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Palestine

A Four Thousand Year History

By Nur Masalha
16-minute read
Audio available
Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History by Nur Masalha

Palestine (2015) chronicles the long history of the land straddling the eastern Mediterranean between modern-day Lebanon and Egypt. By compiling an impressive set of sources both ancient and modern, Nur Masalha presents a nuanced history of the region, from its roots in ancient Philistine civilization to the advent of modern Palestinian nationalism in the nineteenth century, and Israel’s founding in 1948.

  • Students of history or politics
  • Supporters of both Israel and Palestine looking to inform themselves on the region
  • Palestinians who’d like to learn more about the complex historical tapestry of their land

Nur Masalha is a Palestinian academic and professor of history at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. In addition to being a member of the SOAS Centre for Palestinian Studies, he’s the editor of the Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies and has authored numerous books, including A Land Without a People and The Palestine Nakba.

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Palestine

A Four Thousand Year History

By Nur Masalha
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History by Nur Masalha
Synopsis

Palestine (2015) chronicles the long history of the land straddling the eastern Mediterranean between modern-day Lebanon and Egypt. By compiling an impressive set of sources both ancient and modern, Nur Masalha presents a nuanced history of the region, from its roots in ancient Philistine civilization to the advent of modern Palestinian nationalism in the nineteenth century, and Israel’s founding in 1948.

Key idea 1 of 10

Palestine traces its roots back to the Late Bronze Age, nearly 3,200 years ago.

Archaeological discoveries often change the way we view history. This is exactly what happened in 2017 when a 3,000-year old Philistine graveyard was discovered near modern-day Ashkelon in western Israel.

The existence of the ancient people known as Philistines in current-day Palestine and Israel is widely accepted.

Nevertheless, the discovery of the graveyard was remarkable. It helped disprove a theory in Israeli scholarship that argues Philistines were pirates invading from the Aegean Sea. Five inscriptions found at the graveyard clearly debunked this. The inscriptions read “Peleset,” an early written form of “Palestine.” This led archaeologists to the conclusion that the Philistines were indigenous to the land.

What also helps prove the existence of indigenous Philistines – a name that later evolved into “Palestinians” – are a number of ancient texts. One of these is an Egyptian text that is about as old as the 3,000-year-old graveyard. It describes the neighboring peoples against whom the Egyptians fought. In this case, the Philistines.

This, of course, conflicts with the Biblical Cana’anite narrative, cited since the nineteenth century by Zionists who sought to lay claim to the region of Palestine. While it’s technically true that Cana’an did exist as a place, history shows us that Cana’an is only a Biblical term referring to Phoenicia, a civilization corresponding to modern-day Lebanon. And “Cana’an” was only used to describe this region for a brief period, around 1300 BC.

Meanwhile, Philistia refers to the region directly to the south of Phoenicia. And after the eighth and seventh centuries BC, the whole southern Levantine region corresponding to modern Israel, Palestine – and later even southern Lebanon – was no longer referred to as Cana’an or other ancient names, and became known as Philistia.

At the turn of the Iron Age in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, Philistines developed a sophisticated urban civilization. Besides their advanced shipbuilding techniques, they left behind a legacy of artistic craftsmanship in the pottery, metalwork and ivory carvings excavated in archaeological digs all over historic Palestine. During this time, many ancient Palestinian cities were founded, such as Ghazzah, ‘Asgalan and Isdud. These exist today as Gaza, Ashkelon and Ashdod, though Israel expelled the Palestinian inhabitants of the latter two in 1948.

Archaeological discoveries reveal it’s likely that the city-states of ancient Palestine were similar to the advanced city-states in ancient Greek civilization. The Philistine city-states established extensive trade networks with Egypt, Phoenicia and Arabia. Not only did trade support the economy of ancient Palestine, but it also fostered a multicultural and polytheistic society.

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