As a geographic unit, Palestine extended from the Mediterranean on the west to the Arabian Desert on the east and from the lower Litani River in the north to the Gaza Valley in the south. It was named after the Philistines, who occupied the southern coastal region in the twelfth century B.C. The name Philistia was used in the second century A.D. to designate Syria Palestina, which formed the southern third of the Roman province of Syria.
Emperor Constantine (ca. 280-337) shifted his capital from Rome to Constantinople in 330 and made Christianity the official religion. With Constantine's conversion to Christianity, a new era of prosperity came to Palestine, which attracted a flood of pilgrims from all over the empire. Upon partition of the Roman Empire in 395, Palestine passed under eastern control. The scholarly Jewish communities in Galilee continued with varying fortunes under Byzantine rule and dominant Christian influence until the Arab-Muslim conquest of A.D. 638. The period included, however, strong Jewish support of the briefly successful Persian invasion of 610-14.
The Arab caliph, Umar, designated Jerusalem as the third holiest place in Islam, second only to Mecca and Medina. Under the Umayyads, based in Damascus, the Dome of the Rock was erected in 691 on the site of the Temple of Solomon, which was also the alleged nocturnal resting place of the Prophet Muhammad on his journey to heaven. It is the earliest Muslim monument still extant. Close to the shrine, to the south, the Al Aqsa Mosque was built. The Umayyad caliph, Umar II (717-720), imposed humiliating restrictions on his non-Muslim subjects that led many to convert to Islam. These conversions, in addition to a steady tribal flow from the desert, changed the religious character of the inhabitants of Palestine from Christian to Muslim. Under the Abbasids the process of Islamization gained added momentum as a result of further restrictions imposed on non-Muslims by Harun ar Rashid (786-809) and more particularly by Al Mutawakkil (847-61).
The Abbasids were followed by the Fatimids who faced frequent attacks from Qarmatians, Seljuks, and Byzantines, and periodic beduin opposition. Palestine was reduced to a battlefield. In 1071 the Seljuks captured Jerusalem. The Fatimids recaptured the city in 1098, only to deliver it a year later to a new enemy, the Crusaders of Western Europe. In 1100 the Crusaders established the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, which remained until the famous Muslim general Salah ad Din (Saladin) defeated them at the decisive Battle of Hattin in 1187. The Crusaders were not completely evicted from Palestine, however, until 1291 when they were driven out of Acre. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were a "dark age" for Palestine as a result of Mamluk misrule and the spread of several epidemics. The Mamluks were slave-soldiers who established a dynasty that ruled Egypt and Syria, which included Palestine, from 1250 to 1516.
In 1516 the Ottoman Turks, led by Sultan Selim I, routed the Mamluks, and Palestine began four centuries under Ottoman domination. Under the Ottomans, Palestine continued to be linked administratively to Damascus until 1830, when it was placed under Sidon, then under Acre, then once again under Damascus. In 1887-88 the local governmental units of the Ottoman Empire were finally settled, and Palestine was divided into the administrative divisions (sing., mutasarrifiyah) of Nabulus and Acre, both of which were linked with the vilayet (largest Ottoman administrative division, similar to a province) of Beirut and the autonomous mutasarrifiyah of Jerusalem, which dealt directly with Constantinople.
For the first three centuries of Ottoman rule, Palestine was relatively insulated from outside influences. At the end of the eighteenth century, Napoleon's abortive attempt to establish a Middle East empire led to increased Western involvement in Palestine. The trend toward Western influence accelerated during the nine years (1831-40) that the Egyptian viceroy Muhammad Ali and his son Ibrahim ruled Palestine. The Ottomans returned to power in 1840 with the help of the British, Austrians, and Russians. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, Palestine, despite the growth of Christian missionary schools and the establishment of European consulates, remained a mainly rural, poor but self-sufficient, introverted society. Demographically its population was overwhelmingly Arab, mainly Muslim, but with an important Christian merchant and professional class residing in the cities. The Jewish population of Palestine before 1880 consisted of fewer than 25,000 people, two-thirds of whom lived in Jerusalem where they made up half the population (and from 1890 on more than half the population). These were Orthodox Jews, many of whom had immigrated to Palestine simply to be buried in the Holy Land, and who had no real political interest in establishing a Jewish entity. They were supported by alms given by world Jewry.
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