The many lives of Palestine

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, Sunrise, 1859 (Edward Lear / Private Collection)
Book review: Nur Masalha, Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History.

By G.W. Bowersock | The New York Review of Books | Apr 18, 2019

It is ironic that Greco-Roman Palestine should be the thread that kept this identity more or less intact, but this in no way discounts the strong sense of Palestinian identity that Masalha emphasizes. It made the terrifying and terrible upheaval imposed in 1948 after the Mandate all the more traumatic, as many Palestinian writers have readily perceived. They gradually adopted the word nakba (catastrophe) to designate this national trauma.

In the opening chapter of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon evoked in a few lapidary sentences the two most ill defined and yet most celebrated regions of the ancient Near East. As always, Gibbon chose his words carefully:

Phoenicia and Palestine were sometimes annexed to, and sometimes separated from, the jurisdiction of Syria. The former of these was a narrow and rocky coast; the latter was a territory scarcely superior to Wales, either in fertility or extent. Yet Phoenicia and Palestine will forever live in the memory of mankind; since America, as well as Europe, has received letters from the one, and religion from the other.

Gibbon knew well that the Phoenician alphabet lay behind the Greek letters that served to enrich Western literature. As for the religion that came from Palestine, Gibbon was certainly not thinking of either Judaism or Islam, but of Christianity, which Jesus brought to the Jews among whom he was born and to whom he was preaching. He was reputedly born in Bethlehem, a village that belonged administratively in those days to the Roman province of Judaea. Pontius Pilate was a Roman magistrate (a praefectus, as we now know despite Tacitus’s error in calling him a procurator), and of course he famously charged Jesus for being an aspiring king of the Jews.

Gibbon’s lines betray a profound knowledge of both Phoenicia and Palestine, which had long and complex histories of shifting back and forth from one part of greater Syria to another. Syria itself, with constantly fluctuating borders, lay to the east of Mt. Lebanon but also spread southwest across the Orontes and Jordan valleys as far as the Mediterranean coast. In classical antiquity Syria adjoined Phoenicia, which included the ports of Tyre and Sidon, but it was also associated with a bewildering variety of other ancient places, some clearly in the interior far from the sea.

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