The Many Lives of Palestine

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, Sunrise, 1859 by
Private Collection
Edward Lear: Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, Sunrise, 1859

In the opening chapter of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon evoked in a few lapidary sentences the two most ill defined and yet most celebrated regions of the ancient Near East. As always, Gibbon chose his words carefully:

Phoenicia and Palestine were sometimes annexed to, and sometimes separated from, the jurisdiction of Syria. The former of these was a narrow and rocky coast; the latter was a territory scarcely superior to Wales, either in fertility or extent. Yet Phoenicia and Palestine will forever live in the memory of mankind; since America, as well as Europe, has received letters from the one, and religion from the other.

Gibbon knew well that the Phoenician alphabet lay behind the Greek letters that served to enrich Western literature. As for the religion that came from Palestine, Gibbon was certainly not thinking of either Judaism or Islam, but of Christianity, which Jesus brought to the Jews among whom he was born and to whom he was preaching. He was reputedly born in Bethlehem, a village that belonged administratively in those days to the Roman province of Judaea. Pontius Pilate was a Roman magistrate (a praefectus, as we now know despite Tacitus’s error in calling him a procurator), and of course he famously charged Jesus for being an aspiring king of the Jews.

Gibbon’s lines betray a profound knowledge of both Phoenicia and Palestine, which had long and complex histories of shifting back and forth from one part of greater Syria to another. Syria itself, with constantly fluctuating borders, lay to the east of Mt. Lebanon but also spread southwest across the Orontes and Jordan valleys as far as the Mediterranean coast. In classical antiquity Syria adjoined Phoenicia, which included the ports of Tyre and Sidon, but it was also associated with a bewildering variety of other ancient places, some clearly in the interior far from the sea.

Nur Masalha challenges his readers by the provocative and, it has to be said, wholly indefensible title that he has given to his new book: Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History. Masalha is an erudite and widely read Palestinian historian in London, who commands many languages, ancient and modern, in addition to Arabic, and brings an understandable passion to his reflections on the concept and location of Palestine. But Palestine simply has no continuity over four thousand years. Masalha himelf recognizes that Palestine was often not found in the same place, and Gibbon was absolutely right about the off-again on-again intermittent linkage of Palestine with Syria. This is immediately apparent in the earliest appearance of Palestine under that name in any ancient text, the Histories by Herodotus, who repeatedly refers to “Syria Palaestina [sic]” or occasionally to “Syria, which is…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.