The distant past of what is now Israel and the Palestinian Territories is gleaned primarily from biblical texts and archeological evidence. Around the second millennium B.C.E., the land at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean existed as a collection of city-states under Egyptian rule. It was inhabited by Philistines, primarily in the southern area now known as Gaza, and Canaanites, extending northward into present-day Israel, Jordan, and Syria. It is thought that Abraham — or Ibrahim, as Muslims call him — came to Canaan in roughly 1800 B.C.E. In declaring his allegiance to a single god, he became the founding patriarch of what would come to be a group of religions, mostly monotheistic. Some of these, particularly Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, would vie for authority over the area for millennia, while others like the Bahá’i faith and Samaritanism would play a modest role in the region’s history.
Amidst the dissolution of the Egyptian empire, around 1300 B.C.E. Jewish tribes led by Moses and Joshua conquered the area and established the first independent state of Israel. In the 11th and 10th centuries B.C.E., a unified Jewish kingdom was established by Saul, and ruled by and expanded under David. Israel then saw the prosperous reign of Solomon and the construction of the holiest temple in Judaism in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount. But strife followed Solomon’s death in 926 B.C.E., and rule of the land soon shifted among conquering empires. First, the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C.E. Then the Babylonians overran the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C.E., destroying the Temple of Jerusalem; many see the exile of Jews by the conquering Babylonians as the first chapter in the long history of the Jewish Diaspora. In 539 B.C.E., the Babylonians themselves saw defeat at the hands of the Persians, who allowed Jews to return and rebuild the temple of Jerusalem. Centuries later, in 332 B.C.E., Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia brought Greek authority to the area. But his death, only a few years later, would lead to another century of shifting rule, this time among various Hellenic-Syrian powers. In 164 B.C.E., Jews rebelled against the Syrians and re-established Jewish rule. But it would be the last independent Jewish state on this land until the 20th century.
The next to invade were the Romans, who claimed the area around 61 B.C.E. Soon after, Jesus of Nazareth — the Christ to his followers — was born in Bethlehem and spread teachings that became the second of the major Abrahamic faiths. In coming decades, the Roman emperors put down repeated Jewish revolts. One such uprising, in 70 C.E., ended with the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, and another, in 132 C.E., with the expulsion of Jews. Until this point, the Romans had called the area Judea; afterwards — some say in an effort to erode Jewish connection with the land — it was called Palestine, after the Philistines. Roman rule saw further exile and persecution of the Jews, leading many to flee the land. The province of Palestine came under Byzantine rule following the east-west division of the Roman Empire in 395 C.E., and Christianity spread across the empire.
In 638 C.E., the expanding influence of Islam in the region brought the area under the Islamic Caliphate. Within a century, Muslims built upon the site in Jerusalem they called the Majed Mount, or Al-Haram ash Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), the same Temple Mount where the Jews’ most holy site had been built and destroyed twice before. The first of these Muslim sites was the Dome of the Rock, built where Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven; the second is Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site behind Mecca and Medina. From the seventh to 10th centuries C.E., the Islamic Caliphate fragmented, and control of Jerusalem and former Roman Palestine passed among several dynasties and Muslim authorities.
The region’s single period of Christian dominance came in 1099, when the Crusaders conquered the land, established the loosely feudal Kingdom of Jerusalem, and expanded to establish neighboring Crusader states. This kingdom, blending European and Middle Eastern traits, persisted for nearly a century until the area was retaken by Muslim forces under Salah ad Din (Saladin) in 1187. Muslim rule would continue, passing from the Mamluks to the Ottoman Turks in 1517. Both of these regimes encouraged some Jewish settlement of the area, a pattern that would become one the dominant forces shaping the region’s history in the centuries to come.
The early part of the 1800s saw poor administration by Egyptians and Ottomans, leading to Arab riots and emigration of Jews. The situation improved for both groups later in the century, and by 1880, the presence of roughly 24,000 Jews in the region (of a total population of about 400,000) led Ottoman rulers to restrict Jewish immigration and land purchase. Yet these strictures would be evaded, particularly as Zionism grew among European Jews. The late 1800s saw increasing immigration by Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe. And in 1897, the movement was formalized with the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, organized by Theodor Herzl, the first to formulate a coherent call for a Jewish state in present-day Israel. The Zionist cause gained strength in the early 20th century, as Jews established numerous farm communities and the new city of Tel Aviv. By 1914, the population of what was once Palestine had reached about 700,000, with approximately 600,000 Arabs and 85,000 to 100,000 Jews.