Under Arab Rule
In 638, Muslim Arabs captured Jerusalem. Their reign lasted more than four centuries, with caliphs ruling first from Damascus, then from Baghdad, and later Egypt.
The Muslim caliph Umar designated Jerusalem as the third holiest place in Islam after Mecca and Medina. The Dome of the Rock was built in 691 on the site of the Temple of Solomon to mark where the prophet Muhammad was believed to have ascended to heaven.Nearby the al-Aqsa Mosque was constructed.
At the outset of Islamic rule, Jewish settlement in Jerusalem was resumed, and the Jewish community was granted permission to live under “protection,” the customary status of non-Muslims under Islamic rule, which safeguarded their lives, property, and freedom of worship in return for payment of special poll and land taxes.
However, the introduction of restrictions against non-Muslims in 717 affected the Jews’ public conduct, religious observances, and legal status, while the imposition of heavy taxes on agricultural land compelled many of them to leave their rural communities and move to towns, where their circumstances hardly improved. Increasing social and economic discrimination forced many Jews to leave the country.
Other non-Muslims were similarly affected, and there was substantial conversion to Islam in the Holy Land. Abbasid dynasty caliphs furthered the process of Islamization of the people of the area. The Abbasids were replaced by the Fatamids who were engaged in seemingly constant conflict, and the area was one of virtual continuous warfare. In 1071, the Seljuk Turks captured Jerusalem. The Fatamids recaptured it in 1098 only to lose it to the crusaders.
The Crusader Period (1099–1291)
In July 1099, the knights of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem, and in 1100 established the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. Most of the city’s non-Christian inhabitants were massacred; barricaded in their synagogues, the Jews defended their quarter, only to be burned to death or sold into slavery. During the next few decades, the crusaders extended their power over the rest of the country.
When the crusaders were defeated by the Ayyubid sultan of Egypt, Saladin (Salah ad-Din), at the Battle of Hittin (1187), the Jews were again accorded a certain measure of freedom, including the right to resettle in Jerusalem. Although the crusaders eventually regained control of much of the area after Saladin’s death (1193), their presence was limited to a network of fortified castles. A final defeat in 1291 at Acre by the Mamluks, a Muslim military class originally from Turkey that had come to power in Egypt and Syria, put an end to crusader domination of the land.
Under Mamluk Rule (1291–1516)
The land under the Mamluks became a backwater province ruled from Damascus. By the end of the Middle Ages, its urban centers were virtually in ruins, most of Jerusalem was abandoned, and the small Jewish community was poverty stricken.
In 1516, the Ottoman Turks, under Sultan Selim I, routed the Mamluks and inaugurated four centuries of Ottoman rule over the area. Ottoman rule varied over the centuries with links to other portions of the empire, most notably to Damascus until about 1830, and during these centuries, the region was significantly insulated from outside influences and international issues.
Under Ottoman Rule (1517–1917)
For the next four centuries, the area was ruled from Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks. The region of Palestine was divided into districts and attached administratively to the province of Damascus. At the outset of the Ottoman era, an estimated 2,000 Jewish families lived in the region, residing mainly in Jerusalem, Nablus (Nabulus), Hebron, Gaza, Safed, and the villages of Galilee. The community consisted of descendants of Jews who had never left the area, as well as immigrants, primarily from North Africa and Europe.
Orderly government, until the death of the Ottoman sultan Suleiman (Sulayman) the Magnificent (1566), brought improvements and stimulated Jewish immigration. Some newcomers settled in Jerusalem, but the majority went to Safed, where by the mid-16th century, the Jewish population had grown to about 10,000, and the town had become a thriving textile center as well as the focus of intense intellectual activity.
With a gradual decline in the quality of Turkish rule, the area was brought to a state of widespread neglect. By the end of the 18th century, much of the land was owned by absentee landlords and leased to impoverished tenant farmers. Taxation was crippling and capricious. The great forests of Galilee and the Carmel mountain range were denuded of trees; swamp and desert encroached on agricultural land.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s Middle Eastern foray at the end of the 18th century led to increased involvement by European powers in the region, including Palestine. In the 19th century medieval backwardness gradually gave way to the beginnings of Western progress. The European powers jockeyed for position in the empire, often through missionary activities. The condition of Palestine’s Jews slowly improved, and their numbers substantially increased.
Despite this, Palestine in the 19th century was essentially a backwater of the Ottoman Empire—a mainly poor and rural society generally isolated from the international community except for the growth of Christian missionary influence in the area and the establishment of Christian missions, schools, and medical facilities in the region.
The population of Palestine was overwhelmingly Muslim Arab with a Christian Arab merchant and professional class that was primarily urban. The Jewish population was small but nonetheless a mixed one—the descendants of Jews who had remained in the area since earliest times and recent immigrants, many of whom were religiously observant Orthodox Jews who sought to live a religious life, study the holy works, and die in the Holy Land.