Palestine under Persian, Byzantine and Arab Rule

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

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On the other hand, there is clear evidence that the status of the Jewish population under Persian rule had deteriorated prior to 617. The Persians apparently realized that there was little to be gained from appeasing a small local minority. According to contemporary Jewish documents, a Jewish leader by the name of Nehemiah ben Hushi'el, probably a messianic figure, was executed: "And there was trouble in Israel as never before" (Book of Zerubbabel).

The Persian victory, however, was not to last. Following a victory in Nineveh in 627, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius besieged the Persian capital of Ctesiphon. Khosrow was deposed and assassinated, and his son, who wished to end the war, died in 629. Heraclius reached an agreement with the Persian army commander who ordered his troops to withdraw from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria and Palestine, and also returned to the Byzantines the relics of the True Cross. On March 29, 629, as Heraclius triumphantly entered Jerusalem, Christians wept with joy at the miracle of the restoration of the True Cross. In his hour of glory, the emperor magnanimously refrained from taking reprisal against the Jews.

Enter the Muslim Army

But the Christian restoration was also short-lived. In 634 the Arabs invaded the land and besieged Gaza. In 636 they defeated the Byzantines by the Yarmuk River, and two years later Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslim army.

The Jews of Palestine looked on powerless as three empires fought over their land. With each upheaval, messianic expectations soared. Their hopes were expressed in religious hymns (piyyutim) which were recited on festivals in centuries to come: "When the Messiah son of David will come to his oppressed people, these signs will appear in the world…A king of the West and a king of the East will do battle and the western armies will grow strong. But from Yoktan [Arabia] another king will go forth whose forces will overrun the land…And the kohanim [temple priests] will officiate, and the Levites will preach from their pulpit [God] saying: I have returned to Jerusalem in mercy."

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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.