Israel History: Islam, Crusades, & Turks

Learn about the Arab conquest of the Holy Land, Dome of the Rock mosque built on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Saladin’s defeat of the Crusades, Mongol invasion, the Mamluk’s, Napolean’s defeat to the Ottoman Turks in Acre, Safed & Kabbalah movement.

Arab rule (636-1099 CE)

Dome of Rock mosque in Jerusalem built over site of Second Temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem

Dome of Rock mosque in Jerusalem built on Mount Moriah where the Temple stood.

Four years after the death of Mohammed (632 CE) the Arab armies conquer the Holy Land from the Byzantines. Around 700 CE the Damascus based Umayyad caliphs, build the El Aksa mosque and golden Dome of the Rock over the site of the destroyed Second Temple in Jerusalem. These commemorate the Moslem tradition of the prophet Muhammad and his Night Journey on his steed Buraq to the “Far Place” (el aksa) and subsequent ascension to heaven to receive the holy Koran from Allah (God) and bring it down to humanity.

Crusaders (1099-1291)

Montfort Crusader castle near Maalot in Galilee, Israel

Montfort  Crusader castle in Galilee

In 1099 the Crusaders conquered the Holy Land from the Moslems and captured Jerusalem, converting it to the capital of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Crusader kings are crowned at the Holy Sepulchre church. Jews, Moslems, and Eastern Orthodox Christians fled. An intense period of Catholic construction begins with churches and hostels being built to accommodate the waves of pilgrims that began making their way across Europe to the Holy Land.

Battle of Hittim & Third Crusade (1187)

Akko 13th century Crusader capital

Old walled city of Akko (Acre) 13th century Crusader capital following the Third Crusade under King Richard the Lionheart

Saladin (1137-93), a Moslem of Kurdish origin, was appointed vizier of Egypt by the local Fatimid kings in 1163 and took over the Cairo based government in 1171, establishing the Ayubbid dynasty which he ruled as sultan from 1194 until his death in Damascus from fever in 1193.  Following Saladin’s defeat of the Crusaders in 1187 at the Battle of Hittim near Tiberias, Moslems, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Jews could return to live in Jerusalem. The Jewish community resettled in the area of today’s Jewish Quarter in the Old City. Saladin’s victory triggered the Third Crusade (1189-1192) led by King Philip II (Augustus) of France and King Richard I of England (“the Lionheart”). The Crusaders regained a foothold in the Holy Land but failed to recapture Jerusalem so Akko (Acre) became the capital throughout the 13th century, until their final defeat by the Moslem Mamluks in 1291.

Maimonides visits the Holy Land (1166)
During the 12th and 13th centuries many Jews including rabbis came to the Holy Land. Among them Rambam also known as Maimonides (1138-1204) the great Spanish Jewish medical doctor, philosopher, and rabbi from Moslem controlled Cordoba who went on to become the personal physician to the great Moslem general and king Saladin at his court in Cairo. His family was forced to leave Cordoba when he was 10 years old in order to avoid forced conversion to Islam under the Almohad dynasty. They moved about for about 10 years, finally settling in Fez, Morocco in 1158. The family eventually had to leave due to persecutions and in 1165 they sail for the Holy Land, arriving in Acre where they remained and became very friendly with the head of the Jewish community there, Rabbi Yafet. After five months Maimonides, his father, and Rabbi Yaffet made aliya to Jerusalem where they prayed on the Temple Mount and then visited the Machapelah cave in Hebron where the Patriarchs are buried. In 1166, after his stay in the Holy Land, Maimonides arrived by boat in Alexandria where the family stayed for a few years and from there settled in the Fostat quarter in Old Cairo, got married, and had a son – Avraham (1186-1238). There he studied Torah, served as head of the Jewish community, and helped his brother David who traded in precious stones

Tragedy struck when his brother drowned at sea in 1176. In order to support himself and his family Maimonides studied and worked as a medical doctor. He practiced preventative medicine, wrote medical works, and went on to become the personal physician to Sultan Saladin. In his medical writings, Maimonides described many conditions, including asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, and pneumonia, and he emphasized moderation and a healthy lifestyle. In a famous letter, Maimonides describes his daily routine: After visiting the Sultan’s palace, he would arrive home exhausted and hungry, where “I would find the antechambers filled with gentiles and Jews … I would go to heal them, and write prescriptions for their illnesses … until the evening … and I would be extremely weak.” As he goes on to say in this letter, even on the Sabbath he would receive members of the community.  Following his death in 1204 he was buried in the Holy Land – Tiberias – following his wishes.

Mamluks rule Egypt (1250)

Lion symbol of Mamluk king Baibars

Lion symbol of Baibars Egypt sultan(1260-1277)

The Mamluks, originally a professional military caste, largely of calvary, took over in Egypt (1250) from the Kurdish Ayyubid dynasty established by Saladin. The Mamluks were descendants of peoples from the steppes of Central Asia brought in by the early Arab rulers, converted to Islam, and trained as a professional class of soldiers, servants, and government functionaries that served the sultans.

Ain Jalut: Mamluks defeat Mongols (1260)
During this period the mighty Mongol empire that swept west across Asia was ruled by Genghis Khan’s (1162-1227) who unified the tribes of Mongolia and was confirmed as ‘Universal Ruler’ in 1206. Next in line as Great Khan was his son Ogodai who expanded dominion west: Hungary and Poland were ravaged before his death in 1241. Genghis Khan’s grandson, Mongke Khan (reigned 1251-1250), followed by his brother Kublai Khan (reigned 1260-1294).  In September, 1260 Mongke Khan sent his brother Hulagu Khan into battle against Qutuz, the Mamluk sultan of Egypt, in order to fulfill his  grandfather Genghis Khan’s vision of a world  empire extending into Africa. The two armies numbered  about 20,000 soldiers and clashed at Ain Jalut (biblical Ein Harod, where Gideon gathered his men to battle the Midianites over 2000 years earlier). Worthwhile noting is that this was one of the first battles  where hand cannons were used. Though largely ineffective, they created havoc by scaring the horses.

Baibars becomes Mamluk sultan of Egypt (1260-1277)
Shortly after the defeat of the Mongols in 1260 at the battle of Ain Jalut by the Mamluk sultan Qutuz, the later was assassinated and Baibars became sultan of Egypt, reigning until his death at the age of 54 in in 1277. The Mamluks under Sultan Baibars continued strengthening their rule over the Holy Land. In 1265 Caesarea fell; in 1268 Jaffa was taken.

Marco Polo in China (1271-1296)
In 1271 Marco Polo (1254-1324), age 17, traveled with his father and  uncle, Nicolo and Maffio Polo, both Venetian merchants, across Asia to the court of Kublai Khan (their second voyage, his first). He returned  to his his native Venice only 24 years latter, in 1295. It was Marco Polo’s book Travels to Tartary and China that for the first time alerted a wide audience in the West to the extraordinary civilization of China. He became a wealthy merchant, married, and had three children. He died in 1324 and was buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Venice.

Fall of Acre to Mamluks: End of Crusades (1291)
The fall of Akko in 1291 to the Mamluks ended the kingdom of Acre and the Crusader period. For the next two hundred and fifty years the country was ruled by the Moslem Mamluks. They destroy all of the coastal port cities to prevent a Crusader return.  The Land of Israel becomes a backwater of Egypt with little development. Natural disasters- plagues, locust, earthquakes – took their toll. The Holy Land remained essentially closed to Europeans until the later part of the 19th century with the opening up of the Ottoman empire.

Mamluks in the Holy Land (1291-1516)
The Mamluk sultans established madrasas (religious Moslem schools) of which 43 out of 50 were in Jerusalem. A number of them were magnificent buildings and fine examples of Muslim architecture. These include the White Mosque in Ramleh, the Bab al-Qattanim (“cotton workers’ gate”) in Jerusalem’s Old City, the Qait-Bay fountain on the Temple Mount, and the Tankiziyya madrasa near the Western Wall. After the wave of bloodshed perpetrated by the Crusaders, it was a period of gradual recovery. By the end of the 15th century it appears that the Jewish population of Jerusalem reached several thousand. There were also small communities of Jews scattered in the main towns and villages.

Ottoman Rule (1517-1917)

Ottoman Turkish Yaffo or Jaffa that Jonah and Simon Peter passed through

Ottoman Turkish Jaffa with biblical seaport

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 put a final end to the Byzantine empire. They extend their rule over the Holy Land and whole Middle East, including Egypt. In July 30, 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella expel 200,000 Jews of Spain in the wake of the Inquisition and the fall of final reconquest of Muslim Spain (Granada). The Turkish sultan Bazajet welcomes the exiles. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66) rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem (1537-41) and further encourages Jewish settlement in the Holy Land to help develop the region. The Jewish population of the country rises from about 1000 families at the beginning of the Ottoman conquest to 5000 Jewish families.

Spanish exiles settle in Holy Land

Safed Joseph Caro synagogue 16th C. rabbi and Kabbalist

Safed: Beautiful Yosef Caro synagogue

Many Jews who had been expelled from Spain in July, 1492 under the Inquisition, come to the Land of Israel, often motivated by messianic fervor and a sense of imminent fulfillment of the prophetic “Return to Zion”. Many Sephardic Spanish Jews settle in Jerusalem.

The Kabbalah mystics however, preferred Safed – close to where the founder of the movement- Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century disciple of Rabbi Akiva- was buried. Indeed, in 1481, even before the influx of Jewish refugees from Spain, there were 300 Jewish families in Safed- more than four times the size of Jerusalem.

According to R. David de Rossi who settled in Safed in 1535: “Whoever saw Safed ten years ago and sees it again now is amazed, for the Jews are constantly coming in and the clothing industry is expanding daily:. There is no galut here like in our country [Italy] and the Turks respect the important Jews”. By the middle of the 16th century, the Jews of Safed and the environs numbered about 10,000, comprising the largest concentration in the country.

Dona Gracia & Don Joseph Nasi

Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi helped resettle Jewish refugees in land of Israel

Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi resettled Spanish Jewish exiles in the Holy Land

The yearning for redemption and messianic hopes continued to grow, especially among Spanish refugees and found expression in the bold attempts by Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi (1510-1569), one of the wealthiest Jewish women of the European Renaissance and her Portuguese nephew Don Joseph Nasi (1524-1579), Venetian Duke of Naxos and influential in the Ottoman sultan’s court, to finance Jewish aliya (immigration) from Italy to the Land  of Israel, rebuild Tiberias, and to introduce the silk industry as a source of work and income for the Spanish Jewish refugees (mid 1500s) who fled the Inquisition in Europe. This was one of the earliest attempts to create a modern Zionist movement and bring Jews back to the Land of Israel as prophesized in the Bible.

Napoleon in Holy Land (1799)

Statue of Napolean on Tel Akko where established command post at Acre siege

Napolean on Tel Akko where established command post at siege of Acre

In July, 1798 Napolean invaded Egypt with 30,000 troops, conquered Egypt it, and by Feb., 1799 was advancing towards the Holy Land along the Sinai coast and conquers Jaffa (March 3-7, 1799). Continuing north he was defeated shortly after at the siege of Akko (Acre) due to plague and British naval intervention on the side of the Ottoman Turks (March 19 – May 21, 1799). In the meantime, on April 10, 1799 Napolean’s army had defeated the Turks at Mount Tabor and on April 20 he issued a proclamation declaring his intention to restore the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. After failing to conquer Acre Napolean retreated to Egypt where he left his troops and returned to France (Oct., 1799). At this time most of the Jews in the Holy Land lived in four holy cities: Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias, and Hebron.

Holy Land in 19th century

Jerusalem: Old Turkish train station part of the French built Jaffa Jerusalem line

Jerusalem Turkish train station inaugurated in 1892

The 19th century sees growing European interest in the Mideast and Palestine: The introduction of international postal service, telegraph, railways, the Suez Canal, and the building of churches and missions by western powers. Steamship travel spurred tourism and the first road was paved from Jaffa to Jerusalem at the end of the 19th century.

By 1860 the Jewish population had grown to the point where the first neighborhoods were built outside the Old City in Jerusalem. The Zionist movement, calling for the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland, opened the way for “chalutzim” (pioneers) to come and rebuild the land. In 1897, Theodore Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland and established the World Zionist Organization. By WWI, the Jewish population of Palestine had grown from about 5000 to 85,000.

Contact Zack Shavin
Did you enjoy Zack’s Israel History: Islam, Crusades, & Turks? For more information about visiting the actual sites contact Zack Shavin, veteran guide & biblical archaeologist at Land of Israel Tours.