We will review the basics of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam because the rest of this web site and the stories about the Age of Discovery frequently refer to these religions. If you went to Sunday School when you were little, you might have learned these Bible stories and want to skip to the article on Christian Europe. However, if you are not so sure how it came to be that Jerusalem was so important to Christians, Jews, and Muslims that they are still fighting amongst themselves in the Middle East today, we offer this humble primer.

While most of the ancient civilizations living at the eastern end of the Mediterranean were polytheistic and pagan, one group, known as the Hebrews, were monotheist. [Mono means one and theo means god]. The word Hebrew came from the Greek word Hebraios, which meant people from the other side of the river. They were referring to the Jordon River. Hebrews were also known as Jews because they came from Judah, and as Israelites or the People of Israel because they descended from a Hebrew man named Israel.

According to Jewish tradition as it was written in the ancient texts of the Torah(1) and the Old Testament of the Bible, the Israelites date back to Abraham, who grew up in Mesopotamia. Sometime between 2400 and 1600 BCE, Abraham and his wife, Sarah, moved to Canaan, where Jerusalem was built. Historians have deduced that Jews began settling Jerusalem around 1738 BCE [more than 3750 years ago]. That was during the Bronze Age. That was also the time the name Canaan appears in writing to refer to the area. By the 12th century BCE [1100s], the name disappears, except in religious texts, and the area was considered part of Phoenicia. The Hebrew alphabet and Phoenician alphabet are close cousins.

During Abraham and Sarah’s lifetimes, the Hebrew/Phoenician writing system was in its infant stages. Simple shepherds like Abraham did not learn how to read and write. He could not leave accurate written records about his life and thoughts. That is why historians do not know for certain when Abraham’s birthday was, what year he got married, or when he died.

Just like the Celtic druids, Hebrews passed their stories from one generation to the next by rote [word of mouth and from memory]. That is how they remembered such things as the Great Flood and the building of the Tower of Babylon. A man was honored for his accurate memory in those days. Biblical scholars believe the first versions of the Torah were written between 600 and 400 BCE.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

The borders of Canaan were defined in the Bible’s books of Numbers and Ezekiel as extending from Phoenicia [modern-day Lebanon] southward to “the Brook of Egypt,” eastward to the Jordon River Valley, and westward to the Mediterranean Sea. Today, the area includes the countries of Lebanon, Syria, Jordon, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, parts of Cyprus, Turkey, and Iraq.

Abraham had another woman living with him beside his wife Sarah, a concubine named Hagar. In those days – and in many Muslim societies today – it was acceptable for men to procreate [have babies] with more than one woman. The men were required to take good care of their concubines as well as their wives, since women were not, by law, able to provide for themselves. Abraham and Hagar had a son together they named Ishmael. It took many more years for Abraham’s wife, Sarah, to conceive. According to the book called Genesis in the Bible, God intervened to make this to happen. Sarah bore Abraham a son they named Isaac. Isaac was the Hebrew word for laughing. Abraham and Sarah were very happy to finally have a baby together.

But, once Sarah had her own baby, she did not want Hagar around. Wives had more clout in their family than concubines did. To appease Sarah, Abraham asked Hagar to leave the tribe.

Hagar and little Ishmael moved to the desert east of the Jordon River. When Ishmael grew up, he chose a wife from among the women in the Eastern tribes that had become his neighbors. Ishmael and his family lived in the eastern land for the rest of their lives and begat [gave birth to] many descendants. Many Muslims claim their ancestry from those descendants of Ishmael, known as Ishmaelites.

In the meantime, Isaac grew up and took a wife named Rebekah from his mother’s tribe. Isaac and Rebekah had two sons together, Esau and Jacob. We are going to skip the part about how Jacob stole Esau’s inheritance, and jump to the part in the story where God was so pleased with Jacob, he renamed him Israel, the Hebrew word for May God Prevail. Israel had twelve sons and one daughter by two wives and two concubines. Those thirteen children left many descendants. The Jews claim their heritage from Israel’s descendants, hence their label, Israelites. The tribes of the twelve sons were known as the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

According to the author of Genesis, God told the Israelites [through his prophets], “All this [Canaan] shall be your land. No one will ever be able to stand against you.” The story of the Promised Land will become extremely important to both Jews and Christians [and later to the Crusaders, the Puritans, and the Pilgrims].

The Jews Follow Joseph to Egypt

We often hear the story about Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt, but how did the Jews get to Egypt in the first place? This story was written in the book of Genesis before the part about God renaming Jacob, Israel.

Jacob lived in Hebron south of Jerusalem with his two wives, two maid servants, twelve sons, and one daughter. Jacob’s favorite child was his second-to-youngest son, Joseph. [This story illustrates why it is not a good idea for parents to show favoritism.] Joseph’s ten older brothers – he also had a younger brother named Benjamin – were very jealous of their father’s favoritism, particularly when Jacob gave Joseph a “very fine cloak.” The brothers “hated” Joseph even more when, at seventeen years old, Joseph dreamed that he would one day rule over his brothers. To get rid of him, the brothers sold Joseph as a slave to a caravan(2) of Ishmaelites heading through town on their way to the markets in Egypt to trade. You can see on the map above that Egypt was the next country over to the west.

Fast forwarding through Joseph’s story [available in your local Bible, Genesis, Chapters 39 to 45 – a tale of betrayal, intrigue, and secret identities], Joseph eventually became a very powerful person in Egypt. Because of a seven-year drought in both Canaan and Egypt, his brothers had to travel to Egypt to buy some grain. They did not know that their kid brother was in charge of that grain. They were in for a big surprise when they reached Egypt. Joseph’s dream had come true. He ruled over them. The brothers and their families moved to Egypt and their descendants began to populate the land.

Moses Leads the Jews Out of Egypt

The story about Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt is written in the Bible’s book of Exodus. We are going to summarize forty chapters into several paragraphs in order to explain how the Jewish people became a tightly knit community and why Jerusalem was and is so important to them.

A long time after Joseph’s family moved to Egypt – historians do not know exactly how long, probably several centuries – the descendants of the twelve sons of Israel multiplied. Their numbers eventually threatened the reigning pharaoh [king of Egypt]. “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us,” said Pharaoh. He ordered his people to set “task masters” over them and “treat them harshly.”

Luckily for the Jews, a young man named Moses [whom Jews, Christians, and Muslims today consider a prophet of God] rescued them. With what might seem like magical powers given to him by God, Moses convinced Pharaoh to “let his people go” out of Egypt. When Pharaoh changed his mind and chased after the Israelites with his soldiers and chariots, Moses – again with God’s help – parted the Red Sea [Sea of Reeds] to allow the Israelites to escape. Once the Israelites had arrived safely through the passage in the sea to to the other side, Moses closed the waters, which rushed in to the empty channel and drowned the pursuing Egyptian army.

For forty years, the Israelites traveled and camped around the Sinai Peninsula, which is mostly desert. During that time, the Jewish people tightened into a Jewish nation. To guide them, God gave Moses a stone tablet with Ten Commandments [rules] written on it. [Those commandments became the foundation of our legal system in the United States today, known as Mosaic Law(3).] When the Israelites finally reached Canaan, God, once again, promised them they could possess the land forever.

This story later became very important to Christians, who adopted the Jewish traditions written in the Bible’s Old Testament and added the Christian elements included in the Bible’s New Testament. Throughout the following three to four millennia, both Christians and Jews took God’s promise that they could keep their Promised Land extremely seriously. Millions of people have died trying to help God keep that promise.

The Pilgrims and Puritans who crossed the Ocean Sea to settle New England in the 1600s, related to this story in several ways:

  1. They felt that they, too, were escaping from slavery when they left England.
  2. They felt that God had given them New England in the same way he gave Canaan to the Israelites
  3. They thought New England was their Promised Land.

King David, King Solomon, and the Golden Temple

Have you heard references to Solomon’s Gold in movies? Again, we will shorten the tale from the version in the Bible’s First Book of Kings.

The story about Solomon’s Temple took place a thousand years – plus or minus several centuries – after Moses’ flight from Egypt. Historians have narrowed the date down to 1002 BCE. People were getting pretty handy at writing by then and kept better written records than during Abraham’s time. [Curiously, Egyptian records do not include this story.]

The Jews were still fighting the Philistines to keep control of Canaan. The Jews were losing because the Philistines had a warrior named Goliath who was so large and so powerful that he could vanquish any other warrior who fought against him.

Along came a young shepherd named David. David was so sure that the Hebrew God was the most powerful God in the world, and that the Hebrews should win the battle, that he told the Jewish king, Saul, that he, David, would vanquish Goliath. Even though King Saul and David’s brothers thought David was crazy, David fearlessly stepped in front of Goliath armed with only his slingshot. Staring Goliath in the eyes, David took one of the rocks from the satchel hanging from his belt, placed it in his slingshot, and shot the giant Philistine squarely in the forehead, knocking him dead. Just as the Celts did with their vanquished, and as Pilgrim Miles Standish will do to the Massachusetts Indian chief Wituwamut, David severed Goliath’s head from his body with a very sharp sword and presented the head as a trophy of his victory to King Saul.

Some time later, the Jews needed a new king, so they chose David. But not long after that, in 975 BCE, the northern part of Israel went to war with the southern part of Israel. As it states in the book of Proverbs in the Bible, “a house divided cannot stand.” The country ended up dividing into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom kept the name Israel with its capital at Samaria. The southern kingdom became the House of Judah with its capital at Jerusalem.

During that time, King David moved his capital from Hebron to Jerusalem. When David died, his son Solomon took over the leadership position. King David was the role model for all future kings. But his son Solomon was known for his great wisdom. It was Solomon, historians suspect, who wrote the wise sayings in the Bible’s book of Proverbs. Wanting to honor God, Solomon built a magnificent temple on the highest hill in Jerusalem. The hill was later known as the Temple Mount.

Solomon’s Temple

If you have read the description of Solomon’s temple in the Bible’s First Book of Kings, you already know what an elaborate place it was, and how fond Solomon was of decorating with cedar and gold. “Everything was cedar; no stone was to be seen.” [Remember this part about the value of cedar for stories in later articles.] “Solomon covered the inside of the temple with pure gold. He extended gold chains across the front of the inner sanctuary, which was overlaid with gold. He overlaid the whole interior with gold. He overlaid with gold the altar that belonged to the inner sanctuary. … He covered the floors of both the inner and outer rooms of the temple with gold. … and overlaid the cherubim (4), palm trees and open flowers with gold hammered evenly over the carvings.” The plates, chalices [cups], and other ceremonial items used in the inner temple were also gold.

Even though Solomon honored God with this amazing temple, and in spite of God’s promise to the Israelites that they could stay in Canaan forever and ever, between 740 and 732 BCE the Assyrians from Mesopotamia conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. The Assyrians dragged their new slaves of war, the Israelites, north through Phoenicia and west to Assyria at the northern end of the valley between the Tigres and Euphrates River. As told in the Bible’s Second Book of Kings, only the people of Judah remained in the promised land.

The Destruction of Solomon’s Temple

Almost a century and a half later, between 601 and 586 BCE, the Babylonians, who, as you know, were also from Mesopotamia, conquered Judah. The king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II, ordered his men to destroy Solomon’s great temple. The illustration below, from the Nüremberg Chronicle published later during the Renaissance, shows the temple as a round building with a blue bulb on top and flames all around it. It does not show the Temple Mount as the tallest hill.

The destruction of Solomon’s temple by the Babylonians, Nuremberg Chronicle, Illustrated by Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, Nuremberg, Germany, 1493.(5)

Like the Assyrians, the Babylonians enslaved the Jewish people and whisked them over the mountains to Babylon, which was in the middle of the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The Jews lived as captives of the Babylonians for seventy years – a little less time than one person’s life span.

The Israelites Return to Jerusalem

We already mentioned in the article about the Ancient World, that in about 538 BCE(6), the Persians under Cyrus the Great (c.600/576-530 BCE) conquered the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Greeks and gained control of Jerusalem. Cyrus invited the Jewish people of Judah and Israel who had been in Babylon for seventy years back to their city. The Bible tells us how the Jews rebuilt Solomon’s temple, but not what happened to the gold. Was it lost or hidden? Did it reappear, only to be stolen again when the temple was destroyed the final time?

During the next 538 years [between 538 BCE and the year zero], the political situation around Jerusalem continued to change. In 201 BCE, the Jews welcomed a new master, Antiochus the Great, Emperor of Macedonia. Antiochus saw himself as the heir to Alexander the Great. Contemporary author Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote in his book about Jerusalem(7), “Like all Macedonian kings, [Antiochus] associated himself with Apollo, Hercules, Achilles and, above all, Zeus.” Montefiore’s description of the parade that ushered Antiochus into Jerusalem gives us some insight into how multicultural the city had become two hundred years before the birth of Jesus. The parade included, “Macedonian phalanxes bearing their sarissa lances, Cretan mountain fighters, Cilician light infantry, Thracian slingers, Mysian bowmen, Lydian javelineers, Persian bowmen, Kurdish infantry, Iranian heavy-armoured cataracts on war horses and, most prestigious of all, elephants ...” The map below shows the countries of origin for the paraders.

“Jerusalem had become a theocracy,” wrote Montefiore. “Harsh rules regulated every detail of life, for there was no distinction between politics and religion. In Jerusalem, there were no statues nor graven images [unlike Catholic Rome]. The observance of the Sabbath was an obsession. All crimes against religion were punished with death. There were four forms of execution – stoning, burning, beheading, and strangling. Adulterers were stoned. … The Temple was the center of Jewish life; the high priest and his council, the Sanhedrin, met there. Every morning, the trumpets announced the first prayer.”

This was Jerusalem’s last Golden Age. This was the Jerusalem that the Puritans in America will try to emulate when they establish one of its namesakes Salem in the late 1620s. The Pilgrims even had trumpeters herald the beginning of church on the Sabbath.

All this came to an end with Antiochus the Great’s decadent son, Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus Epiphanes demanded his subjects worship one god. That god was him. Like his father did, Antiochus Epiphanes considered himself the manifestation of Zeus, the most powerful of all the gods. In 170 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes marched into Jerusalem determined to overcome it. He entered the Holy of Holies [the sacred room in the Temple, which only the highest priest entered once a year], stole the golden altar and the “candlestick of light and shewsbread table,” and took them to Egypt. In 167 BCE, “he forbade services in the Temple, banned the Sabbath, the Law, and circumcision on pain of death, and ordered the Temple to be soiled with pigs’ flesh.” He converted the temple to a shine for Zeus. Subjects who broke the rules were either burned to death or crucified. [Crucification was a procedure introduced by the Greeks. Criminals were attached to a wooden cross by nails hammered into their hands and feet. They hanged from those nails until they died.]

The Jews rebelled under a warrior named Judah the Hammer, who was probably relieved when Antiochus Epiphanes suffered an epileptic fit, fell from his chariot, and died. By 164 BCE, the Jews had restored their independence. The golden altar and other temple artifacts were returned to their temple. But the holy city never returned to its former glory.

By that time, the Roman Empire was growing and spreading its dominance around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. In 64 BCE, Roman Emperor Pompey the Great took control of the area around Jerusalem, including Syria, before taking Jerusalem itself. In the process, he slaughtered 12,000 Jews. Pompey entered the Holy of Holies. He did not steal anything, but another Roman general, Crassus, took 2,000 talents of gold [one talent was nearly the weight of a cubic foot of water] and the “beam of sold gold” [the altar] from the Holy of Holies. Crassus wanted the gold to fund an invasion of Persia [Iran and Iraq]. Crassus paid his dues when he was captured by the Parthians. They poured the molten gold down his throat.

In 49 BCE, the Egyptians murdered Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Caesar placed two half-Jewish, half-Arab brothers named Faisel and Herod in charge of Judea. Faisel was murdered by the Parthians. Herod escaped to the protection of Queen Cleopatra in Egypt. He then sailed to Rome where the new Roman Emperor, Antony, who had replaced the murdered Caesar, selected him to recapture Jerusalem.

Antony needed Jerusalem as the base for 100,000 troops so he could attack the Parthians to the north. His brutal Roman armies helped Herod complete the takeover of Jerusalem in 38 BCE. But he lost the campaign against the Parthians along with a third of his troops.

Herod was a client king of Jerusalem because Jerusalem was a client of Rome. A client king’s powers were limited. Herod was required to bow to the controlling Roman emperor. Still, he was the richest man in the Middle East. A competent, though brutal ruler, his reign lasted forty years.

Herod was a good looking man. He was educated in the Greek, Latin, and Jewish cultures. He had a harem of over 500 women. He sired twelve legitimate children by ten wives. His court was half Greek and half Jewish. Montefiore quoted, “Herod was Phoenician by descent, Hellenized [Greek] by culture, Idumean by place of birth, Jewish by religion, Jerusalemite by residence, and Roman by citizenship.” Herod also had good taste in art and architecture. He helped beautify and strengthen Jerusalem by building walls, towers, and palaces. He added buildings to the temple, doubling the size of the Temple Mount. Some 70,000 people lived in his city. Hundreds of thousands more visited as pilgrims.

Approximately two years before Herod died in 6 CE, and while the Romans still controlled Judah, a little baby was born in Bethlehem four and a half miles south of Jerusalem. In the local Aramaic language, which the Jews had adopted in Babylon, the baby was named Jesus. In Hebrew, the language of the Israelites, he became known as Joshua ben Joseph [Joshua son of Joseph] and his mother was known as Mariamme. The Western Europeans will call him Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph.


  1. Header Photo: Ring of Brodgar aka Brogar, a neolithic stone circle and henge monument. Loch of Harray in the background. Photo by Stevekeiretsu - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35375808. Image source url. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring_of_Brodgar#/media/File:Ring_of_Brodgar,_Orkney.jpg
  2. The Torah included the first five books of what we today call the Old Testament of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
  3. Caravans were bands of people – sometimes families, sometimes merchants, sometimes Pilgrims – who traveled in large groups through the desert. They usually carried their camping equipment and food for long journeys in covered wagons. The word caravan came from the French/Latin word for covered wagon, caravane, which came from the Persian word kārwān.
  4. Depending on whether you are using the Catholic method or the Protestant method for counting the commandments, they include: 1) Recognize only the One God. 2) Do not make idols. 3) Do not take the Lord’s name in vain. 4) Keep the seventh day of the week a day of rest. 5) Honor your father and mother. 6) Do not murder. 7) Do not commit adultery. 8) Do not steal. 9) Do not bear false witness about your neighbor. 10) Do not covet.
  5. Cherubs are chubby, little angel figures that represent children and innocence.
  6. “The destruction of Jerusalem under the Babylonian rule.” Nuremberg Chronicle, Illustrated by Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, Nuremberg, Germany, 1493. Manuscript held in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in the University of Toronto. {{PD-old}} Book in Public Domain in US, Germany, Canada, and Austria. Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylonian_captivity#mediaviewer/ File:Nuremberg_chronicles_f_63v_1.png. 
  7. The date depends on when the seventy years officially commenced, which is not known for certain.
  8. Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Jerusalem: The Biography, Vintage Books, a division of  Random House, Inc. New York, 2012.

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