This is part 2 of 5 (Part 1)
After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 135 CE, the remaining Jewish population living under their rule was forced into exile. Those very few among the survivors who were allowed to stay within the former province of Judea remained mostly in the Galilee region, their population small and impoverished. While Jews were still tolerated in the Roman Empire, their rights were limited and their ability to form autonomous communities was essentially shattered. While many Jewish communities flourished within the confines of Roman cities, they were no longer empowered to form their own governing bodies and were disallowed from practicing their religion unless they paid a special Fiscus Judaicus (“Jewish tax”). Despite this oppression, Jews continued to survive under Rome, and several seminal Jewish texts were written in the closing centuries before the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476 CE), including The Jerusalem Talmud and the Mishnah, two works which recorded the oral tradition of Rabbinical thought into texts which would influence Jewish religious life into the present day. As for Jerusalem, the Jews themselves were barred from entry save for the holiday of Tisha B’Av, a day of fasting and mourning that marked the destruction of the Second Temple by the Babylonian Empire (which the Romans may have thought satirical to allow the Jewish people to celebrate in the city that once housed their holy Temple.)
After the famed conversion to Christianity by the Roman emperor, Constantine, in 313, Jerusalem and the surrounding area became largely inhabited by Christians, under whom the Jews fared arguably no better than they did under the Christian’s pagan predecessors. After almost forty years of life under Christian rulership, over a decade of it under the second Roman emperor to practice that faith, mistreatment of the Jews began to worsen. Constantius ll, in power since 337, allowed both Jews and pagans to be persecuted by Christians, encouraging the clergy to both proselytize against them and lead mobs of violent rioters who burned synagogues and temples to the ground. This worsening mistreatment led to yet another Jewish revolt in the region of Galilee, where a significant Jewish population had remained. Led by the Jewish freedom fighter Patricius, the rebels began to engage in hostilities against the Romans in 351 with the intent of liberating the region and ending their oppression under the Romans. While the Jews managed to seize the Roman cities of Tiberias and Diospolis, Patricius had no greater luck than Bar Kokhba in the end. By 352 the revolt was put down and Patricius was killed, along with many other Jews, both from among the rebels and the common populace. The city of Sepphoris, from which many of the rebels had come, had been destroyed along with the Roman cities of Tiberias and Diospolis in their retaking. In order to prevent the Jews from rising up again, the Romans built a permanent garrison in Galilee, where even after this bloodshed many Jews chose to remain in order to be close to their sacred homeland.
From then on, the Jews of Rome lived on under Christian rule with little hope of change save the glimmer of optimism caused by the Roman emperor Julian, who, after his rise to power in 361, actually allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and gave them permission to build a third Temple. It is suspected by some historians that, as a pagan and the last Roman emperor to be of that faith, Julian allowed the Jews this right as part of his desire to abolish Christianity and bring the empire back to its polytheistic traditions (a well known ambition of his). Hope for a new Jewish province and third Temple was not long for this world, however, as Julian died in 363, leaving his chief general, the staunchly Christian Jovian to succeed him. It was not until the early seventh century that the Jews saw Christian rule disrupted and significant changes occur in their homeland, when the Persian invasion of the Byzantine Empire (Rome’s Eastern successor after the fall of the West in 476) began in 610. The Persian invasion of Rome was welcomed and aided by many Roman Jews who were still inspired by hopes of regaining their freedom and building a more free province under the Persians. As a result, Jews across Rome fought alongside the Persian army, and in return for their effort were granted administration of Jerusalem after the Persians took the city; just as the Persians had allowed the Jews to do over a thousand years prior under Cyrus the Great.
This short lived period once again saw the hopes of the Jewish people dashed when the Persians failed to hold the city against the Byzantine army which set to reinstall Roman rule and successfully retook Jerusalem in 629. All who fought against Rome were forced out, exiling the Jews once again for their crime of rebellion. As a result of their failed effort for independence under Persia, the Jewish people faced greater intolerance across the Byzantine Empire and witnessed further limits on freedoms there as well as a greater degree of anti-Semitic sentiment throughout other parts of the Christian world, reaching as far as Merovingian France. Still, rule under the Romans was not long for the Jewish people of the former Judea and in fact came to an end less than a decade later with the capture of Jerusalem by Muslim conquers in 638. These people would rule the Jewish homeland for over four hundred years and, with the exception of two tumultuous centuries of Crusades in the early second millennium, the city of Jerusalem and its surrounding territories were controlled by one Islamic ruler or another for over a thousand years. Designated the third holiest place in Islam after Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem became a sacred city for Muslim people, and in 691, the Dome of the Rock was built on the site of the former temple of Solomon to mark the place the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was believed to have ascended into heaven.
While this upset many Jews, their community was allowed to live under Islamic rule in line with the newly minted Islamic laws which allowed non-Muslim people to live under Muslim rulership provided they pay the Jizya (tax on non-Muslim subjects). Unfortunately this was not all the Jews of the early Islamic era would have wished for, as laws passed against non-Muslims in 717 limited the rights of Jews, and religious freedoms in general, as well as imposed heavy taxes on them, particularly for those engaged in farming or agricultural pursuits. These restrictions, reminiscent of what they had suffered under the Romans, forced many Jews to leave rural communities and engage in a more urban life where they were not forced to pay these additional dues. Urban life under Muslim rule, however, proved to be far from ideal for many Jews, and under increasing social and economic pressure, a significant number left, seeking better lives and greater freedom outside of Muslim held territories. Many others simply chose to convert to Islam in order to avoid such hardships. Meanwhile, the Jews still living in the Byzantine Empire were faring no better, making the successor to Rome as undesirable a place as Muhammad’s new empire. The Byzantines had not forgotten the Jewish uprisings during the Persian conquests of the seventh century, which outraged their Christian rulers, resulting in Byzantine emperor Heraclius becoming the first emperor to force Jews to convert to Christianity.
Despite being forced to abandon their religion, some Jews continued to survive in the Byzantine empire, and with the end of Heraclius’s rule in 641 CE, the forced conversions to Christianity ended. However, oppression under various Byzantine emperors continued, resulting in even greater limits on basic rights than before and even support for anti-Semitic violence, both of which made life one of hardship for the Jews of Christendom. Despite this oppression, Jews persisted in the Byzantine Empire, and a strong scholarly culture began to thrive among rabbis there. By the early 10th century, a famous Jewish text, the Sefer Yosippon, developed over centuries of mythologizing the Jewish hero Flavius Josephus, was written in Greek by a Jewish Byzantine living in southern Italy; Flavius Josephus was a freedom fighter who had opposed the Romans in the first century CE and whose legend lived on in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people. The Sefer Yosippon, among similar texts, demonstrated the Jew’s resiliency to survive under Byzantine hardship and the extent of their passion for scholarship. Several other Jewish texts written in Greek by Byzantine Jews during this period would find their way into the Machzorim (prayer books) or remain preserved in their entirety, including the Sefer Ahimaaz, the Sefer Hachmoni, and the Aggadath Bereshit, as well as many piyyutim (Jewish religious poems), thus granting Jewish people access to their ancient heritage to this day.
By the early second millennium, life would once again change radically for the Jews, as the land surrounding Jerusalem was to become a hotbed of military conflict and social upheaval in one of the worlds longest lasting military engagements of all time; the Crusades. As a result of a call for aid by the Byzantine emperor to his Christian allies across Europe, made in response to Muslim conquests into Byzantine held lands, the Catholic church (then known as the Latin or Western church) called for a military Crusade to retake the region of Jerusalem and make it into a Christian kingdom, while also pushing back the Islamic incursions into the Byzantine Empire. Deemed the “Holy Land” by many Christians across Europe, Jerusalem was seen as worth invading to retake from Islam and bring once again under Christian rule; a view shared by many within the clergy, the nobility, and the common people as well. As such, by 1095, when the conflict began, plans to retake the region had been simmering amongst Christian leaders for decades. The area was repeatedly invaded from then on, by both Christians and Muslims who sought to claim the land as their own, forcing the Jews to watch as their homeland played host to the Crusades until 1291, almost two hundred years. This was an even worse period of hardship for the Jews than any they had faced in either the Byzantine Empire or the Muslim Caliphates (kingdoms) which had ruled over their people for the last several centuries. The establishment of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1100 saw the non-Christian inhabitants massacred, the Jews barricaded in their synagogues, and those who defended their homes burned to death or sold as slaves.
It was not until Saladin took Jerusalem in 1187 CE that the Jews were again granted a measure of freedom under Islamic rule, including the right to resettle in Jerusalem, which, given the long history of seeking a return home, saw many Jews relocating once again. With the death of Saladin in 1193, Christians began retaking the region as best they could, bringing uncertainty to Jewish peoples over the next century. That is, until the Christians’ decisive defeat in 1291 by the Mamluks, a Muslim military caste originally from Turkey (originally made up of slaves and freed slaves) that would come to dominate the region and crush the Christian Crusaders once and for all. Life under the Mamluks was again far from ideal for the Jews. Yet, after the utter devastation of the Crusades had left Jerusalem in ruins and the Jews of the region little better, it was a vast improvement over the Christian purges, though the Mamluk’s disdain for the Jews made for even more oppressive laws than those passed by other Muslim rulers in earlier in centuries. For the next 225 years following their conquest of the region, the Mamluks would rule over Jerusalem and its inhabitants, save for a short stint during which Mongols took the region in 1300.
Though the Mamluks managed to conquer and control the region, they would not hold it forever. In 1516 the Ottoman Turks overran them and began four centuries of Ottoman rule. During the Ottoman period, the Jews were tolerated much as they had been by previous Muslim rulers. In spite of this they began to flourish once more, even drawing in immigrants from North Africa and Europe, and rebuilt the urban centres in Jerusalem after the utter poverty of the Mamluk period. It was during this time of comparative fortune and security for the Jews that one of the most important developments in their history came about, the rise of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century.
Written by David Proulx – UTKM White Belt
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Gilbert, M. (1998). Israel, a History. London. Doubleday.
Stockman Shomron, I. (1984). Israel, the Middle East, and the Great Powers. Israel. Shikmona Publishing Company.
Reich, B. (2005). A Brief History of Israel. New York. Check Mark Books.