April 20, 2024
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Beit Al Maqdas, The House of Prayer for All Nations That Omar Built

Part II

(Continued from last week)

The Jews, both the locals and the ones who joined the Persians in the conquest of Jerusalem in 614 CE, did not treat the city’s Christians with magnanimity. According to Christian accounts, Jews destroyed churches and put to death Christians who would not convert to Judaism. One of the more famous Jewish personages of that time and place was a certain wealthy Jew named Benjamin of Tiberias. The Jews exulted at the liberation of the city from Byzantine hands. A trove of artifacts were recently discovered dating back from that period. A verse from Isaiah was found scrawled on a stone on the mount. Jews cautiously celebrated their victory, and as mentioned may have resumed Temple sacrifices for the first time since the Bar Kochba revolt—but alas it was to be short-lived.

Heraclius eventually regrouped, forming powerful alliances with the sworn enemies of the Persians (such as the Khazars). A bloody battle ensued. It lasted from 622 to 628, with Byzantium once again in control of the Holy Land.

Revenge was swift and bloody. Heraclius’s edict of apostasy resulted in a wave of conversions and martyrdom (the Samaritan Chronicle The Tolida, a Samaritan chronicle, records a great number of people crucified among the Samaritans as well). Interestingly enough, Heraclius’ persecution of the Jews is still commemorated to this day by the Coptic Church, which holds an official fast day of the carnival (that is the great fast before Easter). It is intended to beg God’s pardon for the emperor Heraclius for having permitted the slaughter of the Jews in 628.

But the Byzantine sun was setting as the crescent was ascending from the south.

Did the ‘Natives’ of ‘Palestine’ Welcome the Arab Invader?

It is erroneous to think that the natives of the Levant in particular welcomed the Arabs with open arms as kindred brothers. Gil takes pains to point out that arguments as to racial affinity are exaggerated at best: “There are some among contemporary Arab savants (although fanciful tales that clearly attempt to respresent this sentiment appear early; see for instance Baladhuri who relates that the Jews of Homs swore an oath on the Torah scrolls that they would not let Heraclius back into the city and pledged their loyalty to the Muslim forces) who see an ethnic motivation behind the conquests. They see Arabs everywhere…the Cannanites and Philistines are Arabs, according to their theories. This applies to an even greater degree to the population of Syria and Palestine in the seventh century, who were certainly Semites. Thus, according to their claims, the conquering Arab forces, in the course of their battles, actually encountered their own people or at least members of their own race who spoke the same language (see, for instance, Hitti, History, 143). This is, of course, a very distorted view: Semitism is not a race and relates to the sphere of language. The populations in the cities and countryside along the route of battle were not Arabs and neither did they speak Arabic. We do know of Bedouin tribes who inhabited the southern desert of Palestine, west of the Eurphrates in the Syrian desert, Palmyra and elsewhere, but the cultivated inner regions were inhabited by Jews and Christians who spoke Aramaic. They did not sense any special ties to the Beduin; if anything the opposite was true. The proximity and danger of an invasion from that quarter disturbed their peace of mind, and this is amply reflected both in the writings of the Church fathers and in Talmudic sources (on early rabbinic attitudes toward Arabs, see BT Ketubot 66b and 72b; Taaniot ii 69b and Lamentations Rabba [Buber]108).

The first incursion commenced in 629. While in Arabia Muhammed often pursued a brutal policy of dispossession and wholesale slaughter against the “non-believers,” he quickly learned it would do him well to adopt a wiser policy. He made treaties with towns in the south of Palestine. His treaty with the people of Maqna (a town near Eilat) explicitly references the Jews:

To the sons of Hanina, who are Jews of Maqna…your security is ensured and you are granted God’s protection and that of His messenger… No one will do you injustice and harm… You will owe a quarter of your date harvest and quarter of your fishing yield… If you will listen and obey, the messenger of God will respect the honorable amongst you…There will be no chief over you other than one of you or one of the messengers of God’s people. And peace.

At Mohammed’s death in June of 632, the campaign was continued by Abu Bakr and the leader of the forces, Usama b Zayd.

In 638, the city of Jerusalem fell. The commander of the armies was the caliph Umar Ibn Al Khattab, who ascended to the throne four years earlier.

On who stood at the helm of the Muslim forces and why it may not have been Umar after all but rather an underling, Professor Moshe Sharon of Hebrew University writes in his work “The Shape of the Holy”:

Islamic tradition ascribes the conquest of Jerusalem to a number of glorified Muslim rulers, but in all likelihood this to be a fabrication, saying Jerusalem capitulated to a minor commander out of choice rather than necessity.

The tradition about its conquest was shaped at least a century after the event took place and it was no longer possible for the first association of Islam with Jerusalem to remain mundane.

On Jewish ascription of the fall of Jerusalem to a mighty ruler, see BT gittin 56b.

In Tabari, Umar is said to have granted the residents of Jerusalem (who were all Christians) a writ of protection that included the proviso continuing the ban on Jewish residence in Jerusalem. Goiten casts doubt on the veracity of that covenant (as we shall soon see).

Ibn Asaqir quotes a strange version from Waqidi, according to which an agreement was made with the Jews who were in Jerusalem, 20 in number, and their leader being Joseph bin Nun (?). The number 20 is interesting, as it figures later with the number of Jews assigned for work on the Temple Mount. Other sources mention the clause in the treaty concluded between the conquering forces and the Christians, namely that no Jews should be able to reside in the city.


1.] All pre-Arab rabbinic quotes are reproduced from Rabbi David Golinkin’s article, “A Responsum Regarding Entering the Temple Mount in Our Day”

2] Moshe Gil, Palestine p. 3

The writer is an independent scholar of Jewish history and can be reached at [email protected].

By Joel David Weisberger


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