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A History of Palestine: 634-1099.

Professor Moshe Gil's study is a huge and immensely learned book which is intended to be the first comprehensive history of Palestine from the Muslim conquest in 634 to the coming of the Crusaders in 1099. At the same time, however, his study seems often unbalanced, both in the selection of its materials and in its analyses, and it is not free from easily discernible biases and internal contradictions. The author is a distinguished Israeli scholar who is known especially for his study of the Cairo Geniza documents which were written by Jewish people living at the time the events which he discusses took place. These documents undoubtedly provide one of the most authentic and important sources of information about a still very little known period in Palestinian history.

As the author stresses: "The Muslim conquest of Palestine opened an entirely new chapter in Palestine's history" and brought about an essential change in the domestic situation and status of the country. In addition to the two communities already living there: the Jewish and Christian communities, another one was added: the Muslim, which took over the rule of the land and slowly changed, to a major extent though not completely, its social and religious character. However, the pace and nature of those changes are by no means clear and the estimates and hypotheses of the scholars vary enormously. Professor Gil, for instance, argues that at the time of the Muslim conquest of Palestine, a large Jewish population consisting of the "direct descendants of Jews who lived there since the days of Joshua bin Nun, in other words for some 2000 years" still lived there and played an "economically most important" role in the country. He is even inclined to assume that the Jews may have then formed a majority, especially if grouped together with the Samaritans. A good number of other scholars, including such prominent Israeli academics as Prof. Avi Yonah and A. J. Brower hold quite different opinions, indicating that because of the ongoing emigration out of the country, Jews were a minority there since at least the Third Century of the New Era, and their number at the time of Muslim encroachment could not have exceeded 10% at most. For a number of reasons, their economic role in the Byzantine period was probably also rather more modest than the author seems to believe, and there is little doubt that at the beginning of the Seventh Century, Palestine had a predominantly Christian character, being full of churches, convents and various religious foundations. As late as the end of the Eleventh Century, just before the Crusaders arrived, an Andalusian Muslim writer who lived in Jerusalem in the years 1093-1095 thought that "the country is their's [the Christians'] because it is they who work its soft, nurture its monasteries and maintain its churches". However, the author prefers to underestimate the role and importance of Christianity in the history of the country. Out of the 837 pages of the text, about 60 deal with the presence and development of Christianity and the author's presentation of its life is not only usually unsympathetic, but also not free from some contradictions and exaggerations. The Christians are singled out as living in "an atmosphere steeped in superstitions, giving credence to miracles and the supernatural", even though, according to the developments described by him later on, similar attitudes were equally widespread among the other groups of the population, including local Jewry. On the other hand, he writes that "the Christians had immense influence and positions of power, chiefly because of the gifted administrators among them who occupied government posts . . . or who were part of the intelligentsia of the period owing to the fact that they were outstanding scientists, mathematicians, physicians and so on". The input of Christian intellectuals notwithstanding, Jews, due to their strong communal organization and financial power, had usually much more influence in the Caliphs' empire and even more so later on during the Fatimid period. Professor Gil himself writes about the "special links that existed between the Fatimids and the Jews" and in spite of occasional problems common to all subdued religions and social communities, their situation throughout the period was more that of a well established and well protected middle class than persecuted outcasts. The author admits that because of "the major standing of the Jewish merchants . . . in maritime trade in the Mediterranean . . . the unprecedented role of the Jews in political and military events and . . . Jewish support of the Fatimid rulers against their enemies . . . the leadership of the Jews in Palestine . . . had access to the rulers in al-Qahira". As a result: "Whenever there was some injustice towards the Jewish population or even towards an individual, whether this was harshness in matters of taxes or some maltreatment . . . urgent letters would be sent from Jerusalem . . . and Jews close to the court . . . would be made to exert their influence, until the matter was rectified by the Caliph's official order". In spite of that, Professor Gil still spends a lot of time writing on Jewish misfortunes and their oppression by both Muslims and Christians. Intercommunal relations were undoubtedly far from ideal, but the Jews were by no means in a weak position and were showing openly their own hatred of other religions, especially Christianity. Occasionally, they even participated in the destruction of churches and persecutions of the local Christian population, often siding in such situations with the Muslims. One of the unappreciated Jewish advantages over the Christians was the fact that their pilgrims did not need to pay a tax in order to enter Jerusalem, which the Muslim conquest again opened to their inhabitation and socio-religious activities.

The author also discusses two other major but largely disputed historical processes of the period: the Islamization of the Palestinian population and, following the Muslim conquest, the apparent socioeconomic decline of the country. He admits that the Islamization of the local inhabitants is "a question which is rather obscure", but he does not perceive evidence of any large number of Christians or Jews converting to Islam, and he strongly repudiates the opinion on the Jewish origins of the Arabs of Palestine, a view held by some Jewish writers including David Ben-Gurion. In view of the lack of any comprehensive and reliable historical documentation on the demographic and religious transformations of the Palestinian population at that time, his opinion, however, is no less arbitrary than that of some other scholars and provides even less plausible explanations of these developments.

The author pays understandable attention to the intriguing process of the growing depopulation and economic decline of the country. As he writes: "It is estimated that the erosion of the soil from the western slopes of the Judaean mountains reached--as a result of the agricultural uprooting during the Muslim period--the gigantic extent of 2,000 to 4,000 cubic meters [and] in a survey made by Guy in 1938 on the region of Rehovet-Ramla-Lod-Ramallah, he found that out of 293 towns, 193 were abandoned, apparently mainly because of soil erosion". However, the causes of the regress are by no means always clear. According to Professor Gil's opinion, the main reason and "the most characteristic feature of this period was the undermining of internal security". Even before the upheavals caused by the Abbasid revolution, intertribal warfare among the Arabs who now dominated the country "completely undermined the internal security of the area". The wars among the various Muslim contenders after the fragmentation of the caliphate was completed and Egypt achieved independence, were even more destructive for Palestine as "adversaries from the North, East and South each sought to dominate it in order to prevent the likelihood of its being used as a springboard for attack by the opposing forces". The geopolitical and geostrategic situation which prevailed in Palestine in ancient times was then renewed and the constant wars between the belligerent camps "led to the uprooting of the population and the destruction of the flourishing economy handed down by the Byzantines".

However, the author 'also indicates the Umayyads' concern for agriculture and cities of the country and their efforts to improve and rebuild the roads and irrigation systems. The historical problems involved are probably still more complex and should be discussed afresh without any preconceived political views and prejudices.

The strongest and most valuable part of the book is its detailed and well documented description of the Jewish population and its leadership in the period. The author stresses that "the strong communal organization and central institutions of leadership preserved the unity of the nation" and pays particular attention to the history of the Jewish legal institutions, especially the Palestinian Yeshiva (the Sanhedrin) which from the days of the Second Temple played the role of "the central institution of Jewish leadership in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean". He also points out that although "in the main, . . . the Muslim world was open, and whoever wished to come and settle in Palestine was free to do so", the Jewish leaders did not call on the Jews of the Diaspora to emigrate and settle there. The Jews of Jerusalem were well aware of their special status and value, but they did not invite immigration, and emigration out of Palestine was not considered by them to be morally wrong. From this viewpoint and from some others, the Jewish attitudes differed sharply from those of Karaites, who separated themselves into a special, largely isolated religious and social community.

In spite of its somewhat partisan approach, the work of Professor Gil is undoubtedly an important and thoroughly researched study of the period. However, an accurately balanced and comprehensive history of Palestine still needs to be written, perhaps as an outcome of fruitful cooperation between Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars of the future.

Dr. Andrej Kreutz is a writer based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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Author:Kreutz, Andrej
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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