How Much Do You Know About the History of the Holy Land?

Zoe Samuel

Image: shutterstock

About This Quiz

Throughout its lengthy history, the Holy Land has been tossed from empire to empire to independent kingdom to empire to mishmash of provinces to territories to mandate to goodness knows what. It is one of the most fought-over slices of land on the planet. It's home to all three Abrahamic religions as well as a variety of other cultures and faiths. It has had many names and possibly even more than one climate, as it seems likely that there was more rainfall there some millennia ago, accounting for the prosperity of the region. For an area that has been colonized by just about every empire worthy of the name in the last 10,0000 years. It's an awfully complicated history to unpick, with all sorts of triumphs, tragedies and disasters befalling the place and the people alike. 

Understanding how to bring peace to the Holy Land today means knowing an awful lot about the various cultures there and how they have interacted throughout the years. Indeed, a study of the history of the Holy Land shows that many of the best ideas to emerge from it have been shared by most of the people to set foot there. This quiz will go in chronological order, starting with getting our terms right - you're going to need to know about Mesopotamia, Persia, and the various names of the Holy Land itself - and then moving from Abraham through Biblical times to Roman times, Islamic times, to later empires and then the modern day. So let's see how well you remember this tempestuous multi-millennial history!

Which of these modern countries does NOT have at least some territory in the Holy Land?

The rest of the Holy Land includes the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. It's a big place!

Which is the oldest city in the Holy Land?

Damascus in Syria is the oldest city not just in the Holy Land - it is the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth!

Which city in the Holy Land is supposedly the site of the end of the world?

Megiddo is where the name "Armageddon" comes from, and it's where the end of the world is meant to get started - so the Bible tells us!

What is the modern name of the heart of the former Persian Empire?

Iran is where the Persians were. It's not part of the Holy Land itself, but you can't study the history of the one without the other, as we'll see in upcoming questions.

What is Mesopotamia?

Mesopotamia is the area around the Tigris and Euphrates river systems and includes parts of Syria, Turkey and Iran, plus Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Garden of Eden was probably in Mesopotamia and Abraham was born there - so, like Persia, while it's not the Holy Land itself, it is home to key events in the history of that land.

What is the most important river in the Holy Land?

The Jordan is a river in the so-called Fertile Crescent. The main rivers of this area are the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, which sustained the birth of civilization - but the Jordan is the key one in the Holy Land's little section of the wider Fertile Crescent. The other river we mentioned, the Yarmouk, is a tributary of the Jordan.

Roughly when did Abraham and his family live in the Holy Land?

Abraham and the other so-called Patriarchs were in the Holy Land way before their descendants upped sticks to Egypt and then had to Exodus their way back. Abraham left Ur, in Mesopotamia - which we promised would be important! - to go to a place then named Canaan, which is the Holy Land.

When was the Biblical kingdom of Israel founded?

The Exodus was about 1250 BC, and the Hebrews made themselves a place named Israel shortly after, in what was previously called Canaan.

When did the Biblical kingdom of Israel split into two kingdoms?

It was after the death of Solomon, who was very strong and charismatic but sadly failed to raise an heir capable of holding it all together. The kingdom split into Israel and Judah.

When did Assyria conquer the northern kingdom, then called Israel?

The Assyrians were a powerful northern neighbor who kicked Israel around quite a lot and took tribute from it, before finally just colonizing it.

Which imperial power exiled the Israelites from their homeland for a period of time?

Emperor Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem and sent the Israelites into exile in Babylon. Rome did some similar things, but we'll get to that.

Who destroyed the Empire of Babylon?

Cyrus is considered a friend to the Jews even now for ending the Babylonian Exile. Sadly, good Persian-Israelite relationships have not lasted to this day, but there is always hope things may improve.

In what century BC was the Second Temple built?

After kicking the Babylonians out, Cyrus permitted the building of the Second Temple. This was important to Israelites as much of their faith required the temple to exist so they could obey certain rules.

Who came from the west to bring the Holy Land under Hellenistic rule?

Alexander the Great conquered the Holy Land in 329 BC. His father had united the previously warring Greek city-states and managed to get the better of Persia, which at the time was the main world power. The Persian Empire was on its last legs as a result, which made the Holy Land available for yet another conquering.

Which Hellenistic Syrian king banned Jewish practices and desecrated the Temple?

He imposed rule by what was then known as the Seleucid Empire, a Hellenistic (Greek) empire born out of Alexander's death - which overstretched itself trying to hang onto all his conquered regions from Greece to India.

Which festival commemorates the revolt against the Syrians led by Judas Maccabeus?

The Maccabees rebelled against the overstretched Seleucid Empire and booted it out of Israel. They re-lit the holy lamp in the temple - which is never meant to go out - but had only enough oil for the lamp to burn for one night. Pressing new oil from olives takes eight days. However, due to a miracle, the oil burned for the full eight days. This is what Chanukah celebrates. It isn't actually a very major Jewish holiday but it's around the same time as Christmas so in the West it gets lots of extra attention as a way to be inclusive!

What dynasty did Judas Maccabeus then found?

It's the very first line of the Chanukah service, so most Jews can say it by heart: "In the days of the Hasmoneans..." etc. However, most people don't remember the Hasmoneans, which is a shame since they managed to fight off one powerful empire and then hold off Rome itself for a shockingly long time considering how small their kingdom was!

Which Roman general imposed the imperial rule of Rome on the Holy Land?

It was in 63BC and ended the Hasmonean dynasty, bringing in the first Herod (not the one from the New Testament, but a relative) to rule as a vassal king. Rome didn't always like direct rule of its provinces and colonies as that was hard work: It preferred sometimes to install a puppet to rule in its name.

Roughly when was Jesus born?

You'd think it was in the year zero, but there was no year zero, plus record-keeping just wasn't very good back then! There are a few historical figures whose deeds have become part of the Jesus story but it does seem likely that Jesus himself was born in 6 AD (though some scholars argue for 3 or 4 AD).

When did the Romans destroy the Second Temple?

At this point, Israel had been renamed Judea, its Roman name. The Judeans rebelled in 68AD and Emperor Nero - never a man known for being very nice or reasonable - sent his general Vespasian to destroy Jerusalem. The Temple was obliterated, a great tragedy.

What happened at Masada?

The Jewish historian Josephus wrote of this epic tale. Only two people survived Masada, which was a mountain town with sheer cliffs and only one way up. It had a good water supply, meaning it was a great place to survive a siege. The Romans killed many slaves building a causeway up the mountain. You can hike up Masada now and imagine what it was like seeing the Romans building their way up knowing there was absolutely no way to stop them! Thanks to the dry climate, the fortress is incredibly well preserved.

What did Hadrian do in about 130 AD?

The name Palestine had become the moniker for the Holy Land at this point, though it was still a Roman province. Hadrian was another Roman Emperor and decided to exile Jews from the place to prevent another rebellion.

What made Christianity the official faith of the Roman Empire?

Theodosius was actually the emperor who made Christianity the compulsory faith of the Roman Empire in 380AD, but without Constantine converting, this could not have happened.

When was Mohammed born?

Mohammed came from Arabia, not the Holy Land, but as the founder of Islam he became a very important figure in the history of the Holy Land. His life is actually very well documented, which means the records of where he went and when are pretty darn good!

When did Jerusalem first come under Islamic rule?

Islamic and Crusader rule alternated from 638AD to 1342, marking long periods of peace and tolerance mixed in with extremely violent wars. It was a perfectly fine time to be Jewish in the Holy Land, as the Islamic Golden Age was enlightened and prosperous (especially compared to Europe, which was then going through the Dark Ages and the Medieval period). Islam recognizes Jews and Christians as "People of the Book" and thus welcome to live freely in Islamic lands.

When did the Ottoman Empire take over?

The Ottoman Empire was also Muslim, but Turkish instead of Arabic. It was a tolerant and progressive place for the time, with a sort of freedom of religion subject to a special tax. Indeed, it even welcomed 100,000 Spanish Jews who were kicked out of their home in Spain. The Ottoman Empire may represent the Holy Land's longest period of peace. Like all empires, it was expansionist and could be brutal, imposing any peace at the point of a sword.

What did Joseph Baratz establish in the Holy Land in 1909?

Kvutzat Degania, meaning "wheat of God," was the first kibbutz. These are little collectives where groups of Jewish people live together. They are usually farms and often welcome outsiders to come and stay for a while - as long as they are prepared to work!

When did the British Empire take the Holy Land?

World War One marked the collapse of a group of empires - German, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian - at the hands of the Allies (British Empire, America, and France, plus the Russian Empire, which also collapsed). Britain ruled the area for a mere 30 years and made an awful lot of conflicting plans during that period, the results of which are with us today.

What happened to a large portion of the Holy Land east of the river Jordan in 1946?

The strange borders in that part of the world now are a result of the situation mentioned above, that the British Empire left in its wake. One of the nations to emerge from it was Jordan, which came into existence in the larger portion of the Holy Land as an independent state.

What happened to the rest of the Holy Land?

The new Israeli state was immediately invaded and to everyone's immense surprise (including its own), won the resulting war. It then remained on the land that had originally been set up to be an independent Palestinian state. It was invaded again in 1967 and 1973 and each time made further territorial gains of this nature. Much of this land has now been returned. However, the original setup remains so controversial that any deal now has a mountain to climb if it is to resolve the conflict.

When did Lebanon become an independent state?

The French Empire withdrew from Lebanon at this time. Lebanon has the problem of being sandwiched between neighbors who don't like each other, meaning while it tries to get on with them, it's hard for it to stay neutral.

What happened in Gaza in 2005?

Gaza was part of the Palestinian territory before Israel, and later Egypt, and then Israel again hung onto it following the 1947 war. It was returned following lots of back and forth. It's not clear what the future holds for Gaza.

Where were the Dead Sea Scrolls found?

These ancient Hebrew manuscripts were written in the first century AD and were found in caves overlooking the Dead Sea at Qumran.

What year did Israel and Jordan make peace?

Jordan and Israel have been on pretty decent terms since then. Many people in the region hope for a lasting peace.

When did the current war start in Syria?

Syria is currently ruled by dictator Bashar al-Assad, whose main supporter is Russia. Kurdish separatists and rebels against the Assad regime were already present before the war. After the Iraq war of 2003, 1.5 million Iraqi refugees came to Syria, further destabilizing the country. A five year drought sent a further million Syrians into the cities, as ISIS began attacking eastern portions and the democratic Arab Spring movement tried to depose Assad, while Iranian-backed group Hezbollah took time to decide who to support. Unsurprisingly with so many factions facing off, the nation collapsed into war. Half the people of Syria have been displaced and there is sadly no end in sight.

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