Nur Masalha’s Palestinian history is a powerful antidote to Zionist narratives, and to accepted Western narratives, which place Palestine as a territory that began its life in 1918 under British rule.
Masalha details Palestine’s 4,000 year history, from Late Bronze Age Egypt through the Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic empires to the modern era.
We get a picture of Palestinian towns, trade, culture, languages and life through commentators like Herodotus, Aristotle, Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, Ptolemy, and Al-Maqdisi. It is a complex tapestry, hard to follow at times, rich in detail of political, economic and social change.
For many readers, even those who are secular, it is difficult to free oneself from Biblical references. As Masalha points out “Philistine” means ignorant. Although archaeologists have determined that the kingdoms of David and Solomon are no more than small tribal hill settlements, the Bible myths of Israel and Judaea can overpower that reality.
Contrary to the Zionist myth of “a land without a people” this book shows that Palestine has been more than simply “peopled”. This area of the Mediterranean coast and hinterland was indeed the impressive and important culture and civilisation you would expect from its position at the very centre of so many ancient empires.
The book provides fascinating evidence of this history. Mid-12th century BC inscriptions during the reigns of Rameses II and III use “Peleset” to refer to the seafaring people along the southern Palestinian coast.
Masalha’s linguistic knowledge of Greek and Semitic languages helps the reader understand the various “toponyms” (words used to describe geographical locations) employed.
Assyrian inscriptions from the 8th and 7th century BC refer to the same region as “Palshtu” or “Pilistu”. Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic toponyms for Palestine, its regions, cities and villages, are compared to modern day Palestinian names.
Many such locations are followed by the fact that they were destroyed or depopulated in 1948. Some are now Hebraicised, a denial and erasure of their Palestinian heritage and recent reality.
Partly Masalha is engaged in reinstating the authentic history of the region. He uses the historian’s tools to present historical evidence. He rescues the reputation of Palestine and Palestinian cities from the rubble of religious myth and political distortion.
We learn that Gaza was the administrative capital of the Egyptian province of Palestine, from the 6th century BC having its own coinage.
It was a centre of learning in Hellenistic times, famed for its Rhetorical School. It continued to flourish right through to the Middle Ages and beyond, being a major exporter of olive oil, soap, and silk. The term “gauze” derives from Gaza.
Byzantine Aelas, Aylah in early Islam, modern day Aqaba, was a vibrant Palestinian port under both the Byzantines and the Muslims, at the centre of the Indian and South Arabian spice trade.
And Roman Aelia Capitolina, Ilya, Bayt al-Maqis, Al Quds, was an important city, also known, in relatively short historical periods, as Jerusalem.
Whole periods of history must be similarly reclaimed from commonly held assumptions. We think of Palestine as Arab and Muslim but its early history, as neither, is significant. Masalha’s revealing of its Christian past helps us understand Christian Palestinians today.
After the battle of Yarmuk, where the Byzantine army was defeated and Arabic and Islam became dominant, Masalha shows how Palestine continued in growth and importance. The change from Christianity to Islam is commonly depicted as one of economic decline. Masalha refutes this ideological bias by presenting the tax returns from Palestinian cities under Muslim Umayyad and Abbasid rule.
The rise to power of different families and tribes, rebellions, wars, religious affiliations, trade and commerce, are the stuff of all histories throughout the last millennia, at least in the old world.
Yet, for readers steeped in European history, here is a new fascinating cast of characters, events and actions. And this is history written not from “imperial chronologies and colonising methodologies” and history “from without”, but compiled from a perspective respecting and referring to the cultures of the indigenous peoples.
Masalha acknowledges that Palestinian national consciousness is a modern phenomenon built in “resistance to Zionist immigration and settler projects from the late Ottoman period onwards”. But he insists, “This must not be conflated with the Palestinians’ social, cultural and religious identities, which are deeply rooted in the land…history...and toponymic memory of Palestine.”
He has done an extraordinary job, collating evidence from an abundance of rich sources, to give us a stunning narrative substantiating these identities.