Excite Travel
Travel Home
Middle East
Israel & the Palestinian Territories
Getting There
History     Culture


Israel isn't just rich in history - it's obscenely, gratuitously, Imelda Marcos rich. Thickly literary, packed full of household names, and always tumultuous, Israel's history seeps from the past into the present, in a country where everyday interactions are shaped by thousand-year-old conflicts. It all began around 1800 BC when Abraham led a group of nomads from Mesopotamia and settled in the mountains of Canaan. By 1023 BC the Israelites had formed a kingdom, led by Saul and then David, who captured Jerusalem and made it his capital. In around 950 BC, David's son Solomon built one of Judaism's most important sites, the First Temple of Jerusalem. The Temple was destroyed in 586 BC by the invading Babylonians, but was eventually rebuilt. The unstoppable Roman Empire took Israel in 63 BC and placed it under the control of a series of consuls, including Herod the Great and Pontius Pilate. This is when Jesus was believed to have lived and preached in Israel. The increasing insanity of the Empire under Caligula prompted a Jewish uprising, which lasted four years but was finally crushed when the Temple was again destroyed. After a second revolt, Jerusalem itself was razed, a new city (Aelia Capitolina) built on its ruins, and the province of Palestine decreed. This defeat marked the end of the Jewish state and the beginning of the Diaspora, the scattering of the Jewish people.

In 331 AD Emperor Constantine became a Christian and gave his official stamp of approval to the previously illegal religion. Suddenly everyone wanted to know about the Holy Land, and a rash of buildings, including the churches of the Holy Sepulchre and the Nativity, sprang up all over Israel to mark sites of religious importance. But Christianity's hold over the country was not to last long - in 638 AD Jerusalem fell to Caliph Omar and was declared a Holy City of Islam, on the grounds that the Prophet Mohammed had ascended to heaven from atop the Temple Mount. Christians around the world raised their hackles at this desecration, and by 1099 they'd scrounged an army together and occupied Jerusalem, murdering everyone they could get their hands on and beginning nearly 100 years of Christian rule. But by 1187 the Muslims again had the upper hand - after decades of Christian/Muslim scuffling, the Islamic Mamluks knocked over the last Crusader stronghold in 1291.

The next 500 years were some of the quietest Israel has seen. Empires rose and fell, and control of the country changed hands with monotonous regularity, but very little of the fighting took place on Israeli soil - for the average Israelite, it was business as usual. The only blip occurred in the 16th century, when the Ottoman Empire took over the reins and Suleyman the Magnificent rebuilt Jerusalem's city walls. By the mid-19th century the Ottomans were losing their grip and world interest once again focused on Israel. Britain opened a consulate in Jerusalem, and in 1839 Sir Moses Montefiore, a British Jew, began promoting the idea of a Jewish state. In 1878 the first Jewish colony was founded, and before long the first Aliyah, or wave of immigrants, had started. At the same time, the Arab population of Palestine was becoming strongly nationalistic and anti-European, which did not bode well for the new arrivals.

At the time of WWI, Britain became seriously involved in Israeli affairs, promising the Arabs they'd recognise an Arab state, and promising the Jews they'd support a Jewish homeland in Palestine. When the war ended, Britain was given a mandate to rule the country, and as Europe moved towards WWII, Britain decided to stop all immigration to Israel. Desperate illegal immigrants continued to arrive, and the Arab population responded with ever-increasing levels of violence. By 1947 the British decided they'd had enough - a resolution was passed to divide the country between Arabs and Jews, and on 14 May 1948 the Brits fled. Fighting broke out almost immediately, and when a ceasefire was declared in May 1949, Israeli forces held most of Palestine. Citizenship was offered to any Jewish person wishing to immigrate and the Israelis set out to colonise even the most inhospitable areas of the country.

Surrounded by unfriendly Arab nations, the new state of Israel quickly came under siege. In 1967 Israel went to war with Egypt, then Jordan and Syria. After six days the Israelis had won and extended their territory into the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Desert. Israel was starting to look pretty tough, and as a result a flood of Jewish immigrants headed in, while 500,000 Palestinians headed out. A group of Palestinians who decided to stay on and fight formed the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), an organisation dedicated to freeing its homeland. Meanwhile, Israel signed peace accords with Egypt.

Years of PLO action resulted in little more than international condemnation, but in 1987 a popular Palestinian uprising, the

With the election of Ehud Barak in 1999, Israel was once more presented with the chance to embrace peace. His promise to withdraw from the 'Security Zone' in southern Lebanon, where Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas had been lobbing artilery at one another for decades, was made good in May of 2000 despite Syria's concerns with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. As troops began evacuating, the Hezbollah moved in rapidly and forced Israeli soldiers into a chaotic retreat under heavy fire, with Lebanese civilians tossing a few bottles and stones into the mix just for good measure. The situation threatened to ignite smoldering tensions there and in the Palestinian territories.

When peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians failed to bring about an agreement, several events transpired in rapid succession and set off an uprising in which many Palestinians and Israelis were killed. Ironically, the violence spurred both sides to resume peace talks. However, in response to the violence, many Israelis became much more hard line, electing right-winger Ariel Sharon as prime minister in elections in early February 2001.

In early 2002, the area has suffered the worst violence in decades. Palestinian suicide bombers killed and wounded scores of people - Israelis and tourists alike - at markets, restaurants and on public transport. Israel occupied many West Bank cities in full-scale military attacks designed to cripple Palestinian infrastructure and to kill alleged militants, although many civilians have also been killed. It's still unclear what happened during the controversial siege of the Jenin refugee camp, though the United Nations has criticized Israel's actions there. Despite occasional glimmers of hope, the situation in this region seems unlikely to significantly improve in the forseeable future.


Until recently, Israel's culture has been predominantly religious, be it Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Although the hoe-that-field, pick-that-fruit, scoutlike kibbutz feeling is still in evidence, and although Judaism is the state religion, Israel is rapidly turning into a cosmopolitan consumerist society. Most Jewish Israelis play it both ways, leading a largely secular life but still taking part in the occasional religious ceremony. This is not to say that orthodoxy has died out: on the contrary, orthodox factions are becoming stronger and stronger, and their calls for a return to religiosity are louder and louder. Many Orthodox - and particularly Hasidic - Jews are recognisable by their dark clothes, beards and curly sideburns (although women tend to forego the beards and sideburns).

In Palestinian parts of the country, Muslim culture is more evident: you'll generally see fewer women, and those that you do see will be dressed more modestly. Sunni is the predominant Muslim sect. Family and hospitality are very important in Palestinian life, and most Palestinians are extremely friendly and helpful to strangers, going so far as to welcome them into their homes.

Israel is renowned for its classical music, with artists such as violinist Yitzhak Perlman strutting the world stage. Klezmer, the knees-up violin-based Yiddish folk music, is hugely popular in Israel and has spread its tentacles to Jewish communities around the world. The founders of the Zionist movement were writers, and literature is still strongly supported in Israel - successful exports have included Amos Oz and David Grossman. The Palestinian community also has a strong literary tradition, born out of adversity and struggle - poetry is particularly popular. In their passion to impose a Jewish identity on their new homeland, the new Israelis took to architecture with a passion, resulting in the form-over-function Internationalist style as well as the spread of Bauhaus buildings. Few Islamic buildings have survived into the 20th century, but there is some beautiful Mamluk architecture in Old Jerusalem.

Israeli eating habits are dictated to some extent by religious laws - Jews cannot eat dairy and meat products together, nor can they eat 'unclean' birds or fish, and neither Muslims nor Jews can eat pig. The waves of immigrants have all brought their own cuisine with them, and you will find Yemeni Jewish food (flame grilled meats, stuffed vegetables and an astonishing array of offal) and Eastern European Jewish food (schnitzel, goulash, gefilte fish and blintzes). Observant Jews are not permitted to cook on the Sabbath, so for most of Saturday they will eat cholent, a heavy stew cooked on Friday night. Arab dishes include felafel (ground chickpeas flavoured with spices and deep fried), tahina (sesame paste), houmus (chickpea and garlic paste) and flatbreads. Religious laws proscribe alcohol for Muslims, and orthodox Jews aren't too keen on it either, so tea (Arab-style with mint and a truckload of sugar) and coffee are the beverage mainstays. Palestinians also make juices from tamarind, dates and almonds.

 Back to topOn to Information Station
Powered by Lonely Planet

 • Activities & Events
 • Attractions
 • Destination Israel & the Palestinian Territories
 • Getting There, Getting Around
 • History & Culture
 • Information Station
 • Off the Beaten Track
 • Recommended Reading

© 2003 Lonely Planet Publications Pty. Ltd. All rights reserved Although we've tried to make the information on this web site as accurate as possible, we accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by any person resulting from information published on this site. We encourage you to verify any critical information with the relevant authorities before you travel. This includes information on visa requirements, health and safety, customs, and transportation.