Some Features of Mesopotamian Civilization

Dr Jaafar Hadi Hassan

When we talk of Mesopotamian civilization, three groups of people come to mind, the Sumerians, the Babylonians and the Assyrians. Each of these ancient peoples has left its distinctive imprint on history, either by its inventions, (Sumerians) cultural heritage which was passed on to those around them (Babylonian and Assyrian) or in empire and political domination. (Babylonian and Assyrian)

Writing, which first appeared in the fourth millennium BC in the city of Uruk in the south of ancient Iraq, was created and developed by the Sumerians from pictographic drawings which were gradually reduced to signs made of short, straight lines impressed into wet clay with a stylus made from a reed with a sharpened end. As the impression of the stylus formed a wedge, this system of writing has come to be known as cuneiform, from the Latin word "cuneus" meaning "wedge or nail". After the scribe had finished writing on the tablets they were dried in the sun or baked. Baking tablets made them into an almost indestructible material which has ensured that thousands of these tablets have survived to the present day.

Although there are thousands of sites which have not yet been excavated in Iraq, the tablets which have been deciphered so far give us an idea about the greatness of this civilization. In the words of a specialist "It can be said without exaggeration that no other country in the world yields such a wealth of ancient texts in the very form in which they were written thousands of years ago".

Such was the importance that these people gave to recording and writing that the traditional goddess of fertility, Nisaba, also functioned as the deity of the scribes.

Over a long period of time cuneiform was used for writing languages which were totally unrelated to Sumerian which is an "isolate" language and has no recorded or living relatives with which to help reconstruct it. The principal one of these was Akkadian, a Semitic language which was used by both the Babylonians and the Assyrians. The cuneiform script was also used by the Hittites in Turkey whose language was Indo-European, Eblaite, another Semitic language and others and millennia after it was first written down it was used to write some tablets in the Greek of Alexander the Great after his conquest of Babylon.

As time passed Akkadian became the dominant language in ancient Iraq although Sumerian, because of its high status, continued to be used for royal inscriptions etc. long after it was no longer spoken. In order for the scribes to master the two languages dictionaries were compiled of Sumerian/Akkadian equivalents, some of which, most fortunately, have come down to us and have helped our understanding of Sumerian and these were used in the Edubba (House of Tablets in Sumerian) where the scribes were trained and taught.

I should, perhaps, mention here that the scribal profession was not restricted to men but there were a few female scribes as is clear from some signed tablets which have survived.

One of the early discoveries which people have admired is a stele found in Susa, Iran, which has inscribed in cuneiform upon it what is now known as "The Code of Hammurabi". Hammurabi was one of the greatest kings of the Old Babylonian Empire who lived in the eighteenth century BC. This law is considered to be one of the earliest laws in human history. Apart from its clear and beautiful language, the law contains more than two hundred and eighty clauses which deal with different aspects of life and offences, with trade and commerce, marriage, family and property, wages, fees of professional men, legal problems connected with agriculture and so on. It is said that the law was put in public places such as temples for the people to see and read, although the we do not know the extent of literacy at that time.

In the prologue it states that the law was issued by Hammurabi "to cause justice to prevail in the land; to destroy the wicked and the evildoers; so that the strong may not oppress the weak." .

Let me give you an example of one of the laws

"If a builder constructed a house for a man and has not done his work properly so that a wall has become unsafe, that builder shall strengthen that wall at his own expense."

One of the professions in this ancient society was that of medicine. Doctors could be recognized by their title "Asu", their characteristic hair style and by the box of instruments they carried. They were respected practitioners of their calling and had a high status in the society of that time. There are at least five clauses in the Code of Hammurabi which refer to surgical operations. The physician "Asu" was neither priest nor witch doctor, but a professional man belonging to the upper middle class of Babylonian and Assyrian society who had to spend years at school learning the basic sciences of his time and further years with senior colleagues mastering his art. Doctors should be differentiated from those who used magic and divination to cure people and were given the name "Ashipu". Many medical prescriptions have come down to us from this period. Consultants of renown were in great demand and we know that royal courts exchanged doctors as was the case of the Babylonian doctors who were sent to the Hittite monarch Hattusilis III in the thirteenth century BC.

Among the works concerning illnesses, the most remarkable was entitled "Treatise on Medical Diagnoses and Prognoses. This treatise has not reached us in a complete form, but about two thousand five hundred lines have come down to us. Symptoms were classified carefully in an order that reviewed all parts of the body from head to foot, successively taking account of each of all the medically significant presentations: colour, volume, aspect, temperature, sensitivity, general attitude of the sick person in conjunction with the signs and so on.

It would be appropriate here to quote two examples of the symptoms mentioned.

One of them is related to an attack of epilepsy. It says "If, while walking, the sick man suddenly falls forward his eyes dilated, and is unable to return them to normal, and if, besides, he is unable to move arms or legs it is the beginning of an epileptic fit".

The other example is related to severe jaundice and says "If the body of a man is yellow, his face yellow and black, and the surface of his tongue black, it is ahuzzu. For such a disease the physician should do nothing: this man will die and will not be cured."

It seems that operations were also performed, as these are mentioned more than once in the Code of Hammurabi. One of the clauses says

4 "If a physician has set a man's broken bone, or has healed a sprained tendon, the patient shall give five shekels of silver to the physician".

And the other one says

"If a surgeon performed a major operation on a man with a bronze lancet and has caused the death of this man or he opened up the eye-socket and destroyed the man's eye…they shall cut off his hand."

The Mesopotamian people were familiar with mathematics. We have thousands of tablets containing lists of numbers arranged in various ways, showing addition, subtraction, multiplication and division etc. Besides this there are many mathematical problems and exercises, many of which are exercises for advanced students. There are tablets containing problems related to architecture, land surveying, irrigation and other matters of practical interest.

Perhaps I should mention here that as early as the seventeenth or eighteenth century BC the Babylonian mathematicians were fully conversant with cube roots. They also knew, of course, about square roots and were able to calculate the square root of 2 with only a very minute error.

Astronomy in the first millennium in Babylonia and Assyria reveals to us the nature of mathematics at that time. In this millennium the sun, the moon, planets and fixed stars were even more carefully observed and the high temples were often used as observatories. There were also observatories in Assyria in Nineveh, Calah and Dur Sharrukin. Astronomers could predict eclipses of both the sun and the moon. It would be of interest in this respect to quote a letter-report by an astronomer to the King of Assyria. The following is an extract from it:

"As for the eclipse of the moon about which the King, my lord, has written to me, watch was kept for it in the cities of Akkad, Borsippa and Nippur. We ourselves observed in the city of Akkad… And whereas the King, my lord, ordered me to observe also the eclipse of the sun, I watched to see whether it took place or not, and what passed before my eyes I now report to the King, my lord. It was an eclipse of the moon that took place… It was total over Syria and the shadow fell on the land of the Amorites, the land of Hittites and in part on the land of Chaldees".

Drawings of noteworthy phenomena in the sky were already being made at an early date. According to Ptolemy, lists of eclipses were kept with absolute precision. Thales of Miletus was able to predict accurately the momentous solar eclipse of June 15 585 AD on the basis of the Babylonian series of observations. During the early Greek period famous Babylonian astronomers like Nabu Rimanni, Kiddnu and Bel Assur worked with the Greeks and were given Hellenized names. The first was called Nabutinos, the second Ciclenas ? and the third Berossos. Berossos, a priest, had settled on the island of Cos and was the first to teach astronomy there. Thus for a long time to come his successors would be known as "Chaldeans" or "Babylonians". It is worth mentioning that this priest wrote an important work in the Greek language on the history of his country (Babylon) and it was he who mentioned the hanging gardens built by Nebuchadnezzar for his wife Emites.

Both our signs of the Zodiac and the way in which we divide time we owe to the Babylonians. The Babylonians divided the year into twelve months of twenty-nine or thirty days. Each day began at sunset and was divided into twelve double hours, each hour being divided into sixty minutes, a system which we still follow today. It is said that every time we look at our watches we are reminded of ancient mathematicians who counted on their fingers and multiplied 10 by 6 to give us minutes and seconds.

Many lists of scientific words have come down to us containing zoological, botanical and mineralogical terms. Although these lists are sometimes disconcertingly arranged, nevertheless they represent a serious effort towards classification of a vast amount of material. We also have geographical texts which consist mainly of lists of countries, mountains, rivers and cities and also itineraries which are extremely useful to modern historians especially when they indicate in beru or double hours (app 10 km), the distance between two towns. As far as we know, there were no true maps, but plans of fields and cities have been recovered. One of them was the plan of the city of Nippur which remarkably matches the survey of the ruins made by modern archaeologists. We also possess a rudimentary "map of the world" on clay, dating from the sixth century BC which is in the collections of the British Museum.

History was also presented in tabular form and we possess lists of kings, year names and synchronous dynasties. The king lists were enriched early in the second millennium by additional information, for example, that concerning a change of dynasty. After about 1100 we find texts in Assyria as well as Babylonia which give brief reports, primarily on wars during the preceding 250 years or so. It must be noted that some political bias can frequently be detected behind the otherwise very factual reports. From the seventh century on, even the astronomical diaries contain short historical reports.

Over the millennia the peoples of Mesopotamia produced a great deal of literature of many different types and epics, myths, wisdom literature, omen and divination texts and so on have all survived. At present, we know of about thirty compositions in Sumerian which could be classified as myths or epics and about half that number as substantially complete works in Akkadian, although there are others known only from brief allusions or fragmentary lines. Works like "Enuma Elish" (When On High) which is the myth of creation, the Epic of Adapa, the Epic of Atrahasis, The Descent of Ishtar to the Nether World, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Myths of the Anzu Bird and of Etana.

The greatest and longest work in Akkadian is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is called in Akkadian after its first line "Sha naqba imuru" - "Who Saw the Deep". Most of the extant text comes from the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, but enough fragments remain from other sites and earlier periods to show that as an Akkadian epic the work dates from not later than the early second millennium. It also incorporates elements from the much earlier Sumerian telling of the story of Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk. The poem deals with such matters as friendship and love, adventure and combat and has at its heart the struggle of Gilgamesh to discover the secret of immortal life from Utanapishtim, the hero of the Flood who has himself been granted immortality by the gods. Needless to say, his quest ends in failure. But the advice given Gilgamesh to enjoy all the pleasures of human daily life, the sweep of the narrative and its poetic power still make it relevant today.

The underworld held a prominent place in Mesopotamian thinking. Texts such as omens, incantations and hymns are full of allusions to it. The most important Mesopotamian myth concerned with the Underworld deals with a visit there by the goddess called Inanna in Sumerian, and Ishtar in Akkadian. The myth is known as "The Descent of Ishtar to the Nether World" and has as its central theme the detention of the goddess of fertility in the realm of the dead and her eventual return to the land of the living. The text of this myth is extant in Sumerian and Akkadian forms - the Sumerian version obviously being the earlier.

The Babylonians compiled bilingual lists of Sumerian and Akkadian words. These lists were compiled in order to make the Sumerian signs, logograms and words comprehensible and an aid to the study of Sumerian when it was no longer spoken. It is believed that the bilingual lists became the first lexical aid in human history and for a long time nothing similar followed outside the cuneiform culture. It is possible that these bilingual lists were first created in Northern Syria in Ebla around 2,400 BC and afterwards they were created anew in Babylonia shortly after 2000 without any knowledge of the existence of the Eblaite lists.

The Sumerian had made lists of objects and for a long time these were handed on in monolingual form, and it was not until late in the second millennium that they were first produced with an additional Akkadian column.

Among these lists are lists of synonyms and homonyms, for example, or Akkadian roots words with their multifarious usages and their real or supposed derivations.

Along with the commentaries, the bicolumnar Akkadian synonym lists first came into being during the first millennium and were transmitted primarily in Assyria. The same list often surveys little used literary or poetic words and therefore become a particularly important aid for understanding works of these genres.

There were temple libraries in many capital cities and in the main provincial towns of Assyria and we have some indications that there were, possibly, even some private libraries. But the most famous one is that of Ashurbanipal the well known king who collected together a huge library which was subsequently discovered by Richard Layard in his 19th century excavations. The library contained 25,000 tablets on many different subjects which the king had ordered to be gathered together from all over Mesopotamia and his instructions were thus:

"When you receive this letter (writes Ashurbanipal to a certain Shaduna) take with you these three men (their names follow) and the learned men of the city of Borsippa, and seek out all the tablets, all those that are in their houses and all those that are deposited in the temple Ezida….

Hunt for the valuable tablets which are in your archives and which do not exist in Assyria and send them to me. I have written to the officials and overseers…and no one shall withhold a tablet from you; and when you see any tablet or ritual about which I have not written to you, but which you perceive may be profitable for my palace, seek it out, pick it up, and send it to me.

The art of the Master Adapa I acquired: the hidden treasure of all scribal knowledge, the signs of heaven and earth…and I have studied the heavens with the learned masters of divination; I have solved the laborious problems of division and multiplication, which were not clear; I have read the artistic script of Sumer and the obscure Akkadian, which is hard to master, taking pleasure in the reading of the stones from before the flood….This is what was done of all my days.

Not much in the way of monumental architecture remains in Mesopotamia although over the millennia many huge temples, ziggurats and palaces were erected and rebuilt, as buildings were usually built of mud brick either sun dried or baked which does not survive the elements for very long.

However, the excavated remains of Babylon give us a clear idea of the grandeur and splendour of this ancient capital of an empire. Such was the splendour and renown of Babylon and its empire in its days of glory in the first millennium BC when it was a focus for science and learning, that long after the city had been conquered by the Persians in 539 AD, the almost mythical fame of the city with its mighty fortifications, the beautiful Ishtar Gate with its wonderfully made colourful tiles depicting lions, bulls and dragons, the towering temples and the ziggurat we know as the Tower of Babel, and its glittering civilization lived on and Alexander the Great planned to make it one of his capitals so that once again Babylon would be one of the glories of the region.



Jewish False Messiahs before Shabbatai Zvi

Dr Jaafar Hadi Hassan




Shabbatai Zvi who was born and died in the 17th century in Turkey was the most prominent and famous false messiah in modern Jewish history. Shabbatai, who was a rabbi, left behind him after his death, a sect called Donmeh in Turkish.  One of the main characteristics of this sect is the practice of Islam outwardly and Judaism secretly as part of its belief which was prescribed by the founder himself. I found the story of Shabbatai and his sect a fascinating one and very interesting and this induced me to write a book on the subject which I have published in Arabic with the title The Donmeh Sect between Islam and Judaism. This article is a translation of the first chapter of the said book which I have made for the benefit of those who cannot read Arabic. This chapter is concerned with the Jewish false messiahs who appeared before Shabbatai Zvi to show how very deeply rooted the idea of Messianism is among the Jews and how the Jewish people have time and time again believed those false messiahs when they have made their appearance.


One of the earliest of these false prophets was a Jew by the name of Theudas who appeared in Judea during the administration of the Roman Procurator Cuspius Fadus (44-46 AD) and claimed to be the Messiah.  He managed to persuade some of the Jews to gather their possessions together and follow him to the River Jordan, where, as he claimed, at his command the river would part and provide an easy passage as had happened with Moses and the Red Sea.  Fadus, however, sent a squadron of cavalry after them, and many of the imposter's followers were slain or captured.  Theudas himself was caught, decapitated and his head was sent to Jerusalem.  Theudas is mentioned in Acts 5:36-37 along with a rebel leader called Judas (Judah) the Galilean who rebelled against Roman rule.  The text states:


"For before these days Theudas arose, giving himself out to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him: but he was slain and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing.  After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him, he perished and all who followed him were scattered".


Between 52 and 54 AD an Egyptian Jew appeared and claiming to be a prophet sent to save the Jewish people from the oppression of Roman rule.  On this occasion several thousand Jews followed him and he declared to his followers that he would go to Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives and would conquer the castles of the Romans.   However the Roman governor Flex was expecting him and when he entered the city attacked him and killing many of his followers although he himself managed to flee with a few of his followers.  It would seem that in the New Testament the Apostle Paul was confused with this man according to Acts 21 37-39.


"As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune "May I say something to you and he said "Do you speak Greek?  Are you not an Egyptian then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness"  Paul replied "I am a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city.  I beg you let me speak to the people". 


One of the most famous figures who was thought to be the Messiah was Simeon Bar Kokhba who led a rebellion against the Romans in Palestine (132-135 AD).  After more than three years of fighting the Romans he was finally defeated and killed along with his followers.  The well known rabbi Akiva (d.135 AD) was one of his main supporters.  He would go out to the villages in the countryside of Palestine gathering support for him and telling the people that Bar Kokhba  was the Messiah.  He also used to tell people that the phrase "There shall step forth a star (Kokhab in Hebrew) out of Jacob" which is  in the Book of Numbers referred to Simeon and so he became known as Bar Kokhba (son of star).  Whenever Akeva saw him he used to say: "This is the king Messiah" whereupon Johanan ben Torha answered him derisively "Akiva, grass will grow in your cheeks and the son of David (the Messiah) will still not have come".  But it seems that it was not only Akiba who considered him to be the Messiah.  Other learned Jewish rabbis also regarded him in this way as it is evident from documents from this period.


It is also said that Bar Kokhba regarded himself as the saviour who had come down to the Jews like a star from heaven to deliver them from their dire troubles.  But at the end of the revolt he was killed and his rebellion consequently collapsed.  This collapse was thought to be one of the greatest catastrophes that the Jewish people had ever endured and as a consequence they were in a state of deep gloom and depression.  At this point their national and spiritual life suffered a severe setback.  The explanation for this reversal which was put forward was that Bar Kokhba was not the Messiah son of David but on the contrary was a deceiver Bar Koseva ( son of Lie).In the Talmud this name is used for Bar Kokhba.


It was suggested that this collapse was only a temporary one and that although Bar Kokhba was a Messiah he was not of the family of David. But was, in fact, the Messiah who was the son of Joseph, in other words, the "minor" Messiah, whose coming had already been foretold.  It was stressed that the other Messiah who would definitely be of the family of David would appear and would take revenge upon the Gentiles.


About the year 448 AD a Jew from the island of Crete which had a large population of Jews at that time claimed that he was Moses and had come to redeem the Jews.  He travelled around the island from one end to the other over a period of a year telling people that he was Moses and claiming that God had sent him to lead the Jews to Palestine across the sea without vessels because the sea would part as it had for Moses and for their forefathers during the time of Pharaoh.  He preached and prophesied and collected money  from the Jewish community.  His preaching proved to be so effective that the Jews began to neglect their daily affairs, allowed their possessions to be gradually disappear and concentrated solely on the preparations for their miraculous journey to the Holy Land.


His followers were told to come at an appointed date to the sea and many Jews came at his bidding and when they arrived he ordered them all to jump into the sea expecting to witness a repetition of the miracle of the Red Sea.  But on this occasion the waters did not separate for them.  Many were drowned although some were rescued by fishermen who were fishing in the area.  "Moses" himself vanished from the scene thereby creating a legend that he was a demon bent on the destruction of the Jews.  It is reported that those who managed to survive their ordeal abandoned Judaism and converted to Christianity.


According to Syrian chronicles, during the years 643-647, a Jew, who was a native of Bet Armaye, arose in a town named Pullugha at the point where the waters of the Euphrates separate for the irrigation of the soil and asserted that the Messiah had come.  Gathering around him some four hundred weavers, carpet makers and washer men, they burnt down three (Christian) sanctuaries and killed the chief of that locality.  A military force, however was despatched from the city of Aqula and intervened, slaughtering them together with their wives and children, and crucifying their leader in his own village.


In about 720 a man called Severus (or Serenus) claimed to be a Messiah (or as some sources state, the Messiah's forerunner) who appeared in Syria (or Babylonia).  Several Greek and Syriac chronicles described Severus as a Syrian Christian who  had converted to Judaism.  According to these sources, he attracted a large following, mainly of Jews, but which did in fact include some Christians, and gathered their money and assets together, allegedly in order to bring them to Palestine.


Severus criticised the rabbis and introduced some ritual innovations which were contrary to Talmudic law but not to Biblical law, such as permission to work on the second days of holidays, modification of Kashrut (dietary laws) and the abolition of the current marriage and divorce laws.  After about two years he was captured and brought to Hisham the Muslim Caliph.  When he was asked about his claim he claimed that he wanted to confuse the Jews and ridicule them, but in spite of this he was still put to death.  When the head of the Jewish religious authorities, Gaon Naterai, was asked about their treatment he answered as follows:


"It seems to us that those evildoers, although they have strayed into bad ways, denied the words of the sages, profaned holidays, violated (other) commandments and polluted themselves with dead carcasses (not slaughtered according to Jewish law) and other forbidden meats, ought nevertheless to be attracted, rather than repelled.  As to their transgressions, such as their consumption of dead carcasses and forbidden meats or their despoiling of their marriage contracts (by disregarding the required rabbinic forms), you shall flog them before the courts, impose fines upon them - each according to his evil deeds - punish them and make them stand up in the synagogues and promise never to return to their aberrations, but you shall accept and not repulse them.  Because of the deep impression Severus made upon the Christians he continued to be mentioned in Christian sources up until the 14th century.


During the reign of the last Umayyad Caliph Marwan b. Muhammad (d.750) a Jew, Abu Isa Ishq (Ubadia) el-Isfahani, arose and proclaimed himself a prophet and herald of the Messiah.  It is said that he claimed that God had spoken to him and ordered him to redeem the Jews from the hands of the oppressive and sinful nations with their villainous kings.  Abu Isa instigated a rebellion against the Muslims and many Jews followed him.  But after some years on the orders of the Caliph an army was  dispatched to deal with him.  When the Muslim army approached he placed his followers in a circle he had drawn on the ground with a myrtle branch and told them they would remain beyond the reach of the enemy and would not be harmed.  But in spite of this he and many of his followers were killed near a place called Rayy in Iran which is now south east of Tehran.  However a great number managed to flee.  This occurred about 755 AD during the reign of the second Abbasid Caliph Abu Jaafar al-Mansur.  Abu Isa also changed some of the Jewish laws such as the number of daily prayers from three to seven.  He said this was because it is said in the Book of Psalms 119/164 "I glorify you seven times a day for your just judgement".


He forbade the eating of meat and the drinking of alcohol and prohibited divorce on any grounds as he said that God had ordered him to do so, through prophecy.  His teachings included the belief that the five prophets, among them Jesus and Muhammad, precede the coming of the Messiah, who is the most elect of humans, and that he himself was the final harbinger and superior to all the prophets who had preceded him.  Abu Isa confessed the prophetic nature of Jesus and of Muhammad and stated that each of them had been sent to his people.  It is said that he ordered his followers to read the Gospels and the Koran and to gain an understanding of their meaning.  He also taught that the Christians and Muslims are required to observe their faiths just as the Jews are required to observe the one they profess.  According to his followers, Abu Isa, even though he was, in their words, an illiterate tailor and uneducated and did not know how to read or write, composed books and short works through prophetic inspiration.  After his death the remnant of his followers formed a sect which was called al-Isfahaniyya and al-Isawiyya and which lasted for a few centuries.  They believe that Abu Isa was not killed but simply disappeared into a cave in a mountain and would appear again.


It is interesting to note that the Jewish religious authorities did not excommunicate the Isawiyya but rather regarded them as legitimate Jews in all respects because they say they tended to strictly observe the prohibition of meat and alcohol and as well as their ban on divorce.


During the eighth century one of Abu Isa's followers by the name of Yudaghan (or Yahuda) from the city of Hamadan, claimed that he was the Messiah.  As Abu Isa had done he too forbade alcohol and meat and also instituted some prayers and fasting days and stated that the Sabbath and the Jewish religious holidays had no function after the destruction of the Jewish Temple.  He urged  Jews to pray frequently and to be austere in their conduct.  His stated opinions differed from those of the majority of the Jews.  The movement he founded managed to survive until the 10th century.


One of the pretenders who appeared outside Islamic before         Asher Lamlen in 1500 is mentioned in Maimonides' "Letter to Yemen".  He says about him "In 1060 there appeared a man in [Lyons] in the heart of France, which numbered more than ten thousand Jewish families.  He pretended that he was the Messiah.  He was supposed to have performed the following miracle:  On moonlit nights he would go out and climb to the tops of high trees in the field and glide from tree to tree like a bird.  He cited a verse from Daniel to prove that such a miracle was within the power of the Messiah: "And behold, there came with the clouds of Heaven one like a son of a man……..and there was given to him dominion" (Dan.7:13-14).  Many who witnessed the miracle became his votaries.  The French discovered this, pillaged the Jewish quarter, and put the pretender to death, together with many of his followers.  Some of them maintain, however, that he is still in hiding until this very day.


He also mentioned another one with the name of Ibn Arye (Son of the Lion").  This man appeared during the first crusade in 1096 but in Andalucia, in Cordoba.


"My father, of blessed memory, told me that …..there lived respectable folk in Cordova, the centre of Andalusia, some of whom were given to the cult of astrology.  They were all of one mind that the messiah would appear that year.  They sought a revelation in a dream night after night and ascertained that the Messiah was a man of that city.  They picked a pious and virtuous person by the name of Ibn Arye, one who had been instructing the people.  They wrought miracles and made predictions just as al-Dar'i did until they won over the hearts of all the people.  When the learned and influential men of our community heard this, they assembled in the synagogue and had Ibn Arye brought there and had him flogged in public.  Furthermore, they imposed a fine on him and put him under a ban, because he gave assent to the professions of his adherents by his silence instead of restraining them and pointing out to them that they contradict our religion.  They did the same thing to the persons who assembled about him.  The Jews escaped the wrath of the Gentiles only with the greatest difficulty.


During the first half of the 12th century a Jewish person from the Qarite sect called Soloman the priest (ha-Kohen) appeared in the area of Palestine called Banyas claiming to be the Messiah whom the Jews were waiting for.  He travelled from place to place telling them that he would gather them in Palestine in two and a half months' time, and he would be the man "whom Ismael seeks".  As a priest Soloman could not be a Messiah, as according to Jewish tradition the Messiah should be from the seed of David and all Jewish priests are in fact from the tribe of Levi (p 238) but still he persisted in his claim.


About the year 1120 a woman appeared who began to prophesy, claiming to have met the prophet Elijah who told her that the Messiah was about to appear.  This caused a lot of unrest among the Jews at that time and consequently the government interfered to control the situation. 


Another Jewish pretender called Mosa al-Dari appeared in 1127 who once more claimed to be a Messiah.  It is said that he was a man learned in Jewish law and many Jews believed in him because he prophesied many things which were fulfilled and he said to those believers he would accomplish a miracle on the first night of Easter.


He instructed his followers to sell their properties and to borrow from the Muslims as much as they could because they would not be seeing them again after Easter.  This action, he told them, would be similar to the way the Hebrews had behaved to the Egyptians according to Exodus 12/36 "And the Lord had given the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked.  Thus they despoiled the Egyptians".


But the first night of Easter came and it passed and nothing whatever happened and his followers suffered because of the amounts they owed to the Muslims.  Al-Dari fled to Palestine where he died.  In spite of this serious error the great rabbi Maimonides remained an admirer of this man because of his knowledge of Jewish Law.  He even expressed his satisfaction that this Moses managed to escape to Palestine.  He said "There he died, may his memory be blessed.  As has been told to me by those who have seen him when he left he prophesied all that happened later on to the Magrebi Jews, the main outlines as well as the details."  The attitude of Maimonides towards Moses, the fact that he blessed him after his death, and his statement that Moses' prophesies were true, all reveal that even such a consistent rationalist as Maimonides was became less so when a Messianic movement was involved.


One of the better known Messianic movements is that of David Alroy (Menahim) in the 12th century.  Alroy was born in Amadiya, east of Mosul which is in northern Iraq today.  His personal name was Menahem b. Solomon, but he called himself David as this befitted his claim to be the King of the Jews.


The information that is available about this movement and its initiates is contradictory and tendentious.  The movement probably started among the "mountain Jews" of the northeast Caucasus before 1121, although sources and historians place its beginnings in the second half of the century.  It may have gathered momentum from the ferment that accompanied the struggle waged between Christendom and Islam in the wake of the first crusade and during the wars preceding the second.


It seems that the tribulations of this period of the crusades and the massacres which accompanied them in which Jews were killed in great numbers seemed to many Jews to be signs heralding the advent of the Messiah.


It is reported that the principal leader of the movement was initially Solomon, Alroy's father, who claimed to be the prophet Elijah and declared his son Menahem to be the Messiah.  Menahem had studied for some years in Baghdad and was of a fine appearance, was learned in Jewish mysticism and skilled in sorcery, all of which  helped al-Roy to have influence on the followers of the movement.


The leaders of the movement addressed its followers with a statement which said, "To all Jews dwelling nearby or far off and in all the surrounding countries.  The time has come in which the Almighty will gather together His people, Israel, from every country to Jerusalem the holy city".  They emphasised penitential preparation by fasting and prayer.  Alroy proposed that they should capture al-Amadiya.  He was encouraged by the contemporary sectarians, the Yezidis, who sought to gain control of the stronghold and its surroundings, and was aided by the superstitious awe with which the inhabitants regarded miracle workers and mystics.  Rumours circulated that Alroy had managed to free himself by magical means when imprisoned by the Seljuk Sultan, then overlord of the local rulers.  Alroy then invited the Jews of the vicinity as well as those living in Azerbaijan, Persia and the Mosul region to come to Amadiyya.  They were to come with weapons concealed under their garments to witness how he would obtain control of the city.  It is said that he did in fact take control of Amediyya and intended to control the surrounding area.


One of the stories which clearly shows the belief of the masses in such pseudo Messiahs is the one which is related by al-Sumu'al-Maghribi in which he says that "when the report about him reached Baghdad two Jewish tricksters, cunning elders, decided to forge letters by Menahem to the Jews of Baghdad bringing them the good tidings which they had been expecting since of yore that he would appoint for them a certain night in which all of them would fly to Jerusalem.  The Jews of Baghdad, their claim to sagacity and pride in craftiness notwithstanding, were all led to believe it.  Their women brought them money and jewels in order that it all might be distributed on their behalf, as charity to those whom the two elders considered deserving.  In this manner the Jews spent the bulk of their money.


They donned green garments and on the night in question gathered on the roofs expecting, as he had asserted, to fly to Jerusalem on the wings of angels.  Women began to weep over their nursing infants:  what if the mothers should fly before their children or the children before their mothers?  The children might suffer because of the delay in feeding.


The night however passed and there was no news of the flight, the two elders got away with the money and the people discovered they had been tricked.


The Muslims in Baghdad were amazed by this trick and because of this famous incident that year was called "the year of the flight" which became according to al-Maghribi, a year people date by it.


Before al-Roy could do any more things he was murdered and his followers scattered.  According to one version the murder was committed by the Muslim authorities but according to another it was by his father in law who had been bribed.  It is reported by the Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela that these events occurred about 1160 AD but it is possible that al-Roy's death may have occurred earlier.  It is also reported that a number of people continued to believe in him after his death particularly in Azerbaijan and later this group of people became known as Menahemites, who became completely different in their practice from the main stream Jews.  They also began to venerate his name and swear by it.


Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century British prime minister, who was of Jewish origin, wrote a novel about al-Roy entitled "Wondrous tale of Alroy" in 1839 in which he depicted him as a conqueror.


In the year 1172 a Jew from Yemen claimed to be the Messiah or the one who prepared for the appearance of the Messiah.  He told the people that the Messiah was in Yemen.  Many people believed in him and gathered around him according to Maimonides including some Arabs.  He wandered in the mountains compiling new prayers for his followers.


He told his followers to give their possessions to the poor so that they would become rich and then they in turn would return them and so on..  In this fashion the possessions would go back and forth between rich and poor unceasingly.


When Maimonides was asked about this pretender his advice to the communal leaders was to place the pretender in chains for a while until the Gentiles might learn that he was a demented person "if you procrastinate until they learn of this affair of their own accord you will most likely incur their wrath".  But it seems they did not listen to him.  After a year he was taken into custody and his adherents fled when the Arab King who had seized him enquired "what have you done?" he replied "indeed, I have done it in truth and at God's behest.  When the King demanded proof of the divine source of his message, the Messiah answered him "Cut off my head and I will come back to life immediately".  The governor told him "I do not need better evidence than that" and said to him that if he came back to life then he would be the first to believe in him.  Then he ordered his head to be chopped off and so he died and the movement came to an abrupt end.  But the Jews of many localities were forced to pay a fine.


Maimonides heard that there were still many foolish people in the Yemen who believed that he would arise again and lead them once more.  As was mentioned earlier, Maimonides had in fact told the Jewish community in Yemen, before the pseudo Messiah was killed - to proclaim him a madman or put him to death.


A famous rabbi called Abraham Abulafia from Spain appeared in the year 1284 who seems to have believed that he was the Messiah not only to Jews but also to Christians.  He was different from other pseudo Messiahs in that he was a learned man not only in Jewish Law but also in the Kabbalah.  In fact his writings have had a considerable influence on the further development of the Kabbalah.  Some even say he may be considered one of the most important personalities in the history of the Kabbalah before Isaac Luria?.  Several of his books and treatises have survived.


Abulafia in some of his books mentions the signs of the Messiah's appearance and predicted that the Messiah would appear during his life time.  In fact, he said that the Messianic era would begin in the Hebrew year 5050 (1290).  In one of his books he stated "And the time of salvation and the day of Redemption is come, and no man pays any regard to this fact".  He asked the Jews to pray with sincerity to God so that his real name be revealed.  He said to them that they were scattered and vanished because they have forgotten God's true name and only by means of the knowledge of the true name of God will the Redemption be brought about.  He wrote a book on the subject called "Sefer ha-Shem" "The book of the Name".    


It seems that only a small number of Jews believed his prophesies and they made arrangements to emigrate to Palestine.  Opposition from the Jewish Rabbinate to his Messianic revelations was fierce.

His opponents approached the most influential rabbinical authority of the time Solom b. Abraham Adret of Barcelona and accused Abulafia of claiming to be the Messiah.  In his reply to a question about him Adret called Abraham "charlatan".  As a result Abulafia was forced to flee to the desolate island of Comino (near Malta), where he wrote his polemical treatises in which he defended himself and his doctrine against the accusations of his opponents and the verdict of Adret.


It is said that because he did not have a great response from his fellow Jews he carried his prophesies to the Christians who according to him believed in him but as he says "they preferred to rely upon the efficacy of arms in the conquest of Palestine".  He states "God commanded him (Abulafia) to speak to the Gentiles of the circumcised heart and flesh in his name.  He did accordingly and spoke to them and they believed in the message of God.  But they did not return unto God, for they put their trust in their swords and bows".


Some say that Abulafia was referring in this way to the last crusade which took place in 1270.  Abulafia travelled extensively throughout Spain making disciples and even ventured as far afield as the Near East.  One of the trips Abulafia undertook was the one which took him to Rome to meet Pope Nicholas 111 in order to speak on behalf of the Jews.  But instead, as recorded in one of his books, he was condemned to death.  "And in that ninth year God stirred him (Abulafia) to go to Great Rome…. And came he to Rome and determined to go to the Pope and the Pope commanded all his gatekeepers that if Raziel (Abulafia) came there to speak with him in the name of all Jewry, that they should take him immediately and that he should not at all look upon him but that they should take him outside the city and burn him and the wood (for the fire) was laid behind the interior gate of the city."


But the sentence was not carried out and as he states he was saved by the sudden death of the Pope to which he refers by saying "When he (Abulafia) was at the outer gate of the city a messenger came to him and told him that during that night the one who pursued his life (the Pope) had died suddenly of plague on that very night.  After a month in prison, he was released and went to Sicily.


This ordeal prompted Abulafia to write a book entitled "The Book of Witness" and he explains the reason for the name that "It was a witness between him (Abulafia) and God that he had given up his soul for dead on account of his love for God's commandment and was witness as well concerning God who had saved him from his enemies.


Abulafia like other pseudo Messiahs of the seventh and eighth centuries was anti-Rabbinism and he bitterly criticised the rabbis for ignoring the higher and holier study of Kabbalah and the mysteries of the divine name.  He described the Mishnah as "The graveyard of law and judgement" and the rabbis as apes.  Only a Kabbalist can be called truly a man.  He denounced the barrenness and the inadequacy of the Talmud.  But he did not however abnegate any Rabbinical Law, nor challenge the methods or authority of the rabbis.


Abulafia is regarded by some authors as exceptional among the pseudo Messiahs on account of his extensive scholarship, unselfishness and sincerity.


During the years 1500-2 an Ashkenazi Jew claimed to be the Messiah (or herald of the Messiah).  His name was Asher Lemlein and he was of German origin although he appeared in Istria near Venice.  His activity was largely in Italy but his followers propaganda campaign spread his story across many parts of Northern Europe.  They claimed that he presented the people with evidence that the Messiah would appear at the time he specified, and some Jews were so confident in his promise that "the next Passover would find the Jews in Palestine's that they demolished the ovens they had used only for the baking of matzah (ritual bread)".  It is said that even some Christians believed his claim.  He asked people to prepare themselves for the redemption day and repent, fast and give charity and ask God for forgiveness before the appearance of the Messiah.  It is said that multitudes repented in that year and for that reason the year was called the year of repentance.  But the appointed time came and went with no sign of the Messiah and nothing was known about his whereabouts.  However, it is said that his fame and influence continued after his death.  It is also said that the failure of Asher Lemlein to bring about the Messiah (Redemption) caused many Jews to convert to Christianity.  One of those who converted was called Yosef Pfefferkorn (d.1523) who wrote a book entitled "Der Juden Spiegel" (The Jew's Glass) in which he defended Christianity and criticised Judaism in order to persuade his "dear brothers" to convert as he had done.


But he also mentions in it Asher Lemlein and holds him and those who followed him up to ridicule.  He says "Moreover, I am aware that it is written that in 1502 a Jew called Lemel (Lemlein) arose in Italy and preached to you and sat one half year in penance to prepare himself for the arrival of the Messiah, and when the half year's penance passed, a fiery pillar together with a dark cloud was to surround all the Jews, as happened at the time of Pharaoh, also then they would return to Jerusalem, rebuild the temple, and offer sacrifices.  He gave you this as a sign.  The Christian church would pass away and collapse and a great and hard penance would occur (among the Christians), the like of which your forefathers never saw…Oh how pitifully you are deceived! Where now are the cloud and pillar?  Where are your sacrifices and Solomon's Temple?"….


During the sixteenth century a Jew probably from the community in the Arabian Peninsula called David Raubini claimed to be a descendent of King Solomon but did not claim to be the Messiah or his herald.  The Jews, he said, would take over Palestine from the hands of the Muslims.  He travelled among the Jewish communities telling them about his idea and that he represented a state in Khaybar (in the Arabian Peninsula) which was governed by his brother King Joseph.  This state, he informed them, had 300,000 soldiers.  In 1523 he visited Egypt to meet the powerful Jewish community there and from then travelled to Palestine from where he continued on to Europe, asking the Jewish communities to support him.  He carried with him a banner of silk on which the Ten Commandments were written and also a shield on which the holy names of God were inscribed.  The shield, he claimed. was that of King David which he took with him in his wars.  Many Jews particularly in Italy used to come to him and show him great respect, kissing his hand and offering him assistance and support.  Raubini spoke to all the communities about the Jewish state in Khayber and the great amount of gold and silver that it had.  The Jews used to surround him and listen to him with great attention.  They used to sit for hours around him happy to listen to the stories about the great happenings as he recounted them.  In the meantime he sent a message asking to meet Pope Clement VII, as he claimed that he had a private letter from his brother Joseph.  He met the Pope and suggested to him that the Christians join him, with the Jewish tribe of 300,000, in fighting the Muslims with the aim of taking Palestine from them and restoring the Jews to Palestine.  The Pope gave him letters for the King of Abyssinia and the King of Portugal John 111 and with the promise to provide him with eight ships and many canons but he did not fulfil his word.  Raubini also sent a message to the Sultan of Morocco saying to him that the time had come to finish with the Muslims.  Then he went to Spain and stayed there for some time but the Spanish government arrested him after someone told the Spanish government that Raubini was working towards converting Christians to Judaism.  After his arrest no further word was heard about him.


This is a brief survey of some of the false Jewish Messiahs and heralders of the Messiah.  Although they proved to be false and impostors, nevertheless, very large number of Jews in the 17th century still believed Shabbatai Zevi and followed him when he too made his appearance.There wil be an article on him soon.          

                Jerusalem in the Second Millennium BC

Dr Jaafar Hadi Hassan

The archaeological evidence indicates that settlement developed at Jerusalem in the last centuries of the fourth millennium BC. It is difficult to say who were the first people to settle in the area which later became the city of Jerusalem. But pottery, tombs and other remains found in the Jerusalem area which are attributed to the third millennium BC were associated with the Amorites.1 The Amorite people made their appearance in history during the 3rd Dynasty of Ur in the third millennium BC although there was an occasional mention of them in earlier texts. At that time their homeland was Syria. From the historical records found in Mesopotamia it appears that the name "Amuru" is of northwest Semitic origin and their language was Semitic, perhaps the predecessor of Canaanite, Hebrew or Aramaic. The word Amorite is also found in inscriptions from the first millennium BC2and also in the Old Testament in which it occurs 85 times. One of the well known references to the Amorite people, in connection with Jerusalem, is in the Old Testament in Ezekiel 16:1 "Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem : Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was Amorite and your mother a Hittite". According to the British archaeologist K. Kenyon, these nomadic people put an end to town life in Palestine from 2300 BC and the revival of city life was due to new people coming into Palestine c 1900 BC whom she identifies with the Canaanites.3 During the nineteenth century BC settlers had begun to build and inhabit towns once again. These towns were autonomous and each of them (including Jerusalem) had its own ruler. Although Jerusalem was not a province of Egypt it was at this period under its political and economic influence. The first mention of the city of Jerusalem is in the so called Execration Texts which were discovered in Luxor in Egypt. They belong, according to their hieratic script, to the reign of Pharaoh Sesostris III (1879-1842 BC). These texts contain the names of alleged enemies of the pharaoh and their localities and were written on pots which were then broken as part of a rite of execration. Among the chiefs of localities in Syria and Palestine, two are named in connection with Urushalimmu (Jerusalem). The two chiefs are Yaqir-ammu and Shayzanu.4 These names are Semitic and are of Amorite origin. Urushalimmu is usually translated "Shalim has founded". The name is compared with the name of the god "Shalim" (Salim) now known as an Amorite god. The first part of the name is taken as cognate with a South Arabian root with this sense.5 The first mention of the name Salim in the Bible is in Gen.14:18 in connection with Abraham's meeting with Melchizedeq, king of Salim and "the priest of the most high God". There is no definite proof that Salim here is to be identified with Jerusalem6. Although some scholars believe that the name Salim here is meant to be Jerusalem. The Hebrew name Yerushaleim is based on the name Urusalimmu. The popular later midrashic explanation of the name Jerusalem as the foundation of peace (Shalom) is associated with the poetic appellation given to the city.7 During the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries BC the Hyksos, a mixture of Semitic and Indo-Aryan people, ruled Syria and Palestine as well as Egypt. Very little is known about the background and nature of these invaders whom the Egyptians called "The Rulers of Foreign Lands". There are different opinions regarding the position of Jerusalem during the Hyksos period. Some scholars believe that Jerusalem may have been a Hyksos stronghold for two centuries.8 The Egyptian priest and scribe, Manetho (c 300 BC) who calls the Hyksos "King-Shepherds" also believes these people had inhabited Jerusalem and even built it.9 But some scholars are of the opinion that the city was destroyed by the Hyksos and not rebuilt by them. The latter rely on the archaeological evidence, because no ruins of their special type of defence system or traces of habitation have been found in Jerusalem.10 It is a well known fact that the Hyksos were known for their unique type of fortification system in which deep ditches were dug around glacis. A special type of ceramics is also attributed to them. These were some of the main features which distinguished the culture characteristic of the rule of the Hyksos in Egypt and in Palestine.11 By the end of the sixteenth century BC the Egyptians had expelled the Hyksos from Egypt and then from Palestine and Jerusalem became an Egyptian vassal, a small city state. The ruler of Jerusalem like other Canaanite rulers bowed down before the pharaohs "to beg breath for their nostrils" as an Egyptian inscription boasts.12 It is interesting to note that Josephus identified the Hyksos as the patriarchal Jews, equating their appearance in Egypt with the story of Joseph in Genesis and their subsequent expulsion with the Bible tale of Exodus. Josephus made this identification partly following Manetho who describes a brutal, savage invasion of Egypt by a people from the east, their period of domination of Egypt, and their subsequent expulsion by the rulers of the 18th Dynasty. Following the assumptions of Manetho and Josephus, some scholars have attempted to set the Israelite Exodus from Egypt within the chronological framework of the 18th Dynasty (c 1580 BC)13. About the beginning of the fifteenth century BC the Hurrians from the kingdom of Mitanni in Anatolia, whose distinctive names are well attested in documents from the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries BC, from north Syria to Palestine, started to establish themselves in Canaan. These people are called Hurites in the Old Testament and may be referred to as Hittites in loose usage.14 Unlike the local people they were of Aryan origin. Although they did not come as conquers they exerted a great influence on the local people and Jerusalem felt their impact. Extensive building activities were initiated and improved fortifications were introduced. It seems that these people brought with them the Akkadian language and taught it and the cuneiform script to the local people and it became the official diplomatic tongue.15 In the fourteenth century BC Jerusalem continued to be one of the city states of Canaan and its territory extended southwards and westwards. Our knowledge of it during this time is derived from cuneiform tablets discovered at Tell-al Amarna in Egypt in the nineteenth century AD. Almost all these tablets belong to the royal archives of Amen-Hotep III and his son Akh-en-aton. The tablets which are dated to the fourteenth century BC consist of a few hundred letters, many of which are from the princes of Canaan, who were apparently dependent on Egypt, to the pharaoh. One of these princes was Abdu-Hipa, ruler of Jerusalem, whose name is Hurrian and means "worshipper of Hipa", Hipa being a Hurrian goddess well known and worshipped also by the Hittites in Anatolia. It seems from these letters that the city-states were at war with one another and in his six letters Abdu-Hipa, appealed for help from Egypt against his enemy16. In one of these letters he mentions gifts he had sent to the King and begs him desperately for help "At the two feet of my King the Lord seven times and seven times I fall ...I delivered ten slaves.....twenty one maids and eighty captives I delivered into the hand of Shuta (an emissary) as gifts for the King my Lord. Let my King take thought for his land ....There is a war against me... I have become like a ship in the midst of the sea."17. And in another letter he complains about a people called the Apiru (Habiru) "Let the King turn his attention to the archers and let the King my Lord send out troops of archers for the King has no land left. The Apiru (Habiru) plunder all the lands of the King."18 It was thought when the Amarna tablets were deciphered that the Apiru might be identified with the Hebrews of the Old Testament. But it is now known that the name refers to groups of people of different backgrounds who were unsettled and had mostly lost their freedom. They could be found anywhere in the Near East.19 They were more numerous than the Biblical Hebrews and their presence was attested to in documents from the second millennium BC from Mesopotamia to Egypt where they were called Apiru.20 In the case of the enemy of Abdu-Hipa, the Apiru may have been a tribe trying to penetrate into Jerusalem or which had been displaced from somewhere else. Whoever they were, however, they did not succeed in conquering the land around Jerusalem or the city itself.21 During the thirteenth century BC, the entire Middle East was shaken by the incursion of people who are called "The Sea Peoples in the Egyptian records. They overwhelmed the Hittite empire in Asia Minor and marched down the coast of Canaan and attacked Egypt, which was weak at this time, both by land and sea and forced it to negotiate. One major group of these people had settled on the coastal plain west of Jerusalem and became known to history as the Philistines.22 In many parts of the country the Canaanites were pushed back inland by these people in the land that came to be called Palestine.The Philistines were metioned in the Bible as people who fought many battles with the Hebrews and their troops were described as "like the sand on the seashore in multitude" (I Samuel, 13, 5). They were also refered to as skilled people in making metal tools as stated in I Samuel, 13, 19-21. " Now there was no smith to be found throughout all the land of Israel; for the Philistines said "lest the Hebrews make themseleves swords or spears", but everyone of the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen his ploughshare, his mattock his axe or his sickle; and the charge was a pim for the ploughshare and for the mattocks, and a third of a shakel for sharpening the axes and for setting the goads". In some parts of Palestine furnaces for making such tools were unearthed. Pottery from 11th and 21th centuries BC and clay coffins, which were peculiar to them, were also uncovered from 13-10th centuries BC.23 Forts belonging to them were likewise discovered north of Jerusalem. Also, during this period, until the phase of the Israelite occupation of the Central Highlands, Jerusalem relapses into obscurity and there is no mention of it at this time in the Egyptian records. But an Amorite King of Jerusalem, called Adonisedeq is mentioned in the Bible.24 This king, according to the Book of Joshua (10:1ff), was head of the coalition of Amorite kings which fought against Joshua for the control of Giboan. It seems that in the last two centuries of the second millennium BC, Jerusalem, like other city states of Canaan, was inhabited by different groups of people. Apart from the ancient people, the Amorites, there were the Hittites and the Hurrians, the Habiru and the Jebusites and others, as it is attested in the Bible. The Bible refers to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, before David's men took the city, as the Jebusites. It is possible that the Jebusites settled in Jerusalem in the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BC. The identity of these people is a matter of debate. The Bible considers them to belong to the Canaanites. But some scholars, on the basis of the names of kings connected with Jerusalem, see the origin of the Jebusites in the Hurrians. Others believe they are closely related to the Hittites and claim, on the basis of literary evidence, that they did not arrive in the country until after the fall of the Hittite empire which was situated in what is now northern Turkey in about 1200 BC.25 Others think that the Jebusites were a professional military class who protected the ruler and who were recruited from different sections of the population and to whom the control of the city may have fallen after the defeat of King Adonizedeq.26 The Book of Judges 1:21 refers to a situation in which the Benjamites and the Jebusites lived together, it says "As regards the Jebusites living in Jerusalem, the sons of Benjamin did not drive them out and even now the Jebusites are still living in Jerusalem with the sons of Benjamin". In fact it was not until King David captured the city that it fell into Israelite hands which probably occurred early in the first millennium BC, at which time a new era for Jerusalem had begun.


1. J. Gray, A History of Jerusalem, p26

2. H J Franken, "Jerusalem in the Bronze Age 3000-1000BC" in K J Asali (ed) Jerusalem in History, pp21-22

3. Ibid, p22

4. J Pritchard, The Ancient Near East vol 1, p225

5. J Gray, op. cit. p.66

6. D Bahat, The Archaeological History of Jerusalem, p36 in A. L

Eckardt (ed) Jerusalem City of the Ages

7. Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jerusalem

8. N. Kotker, The Earthly Jerusalem, p17

9. Encyclopaedia Judaica, Hyksos

10. H J Franken, op.cit. p37

11. Encyclopaedia Judaica, Hyksos

12. N Kotker, op.cit. p20

13. Encyclopaedia Judaica, Hyksos

14. J Gray, op cit. p68

15. K Armstrong, Jerusalem, One City Three Faiths, p13

16. J Gray, op. cit. p69

17. J B Pritchard, op. cit. pp272-273

18. Ibid, p270

19. H J Franken, op.cit. p24

20. J Gray, op. cit. p77

21. H J Franken, op.cit. p24

22. N Kotker, op.cit. p27

23.Encyclopeadia Judaica,Philistines 24. J Gray, op. cit. p72

25. K Armstrong, op.cit. p14

26. J Gray, op.cit. pp76-77



 Jews in the Arab Lands - a Brief Historical Perspective from the mid 7th Century until the 19th century, According to Jewish Sources *



Dr. Jaafar Hadi Hassan


Both Islam and Judaism have their origins among the Semitic peoples of the Middle East. Differences between the two faiths obviously exist, of course, but in spite of these, the followers of both religions were able to live side by side for many centuries in the lands governed by Muslim rulers. One of the most important reasons for this co-existence is that Islam considers the followers of Judaism "Ahl al-kitab" (people of the Book) and believers in one God and regards their prophets as both holy and as messengers of God. Indeed, there are some Quranic verses to that effect. As people of the book, therefore, it is not surprising that the Jews were usually left alone to practise their religion and regulate their internal affairs according to their own customs and traditions.


According to Abraham Halkin "The extension of internal autonomy to the Jewish communities under Islam made possible the continuance of a Jewish way of life or at least the semblance of it" and in the words of one of the Jewish leaders in Palestine, Yehudai, "When the Ishmaelites (The Muslims) came they left them (the Jews) free to occupy themselves with the Torah". ( N.Rejwan, The Jews of Iraq pp. 87 and121 ). There is little information about the condition of the Jews in the Arab lands in the first two centuries of Islam. But the little that we do have shows that the Jews had welcomed the Muslim rulers. According to one report, the Jews of Iraq who had suffered from persecution at the end of Sassanian Persian rule (226-642AD) sympathetically received the Muslim conquerors of the land. It is reported that in 658 AD the head of Punbeditha Academy, R. Isaac (d. 660AD), went out to welcome the fourth Caliph Ali b. Abi Talib with many thousands of Jews and was recognized by him as the spiritual leader of the Jewish community. (S.W.Baron A Social and Religious History of the Jews vol.3, p.99).


A statement in an apocalyptic book called "Mysteries of Rabbi Simon bar Yohai" apparently written in part during the days of the Arab conquest of Palestine in the seventh century says "The Holy one blessed be He, is only bringing the kingdom of Ishmael in order to help you (the Jews) from the wicked one". (S.W. Baron,op. cit. vol 3, p. 93) A remarkable development that one ought to mention here is that soon after the Islamic conquest the Jews in general in the Middle East gave up the languages they spoke such as Aramaic and adopted Arabic. This was in striking contrast to the situation in medieval Christendom, where the Jews made very limited use of Greek and virtually none of Latin. The period discussed in this paper had witnessed a number of Muslim empires in the Arab Lands. First of these was the Umayyad Dynasty which lasted until the middle of the eighth century and ruled from Damascus. We have very little information about the situation of the Jews during this period. However, it is related that the Umayyad Caliphs exercised tolerance towards non-Muslim subjects and employed both Jews and Christians, some of whom obtained high posts in the government hierarchy. It is attested that several Jews were in the court of Maawiya the first Caliph of the dynasty and during the reign of Abdul Malik a Jew was in charge of the mint . When Fustat (Old Cairo) was founded in the seventh century a relatively large Jewish community established itself there. The Abbasid empire which followed, lasted from the eighth to the thirteenth centurie. When Baghdad was founded by the second Caliph al-Mansur in 762AD many Jews moved to the city to live . Baghdad soon became the centre not only of the Muslim Empire but also of Babylonian Jewish learning and life. Shortly after its emergence as a capital and metropolis, it gradually became the seat, first of the Exilarch (head of the Jewish community) and then of the Geonim (Heads of Jewish Academies) (N.Rejwan, op. cit. p. 99). The traveller Benjamin of Tudela writing in the second half of the twelfth century about the Jews of Baghdad says "There are approximately 40,000 Jews in Baghdad, among them scholars and exceedingly wealthy people. They live in peace and tranquillity and honour under the great Caliph and there are twenty eight synagogues and ten yeshivot (religious schools)." Then he goes on to tell us about the elaborate procession of the Exilarch through the streets of Baghdad. He also mentions that the Muslims called him "our master" (sayyidna) the son of David. In Kufa a major centre of trade and learning, the Jewish community there grew very rapidly. Of even greater significance though was the Jewish community in the city of Basra which rivalled Kufa as an intellectual and commercial centre.

 In all these centres of Islamic culture and literature, educated Jews developed a considerable taste for literature in Arabic whether it was poetry, philosophy, history or other subjects. They even used the Arabic language to discuss Jewish theology. David Sasson says the following about the Jews in Basra in the ninth century: "We find scholars and medical men who were born in Basra officiating in Palestine and in Egypt". ( N.Rejwan op. cit. pp. 83-84). In this period some important works were written by Jewish scholars such as the first Arabic translation of the Bible by Saadia Gaon who lived in the tenth century in Iraq. It is worth mentioning here that some Jewish authors in this period, encouraged by the tolerant scholarly climate, felt free to criticise the basic tenets of the Muslim faith and were often outspoken in their critique while enjoying a wide circulation of their work without any overt hindrance by the authorities. An example of this is a book, written by a prominent member of the Jewish community, the philosopher, Ibn Kammuna (d.1285) who lived in Baghdad, entitled "Critical Inquiry into the Three Faiths". The author allotted to Islam almost two thirds of the book in which he defended Judaism and criticised the Muslim faith. (N Rejwan, op. cit p. 161). Such literature did not cause any immediate reprisals from the Muslim authorities and, most significantly, we have no record of the burning of any Jewish books by Muslim authorities ( S.W.Baron, op. cit.vol.3, pp 133-134). A good deal of easy social intercourse particularly in earlier times existed amongst Muslims, Christians and Jews who, while professing different religions, formed a single society in which personal friendship, business partnerships, intellectual discipleships and other forms of shared activity were normal and, indeed, common. A testament to this social cooperation is the fact that Jews often attended Muslim festivities and family celebrations, and entertained Muslim friends in their homes (S. W. Baron op. cit.vol 3 pp.132-4). In the sphere of trade Jewish merchants were free to travel throughout the empire to do business in different types of merchandise. In this regard the Jews were not subject to occupational restrictions such as we find in Europe in the period we have discussed. After the Mongol conquest of Iraq in1258 the Jews suffered and indeed did the rest of the population. We have little information about the Jews in this turbulent period. In Palestine, another centre of Jewish learning, religious schools were established and their academy in Tibarias, headed by Gaonim, flourished. This city was also the centre for a group of scholars who for the first time developed vocalization for the Hebrew Bible and standardized its text around the eighth century. Some scholars believe that this work was influenced by what the Muslims had done in regard to the Quran a century earlier. (See J. H. Hassan "The Jewish Qaraite Sect pp.83-84 ). The Jews in Palestine also began to build new synagogues, the most famous of which was the synagogue of Anan b David, (founder of the Jewish Qaraite sect) which was built in the ninth century. This sect also called on its followers to emigrate to Palestine from many different countries.Cosequently it became the main centre of their activities and learning. In Egypt the number of Jews increased when according to documents from Cairo Geniza a considerable number of Iraqi Jews emigrated there from the mid eighth century and established a separate community called the Iraqi congregation ( N.Rejwan, op.cit. p 98). During the Fatmid Period many Jews who had only recently settled down in North Africa moved to Egypt with them in 969 AD when they conquered the country.

At this time Egypt became the centre of a vast and powerful empire which at the end of the tenth century, included Syria and Palestine as well as almost all of North Africa. The unification of these countries brought a period of prosperity to the region in both industry and commerce from which the Jews also benefited. Of even greater importance perhaps was the characteristically tolerant attitude adopted by the Fatimids towards non-Muslims. They permitted the construction and repair of non-Muslim houses of prayer, and according to some Jewish sources they even granted financial support to the (yeshivot) Jewish religious schools in Palestine. Encyclopaedia Judaica, Fatimids). They also intervened to solve Jewish sectarian disputes. The only ruler of this dynasty to depart from the policy of tolerance towards non-Muslims was al Hakim (d.1020) who, in fact, also discriminated against some sections of Muslim society, such as women. Towards the end of his rule, however, he did change his policy. The first vizier of the Fatimids was Jacob ibn Killis (991), a Jew who converted to Islam but remained loyal to his former coreligionists. He appointed a Jew "Menassah al-Qazzaz" to head the administration in Syria. (Encyclopaedia Judaica, ibn Killis) Al-Kazzaz utilized his power on behalf of the Jews and granted many of them positions in the government. His son Asiya was also a high ranking official. In the eleventh century the office of the Nagid (head of the Jewish community) was established and some of these Nagidim also became court physicians.

 During this period some Jews reached very high positions among them Abu Sa'ad al-Tustary (Abraham b. Yashar) who had the power to make and break viziers, a power which he did in fact exercise (N.Stillman,The Jews of the Arab Lands, p.51). In the early 12th century the chief minister of agriculture was a Jew called Abu al-Munajja (Solomon ben Sha'ya) who ordered the digging of the canal which still bears his name. According to some Jewish authors the Jewish community of Egypt in the Early Middle Ages was affluent, influential and on the whole stable and secure and well organized. There was a sizeable Jewish population in Egypt during the eleventh and twelfth centuries and over ninety cities, towns, villages and hamlets with Jewish inhabitants are known (N.Stillman op. cit. p. 48-52). Life continued to be well organized and Jewish cultural and religious activities were maintained during the time of the Ayyubids (1121 AD-1250 AD) who ruled from Egypt to East Asia in the East and Yemen in the South. This new dynasty showed tolerance towards Jews and Christians. In 1190 Saladin allowed the Jews to settle again in Jerusalem after the Crusaders had compelled them to leave the city and consequently their numbers in Palestine increased. In Syria a lengthy list of physicians and government offcials is mentioned by the Hebrew poet Judah al-Harizi when he visited the country in the 1st quarter of the 13th century. Egyptian Jewry benefited from the stable regime and Jewish scholars from Christian countries came to join the communities. The most famous Jewish scholar and philosopher who lived at this time was Maimonides, who was also a physician of Saladin. The autonomous organisation of the Jewish communities in Egypt remained intact and continued under the leadership of the Nagidim during the rule of the Mamluks. This dynasty were former slaves brought by the Ayyubids from Russia and the Balkan peninsula who came to power in Egypt in 1250 AD and also ruled over Palestine, Syria and adjacent regions in North Africa and Asia Minor.

 Although the Jews in this period did experience limitations and restrictions imposed on them by the government and there occurred the occasional violent popular outburst, these never turned into massacres such as took place in the wake of the Crusades (75). Any discrimination that did take place in this period against the Jews was not aimed specifically at them but also included Arabs who, for example, were not allowed to dress like the Mamluks or ride horses. In Spain the Jews not only welcomed the Muslims when they conquered the country in 711AD but in fact they actively made alliance with them against the Visigoths.This seems to be a very rare occurance in the history of the Jews.(N.Stillman, The Jews of the Arab Lands. pp.24and54) The immediate sequel to the conquest was that many Jews who had left Spain at the time of religious persecution by the Visigoth kings and their descendants, returned from North Africa where they had found shelter. The economic situation of the Jews in Spain prospered and they were successful in many occupations including medicine, agriculture, commerce and crafts. Jewish scholarship and culture flourished alongside its Arab counterpart and was influenced by it. A real Jewish cultural revival began in the tenth century when Cordoba was a centre of both Arab and Jewish culture. This was the time of the political rise of the court physician, diplomat and statesman Hasdai b. Sharput who headed diplomatic negotiations with Christian rulers on behalf of the Caliphate. Another personality who should be mentioned here is Samuel Hanagid (d.1055) ( known by the Arabic name of Ibn Nagrila) who was both scholar and poet and served as vizier and commander of the army of Granada for more than 25 years. Furthermore, he was also head of the Jewish community in Islamic Spain. It is interesting to note that he too was the author of a criticism of the Quran which was cited by the contemporary Muslim historian and philosopher ibn Hazm. (Encyclopedia Judaica ,Ibn Nigrila ). Some Jewish contemporaries of Samuel Hanagid in Saragossa and Seville also rose to the ranks of Vizier and in the words of Norman Stillman, author of "The Jews of Arab Lands" "no office, except that of the ruler, seemed out of the reach of a talented and ambitious Jew"(. p. 57). B.J. Bamburger states in his book "The Story of Judaism", "Oppressed for centuries under the Christian Goths, the Spanish Jews began a new and happy era in the eighth century when the peninsula was conquered by the Arabs. Under a series of enlightened Moslem rulers they attained a status of security and honour such as they had not known since their own national life was destroyed. In numbers, wealth and prestige the Jewish community of Spain became by far the greatest in the world. The civilisation to which they belonged was the most advanced seen by Europe between the decline of Rome and the Renaissance."(p.154).

 In North Africa, the Jews in general led a relatively peaceful existence and those of Hafside Tunisia, in particular, enjoyed the most tranquillity of any North African Jewish community during the period of the Middle Ages. Only the narrow minded al-Mohads who ruled in North Africa and Southern Spain at one point forced Jews and Christians to convert to Islam. The later al-Mohads, however, modified their stance and permitted non-Muslims to practise their religions. (Lewis 52) . Jewish authors stress that the al-Mohad period was a definite aberration in the history of the Jews in the Arab lands, or any Muslim country for that matter. Salo Baron says that al-Mohad extremism was exceptional and proves the general rule that under Islam the Jews resided in their respective countries as of right, and not merely on temporary sufferance (op.cit,vol111. p.127). In the 13th and 14th centuries, some Jews in the Further Maghreb, as Morocco was called in Medieval Arabic, rose to high positions. One of these was Aaron b. Batash, who was a Vizier during the reign of Abd al-Haqq b. Abi Sa¢d (1421-1465) (N. Stillman,op.cit. 79) and Abraham Cabassa, head of the Spanish community in the Kingdom of Marrakesh who was minister to the First Saadian Sultan in the 16th century. His brother Samuel was financier of the court and another brother Isaac controlled Morocco's foreign trade.

The fifteenth century saw the rise of a new and powerful Turkish Dynasty, the Ottomans, who conquerd much of the Middle East and North Africa. As Muslims they continued to allow the Jews in their domains to practise their religion and regulate their internal affairs. The The Ottoman government was happy to provide a haven for large numbers of Jewish refugees from the Iberian peninsula. Sultan Beyezid II (1481-1512) welcomed the Sefardic Jews into his realm and issued firmans (decrees) to his provincial governors specifying the terms of Jewish settlement and ensuring the protection of the newcomers (87) Beyezid is said to have considered Ferdinand of Spain a fool for impoverishing his own kingdom while enriching his (N.Stillman,op. cit. 87). The Jewish refugees from the expulsions of 1492 and 1496 were soon followed by Marranos (Jews who had been compelled to accept Catholicism) fleeing the terror of the Inquisition. When Egypt, Syria and Palestine all became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1517 large numbers of refugees began taking up residence in these countries as well. (N.Stillman,op. cit pp.82-88) The prosperity and relative security of the sixteenth century was enjoyed by Jews in most of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. In each province, Jews lived their own independent communal life (Stillman p.90). and some of them such as Don Joseph Nasi, Soloman b. Ya'ish and Moses and Joseph Hamon became very influential at the Sublime Porte. The Turks created the position of Hakham Bashi (Chief Rabbi) and the position of Sarraf Bashi (Chief Banker) a position which usually had a Jewish occupant. Jewish communities were internally organized and stable but the decline of the Empire after the sixteenth century was, of course, reflected in the life of Jews in the provinces of the Empire. The rise and fall of the False Messiah Shabbatai Zvi in the seventeenth century, whom many Jews believed in and followed from Poland to Yemen did nothing to help their situation and in fact caused harm to many of their communities. Few prominent scholars are known to us from this period. One of them is Joseph Caro (d. 1575) the author of a well known manual on Jewish law called 'Shulhan Arukh". Another is Isaac Luria (d.1572) the famous Cabbalist. Both of these scholars lived in Palestine. After reforms were introduced by Sultan Muhamuad II (d. 1839) and continued by Sultan Abd al-Majid (d.1862) the situation of the Jews and the Christian minorities greatly improved and they participated fully in cultural and economic life and began to hold government posts, to establish businesses and to found schools for their children.

 Throughout Ottoman times the situation of the Jews in Arab lands was generally peaceful and undisturbed. In summary one can perhaps state the following points: Throughout the centuries Jews lived in the Arab Lands and managed to live together in relative peace and harmony. They did not experience anti-Semitism, expulsions or massacres nor were they forced to live in ghettos as Muslim law never called for segregated quarters for different faiths. Also they were not forced to convert as the overwhelming majority of Muslims accept the Quranic dictum "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256) Those that did convert were usually welcomed and well treated and they were absorbed rapidly into Muslim society. Of course there were some exceptions but these, fortunately were very few.




* This paper was presented at a seminar held in the House of Lords on the 25th of March 2004. Other speakers were Ms. Karen Armstrong and Professor Bernard Wasserstein.