Monday, October 8, 2007

Arabs, Jews, Israel, Islam, and More: 11,000 Years of History In 800 Words

The war on terror is today's news, but it's also ancient history.

I think it's hard for many people in relatively newly-developed areas like Europe, and particularly America, to appreciate that Middle East milestones like these are essentially current events:
  • Six Day War (1967)
  • Re-establishment of Israel (1948)
  • Fall of the Ottoman Empire (1922)
A quick review of what's happened in the lands at the east end of the Mediterranean may help make sense of a conflict with very, very deep roots.

Roughly 11 millennia ago, people started building villages near the Mediterranean Sea's east shore. Three of them became the city of Jericho. That place has needed to be re-built about 20 times since then, but the city hasn't been abandoned since its founding.

It's that sort of area.

Roughly seven thousand years after Jericho was settled, and four thousand years before our time, a man called Abram moved from Ur to the lands more immediately east of the Mediterranean. These days he's better known by his newer name, Abraham.

Abraham's domestic life is one of the better arguments for strict monogamy that I know of. Abraham had children by two or three women (midrash - Rabinic lore - seems to say that Keturah is another name for Hagar). They had sons, which has really complicated the subsequent seven millennia.

As sometimes happens in family disputes, the descendants of Abraham by Sarah and Hagar haven't gotten along as well as might be hoped.

The offspring of Israel, Sara's son, are the Jews.

Arabs of north and central Arabia (and, maybe, the 'pure' Arabs of southern Arabia) are descendants of Ishamael, Hagar's son. The most famous of Ishmael's sons is, in my opinion, Mohamed.

But I'm getting ahead of the story.

Herodotus, a Greek historian, called the area east of the Mediterranean "Palaestina, or "Land of the Philistines." The Romans took over Palaestina around the first century BC, Latinized the name, and "Palestine" is what western civilization has called the place since.

The size and shape of "Palestine" has shifted a great deal, but that's par for the course: look at Poland's borders, for example.

Which brings us to the Palestinians: the people who aren't Jews, and live in places like the Gaza Strip today. Some Palestinians like to think that their ancestors have been there for five thousand years, and that they are descendants of the Canaanites and every other group that's lived there. Except, I suspect, the Jews.

That sort of claim was easier to make before DNA became a forensic tool. Genetic analysis is a new tool for ethnologists, historians, and others interested in sorting out a factual account of humanity's story. At this point, it looks like the the ancestry of people who live on the crossroads between Africa, Europe, and Asia is complicated. Which, to me, is hardly a surprise.

Apparently, as a group, Palestinians have a comfortably deep gene pool. They're people who:
  • Were there when Jericho was founded
  • Immigrated from sub-Saharan Africa
  • Came from the tribes of Arabia
The sources I looked up didn't say so, but I'd guess that Canaanites are in the mix, too.

Back to the story.

Israel was established back around 1000 BC. About AD 70, Roman forces defeated a revolt against Roman rule, took (or re-took, depending on how you look at it) Jerusalem, and brought ancient Israel to an end.

In the early seventh century AD, Mohamed founded a new religion in Mecca. Following an assassination threat, Mohamed retreated to Medina. He proved to be an able military leader, returning Mecca after successful battles and diplomatic efforts.

Mecca was taken with remarkably little bloodshed. The populace embraced Islam. Since then, Muslims have spread Islam through a moderately confusing combination of gentle persuasion and military conquest.

In 1948, the Jews were back, and set up the current state of Israel. Arab nations in the area were none too pleased. Neither were Palestinians who had been living there.

Which brings us up to the present, more or less.

I won't pretend that this super-brief review of 11 millennia explains the Middle East conflicts, and the attacks on America and other western cultures.

It may, however, give an impression of what sort of conflict, and culture, America and others are dealing with.

The war on terror has, I think, more in common with the feud described in Njal's Saga, than with the partly-ideological conflicts of the twentieth century.

For one thing, there are passions involved: Passions which were ancient when my Viking ancestors were raiding my Irish ancestors.

A newscaster who announced that DNA research showed that Jews and Arabs had a common ancestor seemed astonished. I wasn't. Jews and many Arabs claim Abraham as their ancestor, although I understand that they differ on details.

For me, although I recognize that the situation is very, very complicated, the conflict between Jews and Arabs is partly a domestic dispute grown to regional proportions.

A start for more reading:
Related posts, on Islam, Christianity, Religion, Culture and the War on Terror.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.