Palestine under Persian, Byzantine and Arab Rule

24 years, 3 empires, and 1 new faith in Palestine

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The following article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

The early decades of the seventh century C.E. comprised one of the most eventful periods in the history of the Land of Israel. Within 24 years, between 614 and 638, the country changed hands three times. The four-centuries long conflict between Rome and Persia was to come to an end in a final collision of the Byzantine and Sassanid armies. Both these powers had attained great victories and suffered terrible defeats, and as they continued to enfeeble each other, they gave way to the rise of a new power, the Islamic forces, which would drive them both out of the region. 

The two monotheistic religions claiming Palestine as their holy land were joined by a third faith, newly born and extraordinarily vigorous. The Muslim conquest was destined to shape the character of the entire Middle East for the following thirteen centuries, down to this very day.

The Precarious Balance Between Persia and Rome

The events in Palestine during those years should be seen within the wider context of the relations between the powers in the Orient. Several centuries of struggle had created a sort of equilibrium; the Persians ruled east of the Euphrates, Rome ruled to its west, and the "buffer states"--Armenia, Syria, Mesopotamia and Palestine---constituted the battlefield for their frequent wars.

muslims in israelThis precarious balance persisted till the early sixth century when the sovereigns of these two empires, threatened by other enemies, began a correspondence that was meant to secure the frontier between them. The Byzantine Emperor Maurice and the Persian Khosrow II Parviz (the "Victorious") finally signed an "eternal" peace accord which was to last for ten years. In 602 a soldier's mutiny overthrew the Byzantine monarch and placed a junior officer named Phocas on the throne.

Khosrow seized this opportunity to renew the war, leading the Persian armies into Byzantine territories in the Near East. In 613 his soldiers completed the conquest of Syria and captured Damascus. As the Persian armies were advancing, Jewish communities were rising in revolt against local Byzantine rulers and hailing Persians as liberators.

Khosrow's Troops Enter Jerusalem

In the early summer of 614, Khosrow's troops entered Jerusalem and massacred its Christian population. The role of the Jews during this Persian siege and conquest of Jerusalem remains unclear. Later Christian sources, however, accused the community of collaboration with the invaders and of destruction of many churches in the city.

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Isaiah Gafni is a Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He specializes in the history of the Jewish people during the Second Temple period.