17 June 2013

What's in a name? "Palestine" vs. "Israel"

The geographical region called the “Levant” includes the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean Sea from Anatolia to Egypt and its hinterland.  Other names include Bilad al-Sham and Greater Syria.  Historically-speaking, this area is often broken up into two geographic sub-regions, Syria and Palestine.  The modern nation-states of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Cyprus now occupy the area.

Archaeological study of the ancient city of Ebla in eastern Syria shows that it ruled an empire that dominated the entire Levant from about 2500 BCE until it was destroyed by Sargon of Akkad c. 2240 BCE.  It controlled the area from Anatolia south and east to Mesopotamia and south and west to the Red Sea.

The earliest known references to the area as a whole comes from Egypt in about 1800 BCE, which called the whole area Retenu, referring  primarily to the seacoast and its hinterlands.  The Egyptians divided the area into Kharu in what is now northern Syria (around Ugarit), Amurru (Amorites) in southern and eastern Syria (centered on Aleppo); Remnon in modern Lebanon; Djahy south of that in Galilee and Golan, taking in the whole watershed of the Jordan River; Kananu in what became Samaria-Judea-Idumea/Negev; and Pekanan in the later Gaza Strip/Philistia.  It’s also probably that the inland region around Aleppo was called Shasu, a word equal in meaning to the Akkadian word Aramu (Arameans).  The island of Cyprus was known to all its neighbors as Alashiya,

What the Egyptians called Djahy was equivalent to the Canaan of the Tanakh/Old Testament, or Kana’an to its natives, is traditionally defined as the hinterland behind the merchant cities of the Eastern Mediterranean coast which stretched from the current nation of Lebanon to the southern border of the region of Palestine known as the Gaza Strip.  We now know from decryption of Phoenician writing that in truth they (and their Punic relatives in the Carthaginian Empire) called themselves “Kananayim”.

The language of the Phoenicians, and their Punic cousins was virtually identical to Canaanite as well as ancient “Hebrew”.  Given that it’s the same language, it’s likely those in the hinterland also called themselves “Kananayim”, and it’s equally as certain that “Phoenicians” called their own land “Kana’an”.  The earliest references to this group of Northwestern Semites are as a people rather than as a region, though archaeological evidence shows they developed in situ.

By the way, archaeological records back to at least 2000 BCE indicate that Jerusalem was always called by a version of that name (Rusalimum, Urusalim), never “Jebus”.  The one and only place that name (Jebus) occurs in history is in the parts of the Hebrew Tanakh known as the Torah and in the earlier books of the Major Prophets.  Shechem, allegedly built by Jeroboam, existed long before him, going by the name Shachmu.

Until later ancient times, the Greeks called the whole area of Canaan (including Lebanon) by the name Phoenicia, not merely that later limited to what the Egyptians called Remnon and we now call Lebanon, as is most common now. 

“Israel” was never a geographic designation by either its own people or those outside anywhere in the Levant.  Their earliest mention in outside sources comes from 1207 BCE in the Great Karnak Inscription, where they are mentioned as a landless people amongst and allied with the Canaanite cities of Gezer, Ashkelon, and Yanoam.

Not until Omri, king of Israel, built the city of Samaria to be his capital is there any indication that this landless people held territory.  Included in his kingdom were many of the far more ancient Canaanite cities such as Gezer and Hazor.  But even though the king of the nomadic tribe known as Israel ruled all of central Palestine, the region was known as Samerina, or Bit Humria (“House of Omri”).

After Hazael, king of Damascus, destroyed the Philistine city of Gath which had dominated all of inland southern Palestine in 830 BCE, a new political entity, first called Teman, or “the south” arose under Bit-Dawid (“House of David”), apparently a cadet branch of House Omri or an entirely different dynasty but still junior to the kings in Samaria.  Later the kingdom first called Teman begins to be called Yehud.

In later ancient times, after Achaemenid Iran had been governing the area for nearly a century, the Greeks began to call the region Palestina, after the Philistines in the cities of its coastal southwest, the first known being Herodotus in his Histories of c. 450 BCE.  The Iranians themselves called the area from the Euphrates River west to the Mediterranean Sea by the name Abar-Nahra, which include the province of Samerina and its sub-province of Yehud.

Smaller kingdoms in the region of Palestina were Edom (Udumu or Aduma), Moab, and Ammon, the existence of all three supported by archaeological evidence.  In Hellenistic times, the Aramaic-speaking Nabateans moved into the Trans-Jordan area around Petra.

With the conquest of Greater Syria, or the Levant, by the Roman Republic under Pompey in 63 BCE, the kingdom of the Hasmoneans, which covered roughly the same area as modern-day Palestine-Israel, became a client kingdom of the Romans.  After the overthrow of that rotten dynasty and the later death of Herod the Great, the former kingdom came under direct rule of the empire, which divided into the sub-provinces of Iudaea (which included Samaraea), Galilaea, and Philistia (and others) under the province of Syria. 

In the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba War of 130-135 CE, the empire brought of these tiny entities together with Syria as the province of Syria-Palestina, Palestina referring to its southern portion which included Trans-Jordan, or what was then called Coele-Syria.  Upon conquest of the area by its armies in 637 CE, the Islamic Empire kept the name Palestine (in the form Filastin) as the political name for the region in every dynasty from the Rashiduns to the Ottomans, who held it until 1918. 

In giving control of the area to Great Britain in 1920, the League of Nations kept the name as the Mandate of Palestine, which included Transjordan until the next year.  Until 1948, Palestine remained the official designation for the entire area west of the Jordan River.  That year was when the European Zionist colonials declared themselves the State of Israel and embarked upon a campaign of conquest known to the native inhabitants as the Nakhba, to which surrounding Arab states responded by gobbling up the remaining territory (Golan Heights to Syria, West Bank to Jordan, Gaza Strip to Egypt).

So, the region south of Lebanon and Golan and north of the Sinai, west of the Mediterranean and east of the Jordan was known for 2400 years as Palestine.

The United Nations General Assembly granted observer status to the “State of Palestine” in November 2012, bringing the name to the map in terms of world recognition.

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