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Palestine, Gateway to the Mediterranean

The author is a student of ancient and modern European history.

Read on to learn about Cyrus the Great and Alexander the Great's influence on the city of Palestine. These two leaders transformed this backwater city into the gateway between the Eastern and Western worlds.

Read on to learn about Cyrus the Great and Alexander the Great's influence on the city of Palestine. These two leaders transformed this backwater city into the gateway between the Eastern and Western worlds.

Palestine in Flux

Within the ancient world, the movement of people was a common occurrence. War, disaster, pestilence and slavery saw entire peoples displaced, and Palestine was no different.

A unique culture developed in Palestine due to a constant influx of people, ideas and cultures. Home to the Caananites and Jews, Palestine had seen ongoing conflict as eastern powers fought to reach other.

Tyre, modern day Lebanon

Tyre, modern day Lebanon

From Kingdom to Satrapy

The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah had been the only native states formed after the Egyptian-Hittite Wars, and these fell to a string of powers from the east. Assyria, Babylon and finally Persia each ruled over the region. During these times of upheaval, the cities in Palestine formed a unique culture, with the Phoenicians dominating the coast and the Jews inland.

Phoenician traders dominated the early Mediterranean and served as the locus of trade from Persia to Hispania. These trade routes allowed the cities to grow and enrichened the coffers of the Persian Empire.

Bas relief of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae

Bas relief of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae

Persian Dominion

While many eastern realms controlled Palestine, it was Persia that would establish Palestine as the border between East and West. Under Cyrus the Great, the east was reorganized into the Persian Empire. After uniting his clans, he took on the regional power of Babylon and emerged victorious.

Prior to the ascension of Cyrus the Great, Palestine was a loose collection of city-states that warred among themselves and were divided between plains and mountain people. Foreign powers sought to control the plains people, as the sea road from Egypt to Anatolia provided the quickest route for traders to move their wares. Unable to unite and under constant foreign pressure, Palestine became a battleground for the great states of Egypt, Assyria and Hattusa.

While these states warred over Palestine, they failed to unite the region into a singular unit. They would occupy cities, garrison them, and impart parts of their culture to their subjects, but they were foreign occupiers. Cyrus the Great would change this by introducing the Persian system of governance.

He created a very diverse, sprawling empire and held it together by giving limited autonomy to regional governors, called Satraps. The Satraps ruled sections of the Persian world and, in exchange, paid tribute to the “king of kings,” as the Persian leaders came to be called.

By giving limited autonomy to the Satrapies, Cyrus changed the face of governance in the Middle East. This particular policy allowed the city-states of Phoenicia in Palestine to evolve beyond feuding neighbors and focus on growth. Under a single satrap and protected from afar, Palestine could trade goods from Egypt to modern India, and a rich trading class took hold of the cities.

Persian dominion resulted in the largest regional cities, Gaza and Tyre, becoming extremely important to trade. Tyre housed the Persian Mediterranean fleet and naval trade, while Gaza stood as the Satraps stronghold, overseeing taxation of traders on land. As a result of their prominence, they would be vital in the wars between East and West.

Statue of Alexander the Great in Istanbul

Statue of Alexander the Great in Istanbul

Hellenization

Where the policies of Cyrus the Great led to stability and profit in Palestine, another great tore it down. After the death of Cyrus, his heirs continued to expand the empire, though not with the same humility and protection of foreign cultures. This brought the Persians into conflict with the Greeks and, subsequently, with Macedon. Alexander the Great took the tools and plans laid by his father Phillip II and ravaged the Persian Empire.

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Greek city-states had spread all across Anatolia and around the Black Sea. Their expansion was inexorably linked to their mother cities in Greece, and the ties that bound them led to conflict as the Persians tried to exert control in Asia Minor. The Greco-Persian Wars were largely fought over colonies and cities, but when the throne of Macedon united the Greeks, it was for a greater purpose. Alexander the Great invaded the Persian Empire to create his own empire.

When the Grecian armies invaded Persia, Palestine became a natural target. With the Persian navy stationed in Tyre, it was a threat to Alexander’s supply lines. In 332, that threat was ended when the Macedonian forces stormed the city, put the men to the sword and the women and children into chains.

Gaza was the gateway to Egypt, and Alexander aimed to liberate the Egyptians from the Persian yoke. Gaza fell in 332, and with it, Palestine was pacified while Alexander moved into Egypt. After more victories over Persia, Alexander took the role of King of Kings, adopting the Persian method of ruling and the trappings of an eastern monarch.

The official language of the realm became Greek, and Palestine would see an influx of Greek migrants during the short reign of Alexander and the long reign of his successors. The Greeks changed Palestine, even as those who settled there were changed by it.

Depiction of a Greek Hoplite fighting a Persian Warrior

Depiction of a Greek Hoplite fighting a Persian Warrior

Effects on the Region

Cyrus and Alexander fundamentally changed Palestine's place in the world. Once the edge of a regional power game, Palestine was transformed into a gateway between the East and West.

Before Cyrus, Palestine was a war-torn backwater with foreign powers occupying their cities. Cyrus's implementation of self-rule in the form of the Satropies enabled locals to be part of a larger empire and truly embrace their role as a center of trade.

When Alexander toppled the Persian Empire, Palestine maintained its role at the edge of the Mediterranean. At the same time, it took on Greek as its primary language and became a rich trading hub. The Diadochi constantly fought over Palestine for its ports and position, so the movement of people, culture, and ideas continued to flow in Palestine.

Sources and Further Reading

Waterfield, Robin. (2012). Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great's Empire.

Mayor, Adrienne. (2011). The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithridates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy.

Karmon, Y. "Geographical Aspects in the History of the Coastal Plain of Israel." Israel Exploration Journal 6, no. 1 (1956): 33-50. Accessed February 4, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27924641.

“Tackling Heterogeneity: Critique of the Achaemenid Policy of Assimilation." Singh, Abhay Kumar. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 65, 2004, pp. 1009–1024., www.jstor.org/stable/44144810.

Zank, Michael. (n.d.). "Alexander and the Age of Hellenism." http://www.bu.edu/mzank/Jerusalem/p/period2-4-1.htm.

Szczepanski, Kallie. (2019). "What Is a Satrap?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-satrap-195390.

Rattini, Kristin Baird. (2019). "Who was Cyrus the Great?" National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/cyrus-the-great.

Graf, David F. (2022). "Palestine Under the Persians 539-332 BCE." Iran Chamber Society. https://www.iranchamber.com/history/articles/achaemenid_persian_palestine.php.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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