By Professor Isaiah Gafni and published in My Jewish Learning
The following article is from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.
The early decades of the seventh century C.E. comprised one of the most eventful periods in the history of the Land of Israel. Within 24 years, between 614 and 638, the country changed hands three times. The four-centuries long conflict between Rome and Persia was to come to an end in a final collision of the Byzantine and Sassanid armies. Both these powers had attained great victories and suffered terrible defeats, and as they continued to enfeeble each other, they gave way to the rise of a new power, the Islamic forces, which would drive them both out of the region.
The two monotheistic religions claiming Palestine as their holy land were joined by a third faith, newly born and extraordinarily vigorous. The Muslim conquest was destined to shape the character of the entire Middle East for the following thirteen centuries, down to this very day.
The Precarious Balance Between Persia and Rome
The events in Palestine during those years should be seen within the wider context of the relations between the powers in the Orient. Several centuries of struggle had created a sort of equilibrium; the Persians ruled east of the Euphrates, Rome ruled to its west, and the “buffer states”–Armenia, Syria, Mesopotamia and Palestine—constituted the battlefield for their frequent wars.
This precarious balance persisted till the early sixth century when the sovereigns of these two empires, threatened by other enemies, began a correspondence that was meant to secure the frontier between them. The Byzantine Emperor Maurice and the Persian Khosrow II Parviz (the “Victorious”) finally signed an “eternal” peace accord which was to last for ten years. In 602 a soldier’s mutiny overthrew the Byzantine monarch and placed a junior officer named Phocas on the throne.
Khosrow seized this opportunity to renew the war, leading the Persian armies into Byzantine territories in the Near East. In 613 his soldiers completed the conquest of Syria and captured Damascus. As the Persian armies were advancing, Jewish communities were rising in revolt against local Byzantine rulers and hailing Persians as liberators.
Khosrow’s Troops Enter Jerusalem
In the early summer of 614, Khosrow’s troops entered Jerusalem and massacred its Christian population. The role of the Jews during this Persian siege and conquest of Jerusalem remains unclear. Later Christian sources, however, accused the community of collaboration with the invaders and of destruction of many churches in the city.
On the other hand, there is clear evidence that the status of the Jewish population under Persian rule had deteriorated prior to 617. The Persians apparently realized that there was little to be gained from appeasing a small local minority. According to contemporary Jewish documents, a Jewish leader by the name of Nehemiah ben Hushi’el, probably a messianic figure, was executed: “And there was trouble in Israel as never before” (Book of Zerubbabel).
The Persian victory, however, was not to last. Following a victory in Nineveh in 627, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius besieged the Persian capital of Ctesiphon. Khosrow was deposed and assassinated, and his son, who wished to end the war, died in 629. Heraclius reached an agreement with the Persian army commander who ordered his troops to withdraw from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria and Palestine, and also returned to the Byzantines the relics of the True Cross. On March 29, 629, as Heraclius triumphantly entered Jerusalem, Christians wept with joy at the miracle of the restoration of the True Cross. In his hour of glory, the emperor magnanimously refrained from taking reprisal against the Jews.
Enter the Muslim Army
But the Christian restoration was also short-lived. In 634 the Arabs invaded the land and besieged Gaza. In 636 they defeated the Byzantines by the Yarmuk River, and two years later Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslim army.
The Jews of Palestine looked on powerless as three empires fought over their land. With each upheaval, messianic expectations soared. Their hopes were expressed in religious hymns (piyyutim) which were recited on festivals in centuries to come: “When the Messiah son of David will come to his oppressed people, these signs will appear in the world…A king of the West and a king of the East will do battle and the western armies will grow strong. But from Yoktan [Arabia] another king will go forth whose forces will overrun the land…And the kohanim [temple priests] will officiate, and the Levites will preach from their pulpit [God] saying: I have returned to Jerusalem in mercy.”
Isaiah Gafni is a Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He specializes in the history of the Jewish people during the Second Temple period.