the last time Jews ruled over Jerusalem
You might think this post is about the Kingdom of Judah (930 BCE-587 BCE). Or the Hasmonean Dynasty of Judea, following the successful Maccabean Revolt (140 BCE-47 BCE). Or the First Jewish-Roman War (66 CE-73 CE). Or even the Third Jewish-Roman War, also known as the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135).
This post is about a very, very brief period in time — 614 to 617 — when Jews momentarily retained autonomy and sovereignty over Jerusalem.
That’s right: only two decades before the Arab Conquest, Jews were once again briefly sovereign in their own land. And yet, for some reason, not very many people know about it.
A brief background: The Jewish People (and our ancestors) have lived in Jerusalem continuously since at least 1000 BCE, when King David made it the capital of the Kingdom of Israel (the United Monarchy).
The first settlements in what is now Jerusalem can be dated to 4500 BCE, and its original name, in Western Semitic (the precursor to languages such as Hebrew), was Ursalim.
There are two main theories as to why Jerusalem is named Jerusalem (Yerushalayim in Hebrew): (1) it means “City of Peace” in Hebrew, and (2) the original name, “Ursalim,” was an ode to the ancient Canaanite god Shalim, or “the god of dusk” (a reminder that Hebrew is the only Canaanite language that has survived to this day; in other words, whatever the true meaning of the word “Jerusalem,” it was a word coined by the ancient ancestors of the Jews, the Hebrews).
In 637, the Arab Caliphate captured Jerusalem from the Byzantine Empire, and, in the ninth century, renamed the city “Al-Quds.”
The Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, reigned the region today known as Israel-Palestine during almost the entirety of the period between 324-636. During this time, it was Christian policy to convert Jews to Christianity, with nearly half of the Indigenous Jewish and Samaritan populations ultimately adopting the Christian religion.
During this period, Jews still formed the majority of the population in Palestine. There were at least 43 Jewish communities in the region, especially in the Galilee, which was home to 31 Jewish communities. For the majority of Byzantine rule, however, Jews were banned from Jerusalem, except briefly between 361-363, when the tolerant Emperor Julian abolished the special taxes forced onto Jews and even started to restore the sacred Jewish Temple, which the Romans had destroyed in 70 CE, in the midst of the First Jewish Revolt. Ultimately, Emperor Julian’s initiative was unsuccessful, due to his death and an earthquake.
Jews faced severe restrictions during Byzantine rule. It was illegal to become Jewish, and Jews who harassed Christians in any way faced capital punishment. The Byzantines humiliated Jews in any way that they could, severely crushing freedoms, which resulted in the loss of social and cultural life. For instance, Jews were barred from holding public office or building new synagogues. They also suffered regular persecutions, leading to a decline in the population. In 533, Jewish treasures were sacked and taken to Rome.
After promising to restore Jewish rights, Emperor Heraclius went back on his word and ended up massacring the Jews of Palestine, prompting many to flee to Egypt. In light of this oppression, Jews and Samaritans revolted against the Byzantines various times. In 351-352, the Jews revolted against a corrupt governor, but the revolt was ultimately suppressed. In 614, however, Jews revolted once again, and for a brief period, this revolt was successful.
The Roman Empire — and later, the Byzantine Empire — fought periodic wars against the Persians from 53 BCE to 628 CE, right before the Muslim conquest of Persia.
Jews have resided in Persia since the Babylonian Exile, when the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah in 587 BCE and exiled about 25 percent of Judeans [Jews] to the Babylonian Empire. In the period of the Roman-Persian wars, Jews accounted for about 10 to 20 percent of the entire population of Persia. Though there were periods of persecution, Jews lived in relative peace at this time and held a level of autonomy, with their own courts of law. The head of the court of law was called Rosh Golah, meaning “Head of the Diaspora,” and was led by a descendant of the House of David, the royal Jewish family prior to the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem.
The Jewish community in the Byzantine Empire experienced severe persecution, whereas the Jewish community in Persia prospered at this time. As such, the Jews remained loyal to the Persians in the Roman-Persian wars. This loyalty manifested in a variety of ways; for example, Jews enrolled in military service or contributed financially.
In Palestine, tensions between the Jews and the Byzantine rulers were simmering. Weakened following centuries of systemic oppression, persecution, and disenfranchisement, however, the Jews had no hope of overthrowing the Byzantine Empire without some outside help.
Between 602-628, war broke out once again between the Persians and Byzantines. As always, the Jewish community of Persia showed their loyalty to the Persian rulers.
The Persian king, Khosrau II, hoped to reach as far west as possible, to gain access to the Mediterranean Sea. To do so, he knew that he needed to pass through Palestine. Perhaps to reward the Jews for their loyalty, he agreed to assign the conquest of Palestine to Jewish troops.
The Jews in Palestine enthusiastically welcomed the Persian Jewish troops and allied with them. The Persian Jewish troops were led by Nehemiah Ben Hushiel. Within Palestine, the Jewish rebellion was led by Benjamin of Tiberias, a wealthy Jew who invested his money into the rebellion.
In 614, following a short siege, Jerusalem fell into Persian hands. After the Persians conquered Jerusalem, as well as the rest of Palestine, they moved on to the rest of their conquests; only the Jews — Persian and local — remained, with Jerusalem now in their hands for the first time since the Bar Kokhba Revolt.
Immediately upon conquering Jerusalem, the Jews sought to reverse a number of oppressive Byzantine laws, beginning with the prohibition on building new synagogues. The prohibition against building synagogues actually predated the Byzantine Empire; by that point, no new synagogues had been built in Jerusalem for nearly five centuries.
Most importantly, however, the Jews planned to rebuild the Temple, which the Romans had destroyed in 70 CE. To plan for its construction, they began consulting genealogical lists, to see who was eligible to rebuild the Temple. Additionally, they reinstated the practice of animal sacrifices, which had not been observed since the days of the Temple.
The Persian troops were predominantly Zoroastrian, whom the Christians considered to be pagan. As such, they saw it as an insult that the Persians had entered the city. For the Jews, retaking control of Jerusalem was revenge following centuries of oppressive Christian rule. For the Christians, the idea of Jewish rule, after seeing Jews as second-class citizens for so long, was offensive.
Immediately, Jews, who’d long been prevented from entering Jerusalem, started moving back into the city. This prompted the Christians to rebel, so much so that additional Persian troops had to be called in to crush the rebellion.
The Persians were brutal in their counter-revolt, slaughtering an unknown number of Christians. The numbers vary drastically: from 6000 to 90,000. The latter is unlikely, as only 30,000-40,000 people lived within the city walls at the time. Sources from the time period very clearly attest that it was the Persians that were responsible for the Christian massacres, not the Jews. However, much later, in the ninth century, sources start to blame Jews for the killings, which makes it very likely that the claim that the Jewish rulers slaughtered Christians is a blood libel.
JEWISH RULE ENDS
Despite the Jews’ loyalty to the Persians, King Khosrau II quickly switched allegiances by 617, replacing the Jewish governor of Jerusalem with a Christian, who prohibited more Jews from settling in Jerusalem. Shortly thereafter, in 628, the Byzantines recaptured Jerusalem from the Persians, once again crushing the Jewish population with their oppressive rule. Less than a decade later, in 637, Jerusalem fell to the Arab Empire. The Arab conquest fundamentally shifted the demographics of Palestine, and Jews became a minority in their own homeland.
For some reason, this brief period of Jewish rule seems to have long been forgotten. Similarly, the briefly successful Jewish revolt against the Byzantines has also been forgotten, especially in comparison to the First Jewish Revolt and the Bar Kokhba Revolt. If anything has been said about this time of Jewish rule at all, it’s that the Jewish rulers slaughtered Christians, which seems to be a blood libel, as it is not supported by contemporary sources nor archeological findings. It’s an interesting pattern that every time Jews have recovered sovereignty in Israel, we are delegitimized in one way or another.
Though not super historically significant, I think it’s important for Jews to learn about this period. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe that we are fundamentally teaching Jewish history wrong. We jump from ancient Israel, which is taught through the lens of religion, rather than actual, verifiable history, straight to the Holocaust and Zionism, as though political Zionism is the first time that Jews organized politically for sovereignty in Israel since 135 CE. In reality, the Indigenous Jewish population continuously fought for sovereignty from foreign empires for millennia. Zionism was not a new foreign idea, coming from Europe. Zionism was a 2000 year yearning for autonomy from oppression and foreign rule in the land of our ancestors.
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