the Samaritan population was massacred by the Byzantine army. Twenty thousand casualties were reported in the revolt of 529, but the Samaritans claim 100,000 to 120,000 were massacred. According to the Samaritan source, tens of thousands died, were sold into slavery, or fled during the uprisings. The Samaritans were outlawed, and their numbers declined by hundreds of thousands until they were nearly completely annihilated. This situation continued until just before the Arabic occupation in the early 7th century, and was the cause for the widespread ruin and the flight of the population (see Chapter 4).

It is estimated that on the eve of the Arabic conquest there were 200,000 Samaritans living in the Land of Israel. At the time of conquest, the Arabs massacred Samaritans, but later on their relations improved.

Following their conquest, the Crusaders massacred Samaritans in Nablus and in cities along the coast, forcing many to convert to Christianity. A Samaritan source tells of Muslim raids on Nablus in 1115 – 1137, killing Samaritans and capturing 500 Samaritan men, women, and children who were sold as slaves in Damascus. Benjamin of Tudela reports in 1170, 1000 Samaritans in Nablus, 200 in Caesarea, and 300 in Ashkelon. An anonymous Latin source dating from 1168 (quoted by Kedar in his article Jews and Samaritans in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem) contradicts this, claiming that only 300 Samaritans were living in the Land of Israel at the time.

When Saladin’s soldiers took over Nablus in 1184, they massacred the Samaritan population, sold some of the survivors as slaves, and forcibly converted those who remained into Islam. When the Seljuks conquered Ramle, they too massacred its Samaritan population.

Yehuda El Harizi, who toured the country in 1217, estimated that in Nablus there were fewer than 1000 Samaritans. Their decline was the result of the Muslim raid on Nablus in 1184. A Crusader document and a Samaritan source from 1166/67 attest the existence of Samaritan villages around Nablus, naming one Hirbet Assafa. Torah books were also known to have been written by Samaritans during the Crusader period.

The Samaritan community continued to decline, numbering 2,000 in the 12th century (according to an article published by Bar Illan University’s Centre of Jewish Studies) or 200,000 according to other sources).


During the Byzantine period (4th to 7th centuries), Eastern Orthodox Christians were the majority of the Land of Israel’s population, with Jewish and Samaritan minorities. The country’s population declined during the Arabic occupation, but exact numbers are not known. In total, there was a significant decline in population, from 1.500,000 - 2.000,000 during the Byzantine the period, to less than 500,000 during the Crusader period.

The Eastern Christians continued to be the majority during the Arab-Muslim period, and, joined by Franks, were still the majority during the Crusader period: There were 100,000 to 120,000 Franks, and the Eastern Orthodox Christians numbered approximately 200,000 to 250,000. No data exist for the number of Jews and Samaritans – the Samaritan population declined while the Jewish population declined and then increased, but both communities remained small.

The Arabic-Muslim population declined during the Crusader period as a result of massacres and flight from the country. They numbered 100,000 to 150,000 at most, and many were nomadic Bedouins.

During the Crusader period, the country was sparsely populated compared to the 3-4 million people living here in the Hasmonaean period (1st century BCE).


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