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Introduction to Israel and Jerusalem

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In Psalm 48:12-14 we read “Go through Zion, walk around her, count her towers, review her palaces; Then, tell the next generation that God is here. He will be our God and our guide forever and ever”.

That’s exactly what we do on The Octagon Tour. We guide people around the Holy Land, just as God is guiding all of us.

What does the Name Israel Mean?

This land has some of the oldest communities on earth. Jericho, for example, is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, with at least 20 different settlements dating back to 9000 BC, or even earlier.

The actual name of this country is not just “Israel”, but “The State of Israel”, named back in 1948. The reason that the country is not called just “Israel” is because Israel was, in fact, a person, not a place.

According to Genesis 32:28, the man Jacob was renamed Israel after wrestling with an angel of God. The word “Israel” means to contend with God.

But (and this may surprise you) there is no country in the Bible named “Israel”. Since Israel was a person (Jacob), his descendants were called “the children of Israel” (or simply “Israel” for short), and, according to the Bible, the land they lived in was called “the land of Israel”.

This land was also called “the land of Israel” twice in the book of Matthew, where the angel of the Lord told Joseph to return from Egypt back to “the land of Israel” (Matthew 2:20,21).

Where Did the Name Palestine Come From?

Until 1948 AD this part of the world was called “Palestine”, the name given to it by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 135 AD (a span of over 1800 years). He renamed this land after Israel’s Biblical enemy, the Philistines. In fact, the word “Palestine” is a corruption of the word “Philistine”.

Israel’s Government.

Modern Israel is a democracy. The Prime Minister serves as the head of its government and the Knesset serves as Israel's legislative body. Jerusalem is both the country's capital and seat of government, while Israel's main financial center is Tel Aviv.

Israel’s Languages.

Israel has two official languages, Hebrew and Arabic. Hebrew is the primary language of the state, and is spoken by the majority of the population. Arabic is spoken by both the Arab minority and many of the Jews as well. Most Israelis can also communicate reasonably well in English, since many television programs are in English, and many schools teach English at early grades. Virtually all street signs are in English, as well as Hebrew and Arabic.

Israel’s Ethnicity.

Most of the people who live here are Jews by ancestry. About one-third of them are Arabs, and there are a few smaller groups. As far as religion goes, most people practice some form of Judaism. About one-third are Muslims, and there are smaller groups, including the Christians.

Christians are in the minority here, comprising only about 2% of the population. Most of the Christians in this land are Arabs, with the largest Christian population living in both Bethlehem and in Nazareth.

Unlike in western cultures, in Israel you don’t choose your faith. You are born with it. If you were born into a Catholic family, you are expected to be Catholic for life. It’s the same thing with either Orthodoxy or Islam.

Israel’s Geography.

Jerusalem is the country’s largest city, although Tel Aviv is more modern, and the two cities are only about 30 miles apart. The entire country is approximately the size of the state of Massachusetts in the USA, but over half of the area of Israel is the southern desert portion, called the Negev.

The northern half of Israel is fairly lush, and the topography changes quite rapidly. If you drive 15 minutes east from fertile Jerusalem into the Jordan River valley you will be in a barren desert.

Jerusalem Goes Way Back.

The name Jerusalem means “City of Peace”, which is ironic, since more wars have been fought over Jerusalem than any city in the world. Many countries and empires have been owners of this highly sought-after piece of real estate, and for good reason. Israel has been the land bridge between many of the civilizations of the ancient world, and both armies and traders would have to pass through this land to arrive at their destinations. In fact, anyone who tried to create an empire in past times would find the land of Israel directly in their path.

The current site of the golden Dome of the Rock used to be a threshing floor In 996 BC, King David purchased this site, and made Jerusalem his capital. He paid 50 Shekels of silver for the threshing floor itself (2 Samuel 24:24), and 600 shekels of gold for the area around the threshing floor (1 Chronicles 21:25).

The threshing floor of Araunah on the crest of Mount Moriah.

David’s son, Solomon, later built the first Jewish Temple here, where the Ark of the Covenant was housed. Under Solomon, Jerusalem became one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Starting in 586 BC this land was occupied first by the Babylonians, then by the Greeks, and between 167 to 63 BC the land was once again under Jewish rule, under the Hasmonean kings.

Herod the Great Builder.

The Herodian Temple.

Starting in 63 BC, the entire land of Israel came under Roman occupation, as it was in Jesus’ day. The Roman senate installed Herod the Great as the puppet king of Israel in 34 BC.

Herod constructed a magnificent Temple in Jerusalem (shown above) on the very spot where the current Dome of the Rock sits. In fact, this Temple was still under construction during the time of Jesus.

When Christ walked these streets Jerusalem spanned 230 acres, with a population of around 40,000 people. 35 years later, just before the city was destroyed by the Romans, the size and population had almost doubled. Today the Old City of Jerusalem is approximately the same size and shape as the city was just before it was destroyed in 70 AD.

The Tragic End of the Temple.

In 67 AD, the Jews revolted against Roman occupation, and the Roman general Titus destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD.

The Great Jewish Revolt.

Another Jewish revolt, The Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 AD, brought a second and final destruction to Jerusalem. In retaliation against both the Jews and Christians, the Roman Emperor Hadrian built pagan temples over several sacred sites, and Jews were forbidden to enter the city on penalty of death.

The Years of Christian Prosperity.

Things took a positive turn when Constantine I, the first Christian Roman emperor, ushered in the Byzantine age, and for almost 300 years the land of Israel was officially a Christian nation.

Muslim and Crusader Rule.

Early in the seventh century, the Persians and the Muslims put an end to Byzantine rule in the Holy Land. In 638 AD the Temple Mount became a Muslim shrine, and a mosque was built there in 690 AD. It remained under Muslim rule for 500 years until the Crusaders gained control of the land.

The 638 AD Muslim takeover of Jerusalem.

The Crusader’s victories were short-lived, and the city, once again, came under Muslim control until 1917 AD, when the British General Allenby brought the city under British control.

In the End - Self Rule

In May 1948, the city of Jerusalem became the capital of the new nation of Israel.

From 1948 to 1967, the city was divided between the Arabs and the Jews - the Old City to the Arabs and the New City to the Jews. During the Six Day War of June 1967, the Israelis captured the Old City, and the entire city of Jerusalem came under self-rule for the first time in 19 centuries.

Jerusalem’s Walls.

The walls that surround the Old City are not the original walls of Jerusalem. Most of these walls were built in 1542 AD by the Turkish Muslim Ottoman Empire. That means that the current walls are almost 500 years old.

The height of these walls is anywhere from 16 to 49 feet, and are, on average, ten feet thick. To walk around the entire Old City of Jerusalem you will cover almost three miles.

For almost its entire history, Jerusalem was not much larger than what we call The Old City of Jerusalem. It wasn’t until around 1860 AD that Jerusalem started to expand outside of the borders of the Old City.

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