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 so-called Palestine.”
Pre-Greek allusions to the region to which Herodotus alludes—the coastal strip along the Mediterranean south of Phoenicia as far as Gaza and a point of entry into Egypt—contain notorious and etymologically obscure references to “Peleset,” “Pereset,” “Phlishtu,” and similar variant forms. But there can be no certainty whatever that these words refer to Palestine or Palestinians. Yet Masalha constantly claims to be tracking those whom he calls “the indigenous people of Palestine,” who were, he believes, autochthonous. He reasonably objects to “the pernicious myth of a land without a people” in order to plead for a reading of the history of Palestine “with the eyes of the indigenous people of Palestine.” Yet we have no reason to think that there were any indigenous or autochthonous people there at all, whoever might have preceded any invaders from whatever direction.
By the time of Herodotus, residents in the area may well have been a mixture of Arabs and Jews who had moved into the territory from the interior. Masalha himself invokes David Asheri, the distinguished Israeli commentator on Herodotus, who suggests that the Herodotean Palestinians “were a mixture of Phoenicians, Philistines, Arabs, Egyptians, and perhaps also other peoples…. At the time of Herodotus there were few Jews.” An old though widespread idea that sea peoples invaded the coast from the west no longer has much to be said for it. In fact, a newly discovered grave at Ashkelon seems to contain the remains of one of the earliest settlers in the area, and it now seems agreed that these people did not come from the sea.
The problem of identifying Palestine in antiquity was concisely summarized over twenty years ago by William Dever in the Anchor Bible Dictionary when he wrote:
Ancient Palestine was geographically a small country, situated outside the narrow coastal “land bridge” between Egypt and Syro-Mesopotamia…. Palestine was thus a marginal area compared to its great neighboring empires, but its long history and contribution to universal culture were nevertheless uniquely important.
The area kept changing, as the Roman provincial administration took advantage of the geographical flexibility of Syria Palaestina and expanded the various areas bearing this name to create no less than three provinces, called First, Second, and Third Palestine, of which the last also took on the new name of Palaestina Salutaris. Third Palestine extended deep into modern Jordan, incorporating Petra and Transjordan to the south, and it absorbed the Negev as far as the border with Egypt. It appears explicitly in this shape today in a precious mosaic map of local biblical sites that survives in the floor of a church in Jordanian Madaba.
Right down to the Islamic conquests there was a Palestine that embraced some of the old territory of the Phoenicians as well as the new numbered provinces. Inexplicably, Masalha claims that “the English name ‘Palestine’ comes from the Old French name Philistin.” I can’t imagine why he says this, because the English name is obviously a direct translation of the name in Herodotus’s Greek, which gave rise to the Latin “Palaestina” or “Palestina.” Masalha knows his texts and his languages well, and I can only assume that he is stumbling over his own broad learning.
Accordingly, proclaiming four thousand years of Palestine tells us virtually nothing about history. Both the place and concept were in constant flux. We do not know who lived in the various regions of this name, and we certainly know nothing of any indigenous people. Furthermore, the history of the name as we know it and of the various Near Eastern territories associated with it only begins with Herodotus in the second half of the fifth century BC. The years from then until now cannot, by any reckoning, produce four thousand years. The best that could be said is that the name “Palestine” existed in many parts of the Near East over some 2,500 years, but those are years that often show little beyond local, though deeply rooted, traditions among families of the most diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds—Jewish, Arab, Greek, Christian, pagan, and, from the seventh century AD, Muslim.
After the emergence of the Umayyad dynasty in late seventh century, with the caliph ‘Abd al-Malik and the creation of the magnificent Dome of the Rock, Palestine assumed a provincial presence within the new caliphate as Jund Filastin. As Masalha rightly observes, the Arab rulers and governors, together with their geographers and mint-makers, built upon the classical heritage of the region. They translated and preserved many of the ancient place-names of Palestine and much of the classical heritage of Greece and Antiquity in the Levant. This has meant over time that the classical Near East has had a profound influence upon generations of Palestinians whose families survived under Ottoman rule and subsequently the era of the British Mandate. Masalha poignantly traces the survival of local pride and traditions through the filter of occupation and displacement. He observes:
Muslim pilgrims and travel writers reported that Filastin [Palestine] was equated throughout the Muslim world with the capital city of the country: al-Ramla…. Once again we see Islam continuing and pragmatically adapting Palestine traditions and the Byzantine administrative and geo-political traditions of Palestine rather than replacing them completely.
It is ironic that Greco-Roman Palestine should be the thread that kept this identity more or less intact, but this in no way discounts the strong sense of Palestinian identity that Masalha emphasizes. It made the terrifying and terrible upheaval imposed in 1948 after the Mandate all the more traumatic, as many Palestinian writers have readily perceived. They gradually adopted the word nakba (catastrophe) to designate this national trauma.
Masalha’s account of the final centuries of Palestine before the Western powers emptied it out with the UN resolution of partition is exceptionally valuable in demonstrating what Palestine had meant to the Russians and the British in particular. The Christian vision of Palestine as the Holy Land inspired romantic pilgrimages as well as romantic poetry to go with them. Even so tough and ironic a writer as Nikolai Gogol made a pilgrimage to Palestine, and Masalha rightly traces Russian involvement in the region to a famous poem on a palm branch from Palestine by Mikhail Yuryvich Lermontov, Pushkin’s great successor and author of the small epic Demon. This was the beginning of a Russian infatuation with the region that led to the creation of the Imperial Russian Orthodox Palestine Society and its journals, including the still fundamental Palestinskij Sbornik.
Masalha aptly conjoins the Russian presence in the Holy Land with the British Palestine Exploration Fund, which, despite important archaeological work and many still-useful publications, was born of a Christian longing for Palestine that was comparable to the origins of the Russian Palestine Society. Lord Shaftesbury, as chairman of the Palestine Exploration Fund, wrote in 1875, “We have there a land teeming with fertility and rich in history, but almost without an inhabitant—a country without a people, and look! Scattered over the world, a people without a country.” Irresponsible opinions such as this wrought immeasurable harm as the Zionist movement grew, even if British activity in mapping and excavating the region made major contributions to scholarly knowledge.
It took considerably less than a century for Shaftesbury’s crude observations to be resurrected in the infamous pronouncement of Arthur James Balfour in 1919:
The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.
Such politically driven callousness was not unlike the decision of Harry Truman to ignore vigorous internal American opposition when he chose to support the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.
Masalha’s account of the 700,000 displaced Palestinians after the nakba includes a brief—actually much too brief—three-page treatment of Mahmoud Darwish, the truly great poet of the Palestinian people, their traditions and experiences. It is through the poetry of Darwish that one learns what it meant, and still means, to be a Palestinian with cultural roots that reach far back in time.
Masalha stresses the complexity of Darwish’s identity as embracing “all the powerful cultures that have passed through the land of Palestine.” He is thinking of Hellenistic Greeks, Sassanian Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Jews, Turks, and British, along with many others. Darwish carried all this with him, as he fashioned a new literary Arabic that merged vernacular idioms with the classical language. His Arabic gave voice to the Palestinians who had been driven from their homeland, and with this voice Darwish created poetry of the highest order by any standard. In recent years he has been well served by translators. Since his death in 2008 from a weak heart, which had troubled him for many years, this exceptional writer of the modern age has been much more accessible to English readers. He speaks for his people, but like all great poets he speaks for every human being.
Darwish was born in the Galilean village of al-Birwa in 1941, a fateful time in a fateful place. His grandfather, who taught him to read, was a local landowner, and Darwish was only seven years old when his family was expelled from their property to allow their village to be razed to clear space for the new Israeli state. Following a brief exile in Lebanon, Darwish returned to his homeland but soon left it again after a period in Haifa. He eventually forged a link with the Israeli Communist Party, from which he subsequently formed an affiliation with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The displacements that Darwish experienced as a boy after the nakba provide the backdrop for his last work, a complex autobiography written in a mixture of rhymed prose and verse. Its title, In the Presence of Absence, reflected the poet’s place in Israel as a “present absentee.” He wrote the book at the end of his life in anticipation of his death. In this late and complex reverie on his Palestinian childhood, Darwish evokes his homeland at precisely the moment when he lost it as a small boy: “Don’t cry like your little brother, born just a few days earlier, lest crying lead the soldiers in our direction.”
When the young Darwish asks what is the meaning of “refugee,” he receives the answer, “They will say: One who is uprooted from his homeland.” Then when asked what is the meaning of “homeland,” “They will say: The house, the mulberry tree, the chicken coop, the beehive, the smell of bread, and the first sky.” The reference to the ancestral house will remind Darwish’s readers of one of his memorable earlier poems, in which father and son are fleeing from a rain of bullets by staying close to the ground. “Who will live in the house after us?” the boy asks. He continues with another question for his father: “Why did you leave the horse alone?” An extraordinary reply comes back at once: “To keep the house company, my son / Houses die when their inhabitants are gone…”
In recalling his childhood during 1948, Darwish observes, “You learned enough of the Nakba’s destructive effects to cause you to hate the second half of your childhood…. Everything here is a painful reminder of what had once been there.” Near the end of his autobiography, Darwish finally confronts what he calls “the poison-tipped questions.” These ask whether writing is possible at all without exile: “What will you write without the occupation? Exile is existence.” In a vast sweep of his people’s history, embracing Jews (Jesus included), Sumerians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, and early Christians, Darwish strives to put the trauma of his life into a universal perspective, and he looks particularly to the exiled Trojans of Homeric antiquity for inspiration.
He sees himself and his people as the new Trojans, “of whom nothing is told save what their enemies relate.” “They were courageous without swords,” yet “broken before the rolling tanks, displaced and scattered in the wind without losing their faith that one day history’s wound would heal.” In leaving the dead behind, they abandoned victims who finished none of their daily tasks: “they did not finish their dinner, prayers, or nightmares.” The rapid transition in Darwish’s writings from childhood to advanced age on the eve of death encapsulates his effort to find a universal perspective for an unforgettable calamity. It is through this effort that he elevates the Palestinian tragedy into a meaningful narrative for everyone.
In view of the tenacious grip of classical antiquity on the collective memory of Palestinians after the nakba, it is ironic (as well as symptomatic of a more general neglect) that classical historians have conspicuously avoided looking at the various Palestinian territories apart from well-known administrative arrangements that the Romans and the Muslims imposed. Not one edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary, which continues to be a frequently consulted reference work, contains a separate entry on Palestine, although the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium managed to find space for a short notice.
Books on Christianity naturally do not neglect early explorers in the Holy Land, but it is rare for such explorers as the humorist and artist Edward Lear to lift their sights to the land and its culture on its own terms. Lear’s visit to Petra in 1858 opened up, for a brief moment, the late antique remains of Third Palestine. But when he was assaulted and robbed, he complained bitterly, “English people must submit to these things because we have no influence in Syria or Palestine nor in the East generally.” Overall, Western scholars in the Mamluk and Ottoman periods treated Palestine as an excrescence on the map of the Near East, where Christians and Jews lived.
Masalha has now admirably unearthed this forgotten Palestine. He highlights the callous disregard for its inhabitants by Lord Shaftesbury, Balfour, and others. He has drawn inspiration from contemporary authors, such as the late Edward Said. But Masalha is a thoroughly independent historian, working with an arsenal of languages and documents. After a rocky start that presupposed a thousand years of Palestine before the time of Herodotus, he settles securely and authoritatively into a narrative that commands respect and is not impaired by the passion behind it.
Masalha concludes with a detailed register of the appropriation of Arabic place-names after 1948 and the extensive renaming of individuals in the new state. Such a program of redoing toponomy and personal names is of course nothing new in the history of emerging nations. Modern Turkey, with its deliberate abolition of ancient names, impoverished the country with anodyne new place-names, such as White Village or Black Village, that swept away toponyms that had survived for millennia. But Masalha’s confidence that all will not be extinguished offers hope in the face of a still-uncertain future. He has written his history to encourage the survivors and to enlighten those who sympathize with them. He strives to keep alight the flame of Palestinian culture that, despite every attempt to snuff it out, still burns brightly in the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and in the world he never left behind.