The Arabian-Jewish Conquest of the Holy Land–635 AD
One would think that the history of the Muslim Arab invasion of Israel and Jerusalem would by this time be well understood, attested and supported by various modern historical means and tools, documentary analysis, philological study, archaeological evidence, and much supporting artifacts. The situation, however, is entirely the opposite. Very little, in fact, is clear and the historical research, to the extent that it exists at all, is greatly wanting despite the vast corpus of books on Islamic history and the beginnings of Islam. The most important research does not go back further than the last half century. This research relates to the historicity of early Islamic sources and how few of them rely on sources from outside of the tradition itself. Islam and Islamic texts have not been exposed to the “historical-critical method” which Christian and Jewish texts have been subject to over the last three hundred plus years. In terms of the Islamic invasions of 635 AD, it appears to be the case, from examining Syriac, Aramaic, Greek, Armenian, Hebrew and Persian sources that the Byzantines and others viewed the attacks on the Holy Land and the seizures of the Jerusalem Temple Mount as an extension of the ongoing and lengthy Jewish Wars.
A number of brilliant historians have come to support the idea of the Judaean origins of the Arab conquest and the origins of Islam, despite the obvious risks of supporting such a heterodox thesis; mention in this regard could be made of Patricia Crone and Michael Cook’s pathbreaking and fascinating book, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, (Cambridge, University Press, 1977) as well as Patricia Crone’s, Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, (1987) and also her Slaves on Horses:The Evolution of the Islamic Polity (1980).The more general Judaean and Judaean Christian milieu that gave rise to early Islam is well approached in John Wansborough’s seminal work, The Sectarian Milieu: Context and Composition of Islamic Salvation History (1978); Andrew Rippin, Martin Hinds and Yehuda D. Nevo has written extensively on the broader issues and questions surrounding early Islam and its Judaic or heavily influenced Judaic elements. Nevo, in particular, in his book Crossroads to Islam: The Origins of the Arab Religion and the Arab State (2003), puts forward convincingly the specific model of Abrahamism and the mixture of Judaic and Christian beliefs from which early Islam slowly emerged and coalesced. It is a subject, clearly, that draws controversy and risks. Some historians have chosen, consequently, to write pseudonymously, such as the individual who writes under the pen name, Christoph Luxenberg, a play on the German enlightenment scientist, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. His thesis, difficult to follow given the level of fluency required in a half a dozen or so archaic languages, is that the Quran developed from a kind of lectionary of Church sayings and paraphrases in Syriac Christian Church services, which was then translated into Arabic and combined with various rabbinical and Judaic texts then widely circulating.
Much of the history of the pre-crusader period, particularly the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries in Palestine is extremely murky. It seems that the intense anti-Judaic Christian attitudes of this period is due to the resentment and anger at the loss of control of the Holy places and particularly of Jerusalem, to the Jews and their allies and hired mercenaries. There is very little appreciation of the Arabs as anything other than as invaders, mercenaries and feared tribal warlords during the early part of this period. The Arabs are not, initially at least, viewed as religious foes or enemies, as are the Jews. This anti-Jewish animus was to spread throughout Christendom during this time. Palestine, from accounts, seems to still be heavily populated by Jewish people, with many prosperous and wealthy towns all connected to highly skilled trades, and mercantile practices.
The continuity, permanence, and coherence, as well as the density of settlement, and the material and economic basis of the Jewish community in Palestine, seems eminently supportable right up until the time of the crusades; independent communities of highly skilled artisans making very valued and sought after goods has always been the Jewish occupational and economic-communal model and the focal point around which Jewish communities have always and uniquely evolved. The cohesiveness of these communities and their specific and tightly held technical knowledge, in very specialized areas of metallurgy, dyes, fabrics, medicine, coinage and goldsmithing, leather work, and even some areas of intensive agriculture, particularly sericulture and viticulture, exposed the entire community to forcible displacement and resettlement. These forced resettlements, particularly in the Crusader period, played no small role in the Jewish depopulation of Palestine and the larger Levant. I am not aware of any other people being subject to any such forced movement, although the subject has not been explored to any degree. It does most certainly warrant attention.
The Norman king, Roger II transplanted entire communities of Jewish artisans throughout Italy, but particularly in Sicily. His biggest prize being the Judaean glassmakers; the famous and influential Altare community, in the Liguria Region in Northern Italy has a well-established Jewish origin in the Levant, which the people of Altare still pride themselves on to this day. For centuries, Italian and European glassmakers would import the special sands from the mouth of the Belus River, in the shadow of Mount Carmel. These sands have been used from time immemorial due to their exact combination of silica and lime. The silk weavers and artisans of Sicily have much the same history. The highly skilled dyers and tanners, the leather workers, fabric manufacturers, cobblers, metallurgical works, gold and silversmiths, special fabric makers of fine damascene and lace, foundries for producing high tensile steel for swords and armaments, all had their origins in the know-how of transplanted Jewish communities.
Some of these extraordinary arts were entirely retained within specific Jewish communities where their proprietary techniques were closely guarded. Once lost, many of these skills have never be duplicated or replaced; this is particularly the case with certain vitric glassblowing and colouring (glassmaking), and Sericulture (silk) techniques, but also with more rarified goods such as the harvesting of the mollusc derived highly prized dyes; dyes that were worth more than their weight in gold and were traded all over the ancient and known world for two thousand years. The priestly blue tekhelet that marked Jewish priestly garments and the royal purple porphyria, most prized by Roman emperors and senatorial elites; another even more ratified example would be Byssus (or sea silk), the dazzling and almost weightless fabric with so many unusual qualities that it would be difficult to list them all. Sea silk was particularly well known for its colour shifting qualities in response to body heat and sunlight (and emotional states according to some). Remarkably, many of the descendants of these Levant and Israelites artisans still retain a familial knowledge of their Jewish origins, and in some cases even retain to this day a strange melange of Hebrew and Judaic language and rituals, mixed in with their adopted Catholic traditions (see fascinating BBC News item, 2 Sept. 2015–”Chiara Vigo–the last person who can harvest and spin sea silk –on the Sardinian Island of Sant’ Antioco).
Quite remarkably, amidst the ravages of the Jewish Holy Land by repeated waves of Steppe Arabs, Seljuks, Mongols, Bedouins, Mamluks, Ottomans and various rampaging raiders, as well as periodic mass destructions brought on by devastating earthquakes (in 749 AD and the massive 7.1 richter scale 1033 AD quake–which also caused a Tsunami killing 70,000 people), general economic collapse, banditry, piracy and kidnapping, and recurrent waves of the Black plague in the 14th century, we still see pilgrims and returnees coming to study, to worship, to pray and to ‘complete’ their lives in the Holy Land. We see at the same time, the never ending stream of the Jewish scholars, mystics and the rabbinical elite returning to the Holy Land in preparation for a broader messianic in-gathering and to draw inspiration for great religious treatises and kabbalistic philosophical enterprises. Some of these movements still evoke absolute wonderment, such as the Aliyah of 300 rabbis; These tosafists came from all over France, England, Egypt, and North Africa in 1211. Such a sizable movement of rabbis even in today’s world would be attention worthy, it is astonishing, however, for this time and period. The difficulties and risks attendant to such travel at that time cannot be put into any contemporary context. Literally, not a generation passes, it seems, when some kind of messianic call, or revelation, or popular movement, or divine expectation does not trigger a departure or planned departure to the Holy Land. A full survey and canvas should be done of the generational migration of Jewish people back to the Holy Land and what became of them. I believe after doing a very cursory study and review that some kind of ‘return’ has occurred in almost every generation over the last twenty centuries.
The point being made and emphasized here is that Theodore Herzl was not, by any means, the first figure to put forward a program of return to Palestine. He follows in a very long, and proud line, of so-called prophets, promoters, travelers, wanderers, adventurers, visionaries and of those referred to as “messianic pretenders” or “messianic figures” that tread a similar path. As I have argued in a previous blog, I date the most recognizable configuration of the modern ‘Zionist’ return of the Jewish people to the Jewish ancestral homeland very clearly at the beginning of the Age of the Discovery coinciding with the anti-Jewish Edict of Expulsion in 1492 in Spain and subsequently in Portugal and other countries.
At the same time, as I previously argued, we see many parallel efforts and great spiritual calls to reclaim and establish Jewish autonomy and sovereignty in Palestine. Of particular importance is the mass Sabbatai Zevi movement, which agitated the entire Jewish and to a not inconsiderable extent, the non-Jewish world. As one can read, in the extraordinary diaries of the 17th century German businesswoman Gluckel of Hameln, The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln (1932), Jewish bankers and lenders were everywhere liquidating their loans and credits and making extensive preparations and provisioning to make the long and complicated voyage to Palestine, entirely swept up in the messianic frenzy of the ‘return’. The sophistication of Gluckel’s ‘loan book’ and financial transactions will disabuse anyone of the stereotypes they might have about the role of women in matters financial and mercantile at that time. And we have amazing parallel events transpiring at the same time, the mysterious 16th century David Reuveni’s mission to the Pope to form a Christian-Jewish military alliance to lead the takeover of the Holy Land from the Muslims. And later there was a mass migration of the disciples of the Gaon of Vilna in the early 19th century–constituting the so-called Old Yishuv. The clustering of brilliant schools around Safed also in the pivotal 16th and 17th centuries is also no less astonishing. It is in Safed that Joseph Karo completed the Shulchan Aruch, the last great codification of Jewish law, and where Isaac Luria elaborated his complex system of metaphysics, what has become known subsequently as Lurianic Kabbalah. It was the operating premise and generally held belief of the great Jewish sages that the most important conceptual and intellectual achievements can only be achieved in the lands of our forefathers–in Israel. This will certainly be the case in the future across dozens of domains is my firm belief! Do we know of any other people who have made similar pilgrimages to the Holy Land to perform any kind of comparable work? What further purchase might the Jewish people need on the Holy Land? What further warrants could any people have?
One can see, as I have put forward in past blogs, that a modern vision of Zionism is recognizable and well adumbrated if not almost fully formed by the early 15th century. This vision of Zionism emerges simultaneously with the radically different perspectives and opportunities arising from the astronomical and navigational breakthroughs and mastery over the high seas and the worldwide transformation that ensued, in particular the Jewish Sephardic involvement, if not dominance and control, of this world changing activity. The ‘Zionist’ possibilities became evident, just as the continental land masses of the New World came into sight. It is almost as if finding the New World allowed the Old World to be reimagined and rediscovered as well. The missions and explorations of the New World, changed the entire perception of time, space, and of human possibility, I would argue. New forms of military organization, empirical and scientific investigation and method, finance, banking and credit, and new maritime power politics came into existence. The old structures, the old modes of governance and rule and military and administrative control were obsolete. The world was turned upside down, merchants, many of them Jewish, or New Christian/ Marranos, just a few generations earlier expelled as pariahs from Spain and Portugal, sent to what was believed to be their certain death on ocean voyages to unknown lands, returned to Amsterdam, and Antwerp, Bruges and Genoa, vastly wealthy, and with new understandings of undiscovered lands, aware of civilizational opportunities beyond the imagination of a confined and restricted Christendom. This is exactly where Zionism was reborn in its modern configuration. And it is being reborn for the second time as Zionism 2.0 coalesces in the face of a new reconfiguration of events as significant and as startling and horizon expanding as the Age of Discovery.
Historical Return and the Future of Humanity
This model of historical return, the stupendous event of the return of the Jewish people to Israel is already of mythic proportions and its mythic significance will only increase with time. The Jewish return to Israel will remain as one of the defining redemptive myths of humankind into the distant future, in fact as long as we and our descendant species will continue to exist; and this eternal return will be repeated through the eons of time ahead of us as people, perhaps even the people of Israel itself, embark on vast seafaring missions across the galaxy; voyages of unfathomably great distances of space and time. The Human Odyssey is only now just beginning. The seeding of our solar system and galaxy with life is one of the great challenges facing humankind. The incomprehensible distances of these future missions and voyages even within our own galaxy will take thousands of years for return trips. The tenacious hold of the Jewish people to their homeland, across time and space, will provide people with an inspiring model and the same hope and the same dream of redemptive return. Israel will never be forgotten. Humankind tens of thousands of years and even in millions of years from now will return to the Holy mountains of Zion and will worship in Jerusalem. And there they will remember Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendants.
“If you will it,
It is not a dream”.
- This posting is dedicated to the memory of Joseph “ Sefi” Genis and Gal Navon, childhood friends who were attending the Supernova Music Festival. They lost their lives heroically charging a terrorist on October 7th, 2023. Their act of bravery saved the lives of others. May their memory be a blessing.