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HomeExpertsA Historical Overview of Palestine: From Ancient Times to Modern Changes

A Historical Overview of Palestine: From Ancient Times to Modern Changes

Today, the Palestinian lands, where great dramas are unfolding, have been the cradle of various civilizations throughout history and were under Ottoman rule for four hundred years.

In the late period of the Ottoman Empire, there was a significant influx of Jewish migrations into the region. However, the real turning point in the region’s current structure was the Balfour Declaration.


The name Palestine is believed to have originated from the people known as the Philistines who came to the region in the 12th century BC. Due to its strategic location and its role in the spread of the three Abrahamic religions, as well as the presence of places considered sacred by all three religions, the region has been subjected to conflicts and occupations for centuries.

The geographical boundaries of Palestine are generally defined as the lands between Syria, Egypt, the Mediterranean, and the Jordan River, including the area where the Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea. After World War I, when the region was placed under mandate rule, the borders adopted were similar, except for the Sinai Peninsula belonging to Egypt and present-day Jordan. The total land area is around 27,000 square kilometers.

After the original inhabitants, the Amalekites, the Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Arameans lived in the region, and in the 12th century BC, the Philistines, a maritime people, arrived in the area. Due to its fertile lands, the region is described in the Holy Scriptures as “a land flowing with milk and honey.”

The arrival of the Israelites in the region, led by Moses, occurred in the 11th century BC. By the end of the century, the first Israelite state was established. Under the leadership of King David, many communities were brought under control, and the most splendid period occurred during the time of King Solomon. The construction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque also took place during this period.

Following King Solomon, the two states that emerged, Israel and Judah, were put to an end by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, respectively. Both of the states that ruled over Palestine exiled the Jews to Mesopotamia, marking the beginning of the Jews’ first period of exile.

After the Persians defeated the Babylonians, some of the Jews returned to their homeland. After Alexander the Great, there was a significant process of Hellenization in the region, but the Greek influence remained mostly limited to the cities. Palestine was later subjected to Roman occupation. Jewish uprisings against Roman rule led to the second exile of the Jews.

The most significant feature of the Roman period was the spread of Christianity after Judaism in the region. This led to the recognition of Jerusalem as a holy place by Christians, following its significance to Jews. As Christianity spread, the Jews, in turn, faced pressure from them.

After the Sasanian invasion and massacre in 611 and under the rule of Heraclius in 629, the region came under Byzantine control. Jerusalem was recognized as an important place for Muslims as well, primarily because of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Mi’raj event. During the reign of Caliph Umar, Palestine came under Islamic rule, and Jerusalem accepted Muslim sovereignty peacefully.


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After Palestine became part of the Islamic lands, many companions of the Prophet Muhammad emigrated there and passed away. During the Umayyad period, Arab tribes were settled in the region, and it was administered as part of the Syrian province during the Abbasid era.

With the decline of the Abbasids, the region came under the control of the Tulunids, Ikhshids, and Fatimids.

During the First Crusade, Jerusalem was captured in 1099, putting an end to Fatimid rule in the region. Saladin’s victory at the Battle of Hattin in 1187 brought an end to the dominance of the Crusaders in the region, and he even allowed the return of the Jews who had been previously expelled.

After the Ayyubids, the Mamluks became the new rulers of the region. During the Mamluk period, the Muslim population increased, and permission was granted for Christian communities and Jews fleeing from Europe to settle in Palestine.

Mamluk rule in the region ended with the victory of Yavuz Sultan Selim at the Battle of Marj Dabiq. Following this, the Ottoman rule, which would last for four hundred years, began in the region. However, there was never an administrative division called “Palestine” within the Ottoman system. The name Palestine started being used by Western powers, primarily by Britain, in the 19th century and later in Ottoman diplomacy.

The Ottomans governed Palestine by dividing it into districts under the authority of the province of Damascus. However, during periods of weak central authority, local leaders in Acre and other places occasionally rebelled and took control of governance.

The first foreign attack on the region during the Ottoman period was led by Napoleon Bonaparte. Although he marched on Acre after Egypt and Jaffa, he could not hold it against Cezzar Ahmet Pasha and eventually withdrew. It is suggested that the idea of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine may have first belonged to Napoleon, although this is not certain.

After some time, the region came under the rule of Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Muhammad Ali Pasha, who had taken control of Egypt. Despite the intervention of European powers, the region was returned to Ottoman rule, but by then, Palestine had become a direct area of interest for European powers. In 1887, the Ottomans established a mutasarriflik (an autonomous administrative unit) centered in Jerusalem for Palestine. A year later, with the establishment of the Beirut Vilayet, Acre and Nablus were attached to it, dividing Palestine into two parts.

To understand the current situation in Palestine, it is essential to highlight the demographic change process. When looking at the late Ottoman period, for example, in 1880, 87% of the population was Muslim, 85% in 1890, and 83% in 1914. Even when accounting for Jews with no recorded population due to their illegal settlements, Muslims still made up 77% of the population.

Another notable aspect in Ottoman population census data is that in the Jerusalem mutasarriflik, for instance, in the 1881-1882 census, the second-largest group after Muslims was not Jews but Christians affiliated with the Greek Patriarchate. Christians made up 7.11% of the population, whereas Jews were only about 3.45%. In 1895-1896, the Jewish population increased slightly to about 4.51%.

Looking at Nablus, in 1885-1886, Muslims made up 98.4% of the population, while Greeks were 0.88% and Jews were only 0.08%. In the Acre sanjak in the same year, while Muslims constituted 77.5%, Jews, as the fifth group after Catholics, Greeks, and Latins, made up only 2.13%. Even in Nazareth, the birthplace of Jesus, where there was a significant Christian population, Muslims accounted for 55% of the population.

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The beginning of Jewish migrations to Palestine was significantly influenced by Zionist activities. The Ottoman administration did not view these migrations favorably, despite the expectation that Zionist activities could provide financial resources, both during the reign of Abdulhamid II and during the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) period of the Second Constitutional Era. The main reason for this was the fear that Zionism aimed to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Zionist leader Theodor Herzl met with Abdulhamid II and pledged to help the Ottoman government with their debts in exchange for facilitating Jewish settlement. Abdulhamid, through Tahsin Pasha, indicated that the Jews who had to flee from Europe and Russia and who were forced to convert to Ottoman citizenship could settle in Ottoman territories. The only condition was that they should not settle in Palestine. The Ittihadists maintained the same policy and tried to settle Jewish immigrants in Macedonia and Mesopotamia. During Abdulhamid’s rule, Jewish immigrants were allowed to enter Palestine with a temporary residence permit valid for three months. Despite the measures taken, for example, the Yafa Governorate stated in a letter in 1910 that only ten percent of the arriving Jews had returned. It was understood that Jews came to the region, often under the pretext of the Hajj, and stayed.

Jews were settling in the region by buying land. According to the 1858 Land Code, foreign nationals could buy land in Ottoman territory. In 1883, an amendment was made to the law, prohibiting Jews from buying real estate. However, due to Jews purchasing land, either through Ottoman citizens or on their behalf by the British, this was not prevented.

The attempts of Jews to settle in Palestine and establish colonies led to a reaction from the local population. In 1901, Palestinian Arabs sent a protest telegram to the Porte (the central government in Istanbul), demanding that Jewish immigration be prevented. A similar reaction was reported in local newspapers after 1908. The issue of Jewish immigration was even discussed in the Ottoman Parliament.

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Despite the measures taken during the reign of Abdulhamid and the Second Constitutional Era, the Jewish population in the region was rapidly increasing. According to the last Ottoman census in 1914, the number of Jews in the Jerusalem Sanjak was 21,259. This number did not include non-Ottoman citizen Jews. After initially struggling to prevent Jewish immigration to Palestine, the Palestinians started to make efforts to remove them from these lands.

By 1946, the population of Palestine, which was 1,942,349, consisted of 33% Jews. In 1948, the British Mandate ended, and the independent state of Israel was established.

As a result, during the period of British administration established during World War I after the Ottoman Empire left the region, the demographic structure of Palestine was changed through uncontrolled migrations, laying the groundwork for the establishment of the state of Israel. In the subsequent period, the Palestinians were always the losers in the struggle. They not only lost their land but also their lives and property, with a significant portion becoming refugees by moving to other places.

References: Bostancı Işık, I. (2014), “XIX. Yüzyılın İkinci Yarısında Filistin Bölgesinin Demografik Yapısı,” Osmanlı’dan Günümüze Filistin Sempozyumu, Ankara, C. 1, s. 156-183; Öke, M. K. (1991), Osmanlı İmparatorluğu, Siyonizm ve Filistin Sorunu, İstanbul, Üçdal; Ortak, Ş. (2014), “İttihat Ve Terakkî Yönetimi’nin Filistin’e Yahudi Göçlerine Karşı Politikaları,” XVII. TTK Kongresi Bildirileri, Ankara, C. IV, II. Kısım, s. 693-712; Engin, V. (2010), Pazarlık, İstanbul, Yeditepe; Karaman, L. (1996), “Filistin,” DİA, C. 13; Kodaman, B., İpek, N. (1993), “Yahudilerin Filistin’e Yerleştirilmeleriyle İlgili 1879’da II. Abdülhamit’e Sunulan Bir Layiha,” Belleten, S. 219, s. 555-580; Fromkin, D. (2008), Barışa Son Veren Barış, İstanbul, Epsilon.

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Dr. Yüksel Nizamoğlu is an Historian focuses on Ottoman Balkans, Middle East Studies, and Military History. PhD. 2010. Istanbul University.


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