PALESTINE, historic region, the extent of which has varied greatly since ancient times, situated on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, in the Middle East, and now largely divided between Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories.
The region has an extremely diverse terrain that falls generally into four parallel zones. From west to east they are the coastal plain; the hills and mountains of Galilee, Samaria, and Judaea; the valley of the River Jordan; and the eastern plateau. In the extreme south lies the Negev, a rugged desert area. Elevations range from 395 m (1,296 ft) below sea level on the shores of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on the surface of the earth, to 1,020 m (3,347 ft) atop Mount Hebron. The region has several fertile areas, which constitute its principal natural resource. Most notable of these are the Plain of Sharon, along the northern part of the Mediterranean coast, and the Plain of Esdraelon (or Jezreel), a valley north of the hills of Samaria. The water supply of the region, however, is not abundant, with virtually all of the modest annual rainfall coming in the winter months. The River Jordan, the region's only major stream, flows south through Lake Tiberias (the region's only large freshwater lake) to the intensely saline Dead Sea.
The Canaanites were the earliest known inhabitants of Palestine. During the 3rd millennium BC they became urbanized and lived in city-states, one of which was Jericho. They developed an alphabet from which other writing systems were derived; their religion was a major influence on the beliefs and practices of Judaism, and thus on Christianity and Islam.
Palestine's location-at the centre of routes linking three continents-made it the meeting place for religious and cultural influences from Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor. It was also the natural battleground for the great powers of the region and subject to domination by adjacent empires, beginning with Egypt in the 3rd millennium BC.
Egyptian hegemony and Canaanite autonomy were constantly challenged during the 2nd millennium BC by such ethnically diverse invaders as the Amorites, Hittites, and Hurrians. These invaders, however, were defeated by the Egyptians and absorbed by the Canaanites, who at that time may have numbered about 200,000. As Egyptian power began to weaken after the 14th century BC, new invaders appeared: the Hebrews, a group of Semitic tribes from Mesopotamia, and the Philistines (after whom the country was later named), an Aegean people of Indo-European stock.
The Israelite Kingdom
Hebrew tribes probably migrated to the area centuries before Moses led his people out of serfdom in Egypt (c. 1270 BC), and Joshua conquered parts of Palestine (c. 1230 BC). The conquerors settled in the hill country, but they were unable to conquer all of Palestine.
The Israelites, a confederation of Hebrew tribes, finally defeated the Canaanites about 1125 BC but found the struggle with the Philistines more difficult. The Philistines had established an independent state on the southern coast of Palestine and controlled a number of towns to the north and east. Superior in military organization and using iron weapons, they severely defeated the Israelites about 1050 BC. The Philistine threat forced the Jews to unite and establish a monarchy. David, Israel's great king, finally defeated the Philistines shortly after 1000 BC, and they eventually assimilated with the Canaanites.
The unity of Israel and the feebleness of adjacent empires enabled David to establish a large independent state, with its capital at Jerusalem. Under David's son and successor, Solomon, Israel enjoyed peace and prosperity, but at his death in 922 BC the kingdom was divided into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. When nearby empires resumed their expansion, the divided Israelites could no longer maintain their independence. Israel fell to Assyria in 722 and 721 BC, and Judah was conquered in 586 BC by Babylonia, which destroyed Jerusalem and exiled most of the Jews living there.
The exiled Jews were allowed to retain their national and religious identity; some of their best theological writings and many historical books of the Old Testament were written during their exile. At the same time they did not forget the land of Israel. When Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylonia in 539 BC he permitted them to return to Judaea, a district of Palestine. Under Persian rule the Jews were allowed considerable autonomy. They rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and codified the Mosaic law, the Torah, which became the code of social life and religious observance. The Jews believed they were bound to a universal God, Yahweh, by a covenant; indeed, their concept of one ethical God is perhaps Judaism's greatest contribution to world civilization.
Persian domination of Palestine was replaced by Greek rule when Alexander the Great of Macedonia took the region in 333 BC. Alexander's successors, the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria, continued to rule the country. The Seleucids tried to impose Hellenistic (Greek) culture and religion on the population. In the 2nd century BC, however, the Jews revolted under the Maccabees and set up an independent state (141-63 BC) until Pompey the Great conquered Palestine for Rome and made it a province ruled by Jewish kings. It was during the rule (37-4 BC) of King Herod the Great that Jesus was born.